Virtual Special Issue

History Workshop Journal Virtual Special Issue: Early Modern Gender Histories

Edited by Laura Gowing

Laura Gowing (along with Marybeth Hamilton) is also an editor of the latest issue of the journal, History Workshop Journal 80. The issue features articles on veiling in early modern Europe, Mary Toft’s accounts of a famous eighteenth century hoax, and a feature on ‘Nursing Madness’.

*Updated: free access to this Virtual Special Issue has now expired. Please subscribe to HWJ or use your college or university subscription to access the articles listed below.*

This, the first in a series of virtual special issues, makes freely available some of the outstanding work on women and gender in the period c.1500-1700 published by History Workshop Journal over the nearly forty years of our history.

Gesche Meiburg Flugblatt, 1615 (Wikimedia Commons).

The history of early modern gender has brought together many of History Workshop’s concerns as a journal of socialist and radical history. From the start, and for a long time on the masthead, HWJ called for a feminist history. In the very first issue in 1976 Sally Alexander and Anna Davin wrote of the need to historicise structures of gender, to find sources for women’s history, and to recover the long and often unwritten histories of women’s part in production before the era of industrialisation as well as later. With this latter concern in mind, it’s fitting that this chronological retrospective begins and ends with two key pieces, byMichael Roberts and Alexandra Shepard, on the hidden histories of women’s pre-industrial work, nicely punctuated by Amy Erickson’sargument about the crucial link between constraints on women’s economic role and the development of early capitalism.

The evolving state of early modern women’s history through the 1970s and 1980s lent itself well to the Journal’s workshop approach. Fragmentary and negative sources were a familiar problem, and issue 1 had already introduced the riches of seventeenth-century legal depositions in a piece by David Vaisey. In 1980 Miranda Chaytor’sdeconstruction of household and kinship used such cases, as did other later pieces, to provide alternative sources for the undocumented stories of women and the poor. Visual images, from early on, were not just illustration, but a subject of interrogation; articles by Patricia Simons and Ulinka Rublack examined the visual tropes of femininity from portraits to broadsheets.

Alongside the examination of women’s economic roles and family structures came a scrutiny of gendered language as a tool of subordination, through the precise and changing meanings of ‘whore’, ‘marriage’ or ‘wife’. (Chaytor; Gowing; Tadmor). The life of the household had, too, an explicitly political agenda: Lyndal Roper’s1985 piece on prostitution in sixteenth-century Germany put the disciplining of women at the heart of the urban Reformation.

Five years later the social construction of early modern masculinity came to the fore. Alan Bray’s dissection of the connections between friendship and homosexuality pressed the ties between bodies and politics in a different way, while Katharine Hodgkin explored the insecurities of ‘mastery’. Articles through the 1990s and 2000s on sex, sexuality and the body, including a special issue in 1996 (issue 41), were part of a general move towards the corporeal; Cathy McClive’s examination of French cases of disputed sex demanded that men’s bodies, as well as women’s, be historicised. Elsewhere the disjunctures of masculinity with patriarchal authority were examined in relation to witchcraft and rape, and in the context of colonial North America. (Kent; Walker).

Together, these pieces offer a suggestive agenda for the place of gender in a bigger picture of that dubious concept, early modernity. Longer patterns of continuity in the valuation of women’s work, the shape of marriage, and the disciplining of female sexuality sit alongside shifts in gender relations that were key to the development of capitalism, of modern regimes of sexuality, of the formation of the state. For reasons of space, we drew a line for this feature of 1700; the many articles on eighteenth-century gender history suggest how long the pre-modern gender regime persisted into ‘modernity’. We look forward to publishing many more in the issues ahead.

Image Gesche Meiburg Flugblatt 1615 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Sickles and Scythes: Women’s Work and Men’s Work at Harvest Time
by Michael Roberts
History Workshop Journal (1979) 7

Household and Kinship : Ryton in the Late 16th and Early 17th Centuries
by Miranda Chaytor
History Workshop Journal 10 (1980)

Discipline and Respectability: Prostitution and the Reformation in Augsburg
by Lyndal Roper
History Workshop Journal 19, no.1 (1985)

Women in Frames: the Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture
by Patricia Simons
History Workshop Journal 25 (1988)

Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England
by Alan Bray
History Workshop Journal 29 (1990)

Thomas Whythorne and the Problems of Mastery
by Katharine Hodgkin
History Workshop Journal 29 (1990)

Gender and the Language of Insult in Early Modern London
by Laura Gowing
History Workshop Journal 35 (1993)

Wench and Maiden: Women, War and the Pictorial Function of the Feminine in German Cities in the Early Modern Period
by Ulinka Rublack
History Workshop Journal 44 (1997)

Masculinity and Male Witches in Old and New England, 1593–1680
by E.J Kent
History Workshop Journal 60 (2005)

Women and Wives: The Language of Marriage in Early Modern English Biblical Translations
by Naomi Tadmor
History Workshop Journal 62 (2006)

Masculinity on Trial: Penises, Hermaphrodites and the Uncertain Male Body in Early Modern France
by Cathy McClive
History Workshop Journal 68 (2009)

Coverture and Capitalism
by Amy Louise Erickson
History Workshop Journal 59 (2005)

Everyman or a Monster? The Rapist in Early Modern England, c.1600–1750
by Garthine Walker
History Workshop Journal 76 (2013)

Crediting Women in the Early Modern English Economy
by Alexandra Shepard
History Workshop Journal 78 (2015)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *