Exploring Women's Work in Early Modern Rural Italy: insights from the Republic of Venice

The role of women in pre-industrial labour has often been overlooked, leading to a disregard for their contributions to the general economy and family finances. According to the prevailing theory, women’s sustained participation in the labour market only emerged in the seventeenth century, mainly in more developed regions of Europe. In all other cases, it is argued, women were confined to the domestic sphere, engaging primarily in unpaid domestic and caregiving work. Is this narrative accurate? What was the actual role of women in the labour market and the family economy? Was it as marginal as long assumed? Were women solely involved in domestic activities outside market-oriented production? And were women’s domestic roles genuinely separate from market activities? This paper aims to answer these questions by examining the rural areas of the Venetian Republic between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Through the analysis of testimonies produced during criminal trials and examined using the ‘verb-oriented method,’ a clearer understanding of women’s lives and work can be attained. We explore the types of activities women were involved in and whether these activities constituted paid labour. Our findings, offering a preview of a larger project dedicated to women’s work in pre-industrial Italy, help us reconsider important historical concepts such as the Industrious Revolution and the Little Divergence.