1500 - 1600 AD

from a perspective of women in the Church



before Christ
0-100 AD

This century marked many fresh beginnings. Science was making exciting discoveries. The renaissance opened a whole new approach in art and culture. And renewal affected the Christian Church.

The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 with Martin Luther nailing his "95 Theses" against the Catholic practice of selling indulgences, on the church door at Wittenberg. Later that year, before a tribunal at Worms, he declared: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. [Here I stand. I can do no other.] God help me. Amen.”

The Reformation quickly followed in other countries: Zwingli and Calvin in Switserland, John Knox in Scotland, Menno Simons in Westphalia. In 1534 King Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church in England.

The Catholic Church responded by convening the Council of Trent (25 sessions, 1545 - 1563). It did legislate important reforms, notably in the area of the formation of priests, but - regretfully - did not meet many of the just demands of Protestant reformers.

Unfortunately the official opposition to women's ministries was retained in both the Catholic and the Protestant Churches.

from painting by Paris Bordone



Post-scholastic theologians 1500 - 1600

Lacking true originality, theologians continued to appeal to all the traditional arguments to show that women are incapable of leadership.

“Nature, I say, does paint them forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish; and experience has declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel, lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment." (John Knox)

The contention of his book ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet’ is that the exercise of authority by women is contrary to both natural law and religion.
His main reason for rejecting the ordination of women was women’s subservient status.


The theme of Mary’s priestly dignity
1500 - 1600

Theologians during this period begin more consciously to elaborate Mary's priestly functions. In line with the new stress on the sacrificial aspects of the priesthood, they focus on Mary's role as a priest during Jesus' life and death. Image on the right is a detail from El Greco's 'Holy Family' (1594).

"Mary, fulfilling a priestly function when standing upright before the altar of the cross, offered for us to God the Father a living victim who was no one else than her son."
Mary offered her son as a sacrifice at the Presentation in the Temple
He saw Mary present in his celebrating the Eucharist

The Women's Quarrel 1500 - 1600

The “Women’s Quarrel”, usually known by its French name, “La Querelle des Femmes”, was a long continuous literary battle between authors who attacked women and those who defended them. It lasted for three centuries and raged in all European countries and in many languages.

It was unleashed by Valens Acidalius' treatise: "A new disputation against women". He defended the thesis that women are animals, only men are human. Artists, like Titian (1490-1576), loved to portray men as cultured, women as part of 'nature'.



Women's Emancipation 1500 - 1600

While society was firmly in the grip of patriarchal thinking, women increasingly began to take more central roles in society and in religion. The Spanish soldiers who fought in the Netherlands to quell a nationalistic & Protestant rebellion were struck by the fact that "even their women can read the Bible" (see image on the left).

Indeed, some women were actively involved on both sides of Church reform.

There is a beginning recognition of the fact that women are capable of far more demanding tasks and functions than had been ascribed to them in previous centuries.

A successful female Renaissance sculptor.


A poet and highly regarded translator being fluent in Greek and Latin.


A Protestant martyr who preached and fearlessly distributed Protestant literature.


She wrote many poems and plays and stories and was an influential figure in French Renaissance circles.


A prolific author.


She promoted Protestantism and the need for a larger role for women in religious practice.


She was royal painter to Henry VIII and continued in the courts of Mary and Elizabeth.


She had an international reputation as an engraver.


A leading light among Catholics in the North of England she was martyred for her faith.


She had an international reputation as a painter and was official portrait painter at the Spanish court.


A prolific artist and portrait painter.


A gutsy women who fought for her rights against Irish and English oppression.


A leading and innovative actress in France and Italy.


The star rating indicates the importance
for the advance of women


This website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

See our Documented Appeal to Pope Francis to Request the Re-instatement of the Ordained Diaconate for Women.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research

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