The book How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians by Randolph M. Bell is a Renaissance version of modern how to do it books about pregnancy, motherhood and manhood. In this book, Bell presented different social historical accounts of the many beliefs and practices in the field of medicine and care which had been useful during the Renaissance period. Chapter 1 explains Bell’s objective on writing a book containing such topics. Here, Bell (1999) historically accounts the various events surrounding the industry of printing press during Renaissance. The succeeding chapters have dealt with pregnancy, motherhood and manhood.
It enumerates different medical and care advices from prominent Renaissance doctors, midwives, physicians, theologians and other professionals about conception, human relation and the art of lovemaking. More so, the books also presented different advises for women on how to deal with pregnancy, child rearing, caring adolescents, choosing a spouse, getting married and staying in marriage. In addition, How to Do It also tackles advices for men on how to become manly and how to deal with marriage life.
Analysis: The Renaissance How to Do It and the Modernization
Perhaps, Bell is right upon considering the importance of history in writing an advice manual or book. Most popular books nowadays deal with manual advices or guides on how to survive the different aspects of living. There are lots of religious, medical, environmental, scientific, philosophical, social, economical and political advice manuals around us today, yet these manuals are often short-live if not for a single use. As the trend changes, these manuals tend to follow by adapting new information that would fit to various advices being endorsed to wide readers. Although there are lots of advice manual out there, none of these manual writers attempted to impart historical advice manuals on their writing like what Bell did on his How to Do It book.
Upon reading the book How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians, one would notice that Bell (1999) presented medical beliefs and practices concerning birth, adolescence, marriage and living from advice manuals of various Renaissance professionals which are more often addressed to women readers. As Bell (1999) noted that most manuals and how-to-do-it books during that period target women as sort of controlling their behavior. “Recent findings documented persuasively the conscious, massive efforts of Catholic reformers to control, shape, prescribe, reward, and inspire good Christian behavior among virgins, matrons, and widows of all conditions through books” (Bell, 1999, p. 6).
Thus, these could also be the reason why Bell’s How to Do It book presented topics which are of women’s concern.
Medical “explanations” or beliefs about conception and pregnancy during Renaissance show how medical “professionals” explain human anatomy which is mostly based on the element of nature. As noted by Bell (1999), “Practical recommendations [from Renaissance advice manuals] segue into analogies with nature” (p. 21). During the said period, women and men’s sexual composition and activities were likened to soils and seeds, whereas the uterine is the environment where soil (woman’s uterus wherein embryo is nourished) and seed (man’s sperms) would unite to produce a sprout (fetus or a baby). If the uterine is warm and dry then most probably, the woman would produce a male and vice versa. More to this, Renaissance medical professionals and manual advisers also believed that timing strategies, weather conditions (particularly winds’ dryness or wetness) and parents’ activities (as laborers or not) and body composition (man’s testicle and sperms and woman’s uterus and eggs) could affect the gender and sexuality of a child. Such medical beliefs and explanations are now not part of our modern medicine. The science of fertilization has gone far than assuming such effects of internal (body composition) and external factors (weather and timing).
Concerning marriage, Bell enumerated different advices which are more of religious than scientific as taken from advice manuals of medieval professionals. These advices show how religion plays an important part on the life of many Renaissance women rather than letting the responsibility of child rearing to the parents and the education system concerning matters about proper behavior. It also seems that the church, particularly the Catholic Church, was given the full access to manipulate the life of every woman, married couple and their children. Basing on the various advises presented by Bell (1999), one would notice that the church possesses the power to dictate which are right and wrong behavior of human whereas those perceived disgusting behaviors were referred to by the church as sins. “Advice from writers influenced by the Catholic Reformation increasingly went beyond lists of sins and prohibitions, delving into the intimate recesses of private life” (Bell, 1999, p. 32).
Far from advices, Bell (1999) was also able to discuss the issue of censorship during Renaissance period where many books written by knowledgeable writers and artisans were not able to find their way to printing presses. Those books which deal with sensitive issues, immorality and were against the religious hierarchy were prevented by the church to appear on hard paper and if were printed writers and artisans often faced the trial at the court due to issue of censorship. Again, on these events, the church was responsible for the prevention of information dissemination.
In general, the advices presented by Bell (1999) about sex, conception, pregnancy, child rearing, adolescence and marriage is more of presenting an account of Renaissance culture and history rather than offering advices on how to deal with different life stages. The book shows how powerful religion is and how vulnerable Renaissance women were in Italy. Moreover, Bell’s approach on his topic was not mainly narrative or declarative. Bell employs a critical approach where as he presents various advices he tends to compare, analyze and critic those. As what Bell noted about the book’s themes where he regarded variety and authority as themes, the book was not mainly about Renaissance advices but how the manual advices were printed during the period of Renaissance and how the authorities, writers and religion, found their places on the printing press and in the private life of Renaissance people.
Bell, R. M. (1999). How to do it: Guides to good living for Renaissance Italians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.