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Reviewed by:
  • He Is the Sun, She Is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks
He Is the Sun, She Is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany. By Heidi Wunder (trans. Thomas Dunlap) (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1998) 310 pp. $39.95

This is a masterful (gender-specific usage intended) study of all aspects of women’s lives in early-modern Germany, which first appeared in German in 1992; the seventy-five-page bibliography, set in small type, is worth the price of the book. Wunder begins with women’s autobiographical writings, noting that these were “history” as it was understood in the seventeenth century, and then discusses the female life cycle, women’s work, marriage, unmarried women, witches, women’s roles in [End Page 327] political and religious movements, and the changes brought by the Enlightenment and French Revolution. Each section includes extensive quotations, many from unpublished sources; though the primary focus is on Germany, there are occasional comments about developments elsewhere in Europe for comparative purposes. Wunder’s attention to issues of class and regional difference is evident throughout the book. She is widely read in a variety of disciplines—cultural anthropology, women’s studies, and literary studies—and her use of texts, along with social-historical analysis, make this an example of “new cultural history” at its best.

A few of Wunder’s most important (and probably most controversial) points are that changes in ideas about marriage in the sixteenth century were not a result of the Reformation, but of social change in the late Middle Ages that began in the artisan class, to which the Reformation then responded; that the conjugal pair and their offspring became the key unit of social and economic organization of society only in the high Middle Ages, not somewhere in the mists of time, and remained so throughout the early-modern period, giving married women power and status that were theirs as joint heads of household and not simply as subordinates to their husbands; that the possibilities for single women to support themselves increased with the growth of wage labor from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, the upshot being that women became an intellectual problem partly because they were not an economic problem; that wage labor also allowed artisans’ wives to support themselves independently, resulting in a flurry of concern about “manly women”; that households in many smaller cities actually became less self-sufficient in the early-modern period, again requiring women, including wives in the new professional class, to do agricultural work and labor transforming raw materials into products for the household. Insights such as these challenge the received wisdom not only about many aspects of German social, intellectual, and economic history, but also about early-modern women’s history that has been based primarily on English, French, and Italian sources.

Wunder’s prose in German is clear and concise, and the English translation captures both of these qualities. My only disappointment is that the United States publisher decided to drop the more than sixty illustrations that grace the German version, many of them engravings and woodcuts that have never been reproduced in any modern study. Readers interested in the topic might go to the German version (“Er ist die Sonn’, Sie ist der Mond: Frauen in der frühen Neuzeit [Munich, Beck, 1992]), though they will still miss Wunder’s integration of the images into her discussion. Now that Wunder’s book has been translated, it should join all lists of required reading in both women’s and early-modern European history.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

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pp. 327-328
Launched on MUSE
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