(Social): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

This session will compare urban women's labour possibilities in northern and southern societies from 1200-1800. Different fields of women's work (corporative, informal, domestic) will be covered with the objective to analyse the origin of possible differences. This way we will tackle the generally accepted paradigm that women in northern Europe had more labour opportunities than southern women.

Since the 1980s, scholars have increasingly studied women’s labour opportunities in different regions. A number of scholars have perceived a great difference between women’s labour opportunities in northern and southern Europe. Different legal and demographic structures restrained women’s agency in southern Europe while encouraging northern women’s possibilities. The Roman law prevalent in southern Europe limited women’s property rights and excluded them as independent players on labour markets. The customary law in northern Europe, on the contrary, favoured women’s economic agency.

Recently, however, gender historians increasingly contest the overall acceptance of this north-south divide. First of all, it has been shown that the twofold division does not take into account the abundance of legal differences within premodern societies. Customary law was not restricted to northern Europe, as it also appeared in southern regions that applied Roman law. Furthermore, scholars also noticed differences in women’s economic agency within regions. Finally, the focus on the legal system as an explanatory factor for women’s divergent labour opportunities has obscured other factors that influence women’s work, such as marital status, economic transformation and the impact of (economic) institutions (such as craft guilds). However, comparative research measuring the impact of these factors remains rare.

This session will tackle the north-south hypothesis with the aim of analysing urban women’s labour opportunities from 1200 to 1800 in northern and southern Europe, including the wider Mediterranean. We welcome papers that focus on the different factors that influenced women's labour opportunities, preferably from a comparative perspective.

Papers discussing the following questions are encouraged:

  • How did economic institutions (such as craft guilds) and regional governments impact women’s work?
  • Did marital status affect women's economic agency differently in northern and southern Europe?
  • Was there a decline of urban women’s agency in pre-industrial Europe?
  • Did labour associations push women to an informal market or did women have other reasons to seek an income via this market?
  • How was women’s work embedded in regions where economic institutions did not have political power?
  • How was women’s work defined? Did medieval society take their domestic activities into account?

  • Spokesperson: Nena Vandeweerdt, KU Leuven
  • Co-organizer(s): Jesús Ángel  Solórzano Telechea, University of Cantabria
  • Keywords: Gender | Labour | Comparisons
  • Time period: Premodern period (covering more than one period)
  • Topic(s): Social | Economic
  • Study area: Europe