After decades of interest in gender history, it may come as a surprise to hear that we still know little about the economic activities of early modern women. There are plenty of theories, of course, but few in-depth studies of what kind of work women engaged in and why they did so. This is what Sheilagh Ogilvie sets out to redress - and achieves in impressive fashion. Choosing to focus on the district of Wildberg in south-western Germany, an area combining agriculture, craft guilds and early proto-industry, she defends micro-level analysis "as the only way to obtain systematic empirical findings", while addressing the problems of typicality inherent in this approach.
The principal sources - two series of Wurttemberg church-courts minutes from the late 17th and 18th centuries - are not perfect, but then no historical source ever is.
The author makes a good case for their reliability in terms of economic information, although one wonders about potential self-censorship. There must have been incentives to emphasise approved economic behaviour (as a defendant) and suspicious activities (when prosecuting an offender).
If the period under scrutiny seems harsh, then so was the labour of researching this book. Ogilvie perused some 7,000 pages of records for the faintest hint of economic activity, a monumental task yielding 2,828 relevant observations (laudably collected for women and men). These appear in 55 tables, illuminating both demographic and economic structures, and inform a rewarding if challenging argument.
Methodically, the book employs an original "time-allocation model" to study decisions by individuals about the best possible use of disposable time.
Biological factors and cultural norms emerge not as monocausal determinants but as variables affecting choices. Ogilvie identifies institutional structures as the single most important constraints and deconstructs the ubiquitous "social networks" beloved of social scientists.
Again and again, she finds guilds and local communities generating social capital of a highly gendered nature, working towards the exclusion of women and against the best interests of the wider economy (by stifling female productivity and consumption). England and the Dutch Republic, where such networks were weaker, apparently granted women a little more independence.
The empirical results, presented in chapters dedicated to distinct stages of the life cycle, are in one sense unspectacular: women were worse off than men, did most of the housework and earned lower wages. More surprisingly, however, they engaged in a vast variety of activities mainly outside the domestic sphere. The most startling stronghold of male dominance was the so-called "advanced" proto-industrial sector.
Is the general taste left by this tour de force perhaps a tinge too bitter? Were women really that passive, waiting for occasional niches? What about opportunities for informal (even political) influence and mutual support, as highlighted in Bernard Capp's recent When Gossips Meet? Is there not evidence for women instrumentalising ecclesiastical courts for their own interests (as argued by Heinrich Richard Schmidt for Protestant Bern)? Should the early modern economy, following Peter Musgrave, not receive more credit for providing substantial choice and relative prosperity, at least in "normal" times?
Communal organisation, too, is judged rather harshly here, with little appreciation of its emancipatory potential (compared with manorial structures) or its redeeming features such as religious and neighbourly sociability.
Overall, however, A Bitter Living should be compulsory reading for all social and gender historians. It offers a wealth of fresh data, ammunition against monocausal theories, poignant conclusions about the wider economy and a yardstick for future comparative research.
Beat Kümin is senior lecturer in early modern European history, Warwick University.
A Bitter Living: Women, Markets, and Social Capital in Early Modern Germany
Author - Sheilagh Ogilvie
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 394
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 19 820554 6