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Mistress or maid: the structure of women's work in Sweden, 1550–1800


Based on the verb-oriented method and a unique collection of observations from court records, this article shows that both men and women did almost all categories of work in early modern Sweden. On the level of concrete tasks, however, there was both difference and similarity between the genders. Marital status exerted a strong influence on women's sustenance activities, creating a clear distinction between unmarried and ever-married women. These patterns were probably the effect of a labour legislation that forced young people without independent means to offer their bodies and time to masters and mistresses.

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1 Tjänstehjonsstadga, 23 November 1686, in Schmedeman, Johan, Kongl. stadgar, förordningar, bref och resolutioner, ifrån åhr 1528. in til 1701 angående justitiæ och executions- ährender … (hereafter Justitiewaerk) (Stockholm, 1706), 1077–83. Although the first real statutes of servants dates from 1664, the medieval laws included similar stipulations; see Harnesk, Börje, Legofolk: Drängar, pigor och bönder i 1700- och 1800-talens Sverige (Umeå, 1990), 32. This type of labour legislation dated back to the post-Plague period and could be found in many European countries; see Geremek, Bronisław, Den europeiska fattigdomens betydelse (Stockholm, 1986), 97–9.

2 Landsarkivet i Vadstena, Göta Hovrätt, Advokatfiskalens arkiv EVIIAABA:602, fos. 384v–385v. The authors express their thanks to Elisabeth Gräslund Berg who found this case.

3 For instance, Humphries, Jane and Sarasúa, Carmen, ‘Off the record: reconstructing women's labor force participation in the European past’, Feminist Economics 18, 4 (2012), 3967 .

4 See, for example, Sharpe, Pamela, ‘Dealing with love: the ambiguous independence of single women in early modern England’, Gender & History 11, 2 (1999), 209–32; van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise, ‘Segmentation in the pre-industrial labour market: women's work in the Dutch textile industry, 1581–1810’, International Review of Social History 51, 2 (2006), 189216 ; van den Heuvel, Danielle, Women and entrepreneurship: female traders in the northern Netherlands, c. 1580–1815 (Utrecht, 2007); Schmidt, Ariadne, ‘Managing a large household: the gender division of work in orphanages in Dutch towns in the early modern period, 1580–1800’, The History of the Family 13 (2008), 4257 ; Schmidt, Ariadne, ‘Women and guilds: corporations and female labour market participation in early modern Holland’, Gender and History 21, 1 (2009), 170–89; van der Heijden, Manon and Schmidt, Ariadne, ‘Public services and women's work in early modern Dutch towns’, Journal of Urban History 36, 3 (2010), 368–85; Schmidt, Ariadne and van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise, the, ‘Reconsideringfirst male-breadwinner economy”: women's labor force participation in the Netherlands, 1600–1900’, Feminist Economics 18 (2012), 6996 ; van den Heuvel, Danielle and Ogilvie, Sheilagh, ‘Retail development in the consumer revolution: the Netherlands, c. 1670– c. 1815’, Explorations in Economic History 50 (2013), 6987 ; Shepard, Alexandra, Accounting for oneself: worth, status, and the social order in early modern England (Oxford, 2015).

5 Ogilvie, Sheilagh, A bitter living: women, markets, and social capital in early modern Germany (Oxford; New York, 2003), 322–44.

6 van den Heuvel, Danielle, ‘Partners in marriage and business? Guilds and the family economy in urban food markets in the Dutch Republic’, Continuity and Change 23, 2 (2008), 217–36; Erickson, Amy L., ‘Married women's occupations in eighteenth-century London’, Continuity and Change 23, 2 (2008), 267307 ; Shepard, Alexandra, ‘The worth of married women in the English church courts, c. 1550–1730’, in Beattie, Cordelia and Stevens, Matthew Frank eds., Married women and the law in premodern northwest Europe (Woodridge, 2013), 191212 ; Sheilagh Ogilvie, ‘Married women, work and the law: evidence from early modern Germany’, in Beattie and Stevens eds., Married women and the law, 213–40.

7 Whittle, Jane, ‘Enterprising widows and active wives: women's unpaid work in the household economy of early modern England’, History of the Family 19, 3 (2014), 283300 .

8 Ogilvie, Bitter living; Stadin, Kekke, Småstäder, småborgare och stora samhällsförändringar: borgarnas sociala struktur i Arboga, Enköping och Västervik under perioden efter 1680 (Uppsala, 1979), 51; Vainio-Korhonen, Kirsi, ‘Handicrafts as professions and sources of income in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Turku (Åbo): a gender viewpoint to economic history’, Scandinavian Economic History Review 48, 1 (2000), 4063 .

9 Lis, Catharina and Soly, Hugo, Worthy efforts: attitudes to work and workers in pre-industrial Europe (Leiden, 2012).

10 van den Heuvel, Danielle and van den Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise, ‘Introduction: partners in business? Spousal cooperation in trades in early modern England and the Dutch Republic’, Continuity and Change 23, 2 (2008), 209–16; Shepard, Alexandra, ‘Crediting women in the early modern English economy’, History Workshop Journal 79, 1 (2015), 1–24, here 12. See also Ogilvie, Bitter living, 49, 145.

11 See for instance, Gold, Carol, ‘Women in the late eighteenth-century Copenhagen luxury trades’, in Simonton, Deborah, Kaartinen, Marjo and Montenach, Anne eds., Luxury and gender in European towns, 1700–1914 (New York and Abingdon, 2015), 5773 , esp. 61: ‘it was legally possible and permissible for most women to act on their own’. See also Ling, Sofia, Konsten att försörja sig: kvinnors arbete i Stockholm 1650–1750 (Stockholm, 2016).

12 Stadin, Kekke, Stånd och genus i stormaktstidens Sverige (Lund, 2004), 83ff.

13 Gowing, Laura, ‘Ordering the body: illegitimacy and female authority in seventeenth-century England’, in Braddick, Michael J. and Walter, John eds., Negotiating power in early modern society: order, hierarchy and subordination in Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, 2001), 61.

14 Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’, 268.

15 Palm, Lennart Andersson, Folkmängden i Sveriges socknar och kommuner 1571–1997, med särskild hänsyn till perioden 1571–1751 (Göteborg, 2000), 88; the figures refer to what is today Sweden.

16 Lilja, Sven, Historisk tätortsstatistik, Del: 2, Städernas folkmängd och tillväxt, Sverige (med Finland) ca 1570-tal till 1810-tal (Stockholm 1996).

17 Palm, Folkmängden, 86–7.

18 Österberg, Eva, ‘Bonde eller bagerska? Vanliga svenska kvinnors ekonomiska ställning under senmedeltiden, några frågor och problem’, Historisk tidskrift 100 (1980), 281–97.

19 Lindegren, Jan, ‘Men, money and means’, in Contamine, Philippe ed., War and competition between states (Oxford, 2000) 129–162, here 156.

20 Tjänstehjonsstadga, 30 August 1664; Tjänstehjonsstadga, 23 November 1686. Both in Schmedeman, Justitiewaerk, 381, 1077. Tjänstehjonsstadga, 6 August 1723; Tjänstehjonsstadga, 21 August 1739. Both in Reinhold Gustaf Modée, Utdrag utur alle ifrån den 7. decemb. 1718/1791 utkomne publique handlingar, part 1 (Stockholm, 1742), 354 and part 2 (Stockholm, 1746), 1582. See also Harnesk, Legofolk, 32–6.

21 Hajnal, John, ‘European marriage pattern in perspective’, in Glass, D. V. and Eversley, D. E. eds., Population in history: essays in historical demography (Chicago, 1965), 101–46; Hajnal, John, ‘Two kinds of preindustrial household formation system’, Population and Development Review 8, 3 (1982), 449–94.

22 Historisk statistik för Sverige. Del 1. Befolkning, 2nd edn (Stockholm 1969), 70–1.

23 Lundh, Christer, The world of Hajnal revisited: marriage patterns in Sweden 1650–1990 (Lund 1997), 1019 . For a diverigent view, see Palm, Folkmängden, 49–81.

24 See also Stadin, Småstäder, småborgare, 44; Westling, Claes, Småstadens dynamik: Skänninges och Vadstenas befolkning och kontaktfält ca 1630–1660 (Linköping, 2003), 42–3.

25 Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’, 287.

26 Fiebranz, Rosemarie, Lindberg, Erik, Lindström, Jonas and Ågren, Maria, ‘Making verbs count: the research project “Gender and Work” and its methodology’, Scandinavian Economic History Review 59, 3 (2011), 273–93.

27 Earle, Peter, ‘The female labour market in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries’, Economic History Review 42, 3 (1989), 328–53; Shepard, Alexandra, ‘Poverty, labour and the language of social description in early modern England’, Past & Present 201 (2008), 5195 .

28 Ogilvie, Bitter living, 1–38. See also Carus, A. W. and Ogilvie, Sheilagh, ‘Turning qualitative into quantitative evidence: a well-used method made explicit’, Economic History Review 62, 4 (2009), 912–16, for a concise summary of the method. In Swedish historiography, Christer Winberg pointed to the usefulness of incidental evidence. Winberg, Christer, ‘Några anteckningar om historisk antropologi’, Historisk Tidskrift 108 (1988), 129 .

29 Ogilvie does not describe her method as verb-oriented, but it is clear from her analysis that verbs and verb phrases are the central empirical data. Ogilvie, Bitter living, 36, 228.

31 The court material makes up a subset of data from the larger GaW 2014 dataset, which in its turn is part of the GaW database. For more information on the database and the selection of courts, see See also Ågren, Maria ed., Making a living, making a difference: gender and work in early modern European society (New York, 2016).

32 See Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’ for a discussion of why certain types of court records contain more information on marital status than others do. See also Ogilvie, Bitter living, 25–9, on the problem of finding information on men's marital status in general and particularly on the problem of finding information on unmarried men's work.

33 Pihl, Christopher and Ågren, Maria, ‘Vad var en hustru? Ett begreppshistoriskt bidrag till genushistorien’, Historisk Tidskrift 134 (2014), 170–90.

34 Cf. Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’, 292.

35 Here, only the general principles guiding the categorisation will be discussed. A detailed account of the categories can be found online, see

36 Carus and Ogilvie, ‘Turning qualitative into quantitative’.

37 See also Ogilvie, Bitter living, 30.

38 In fact, previous research has suggested that women accompanied men on war campaigns to cook and do laundry so, even if there are no examples of this in the dataset, not even the military sector was completely male. Sjöberg, Maria, Kvinnor i fält 1550–1850 (Möklinta, 2008).

39 Falkdalen, Karin Tegenborg, Kungen är en kvinna: retorik och praktik kring kvinnliga monarker under tidigmodern tid (Umeå, 2003), 62100 ; Sommerville, Margaret R., Sex and subjection: attitudes to women in early modern society (London, 1995); Wunder, Heide, He is the sun, she is the moon: women in early modern Germany (Cambridge, MA, 1998), ch. 9.

40 Marital status was unknown in 50 cases.

41 Bennett, Judith, ‘“History that stands still”: women's work in the European past’, Feminist Studies 14, 2 (1988), 274.

42 Ogilvie, Bitter living, 337.

43 Östman, Ann-Catrin, Mjölk och jord: om kvinnlighet, manlighet och arbete i ett österbottniskt jordbrukssamhälle ca 1870–1940 (Turku, 2000).

44 Cf. the discussion in Erickson, Amy L., ‘Mistresses and marriage: or, a short history of the Mrs’, History Workshop Journal 78 (2014), 3957 .

45 Pihl and Ågren, ‘Vad var en hustru’.

46 Shepard, ‘Crediting women’, 15.

47 Larsson, Gabriela Bjarne, Laga fång för medeltidens kvinnor och män: skriftbruk, jordmarknader och monetarisering i Finnveden och Jämtland 1300–1500 (Stockholm, 2010), 188211 , esp. 198.

48 Spicksley, Judith, ‘“Fly with a duck in thy mouth”: single women as sources of credit in seventeenth-century England’, Social History 32, 2 (2007), 187207 .

49 In Ogilvie's study, ‘marginal work’ included doing errands, gathering and stealing.

50 Ogilvie, Bitter living, 115–30, 141–5, 172, 207–12, 258–63.

51 Hunt, Margaret, Women in eighteenth-century Europe (New York, 2010), 7.

52 GaW 2014, case 10769 (Norrköping 1650), available at

53 GaW 2014, case 10287 (Örebro 1754), available at

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