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  • Louder than Words: Ways of Seeing Women Workers in Eighteenth-Century France
  • David Adams
Louder than Words: Ways of Seeing Women Workers in Eighteenth-Century France. By Geraldine Sheridan. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2009. xvi + 256 pp., 193 b&w ill. Hb $55.00; £48.95.

Few scholars would have had the patience to sift meticulously through the three thousand or so plates contained in the folio editions of the Encyclopédie in order to study the ways in which women workers are represented in them. And not many would have gone to the extra trouble of examining the Description des arts et métiers and other sources that augment and complement Diderot's work in numerous ways. Geraldine Sheridan is therefore to be congratulated, not least on the dogged determination she displays in dealing with so many obscure and often forgotten trades in which the role of women was crucial. Praise is due also to the publishers, who have reproduced nearly two hundred illustrations in an admirably clear format, usually in a size similar to that of the originals. In such a closely detailed study of innumerable trades, there are passages that will appeal primarily to those interested in the techniques involved in artisanal crafts. In the section on nail-making, for example, we read that '[a] slight tap of the hammer produces a nail suitable for shoemaking; a second, harder blow is administered to create a larger flat head suitable for carpenters, sculptors and the like' (p. 132). Fortunately, such technical minutiae do not constitute the principal value of the work, which has much to offer the (doubtless more numerous) readers who want to know about the working conditions, pay, and problems women faced in the pre-industrial era; indeed, Sheridan's study goes as far as anyone could expect in dealing with these wider issues. It emerges that the headpiece illustrations in which the activities of women are depicted offer a sanitized, and even idealized, view of their working lives; they consequently offer few hints of the harsh, dangerous, and heavy work that women were often expected to perform, usually for less pay than their male counterparts. It comes as little surprise either to learn that the role of women workers was often occluded by their being referred to generically as 'ouvriers', or that the type of work they performed was regarded by many of their contemporaries as less important than that undertaken by men. Sheridan brings out these points in ample detail; she performs an equally valuable service for students of the period in linking the study of trades to the laws, regulations, and customs which governed their practice, and which reveal in convincing detail a largely neglected side of eighteenth-century French life. Perhaps the most striking, and enduring, quality of the study is that, in this way, it conjures into life generations of skilled workers whose activities are barely known, and for whose day to day existence we have very little other evidence. It is worth pointing out that the reprints of the Encyclopédie in quarto and octavo format contained far fewer plates than the folio editions, so that many of these trades, though described, were not illustrated. Having had their day in the sun, most workers, male and female, were once again consigned to the darkness of historical oblivion. [End Page 488]

David Adams
University of Manchester
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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
p. 488
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-27
Open Access
No
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