In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and Work: Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Women and Guilds
  • Domestic Service
  • Trade and Markets
  • Urban Labor
  • Work, Marriage, and Family Structures
  • Women and Cultural Production
  • Apprenticeship/Training
  • Rural Labor
  • Women in Investing and Financial Trades
  • Medical and Caring Work
  • Sex Work
  • Religious Labor

Renaissance and Reformation Women and Work: Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries
Janine Lanza
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0421


In Europe in the Early Modern period, women worked an enormous range of jobs and professions. From farmwives who helped plant and harvest crops to fishmongers who sold their wares in markets to guildswomen who engaged in skilled labor, as well as artists, scholars, midwives, doctors, prostitutes, and servants, women participated in every corner of the economy. This wide participation was evident in all of Europe, east as well as west, despite many local and regional differences in how women labored. But notwithstanding the presence of women in all sectors of the economy, women’s work was not understood or valued in the same way as men’s work. In contrast to male workers, female workers saw their ability to practice certain trades curtailed and their capabilities were often seen as inferior to those of men. Women were paid less than men and their work was often more contingent, despite that fact that many families relied on the income or work of all their members. Nonetheless, despite the patriarchal ideology that sought to limit or undervalue their working contributions, women forged ahead working in all sectors of the economy. They did so in order to not only support themselves and their families, but also as part of their self-conception as productive and contributing members of their communities. This article provides sources to support this understanding of the vast range of female economic activity in Europe in the Early Modern period. While women participated broadly in the labor market, it cannot be denied that the pay, professions, and status they enjoyed from those activities were shaped by the assumptions of patriarchy. In her 2008 work Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, Merry Wiesner notes that “the gender of the worker, not the work itself or its location, marked the difference between what were considered domestic tasks and what was considered production” (p. 104); we can add, the conditions of work and pay hinged upon gendered definitions. For example, one of the most prestigious and lucrative sectors of the economy were skilled trades, often controlled by guilds, especially in France, Germany, the Low Countries, and Italy; English guilds had little real influence by the Early Modern period, but the trades they had controlled remained high-status ones that tried to admit few women. Nonetheless, women found ways to work in skilled trades, regardless of how they were organized. Likewise, other professions marked by high levels of education, pay, and status, such as the law, medicine, academia, and the fine arts, created bars to women joining their ranks, despite the presence of a handful of path-breaking female practitioners. Globally, women were found in greater numbers in less skilled and less lucrative jobs.

General Works

Although several earlier texts, such as Henri Hauser’s Le travail des femmes au XVe et XVIe siècles (Paris: V. Giard & E. Brière, 1897) or Theodore Stanton’s The Woman Question in Europe: A Series of Original Essays (New York: Putnam’s, 1884), examined the history of female labor in the Early Modern period, it was only with the publication of Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (Clark 2010, originally published in 1919) that the study of women’s work in the past solidified into a rigorous and sustained field of study. The essays in Hanawalt 1986 embrace Clark’s notion of a “golden age” for women’s work, tracing the ways women’s work became less remunerative in the Early Modern era. However, later examinations of this concept took a more critical approach. Bennett 1988 shows that women had been consistently underpaid in the labor market, seeing no era where women flourished. This critical stance on Clark marked many works that followed. Honeyman and Goodman 1991 reveals how men supported women’s marginalization as a means to prop up their own labor status. Agren 2017 treats the question of gendered labor and status through an innovative approach that analyzes the verbs used to describe work, seeking another way to uncover sources of gender inequality and labor. The works cited here represent a selection of classic, foundational texts as well as more recent general studies of women’s work across Europe in the Early Modern period.

  • Agren, Maria, ed. Making a Living, Making a Difference: Women and Work in Early Modern European Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    Using an innovative “verb-oriented method” to analyze the actions relating to work, the contributors in this volume show who did what in early modern European households and workplaces. Their analysis found that gender inequalities and social hierarchy were echoed not only in the tasks men and women did, but also in the words they used to describe their actions.

  • Bennett, Judith M. “‘History That Stands Still:’ Women’s Work in the European Past.” Feminist Studies 14.2 (Summer 1988): 5–22.

    DOI: 10.2307/3180153

    An important review essay that takes to task the idea of a medieval “golden age” when women flourished in the workplace, followed by a retrenchment. Bennett demonstrates instead that women were consistently disadvantaged in the labor market in preindustrial Europe, beginning the historiographical movement that pushed aside Alice Clark’s influential interpretation.

  • Charles, Lindsay, and Lorna Duffin, eds. Women and Work in Preindustrial England. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

    The essays in this collection examine the question of women’s status as workers in the preindustrial era. The approach is based on a local approach to female labor, seeking to contextualize it in terms of different conditions found in varied locations across England.

  • Chojnacka, Monica. Working Women of Early Modern Venice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

    This volume focuses on the ways women from working classes up to wealthier women participated in earning their livings or enhancing the wealth of their families. Begins with the household and builds out to larger communities to show the experiences of working women at multiple levels of community.

  • Clark, Alice. Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Originally published in 1919. Multiple reprints. Clark’s groundbreaking work examines working women in England in the Early Modern era. She focuses on women in English guilds and skilled professions, observing a decline of women’s status from the medieval period in representing a lost “golden age” of female work. This claim of a fall from a golden age, driven by the emergence of a capitalist economy, strongly shaped historians’ interpretations of women’s work for decades to come.

  • Collins, James B. “The Economic Role of Women in Seventeenth-Century France.” French Historical Studies 16.2 (Autumn 1989): 436–470.

    DOI: 10.2307/286618

    This influential article provides an overview of the broad participation of women in the French economy. Collins demonstrates how women played a vital role in their families’ financial survival, a development that he sees as undermining the dominance of men both in families and in the system of patriarchy.

  • Hanawalt, Barbara, ed. Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

    This volume brings together a wide-ranging set of essays that explores female labor across Europe. The wide diversity of topics addressed here, from brewing to wet nursing to petty trade, reflects the peripatetic and changeable nature of women’s work. The volume falls firmly into the “golden age” interpretation of women’s work put forth by Alice Clark.

  • Honeyman, Katrina, and Jordan Goodman. “Women’s Work, Gender Conflict, and Labour Markets in Europe, 1500–1900.” Economic History Review, n.s. 44.4 (November 1991): 608–628.

    DOI: 10.2307/2597804

    A survey of research on women’s work in Europe from the Early Modern period forward. The authors argue that in spite of the fundamental shifts in the European economic landscape, women’s roles remained remarkably unchanged due to efforts by men to maintain their supremacy in the labor market.

  • Hufton, Olwen. The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, 1500–1800. London: HarperCollins, 1995.

    A wide-ranging survey of women’s lives and experiences in Europe in the Early Modern period. While not focused on work, the ubiquity of labor in the female experience means that much of the volume addresses this issue. Hufton examines several themes, including the question of continuity and change in women’s lives. She finds that inequality and domination by men remain constant factors.

  • Pihl, Christopher. “Gender, Labour, and State Formation in Sixteenth-Century Sweden.” The Historical Journal 58.3 (2015): 685–710.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X15000023

    This article argues that the formation of the early modern state was crucially influenced by gendered divisions of labor in both domestic and public spaces. The development of an all-male state bureaucracy reflected ideas and practices about female labor and shaped government policies and attitudes toward female work going forward.

  • Wiesner, Merry E. Working Women in Renaissance Germany. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

    Based on extensive archival research, Wiesner finds that around the year 1500 women worked in a wide range of occupations that varied in skill level and compensation. Her research directs her to follow Alice Clark’s lead in discerning a decrease in women’s opportunities and pay across the Early Modern period, leading women to labor in the least respected and worst paid jobs.

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