- Women and Work in Premodern Europe. Experiences, Relationships and Cultural Representation, c. 1100–1800 ed. by Merridee L. Bailey, Tania M. Colwell, and Julie Hotchin
As the title suggests, this is a work with wide-ranging ambitions about its contribution to the historiography of women and work. Seeking to take scholarly analysis of women's labouring activities beyond the economic, the essays in this volume variously consider how women negotiated the parameters shaping their intellectual, cultural, emotional, and economic labour. The introduction insists upon the chapters' collective encouragement to us to rethink, refine, and reshape previous scholarly assumptions and approaches to aspects of women's work. As a whole, the collection produces no new meta-narratives, but instead burrows into the complexity of specific contexts, differing individual experiences, varied intellectual constructions, and multiple visual representations, 'giving full credibility to the diversity of premodern women's experiences of work' (p. 21).
Its coverage is expansive in time and geography but also in approach. Some chapters examine representations of women's writing as forms of labour and others how fictive women workers were voiced in literary texts. We learn more about how bourgeois wives were recognized as contributing to domestic and economic work, in their household activities for the domestic economy and as outsourced labourers of textile production (an industry that employed men as well as women). Further studies explore women's participation in monastic governance and their roles in guild and civic work. Others consider those making ends meet by begging and vagabondage as forms of agency whether in authorized municipal roles or doing so illicitly.
A number of themes run across the volume—lived realities as well as their representations in archives, song, literature and image; and work relationships, dependencies, and networks between women, and women and men, in households and occupational groupings, as patrons and clients, and as intermediaries. Overall, women's work in textiles is particularly foregrounded, as are women of the pen producing literature and letters. In these areas, there is some capacity to see commonalities and differences across the essays, but the ten chapters of this collection are not structured in sub-sections to orient readers towards particular comparative analyses. Its goal is rather to deepen the field with new information and analyses.
Yet, although its orientation is towards unsettling present historiography and approaches, and to expand, deepen, and complicate conceptualizations of premodern women's work, I would still have welcomed more from the editors about the global contribution of their new interventions. Do they see changes and continuities across the period the volume covers, between the geographies, [End Page 252] including town and country, or as a result of the religious changes that occurred in the period? In the end, it is thus the details within individual papers that contribute most powerfully, with each study providing important findings and the impetus to explore new directions.