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Gabriel Marcon (Warburg / I Tatti Fellow): 'Hidden Figures? New Approaches to Women’s Work in Early Modern Mining'

Early modern mines ranked among the most populated workplaces of preindustrial Europe. Both men and women engaged in mining activities. Yet women’s work, which historians have either scarcely documented or considered irremediably lost, was part of a paradox. On the one hand, early modern mines were segregated workplaces for women. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, women were deemed unfit for mining labour, and perceived to lack the necessary strength and skills to carry out risky, unhealthy, and physically demanding activities. As a result, employers and subcontractors organized work and allocated tasks to women by following traditional gender differences in male and female labour outputs. Women did not enter mine shafts, were confined in domestic labour, and earned far less than men when performing side activities such as hauling and ores washing. On the other hand, while continuities of gender inequality persisted at various stages of their work, female agency challenged this gendered working environment. Women contributed to various economic, scientific, and labour activities of preindustrial mining. For instance, they participated in the industry as heads of money lending institutions in the mines, and worked in high-skilled positions such as surveyors, metalworkers, and labour supervisors. 

The presentation aims to shed new light on this paradox by examining women’s work in early modern mines through the lens of the labour history of science. First, it surveys how humanist writers used to associate women with Nature, and how this connection underpinned technical discourses that excluded women’s bodies from mining activities. Second, it analyses how sixteenth-century texts on mining and metallurgy supported this scholarly tradition while also recognizing women’s participation in the mines as discoverers of new metal deposits. Finally, the presentation draws some preliminary conclusions by presenting new archival material on the inclusion/exclusion of German and Italian female labourers in the working community of the Medici mines in sixteenth-century Tuscany. 

The Work in Progress seminar explores the variety of subjects studied and researched at the Warburg Institute. Papers are given by invited international scholars, research fellows studying at the Institute, and third-year PhD students.


image: Henrich Gross (c. 1530), Recueil de 25 dessins: travaux de la mine d'argent de la Croix aux mines, fol. 35v and 36r, Mas 280 (rec. 11), Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris.