Social healing and the inspiration of women entrepreneurs in Renaissance Italy

Vulnerability is undergoing fundamental reassessment.  Who is vulnerable and why will it be expanded and redefined appropriately for our times?

| 11 min read

Those providing social solutions have the opportunity to dramatically impact society and culture. Professional advisers need to be aware of how these issues are affecting their clients and how to deal with them appropriately.

From women entrepreneurs in Renaissance Italy seeking to heal society, to our own form of social entrepreneurialism, fundamental freedoms such as free-thinking and free-speech are the basic tools for entrepreneurs attempting to solve social problems. Problems such as the increasing plight of loneliness and isolation, which have been magnified and brought further into awareness during the coronavirus pandemic.

Emotional evolution

The evolution of our emotional and social intelligence is one of key advancements of the modern human condition.

We are now emotionally intelligent enough to know that our levels of vulnerability are increasing, not decreasing as was generally believed in the second half of the twentieth century.

As we grow in emotional intelligence we are realising just how vulnerable we might all become.

Irrespective of our appearance, age, success or status, a wider definition of who could be vulnerable is only just dawning upon us, across sectors, across professions, across society. And that was before coronavirus which has reminded us of our complete vulnerability, as we adjust to life through social distancing, for instance.

We need sustaining

The growing role of our emotions in securing the future good of our lives, our economy and our world also means that we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness. Especially as we do not fully control our world in a way that is balanced and healthy. The World Food Programme names hunger as the number one cause of death in the world. 805 million people worldwide do not have enough food to eat. 22,000 children die each day due to poverty, according to UNICEF.

Other problems centre around the increasing strain and pace of life. According to Mind, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Rates of self-harm in the UK are the highest in Europe at 400 per 100,000.

And of course, there is the silent killer of loneliness and isolation, now studied across disciplines such as sociology, neuroscience, psychology and gerontology.

Lack of social connection is a risk equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and a greater health risk than obesity and lack of exercise. Loneliness can lead to drug abuse, alcoholism, anxiety and depression. The lonely sleep poorly, report more daytime fatigue and experience memory problems. Chronic loneliness can cause blood pressure to rise and ravages immune systems. The ageing process accelerates under the corrosive effect of such stress hormones, while arteries tighten and raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes.[1]

In 2018 the UK government appointed a Minister for Loneliness (the first in any country) and, in the same year, a survey of 55,000 UK citizens conducted for the BBC found that a third of respondents often felt lonely.[2]

For younger people, loneliness is often an effect of the failed expectations of relationships. The UK’s Office for National Statistics found that 16-24 year olds reported feeling more lonely than pensioners between the ages of 65 to 74.[3]

A new form of technology called collaborative telepresence, which would be invaluable for Covid-19 outbreak situations, allows participants in virtual gatherings to feel as though they are physically together, transporting a human’s sense, actions and presence to a remote location. But it is too early to see the impact on emotional closeness and trust that this might engender, which is currently lacking via social media and online relationships, which are empty of non-verbal expressions and body language, for instance.

Social stigma

It is ‘normal behaviour’ to be socially connected. That has obviously been put to the test by government measures of lockdown during the outbreak of Covid-19 this year, with potential knock-on effects in terms of a community’s, or even a country’s, collective mental health.

Nevertheless, it is instinctual in our drive to survive that we should seek social engagement. When we don’t achieve ‘social acceptance’, we develop insecurities, we feel the negative effects of isolation, as well as related emotions of anger, guilt and depression. The emotional region of the brain activated when a person experiences rejection is the same area that registers emotional responses to physical pain.

Social entrepreneurialism - the basic tools

Using the human brain to think and speak freely enables problems to be solved, providing the basic tools of an entrepreneur. With an increase in social and emotional intelligence - and disseminating that intelligence - we are able to build more inclusive societies. It has been projected for example that, in India, women-owned enterprises have the potential to create 150-170 million jobs by 2030.[4] This is more than 25 per cent of the new jobs required for the entire ‘working age’ population.

Nothing new: social healing in Renaissance Italy

If I said that women entrepreneurs have had a profound influence in shaping the modern world I would hope that you wouldn’t be surprised. In Renaissance Italy women played a more central role in providing health care than (male) historians have tended to acknowledge.

From noblewomen living at court to household caregivers, to nurses living in hospitals, to nuns working as apothecaries - women from all walks of life drove the Italian medical economy.

Women creatively developed their roles as providers of health care by participating in empirical work and developing scientific knowledge, thereby making significant contributions to early-modern medicine.

Indeed, nuns were among the most prominent manufacturers and vendors of pharmaceutical products.

As convent populations greatly increased during the sixteenth century, existing revenues were stretched, forcing nuns to look for openings in other economic sectors. Pharmacy was one such area of growth. Changes in disease environments, poor relief, and a renewed interest in healthy living all accelerated the global trade in medicinals.

The needy and the vulnerable were many; Italian cities experienced famines, foreign invasions, plague epidemics and severe unemployment, following the collapse of traditional textile industries.

Making medicines gave Renaissance nuns greater commercial freedom than doing silk work, since selling remedies directly to the public did not require mediation by guild brokers.

Indeed, Renaissance nuns controlled their entire production cycles. Whereas their male counterparts in monastic pharmacies hired lay apothecaries to grow their businesses (and so paid salaries and risked making losses), convents did not. Women did everything for themselves.

Hence, they were able to capitalise on business networks developed through textile trades, and through book manufacturing, across previous centuries. This enabled them to scale up pharmaceutical production quickly. Convents were typically large physical structures where medicines could be distilled in volume and stored onsite. They housed a significant number of literate women who were easily trained in the healing art of pharmacy, and their institutional culture handed down their craft knowledge.

These communities had extensive patronage networks. They also built a socially varied clientele, mainly through female networks, relatives, friends, neighbours, tenants and spiritual allies. Women developed associations that were multilayered in purpose and in friendship.

The high degree of interconnectivity linking convents and identifiable customers confirms that the Renaissance apothecary trade was intrinsically social in nature.

Social prescribing in the twenty-first century

Back in the current time, treatment for loneliness includes ‘social prescribing’. At present, this operates within social distancing measures, in light of coronavirus. Prescribed activities include cooking classes, dance lessons, walking clubs, art groups, volunteer roles, caregiver support, access to single-parent groups and bereavement networks.

Social prescribing is rather like social entrepreneurialism. For example, Shared Lives is a UK home-sharing scheme matching pensioners struggling with loneliness with young people needing somewhere to live. Intergenerational care homes is another approach, where a care home and nursery are combined, sharing adult and child care, and reducing the effects of loneliness. Men’s Shed has more than 400 communal sheds in the UK to connect retired or unemployed men through activities like woodworking and repairing electronics. HostNation pairs refugees with volunteers in their neighbourhood.


Belonging and purpose improve health. People are healthier when they’re connected to social and community supports and when they are empowered to play meaningful roles in both their own health and the health of their wider community. Coronavirus has shown us how much we rely upon social connectivity and the great challenge to our lives when that connectivity is deeply affected.

In a world of change - environmentally, socially, demographically, psychologically (following the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and job losses) - how we may now be personally vulnerable is in the process of broadening and taking on additional meanings.

Professional advisers need to understand that the worries that clients may have around how they might be vulnerable could potentially be increasing rather than decreasing. As professional advisers collaborate to deliver the highest level of service overall, we need to be much more aware of the changing world around us and the impact this could potentially have on the lives of our clients.

And entrepreneurs who are in the business or enterprise of ‘healing society’ and restoring health in whatever way, are looking at our world with fresh eyes and responding to the needs of the vulnerable. Rather like women entrepreneurs did in Renaissance Italy.

[1] Triggers can be related to poverty, loss of mobility, cognitive impairment, as well as death of a partner/breakdown of a relationship. Lack of emotional intimacy can also be a trigger for loneliness. Even those in long-term relationships can feel extremely lonely. Social robots have a particular appeal for assisting the world’s growing elderly population. For instance, therapeutic robots are supposed to stimulate and reduce stress for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other patients in care facilities. But the application of droid friends and assistants is still in development and does not address humans connecting with humans. See Nicholas Kristof, ‘Let’s Wage a War on Loneliness: The condition isn’t just depressing. It can be deadly,’ New York Times, 19th November 2019.



[4] Bain & Company, Powering The Economy With Her: Women Entrepreneurship in India, 2020.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

Social healing and the inspiration of women entrepreneurs in Renaissance Italy

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