Women’s Work in Rural Italy (1500-1800)

Welcome to the page dedicated to “Women’s Work in Rural Italy (1500-1800)”. Our project aims to provide a better understanding of the historical dynamics surrounding gender and work between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century in rural Italy. By incorporating diverse research methodologies and exploring various geographical contexts across the peninsula, we strive to shed light on the multifaceted nature of female participation in the pre-industrial labour force.


Previous research on proto-industrialization has suggested significant labour market participation by women, particularly in textile industries and predominantly in rural areas (Mendels 1972; Ciriacono 1983). However, female participation in the pre-industrial labour force has generally been considered marginal. As a result, even the contribution of women within the family economy has been regarded as negligible. The extensive body of research related to the theory of the ‘industrious revolution’ (de Vries 1994, 2008), for example, has posited that women’s participation in the wage labour market only became widespread in the second half of the seventeenth century, and primarily in the most developed regions of Europe. But is this truly the case? What was the actual role of women within the labour market and the family economy? Was it as marginal as long assumed? Were women solely engaged in domestic activities outside the market circuit? And were these latter roles genuinely separate from market activities?

This project seeks to address these gaps by analysing specific rural areas of the Italian peninsula between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. By employing new methodologies derived from development economics research and utilizing historical sources that go beyond traditional census and registry data, our project aims to identify the actual extent of female participation in the labour market and the family economy.


Methodologically, this project draws inspiration from the verb-oriented method studies introduced by Ogilvie (2003) and later expanded upon by Ågren (2017), as well as Whittle and Hailwood (2018). At the core of this study lies a broader concept of labour than that employed in classical and neoclassical economics. Our understanding of labour encompasses all activities necessary for household subsistence and reproduction that meet the ‘third-party criterion’ (i.e., any activity that could potentially be performed by someone else in exchange for payment). This is an important premise, since in the pre-industrial era, market and non-market activities were not always clearly distinct and often intertwined temporally and spatially.

Contemporary ethnographic studies can directly interview individuals to gather information about their daily work activities. However, such data collection was not conducted during pre-industrial times. Nevertheless, we possess numerous fragments of information about the work activities carried out by men and women in their daily lives, inadvertently provided by witnesses during criminal trials. By leveraging this qualitative information and transforming it into quantitative data using an established research methodology (Carus and Ogilvie 2009), we will be able to delineate a broad range of work activities performed by women inside and outside the home, but also inside and outside the classical labour market boundaries. This approach will not only enable a more comprehensive description of the labour market structure during the pre-industrial era but also present a fairer and more complete picture of female labour participation.


The research will be conducted through the collection of new data from various regions of the Italian peninsula, each characterized by a unique economic-social environment. Each case study will contribute to the reconstruction of a vivid and comprehensive image of the labour market in pre-industrial Italy. Specifically, the project will investigate the rural areas of the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Lucca, and the Kingdom of Naples.

Coordinated by:

Andrea Caracausi

Post-doc researcher:

Mattia Viale