Working Widows: Women in the Early Book Trade

Chiara Campagnaro

Although their work was necessary for economic success in early modern Europe, women were rarely given professional working identities within the trades.

Women played a far more important role in the book trade than is acknowledged by historians and by the surviving evidence. Scholars have begun in recent decades to chip away at these misconceptions about women’s contributions by locating evidence of women’s involvement in the trade and interpreting it within its historical context. As is commonly the case in women’s history, the labours of women in the book trade are identifiable through qualitative evidence rather than quantitative. One of the first known cases of a woman active in the book trade comes to us in this way: Estellina Conat, wife of a printer in Mantua, wrote in the colophon of a Hebrew book, “I, Estellina, wife of my master husband the honoured Rabbi Abraham Conat [...] wrote this book, Bechinat Olam, with the aid of the youth Jacob Levi”. Estellina helped with production by typesetting, or ‘writing’ the book with fonts. Around the same time, the Dominican nuns at the convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli in Florence were working as typesetters from 1476 to 1484, producing both secular and non-secular books and earning modest wages. We know about the work of eight nuns at the Ripoli press through the diario’s entries on wages and labour. There are a handful of other examples of women as printers, publishers, and booksellers in Italy, including Elisabetta Rusconi, Veronica Sessa, Paola Blado, Cecilia Tramezzino, Girolama Cartolari, Agnoletta and Margherita Marescotti, and Clara Giolito de' Ferrari. There are few studies, however, on the contributions of these women.
Working Widows: Women in the Early Book Trade
A woodcut showing an example of a woman at work.

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Working Widows: Women in the Early Book Trade
The interior of a print workshop.

How did these women enter a profession that was otherwise inaccessible since printing, as a working profession, was not open to women?

Several material conditions needed to exist for a woman to work in the book trade, the first being a good education. The humanist curriculum adopted during the Renaissance was inextricably linked to roles that involved governing, orating, and disputing in society. Because women were excluded from most public roles of the city, women’s education looked different to that of men. Educational treatises from the Renaissance accepted that women must be learned, however, there were always limits to their learning. The writers of two important treatises, Juan Luis Vives’ De institutione feminae christianae and Lodovico Dolce’s Dialogo delle institutione delle donne, both advocated for women’s education, but not that a woman learn as much as a man. Therefore, girls and women received an education that endorsed reading and writing; what was read varied based on her expected role, promoted were religious texts and a few accepted vernacular texts. Many printers did prioritize education, both for sons and daughters, in their households. An educated family could only benefit the master printer: wives and children provided free labour in the workshop; they could also serve as an example of the printer’s education and prestige. Having a daughter who could read and write was also an advantage for marriage. The evidence suggests that printing fathers with the means to do so would have certainly provided their daughters with some form of education. If we look at the Plantin press in Antwerp, we can see how Christophe Plantin educated his daughters. He taught all his daughters how to read and write at an early age and divided up the labour accordingly: Margareta was sent to Paris to have lessons in calligraphy; Catharina worked as a businesswoman, handling trade between textile merchants and workers; and Magdalena was employed to assist in looking after the work being printed and in managing workers and paying them their weekly wages. Almost as important as an education for a woman was the requirement of a father or husband to impart knowledge about the business and the day-to-day activities related to running the press to her. The learning of those skills associated with the printing business may have been circumstantial, as wives and daughters found themselves moving throughout the home and workshop. It is likely that this learning happened both formally and informally for women. Education was the first step to learn the necessary skills to work at a press, but widowhood led to the opportunity for a woman to run the printing firm. Because a woman could not enter the trade in her own name under Italian guild laws, she assumed control of the press only after the death of a male relative. If there were no male heirs or her children were minors, the role of printer was passed down to the wife. Early modern Italian women at the press were typically widows, including Veronica Sessa, Girolama Cartolari, Margherita Marescotti, and Caterina de Silvestro. Upon the death of her husband, a woman’s dowry may return to her, providing her the opportunity to support herself and her family while pursuing the commercial activities of her husband. If a woman chose to continue working, she bore great responsibility as the overseer of the trade and of the shop, the possibility of the continuity of the shop, and a guarantee of employment for her male children. Given their inability to pursue a new trade, and with the acquired skills from their family trade, widows were likely to carry on their husband’s trade as it ensured an income and was the easiest way to continue working. In many cases, too, women inherited the materials necessary for printing and the license held by their husbands, which could easily be transferred to their wives upon death. Finally, women printers needed to have a network made up of different agents. Family, scholarly, and business contacts could all aid the new widow and printer. Business contacts were essential for any kind of work but are especially apparent in the book trade, which involved a long list of agents: printers, publishers, booksellers, binders, commentators, authors, illustrators, scholars, and so on. The production and distribution of books across Italy and the rest of Europe required viable commercial networks and contacts. Women printers also formed necessary business relationships. One common way for women printers to re-establish a network of family, scholarly, and business contacts was by re-marrying. Printers practiced endogamy, preferring to marry within the trade. This practice was usually encouraged by guilds as well, who established laws determining how apprentices could enter the trade. There are many examples of women re-marrying male printers, both in Italy and in other European cities. But some women decided to remain widows. In this case, sometimes daughters were married to printers. Otherwise, women could also find business contacts through printers, publishers, and booksellers. The kind of support given to these widow printers varied: these men could have helped by lending materials such as fonts or woodcuts, sharing workers to help out with manual labour or referring clients.
Ancestry UK

If women only became printers through widowhood, this new status automatically left them isolated and economically disadvantaged.

The common claim that widowhood was the most favourable outcome for early modern women is contentious when we consider the socio-economic status of working women. For an elite woman, the autonomy of widowhood and the material condition of wealth offered an attractive life after the death of a husband: it meant that she could enjoy her widowhood. For a working woman, on the other hand, widowhood often led to isolation and poverty. Without male protection, widows were suddenly exposed to the attacks of men in a new way. Their newly acquired autonomy and economic independence as women living outside of marriage threatened the gender-based hierarchy of early modern patriarchal society. We see this manifest, for example, in the popular literature and culture of the time. There emerged a new archetype of these unattached, widowed women: in Boccaccio’s Decameron, we read of a lustful and cruel widow; in his novella, De vidua libidinosa, Giovanni Sercambi similarly wrote of the lustful widow in the Strozzi family. Although men and women participated in the book trade throughout most of Europe, their experiences were not the same. Independence was not a natural quality of work for women. Early modern women of the working class, including women working as printers, reacted to the opportunities of the labour market as well as the necessity to work for survival. The cultural gender system of sixteenth century Italy persisted, even when women found themselves in a position that was outside the ‘norm’ of marriage, monasticism, or prostitution. Though they were an exception as printers in early modern Italy, women printers were simultaneously the rule as working widows. Their precarious situation reveals the continuation of a social, economic, and cultural disparity between early modern men and women. A woman entered the role of printer or publisher not by choice but by necessity; not by herself but by male authority; and not by relying on herself but by relying on other men, demonstrating the precarious position of working class widowed women in early modern Italy.
Working Widows: Women in the Early Book Trade
The printer's mark of the Italian printer, Girolama Cartolari, who worked in Rome for many years after the death of her husband.
Working Widows: Women in the Early Book Trade

Chiara Campagnaro

Chiara Campagnaro is a recent graduate from the Warburg Institute. She is passionate about the the art, history, literature, and culture of the Italian Renaissance. Her research focuses on the history of women printers in early modern Italy and she plans on pursuing a PhD in the future. She is currently working in Venice.
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