Imagining early modern working women, or, economic history’s image problem

Brodie Waddell

In 1658, the Czech scholar John Amos Comenius published what’s been called ‘the first children’s picture book’. It proved extremely popular and was republished many times, in many different languages. What brought it to my attention was the fact that it included 150 pictures of ‘the visible world’, a rare treat in an early modern publication.

It was designed to teach Latin and, in the 1705 edition, English to young people, so most of its illustrations depicted the sorts of things a child might be expected to know from life. They would find, for example, pictures of youth at study and at play, stilt-walking or bowling.

At school and at playHowever, the ones that caught my eye were the many illustrations of working life. If you, like me, teach or write about early modern economic history, you’ll know that this particular subfield has an ‘image problem’. Perhaps thanks to a strong seam of ‘iconophobic’ Calvinism, post-Reformation England was not exactly awash in imagery of any kind and I have often found it particularly difficult to find images of economic life. One can find many pictures of kings and noblemen. But there are frustratingly few depictions of ordinary people doing their jobs, whether as artisans, traders or labourers. This gap is partly filled by the broadside ballad woodcuts on EBBA that Mark Hailwood has discussed here before. However, it remains difficult to find the sort of rich visual material that one can find, for instance, in Dutch ‘Golden Age’ paintings or in nineteenth-century periodicals.

So, when I came across Comenius’ Visual World I was extraordinarily pleased to see not only many pictures of various well-known occupations – blacksmiths, shoemakers, etc. – but also women at work. There is a rapidly growing scholarship on the working lives of early modern women and this is a subject that I love to teach, yet we seem to be lacking in visual evidence. Here, however, we find women dressing flax, spinning, sewing and washing.

Women working Even more appealing is the allegorical image of ‘diligence’ as a woman with a sickle and a rake. Unlike the (male) ‘Sluggard’ lounging under the tree in the background, she imitates the ants and the bees. She ‘loveth labours’ instead of idling on ‘holy days’. It is unsurprising, I suppose, to see labour itself visualised as a woman – all of the other virtues are embodied as women too. Still, it is pleasing, and rare, to see a pictorial acknowledgement of women’s contributions to the early modern economy. Diligence - woman working, textSource: I found the book through Charles McNamara’s piece on ‘In the Image of God: John Comenius and the First Children’s Picture Book’ on Public Domain Review. A free pdf of the 1705 English edition is available on the Internet Archive.

Update, 20/01/15: John Styles raises some very important questions about the provenance of these images in the comments below. In short, these are probably recycled German images rather than genuinely English ones.

13 thoughts on “Imagining early modern working women, or, economic history’s image problem

    • Yes, I hadn’t noticed that, Simon. You’re right. Although I’m normally pretty good at spotting biblical allusions, I missed that one. Proverbs 31:10-31 on a good wife:

      Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. …
      She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. …
      She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. …
      She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. …
      She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. …

      A reminder, I suppose, that working women were not only omnipresent in the ‘real world’ of early modern England – they were also positively represented in the ‘spiritual world’ of biblical culture. Naomi Tadmor’s book is really good on the interaction between these two worlds: The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society and Culture in Early Modern England (2010)

  1. By email from Professor John Styles of the University of Hertfordshire ( and PI of ‘Spinning in the era of the spinning wheel, 1400-1800’ (

    The images are terrific and I certainly hadn’t seen them before, but there is a problem. The woodcuts in the 1707 London edition are pretty close adaptations (sometimes reversed) of those in the 1658 Nuremberg edition. The people and the scenes look very German to me, although on a quick scan, it does appear some changes have been made in the women’s head gear, etc. But we’re back with the old problem that it’s hard to find pre 1700 images of ‘ordinary people’ at work that are incontrovertibly British. The spinner with a drop spindle would make complete sense in a c.17th German context, where spinning with a drop spindle remained the norm – there are some amazing paintings of spinning flax in German Switzerland from the late c.17th were all the women use drop spindles. And there’s an interesting discussion of the Comenius imagery from the University of Minnesota (which is big in digital humanities) at:

    The fundamental difficulty here (and, I think, the answer to the problem you pose in the post) is that Britain was very short on imaging skills prior to the mid-eighteenth century. It’s one element in a wider shortage of high-level manufacturing skills as what had been a peripheral economy became a core economy between the c.16th and the c.18th. So a large proportion of draughtsmen, engravers, painters, etc. in the c.17th were foreign, especially from the Low Countries (van Dyke, Laroon, etc.), and a large proportion of the printed imagery on sale was imported, or copied from imports. For woodcuts, the Dürer legacy meant Germany had an especially well-developed skill base, and woodcuts or wood engravings were essential if images were to be printed on the same page as moveable type. Metal engravings required a different register from type, so the two couldn’t be printed in combination on one page.

    I touched on this with regard to industrial design in my ‘Manufacture, Consumption and Design in Eighteenth-Century England’ chapter for the Brewer / Porter Consumption and the World of Goods volume, but art historians have written about it much more extensively.

    Like you, I found it difficult to source pages from the 1658 Nuremberg German-Latin edition – most of what’s on the web seems to be Hoole’s English-Latin edition of the following year + reprints, or later German editions (this Heidelberg digitisation of the 1698 German edition is especially good – – interestingly the tailor’s petticoat breeches have fancy trimming that’s missing in Hoole’s illustrations, although they were already way out of date by 1698).

    But all the illustrations seem very similar. The exception seems to be the 1672 English edition, which this site says used metal-engraved plates, printed on separate pages with minimal type, and the images appear to be different (, so it might be worth following up that one.

  2. Reblogged this on Balladed and commented:
    Detouring into PhD territory (although broadside ballads feature in the discussion)…

    A thought-provoking and very exciting post by Brodie Waddell on economic history’s ‘image problem’ in post-Reformation England through an exploration of depictions of working women. John Styles’ comments below are also essential reading!

  3. Pingback: The beggar and the rich man: picturing the holy poor in Tudor and early Stuart England | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Did Women Work in Agriculture? | Women's Work in Rural England, 1500-1700

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