Long Teaching Module: Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800

Maritere Lopez, Charles Lipp, and J. Nathan Campbell
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The Whole Duty of Woman image thumbnail
Title page of The Voyages and Adventures of Ferdinand Mendez Pinto


Talking about an “early modern world” allows us to investigate the interconnectedness of world cultures, as opposed to their isolation. In fact, the period between 1400 and 1800 was characterized by the advent of the Age of Exploration, which made encounters between cultures almost inevitable, even when some areas (most notably, China) turned inwards and shunned international interactions. Moreover, the period was also notable for the entrenchment of European culture abroad, best exemplified by the accelerated Christianization of millions of non-Westerners. An intriguing commonalty also exists which justifies the use of the term “early modern” in a global perspective: most civilizations across the globe during the period—whether consciously or unconsciously—looked to their respective pasts as a golden age, and therefore embraced tradition as the cornerstone of society.

This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, potential adaptations, guidance on engaging with the sources, and essay prompts relating to the twelve primary sources.


The “Early Modern” Category

The term "early modern" was coined by scholars of European history to label the four centuries from approximately 1400 to 1800 CE—the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution. In effect, the dating of the period implies a time of transition, a progression from the “premodern” medieval age to modernity proper, as experienced primarily by Europeans. In defining the early modern, early 20th-century scholars defined modernity as well: a progressive age totally different from what preceded it, characterized by individualism, secularism, democratic sentiment, and the advent of technological change at unprecedented speed. However, while these concepts indeed began to reshape European history during the period, recent scholars have come to emphasize the degree to which the break from the past implied in “early modern” was not as complete as previously thought. Instead, the era is now understood to have been deeply rooted in its immediate past, shaped still to a significant degree by communal sentiment, familial responsibility, religious fervor, and the belief in monarchical government. The paradoxical nature of the term therefore reflects the complicated reality of the time, which was neither entirely like the Middle Ages nor like the modern era, yet exhibited elements of both.

There is a further difficulty presented by the term “early modern.” While it is now used to designate worldwide historical developments from the 15th to the 18th centuries, the term fits non-European histories uncomfortably. First, developments which commonly define Modernity did not significantly shape the rest of the world until much later, when Western influence permeated the globe. Moreover, many non-Western historians reject “early modern” in favor of expressions which gauge a country’s development in its own terms, rather than measured against a model reflective of European realities. Perfect examples would be to talk about “Ming China” instead of about “early modern China,” or about “Mughal India” rather than about “early modern India.”

“Early Modern” Views of Women

The early modern emphasis on tradition is perhaps clearest in the history of women during this period, as at the core of each culture was an ingrained patriarchy dating back thousands of years. In the West, for example, attitudes towards women were shaped by three strains of ancient European tradition: first, Judeo-Christian belief, which characterized women as either saintly, like the Virgin Mary, or corrupted, like Eve; second, Greek philosophy, which conceived of women’s physical frailty as leading also to their irrationality and intellectual inferiority; and third, Roman law, which denied women a legal persona and subjugated them to the control of male representatives. In China, on the other hand, it was Neo-Confucianism which informed beliefs about the inferiority of women. Confucianism set a strict social hierarchy, which was seen as crucial to the maintenance of order. Although not originally intended to subjugate women, Confucian ideology ultimately implied that, just as emperors were to rule over subjects, men were to be lords over women. These traditions, only two among many others with similar beliefs, came to influence a large portion of the globe, making common the idea that women were physically and intellectually inferior to men, and consequently shaping the implementation of a social system ever more concentrated on controlling women, segregating them to the private sphere.

Contemporaries around the globe believed that the inferiority of women that tradition decreed made females dangerous if not controlled; they could subvert order—whether social, economic, or spiritual—by being easy prey to evil and thus becoming the vehicle for men’s ruin. Therefore, during this period, male literature on “dangerous women” became prevalent, warning men against females who did not abide by prescribed behaviors. Equally common were books where such prescriptions were set out. Written for women with the aim of teaching them to behave correctly, and thus prove their ultimate worth, conduct manuals taught obedience, modesty, and silence. As proven by the manuals’ popularity, many women voluntarily espoused the principles set out in them.

Women’s Resistance to “Early Modern” Views

However, this is not to say that women did not have a dissenting voice or did not find ways to challenge gender roles. In fact, in the history of women across the globe, the early modern period is characterized by an increase in women’s literacy, which gave birth to a female literature condemning men’s subjugation of them and arguing for women’s inherent worth. The rise of a vocal female presence in literature and art is one of the most significant developments of the era. Equally important was the advent of new opportunities for women to claim, in an age of contact and acculturation, crucial roles in the evangelization and “civilizing” of the world around them.

Primary Sources

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The following passage comes from one of the most famous literary works of early modern Europe: François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, first published in four volumes between 1532 and 1552. A satirical chronicle of the journey through France of the giant Gargantua and his son, Pantagruel, the story’s intended audience was the French aristocracy, the educated elite upon whose patronage Rabelais—first a lawyer, then a priest, and ultimately a doctor—depended throughout his life. Gargantua and Pantagruel embodies, in part, Northern Renaissance ideals like the belief in man’s ability to fulfill his own potential. However, Rabelais’s story also illustrates the dark side of the “rebirth” of classical learning, as the Renaissance encouraged not only a positive view of man, but also a negative image of women.

The excerpt below concerns Panurge—Pantagruel’s friend—and his search for expert advice on whether he should marry. One expert, doctor Rondibilis, replies that he should not, as any wife will be unfaithful because she is ultimately an irrational being. His comments reveal contemporary medical views of feminine irrationality, believed to be caused by the uterus’s haphazard wandering about the female body. This quasi-animal’s roaming, as Rondibilis would have it, caused physical and mental unbalance. The theory of the wandering uterus, known as hysteria, was an ancient Greek idea revived during the European Renaissance.

This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.

Teaching Strategies

We have designed this section to be inherently comparative, dividing it into two sections to deal, respectively, with male preoccupations regarding women’s lives and women’s own concerns. Each of the sources was selected with two questions in mind. First, how similarly or differently did early modern men and women think about women’s nature and role? Second, how were women’s views across the globe similar or different?

We recommend starting with men’s views, investigating similarities and differences across cultural boundaries. Male conceptions of women’s nature were quite similar across cultural divides, in one way or another stressing women’s inferiority. Moreover, in most cases, the concept of physical and mental female inferiority was inherited, central to the religio-philosophical traditions upon which the early modern period was built. The question remains: why did early modern peoples across the globe not question misogynist customs? This is perhaps one of the more interesting—and difficult—questions to ask when discussing the excerpts here. The fact remains, however, that the causes for female inferiority were not universally agreed upon—nor where the prescriptions for acceptable female behavior. It might help also to flesh out these differences, to contextualize culturally the study of women during the period.

The second step we recommend is taking the same approach to the sources by women. Did women around the world see themselves—and the world in general—similarly? What would account for those similarities and/or differences? Perhaps most importantly, finally, is to compare the male-authored and female-authored sources and the stances on gender which each espoused. Did women agree with male conceptions of gender difference and its consequent marginalizing of women to the private sphere? In other words, did women embrace or reject traditional patriarchal strictures? As the sources here indicate, they did both. The most challenging issue in the study of early modern women, this concurrent rejection and acceptance of patriarchy is the pivotal subject to discuss. In our experience, it is also the most interesting and thought-provoking for students.

The above approach should help you place early modern women in the context of their cultural worlds, while allowing you to foreshadow future discussions on the questioning of misogynist traditions which emerged most clearly in the 18th through 20th centuries.

Discussion Questions
  • How were women viewed across the globe during the early modern period? What similarities exist between the views held by the disparate cultures mentioned in the excerpts? What could account for these similarities?
  • What role did religion play in these perceptions? How did different religio-philosophical beliefs, such as Christianity and Confucianism, portray women differently? What do these differences say about the role of women in different societies?
  • How did women see themselves? Did women themselves accept any of the negative images presented of them? If so, why?
  • Despite negative images, what opportunities existed for women to play an active role in their societies? How were early modern women able to make a place for themselves in a patriarchal world?
  • How did the lives of early modern women compare to the lives of women in other historical periods? Was there great change throughout the ages in the way women were treated or seen? How so?

Lesson Plan

Visual Versus Written Sources in the Early Modern Period
Time Estimate

Three 45- to 60-minute class periods.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. engage in a discussion of how women perceived, or were perceived by their respective societies, during the Early Modern Period.
  2. understand how to “look” at objects, which do not have any words that could be clues, using the material culture process known as Fleming’s Model.
  3. explain how visual sources were perceived and understood by those that created them during the Early Modern Period.
  4. explain how other societies/cultures/people in world history might perceive these European visual sources.
  5. incorporate these findings into an essay format.
  • Sufficient copies of the Material Culture Handout
  • Sufficient copies of the following European visual sources, stapled together:
  • Source 6: Painting, “The True Woman”
    Source 12: Painting, “Susanna and the Elders”

  • Sufficient copies of the following non-European sources, stapled together:
  • Source 9: Autobiography, Bahina Bai
    Source 4: Nonfiction, Confucian Doctrine
    Source 7: Petition, Ming China

  • Note: You may chose to print out the annotation for each source in addition to the source itself for your students, but I believe this is giving them too much information that they need to discover on their own. Also, if you would like to include the European textual sources in the module you can print them off as well in order to augment the European visual sources.
  • Sufficient copies of the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
  1. Historical Background:The Early Modern Period (1400–1800), although a Western interpretive paradigm, marks new changes in the origins of global interdependence. As Europeans increasingly began to explore beyond their borders through the development of ocean travel, the Indian Ocean Basin and the traditional land routes of Asia continued to thrive and exchange commercial goods, religious ideas, and biological diseases that would forever change the world. Regular contacts by Europeans in the Americas and in Oceania did not signal immediate Western domination, as the great land empires of the Ming (China), Mughal (India), and several African kingdoms remained outside the reach of direct control.

    Before beginning this particular unit on women during this era, it would be an excellent idea to familiarize students with the intricacies of the origins of global interdependence, placing emphasis on the fact that, while Europeans were becoming more dominant in the Atlantic World region, they were not dictating how the world process of organization would work. Students should come away from this exercise with an understanding that, unlike previous eras that had only sporadic contact, the Early Modern Period squarely placed all kinds of men and women in direct contact with each other. Around the world, women were always at the center of changes in gender roles, and thus took an active part in a pivotal age of exchange.

  2. Day 1: Material Culture

  3. First, pass out copies of the Material Culture Handout. Spend time going over the quotes and explaining to the students that material culture is all around us.
  4. If possible, find an object that does not have any markings or words on it. This could be an artifact/object such as a shard of a pot or a piece of brick. The more simple and mundane looking the better. (I had a student who brought in a piece of cuneiform.) Next, pass the object around the room, and have everyone examine it. You may want students to write a short paragraph explaining what they see.
  5. Have the class now look to the bottom of the Material Culture Handout, and read out loud the process of artifact analysis known as Fleming’s Model.
    Now, go through each of the steps of the Model using the sample object or image and then list them on the board. Do not allow students to skip ahead. They will try to move past the identification stage, but inform them that this is the most important step.

    Once each of the steps is completed, explain to them that all objects are worthy of our examination, and that different groups of people across time have interpreted objects in different ways. Make sure they understand that having an open mind when approaching objects is absolutely crucial when we are trying to discover point of view (POV).

  6. Homework: Have the students examine the two visual sources: Source 6: Painting, The True Woman and Source 12: Painting, Susanna and the Elders. You may want to print out for them the annotations for these two sources in order to establish context for the period of study, but it is also useful to have them look at the sources alone.
  7. Day 2: European Sources

  8. Split the class into two groups. Have each group perform the Fleming’s Model on each source, and write it down. (15-20 minutes) Depending on the class size, you may want to give two groups one painting, and two the other one.
  9. Next, have each group present some of their findings to the class. (15-20 minutes) Your conclusions should lead you to surmise that each of these sources depict women in both similar and different ways. See the source annotations for some of these differences. Depending on the class level you might want to place an emphasis on more difficult concepts for comparison. Have students list these differences on the board.
  10. After this, pass out the second stapled packet that includes the non-European sources. Have the students chose one non-European source. Have the students fill out a Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts for their non-European source.
  11. Homework: Using this worksheet, write a one-page response on how their image from Europe compares in its depiction of women to the non-European source. They need a thesis statement and evidence from each source in order to support their points.
  12. Day 3: Non-European Sources, Conclusions

  13. Have a class discussion about the students' findings. Read some of the written non-European sources out loud during the class. Make a list of similarities and differences between these worlds. What in the end does it tell us about women during the Early Modern Period?

    Students should find some glaring similarities in the portrayal of women by men. For example, Greek philosophy conceived of women’s physical frailty as leading also to their irrationality and intellectual inferiority, while Confucian ideology implied that, just as emperors were to rule over subjects, men were to be lords over women. Grade the one-page reviews for content such as the use of Fleming’s Model, and their observations about the written sources.

  14. If you have time, end the discussion with how these sources impact the study of women. In the end, did students think that the visual sources were easier to examine and appraise than the written sources? Why or why not? You should conclude that visual sources are just as important as written sources, and should be examined with the same critical eye. Both kinds of sources need rigorous kinds of models for examination, if we as students of history are to attempt to understand their meaning.

    All too often we stereotypically think of European societies during this period as advanced (written and visual due to the Renaissance), and non-Western societies as simply image-bound in a language that we cannot understand. These kinds of distinctions need to be obliterated as we conceive of this period as one of diverse interactions.

  15. Differentiation

    Advanced Placement (AP) Students: Placing this particular unit after a discussion of global interdependence, but before the revolutions of the 18th century, would work very effectively. If you are looking for other supplementary materials and background, this exercise works well in conjunction with Kevin Reilly’s, Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader, Volume One: To 1550, “Gender and Family in the World: China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and New Spain, 1600—1750.” (Bedford: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.)

Document Based Question

Document Based Question (Suggested writing time: 40 minutes)

Directions: The following question is based on the documents included in this module. This question is designed to test your ability to work with and understand historical documents. Write an essay that:

  • Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with evidence from the documents.
  • Uses all or all but one of the documents.
  • Analyzes the documents by grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible. Does not simply summarize the documents individually.
  • Takes into account both the sources of the documents and the authors' points of view.

You may refer to relevant historical information not mentioned in the documents.

Question: Compare and contrast the ways in which women were perceived by men during the Early Modern Period. Did societies around the world have similar or different understandings about the roles that women should play? Based on your understanding of periodization, is there something different about women in world history during this era?

Be sure to analyze point of view in at least seven of the documents or images.

What additional sources, types of documents, or information would you need to have a more complete view of this topic?


Aughterson, Kate, ed. Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
An extensive sourcebook of contemporary materials regarding women in England from the 14th to the 17th centuries, this book expands upon the nature and source of European misogynist attitudes towards women. It is an outstanding compilation of often difficult-to-find primary sources about and by early modern European women.
Davis, Natalie Zemon and Arlette Farge, eds A History of Women in the West, v. III: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.
This is a wide-ranging and insightful general study of women in early modern Europe. The book investigates the gendered social practices of the period, as well as the cultural discourses which shaped those practices. An excellent overview, this is the ideal book for those first investigating the subject.
Findly, Ellison Banks. Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
This book concentrates on the life of Nur Jahan (1577-1645). However, its introductory sections offer as well discerning general information about Muslim women in India during the Mughal period.
Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chamber: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
This book offers a rebuttal to the traditional histories of women in China that argue that women were perennially victimized and oppressed. Rather, the author argues that Ming women were able to negotiate prescribed codes of conduct, particularly through their development of a literary voice. Perhaps too feminist a portrayal, the book nevertheless offers a nuanced view, as women are not conversely depicted as agents of subversion.
Lux-Sterritt, L. “Between the Cloister and the World: The Successful Compromise of the Ursulines of Toulouse, 1604-1616.” French History v16 i3 (Sept 2002): 247-68.
This article investigates an example of the Ursulines “voluntary” decision to enclose their convents in the early 17th century. Originally designated as congrégées, Ursulines were charged with educating and catechizing women of all social classes. The essay is particularly helpful in offering a basic idea of the role of women—nuns in particular—in early modern Europe and the lands they hoped to Christianize.


About the Authors

Maritere Lopez is Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Fresno. She is an expert in Renaissance and Reformation studies, as well as in the history of the Early Modern time period more generally. She is a fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “A Literature of their Own” institute, which investigates the literary production of women in Early Modern Europe. She extends her teaching to high-school students by serving both as a guest lecturer at conferences and as a mentor for K-12 educators, particularly as Faculty Advisor for the San Joaquin Valley History-Social Science Project.

Charles Lipp is a Western civilization postdoctoral fellow with the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. His written works include Power and Politics in Early Modern Lorraine: Jean François de Mahuet and the Grand Prévôté de Saint-Dié.

About the Lesson Plan Author

J. Nathan Campbell teaches upper-school history to tenth and eleventh grade students at the Episcopal School of Dallas in Texas. For two years, Nathan has taught AP World History, AP United States History, and American Government. Before coming to ESD, Nathan worked in the museum field as a curator in the historic house business after earning an MA in History from the University of Kentucky and an MA from the Cooper-Hewitt American Decorative Arts Program in Washington, D.C. His love of public history, material culture, and museums has led him to develop a new course at ESD called the History of Stuff. This course asks students to work with a variety of objects (that include architecture, consumer culture, decorative arts, and a whole lot of other stuff), in order to teach students how they affect the past, present, and future.

This teaching module was originally developed for the Women in World History project.

How to Cite This Source
Maritere Lopez, Charles Lipp, and J. Nathan Campbell Long Teaching Module: Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 in World History Commons,