In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and the Reformation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Germany
  • England
  • France
  • Gender
  • Marriage and the Family
  • Luther on Women and Marriage
  • Calvin on Women and Marriage
  • Other Reformers on Women and Marriage
  • Radical Reformation
  • Catholic and Counter-Reformation
  • The Virgin Mary
  • Sources

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Renaissance and Reformation Women and the Reformation
Tryntje Helfferich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0455


The historiography of the Reformation era, roughly 1517–1650, was long dominated by scholarship that focused on theological developments, religious debates, and major reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ignatius Loyola. The late 20th century, however, saw an expansion in areas of scholarly inquiry, with many new works on the period’s extraordinary cultural, social, economic, and political transformations and conflicts. Scholars increasingly argued, moreover, that the era had weathered not a single, traumatic “Reformation,” but multiple and diverse “Reformations,” whose impacts had rippled throughout early modern society in a variety of ways. Part of this historiographical shift involved the exploration of new perspectives and voices, which included a growing interest in the role of women as active participants in and contributors to historical change. Scholars thus began to investigate the ways in which women had experienced the Reformation, perhaps differently from men, and how the Reformation had influenced women’s social roles, marriages, family lives, faith and religious expressions, and all other aspects of their everyday lives. In the process, there emerged what became a long-running controversy, often with confessional overtones, over whether the Reformation was “good” or “bad” for women. This has thankfully now died down, since partisans on both sides have mainly accepted that the question was not only overly simplistic, but also tended to lump together all women as an undifferentiated mass. Nevertheless, readers cannot fail to find signs of the old battle everywhere they look. To explain it briefly, therefore, the argument on the one side was that Protestants, and particularly radical reformers, had benefited women by elevating them as equal to men in spiritual worth, introducing a more egalitarian form of marriage, which they had praised as a noble institution, and freeing from their bondage the nuns previously forced into involuntary celibacy and enclosure. The argument on the other side, however, was that Protestants had, on the contrary, harmed women by toppling the Virgin Mary from her seat as Queen of Heaven and frowning on her veneration, and by discouraging women from turning to Mary or the female saints as intercessors and models of strong and influential women. By closing the monasteries and emphasizing marriage and motherhood as women’s highest calling, moreover, Protestants had limited the independence and freedom formerly enjoyed by women religious, ended the political and social power of abbesses, and removed women’s ability to choose the unmarried life.

General Overviews

Many very good general overviews that survey the lives of women in the Reformation period are now available. Some works, such as Bainton 1971–1977, Marshall 1989, Wiesner-Hanks 2005, and Stjerna 2009, focus particularly on how women engaged with or were affected by the religious changes of the era, with Bainton 1971–1977 and Stjerna 2009, and to a lesser extent Becker-Cantarino 1987, offering biographical sketches of important women leaders and reformers, such as Marguerite de Navarre and Argula Grumbach. Other works, including Becker-Cantarino 1987; Poska, et al. 2013; Capern 2020; and Wiesner-Hanks 2019, provide a broader outlook, highlighting not just religious topics, but also the enormous variety of experiences among European women of the entire Early Modern era (roughly 1450–1750). Most of these overviews also discuss contemporary ideas about gender roles and identities, taking into account such variables as regional difference, socioeconomic status or position, marital status, age, and, of course, religious confession. The separate Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation article “The Reformation” may also be of interest.

  • Bainton, Roland. Women of the Reformation. 3 vols. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1971–1977.

    Pioneering multivolume work that offers generally glowing biographical sketches of important women reformers, writers, rulers, and more, showcasing their Reformation-era activities. Suggests that the Reformation brought religious equality for women (an idea now mostly rejected by scholars). Volume 1 surveys women in Germany and Italy, Volume 2 those in France and England, and Volume 3 women elsewhere across Europe. Now somewhat dated, but still of interest as an introduction.

  • Becker-Cantarino, Barbara. Der lange Weg zur Mündigkeit: Frau und Literatur, 1500–1800. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1987.

    Introduction to early modern women’s literary production that focuses on where and how women lived. Chapters consider such topics as the theological understandings of women and marriage, the legal status of wives, women and the church, education, and the theater. The emphasis is on elite or exemplary women, and strong criticisms are made of the role of Protestant ideology in enclosing women within a private domestic sphere.

  • Capern, Amanda L. The Routledge History of Women in Early Modern Europe. New York: Routledge, 2020.

    Expansive survey of women’s lives in Europe from 1450 to 1750. Includes discussions of such varied topics as education and intellectual lives of women; work and material life; the arts and sciences; spirituality and emotion; bodies and sexuality; women’s social lives, legal status, and political activities; and women’s health and well-being. A few chapters deal specifically with Reformation themes such as Catholic piety and Protestant spirituality.

  • Marshall, Sherrin, ed. Women in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe: Public and Private Worlds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

    Collection of essays by leading scholars that focuses on how the religious changes of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations influenced women’s lives, the family, and women’s work. Most suggest that women experienced the era differently from men, and that its changes disadvantaged, or at least did not greatly benefit, women. Chapters cover women of France, England, Germany, the Nordic lands, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Italy.

  • Poska, Allyson M., Jane Couchman, and Katherine A. McIver, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

    Indispensable multidisciplinary overview of current research, written by leading scholars. Chapters examine women’s daily lives and gender norms, and also stress the need for scholars to embrace complexity by including multiple categories of analysis when analyzing women’s experiences. Essays in Part 1 are specifically dedicated to religion and the Reformation itself, but essays in the other two sections also touch on issues important for understanding women’s lives during the era.

  • Stjerna, Kirsi. Women and the Reformation. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.

    After an overview of the major issues, including a discussion of female mystics, controversies over closing convents, marriage and motherhood, and education, the majority of the book provides introductions to the lives and ideas of ten leading women European reformers, leaders, and teachers. Good counter to more traditional male-centered studies of Reformation-era thought. Points to the ambiguous benefits the Reformation brought women. Extensive bibliography.

  • Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. “Women and the Reformations: Reflections on Recent Research.” History Compass 2.1 (December 2005).

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.00073x

    Extremely useful and thorough survey and assessment of scholarship from the last twenty-five years on women in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Traces shifts in topics and methodologies and outlines areas for further research. Extensive bibliography. The best place to start for those seeking a historiographical survey of pre-2005 works.

  • Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. 4th ed. New Approaches to European History 41. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    The best and most approachable general survey of the topic, nicely updated to reflect current scholarship. The book is organized thematically into three sections focusing in turn on women’s body, mind, and spirit. Also includes an excellent and clear introduction to women and gender history, with an explanation of the major historiographical debates and issues, as well as a companion website with additional suggestions for reading and primary sources.

  • Wyntjes, Sherrin Marshall. “Women in the Reformation Era.” In Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, 165–191. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

    Early effort to tease out the meaning of the Reformation for women, written as a contribution to a pioneering volume of women’s history (updated 1998 to a 3rd edition). Argues that Protestant ideas and shifts in attitudes toward marriage were positive developments in improving women’s lives, and that the radical Reformation, in particular, eliminated distinctions based on sex, both ideas that have since been overtaken by far more mixed assessments.

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