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What Women Want
by Baldesar Castiglione

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2012)
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Baldesar Castiglione (1478-1529) was a "humanist, soldier, and diplomat" from central Italy. After working for dukes of Urbino, he received an appointment to serve as the papal nuncio to Spain in 1524, where he died of the plague in Toledo in 1529. He was also the author of The Book of the Courtier, first published in 1528, from which this reading was taken. Although set in the noble court of the Duke of Urbino in Renaissance Italy, Castiglione's book provided advice on a wide variety of themes that interested people of his time, such as love, religion, the proper use of language and more. In this selection, Emilia Pia, the companion of the Duchess of Urbino, explains what women want from their male lovers.



The 15th and 16th centuries in Europe were a time of enormous change as societies rejected long-held beliefs and embraced new ideas. The most obvious example is the Reformation of the Catholic Church, but the European discovery of the so-called "New World" was at least as revolutionary. The greatest political change was the rise of strong, independent towns that competed with the nobility and kings. Intellectually, the focus of European education and thinking shifted from the deity to humanity.

In 1860, a Swiss historian named Jacob Burkhardt was the first to use the word "Renaissance" to describe this period because he believed that a rebirth of Greco-Roman culture took place in northern Italy, beginning in the 14th century. Since then, other scholars have pointed out the influence of other cultures, especially those of Islam and northern Europe, but there is no doubt that a great many changes took place in a relatively short time. The Renaissance spread unevenly, however. It spread across much of Italy during the 14th and 15th century and began somewhat later in northern Europe, but barely reached some areas at all.


Renaissance book shelf
Before printing, only monks and some nobles had libraries like this one, located at a Benedictine monastery in Austria
Picture of a crowded town (Strasburg)
The crowded streets of Strasburg (France), which thrived during the European Renaissance


The Renaissance altered the way Europeans asked questions, sought knowledge, and verified the truth of what they learned. Before the Renaissance, the Catholic Church limited education to the study of classic theological works including the Bible and the writings of religious scholars like St. Augustine. This approach to education -- called Scholasticism -- was based on the belief that humans could only learn that which God chose to reveal to them. Consequently, education consisted of learning that which had already been revealed, and praying for divine inspiration to reveal more.

As the European economy developed, however, states grew bigger, warfare increased, and some people began to seek an education in practical skills like public speaking and persuasive writing. In general, people (or at least men) of the Renaissance wanted to find ways to obtain a large following of loyal people without claiming noble status. In particular, wealthy townspeople created a "market" for education by purchasing it from professional teachers instead of receiving it from monks. The new form of learning provided an income for independent thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Erasmus, and Petrarch, while the introduction of movable type printing enabled the distribution of their research using relatively low-cost pamphlets and books. Even Johann Gutenberg's 1456 edition of the Bible encouraged more people to read, and the combination of printing and the spread of literacy made it possible for individuals to influence larger numbers of people.

The new approach to education, called Humanism, replaced Scholasticism's contemplation of standard authorities, which was inadequate to deal with novel problems. For example, the Bible said nothing about conflict between Christians, or how to handle a Crusade against Muslims, or how to respond to the Venetian demand during the 4th Crusade for the destruction of Zara in exchange for transporting the Crusaders to Egypt. It proved completely inadequate to explain the discoveries of new land in the ocean west of Europe.

Humanism included an increased awareness of the role of humans in the way things worked, which led directly to the idea of individuality. Within Humanism, the total amount of knowledge is infinite, and limited only by human abilities rather than the willingness of a metaphysical deity to reveal knowledge. Despite that, in principle, humanism was not opposed to Catholicism (although the closer one lived to Rome, the more likely a Humanist became skeptical about Catholicism). Instead, some Humanists sought rules for human behavior in the Bible rather than Roman examples or popular ideas of "success." This approach, known as Christian humanism, was more common in northern Europe, where thinkers were farther removed from the everyday corruption of the popes and hence less disillusioned.


  1. What questions did the people in this story discuss?
  2. Emilia Pia was "the companion" of the Duchess of Urbino. What was her job? (Why would a female noble need a companion?)
  3. Are there any themes from this reading that still interest people in our own time?
  4. What was the social status of the people presented in this reading? How can you tell?
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