Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.4 (2003) 646-647
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Working Women of Early Modern Venice. By Monica Chojnacka (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) 188pp. $32.50
In Working Women of Early Modern Venice, Chojnacka uncovers the lives of ordinary Venetian women between the last decades of the sixteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth century. Her research is based on a variety of sources, including parish registers, notarial records, tax rolls, wills, inquisitorial records, and documents from several pious institutions that ministered to poor women in the city. Chojnacka rejects the "traditional structure of examining women's history along the stages of their life cycles," and instead organizes her study in terms of the diversity of spaces through which women moved—homes, neighborhood streets, and institutions far beyond the parishes in which they resided (xvii). This approach is reminiscent of Arlette Farge's brilliant analysis of eighteenth-century Parisian working class life, Fragile Lives (trans. Carol Shelton) (Cambridge, Mass., 1993). Another parallel dilemma (described eloquently by Farge) is the problem of contextualizing the episodic and typically brief appearance of ordinary individuals in written records. Their narratives are often compelling but also challenging to assemble into a larger historical synthesis that enriches or questions reigning historical perspectives.
Chojnacka successfully argues that her archival discoveries of ordinary women can be analyzed to undermine prevalent interpretations of the lives of women in early modern Venice. Her book addresses what she sees as the greatest shortcoming in that historiography, namely, that it has hitherto been based largely on the experience of aristocratic women or women residing in convents. These emphases have produced a portrait of Venetian women as essentially cloistered, with little or no interaction with the world beyond their family, and commensurately little power beyond that sphere. Chojnacka's findings suggest that working-class women had considerably more autonomy and that they exercised "social power," which she defines as "the ability to make independent decisions as well as influence the actions of other people"(xvi).
Reconstructing about 20,000 households from late sixteenth-century parish registers, Chojnacka provides evidence that most households were headed by couples and that adult children, whether married or not, rarely resided with their parents. She supplements her demographic findings with work in notarial records and wills to document some women's economic independence from men both in owning and bequeathing property. Such activities were obviously more attainable for well-to-do women, but Chojnacka also uncovers the participation of women in what Braudel called the economy of everyday life—the routine transactions that were the foundation of the early modern economy but which have left few traces in written records.1 Chojnacka demonstrates that women conducted a variety of business transactions in their [End Page 646] homes and on the streets where they lived. Although some historians of early modern Venice have asserted that its public spaces were largely masculine, Chojnacka argues that working women circulated freely in their neighborhoods, and that neighborhood culture was probably shaped more by women than by men. Through their immigration from the countryside, and through their participation in charitable institutions (either as patrons or clients), Venetian women moved far beyond the sphere of the home and the parish.
Chojnacka's book is a powerful reminder that even after four decades of interest in reclaiming women's history, many fundamental aspects of women's lives are still in the initial stages of exploration. The history of gender is currently the trendier mode of analysis, but it cannot replace (although it certainly compliments) the task of understanding women's lived experience. Working Women of Early Modern Venice provides researchers and students alike with a persuasive argument for the importance of a more nuanced view of women's activities in early modern Europe. Only then will we be able to recover the economy of everyday life, the variety of working class experiences, and the extent to which the urban history of Europe was shaped by the agency and activities of women.
University of Texas, Austin
1 Fernand Braudel (trans. Siâ...