Tuesday, 12 January 2016

German working women in the 16th century

Since I have decided to make a German 16th century gown this year I have started my research. One thing that is usually lamented is how hard it is to find pictures of working women, since it's mostly the nobility and allegorical figures that are painted in portraits and paintings.

Costuming might be my hobby, but mining history is what I work with for a living, and at the moment I'm spending most of my workdays preparing a big exhibition about mining in the 16th-to late 18th century. One of the challenges in history is that women are so often neglected, eventhough we know that they have been part of history. Today me and a colleague sat down and went through De Re Metallica by Agricola, with the quest to find as many examples of women as possible, and other things but we definitely kept our eyes open for women. De Re Metallica was published in 1556 and was the book about mining and metallurgy in the 16th and 17th century, basically until the Enlightenment started to look at the subject with more modern scientific eyes. It's filled with wonderfully detailed woodcuts about all kinds of work pertaining to mining and metallurgy. When we started to go through the work properly we fond quite a few women in the woodcuts. Interestingly enough I think I found the most women, possibly because I'm simply used to looking for costumes and examples of clothing.

Here follows quite a few working women from the 16th century, and their clothes. All the images are from the Project Gutenberg e-book of De Re Metallica I've then just cropped the images to just show the women.

 On page 268 we see three women working with sorting the ore. The woman to the left seems to be wearing a scoopnecked dress and an apron. The two women in the background seem to have covered their torsos in partlets or gollars. All women have braided hair that is held back by either a hairnet or some kind of band .


On page 289 we see another woman carrying a covered basked on her back. She's holding her hand on what is either the band holding the basked, or the neck guard. I think it's the basket though, since just above it you can see a line which is probably the neckline of the dress. She doesn't seem to be wearing a shift under it, since her cleavage is visible and there is no line indicating the edge of a shift. Her hair is braided and she has quite a nice hat, it probably serves as sun protection.
The same kind of hat, but from the front, can be seen on page 293. This woman is also wearing a low-cut scoop necked dress. Once again a bit of cleavage is hinted at, but she has a collar framing the lower part of her neck, so that would suggest that she's wearing a shift.
This woman sluicing on page 326 is wearing a dress with a square neckline and partlet. She has hiked up her skirt, showing that she wears a petticoat or kirtle under that is just as voluminous. Her hat has a different design from the rest of what's we've seen. Now in the text this picture is supposed to show mining in Lusitania, the old latin name for Portugal, so it's possible that her different hat and hiked up skirt is used to show that she's not German. For example on another woodcut showing male workers they are all wearing checkered pants, which I haven't seen in any of the woodcut showing German mines.

On page 332 there is this woman wasching. She is once again wearing a scoop necked dress, with her sleeves hitched up. You can't see any kind of shift. Her hair seems to have a braid that's wound with fabric and put up at the back of her hair.

The woman sitting down on page 340 wears a gown and a gollar. The line just below the shoulder to me at least indicate a sleeve roll. The deep pleats of the skirt suggest a more voluminous skirt than the other we have seen, possible with exception to the Lusitanian woman. The hair is braided, but put under what to me looks like some kind of a turban. There is no description of what she is doing, but to me it looks like she is controlling the ore. The rest of the picture is about sluicing. Could this be a woman of higher status than the other women we have seen? Maybe the more voluminous skirt and sleeve rolls sets her apart from the other working woman, and might it be that she's trusted to control the work? These last things are just speculation, but it's interesting to think about.


This woman on page 374 doesn't seem to have as much fabric in her skirt, and it's considerably shorter than the previous one. She is also wearing an apron to protecth her clothes.

An even shorter dress can be found on page 553, at first I wasn't even sure that it was a woman. The scoop necked dress and headwear can't be found on any men though.

I really like this other woman from page 553, sitting down for a rest. The tankard is not for her though, the text talks about beer being used to help with dissolving salt. She's barefoot. Interestingly to me it looks like her dress is sleevelss, and she's wearing a shortsleeved shift under it. There is also a line at the middle of her bodice that might indicate an opening/closure there. Her hair is braided and put up high on her head.


My favorite picture of all is also the final woodcut on page 591. The woman is quite in the middle of the woodcut and you can see her carrying a child in her arms. The dress has sleeverolls. She doesn't seem to be working, she could possibly carry something in her other hand. The rest of the picture shows a man sitting at a table in the direction she's heading to. Is it a wife coming with food or something to her husband?

Nonetheless this picture really shows that women, and children, were a natural part of even what's considered very traditional male working places. Sure most of the women that are seen are seen doing very simple things, mostly washing and carrying stuff, but they were there. They didn't just sit at home while their men were working. In poorer households it was necessary that all worked, a non-working wife was a luxury that no miner could afford.

So there you have it, examples of working women, and yes I am thinking about maybe recreating one of the woodcuts, we'll see.

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to see it if you do make one of these. Working people's clothing is so interesting.

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