Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe, by David Herlihy, is a monograph that examines the complex evolution of women's public labor in medieval Europe. Though, Herlihy gives special attention to the relationship between women and the production of various types of cloth. This book is not terribly abstruse, but its intended audience is the professional historian. The purpose of this text is to construct a more conclusive understanding of European civilization during the Middle Ages by examining the underappreciated topic of women's public labor.
Herlihy's primary thesis is that throughout the Middle Ages women's public labor became increasingly circumscribed. Herlihy attributes this evolving restriction to several factors, the most important of which are: the movement of cloth creation from the large workshops to the home; the movement of cloth production from rural areas to towns; the increasing need for education, training, and capital; and the monopolization by men of occupations that use to be the primarily the domain of women. The diverse nature and amount of evidence that Herlihy relies upon is staggering, and includes, guild statutes, tombstone inscriptions, paintings, tapestries, sculpture, poems, law codes, archeological evidence, surveys, and tax records. However, he does mention that evidence from the early medieval period is rather fragmented when compared to the evidence that exists for later periods.
The primary focus of this text is upon the Middle Ages. Subjects discussed include the cultural, economic, and political circumstances of women. To establish the foundation of the sexual division of labor in Europe during the Early Middle Ages, defined as the period roughly from the year 500 to 800, the first chapter briefly examines the ancient Mediterranean world. It is in this chapter that Herlihy spends a considerable time introducing the reader to the concept of the "gynaecea", which is loosely defined as the area where women make cloth. Then, in the second chapter, Herlihy moves on to the Early Middle Ages, looking first at the Irish and then at the Germans and Romans. He begins this chapter by discussing the Irish due to their autonomy from Rome and pays close attention to Irish women's role in agriculture and the production of cloth. He then moves on to the sexual division of labor of the Romans and Germans. Again, he focuses on women's role in the production of cloth and agriculture, but also mentions women's involvement in magic and medicine.
In the third through the sixth chapter, Herlihy discusses the Central Middle Ages, defined as the period approximately from the year 900 to 1350. In chapter three, he focuses on the different types of work women were involved throughout countryside and in court and convent. To some degree, women were involved in the production of cloth in each of these areas. In chapter four, Herlihy specifically examines the nature and evolution of cloth production. It is in this chapter that Herlihy begins to expose how men come to circumscribe women in the production of cloth. In chapter five he talks about women's involvement in the medical, legal, and religious professions. For the most part, women's association with these professions is rather limited, but there are a few notable exceptions.
In chapter six, Herlihy delves into a quantitative study of seven French tailles, or tax rolls, from 1292 to 1313. The argument he makes here is that, while the tax rolls reveal that women were involved in a wide array of professions during this time period, they made considerably less than man engaged in similar work. Lastly, in chapter seven, Herlihy discusses women's public labor during the Late Middle Ages. In this period, he makes the argument that women's labor has become very restricted and men have made considerable headway into controlling occupations that had previously been the chief domain of women like the production of cloth. Throughout this entire book, the reader can find several illustrations, pie charts, and tables.
As outlined above, this book is very well organized. Herlihy makes great use of chapters, headings, and subheadings to sort the information that he presents. He also employs an extensive bibliography and index. While Herlihy successfully achieves his goal of illuminating the evolution of women's public labor during the Middle Ages, some of his conclusions could be susceptible to alternative explanations. For example, many of his sources have a highly subjective nature. For instance, the tomb sculpture depicting Eleanor of Aquitaine in the third chapter could be more revealing of the artist's aesthetic sensibilities, than of Eleanor. Additionally, due to the large geographic region involved in his study, it could suffer from overgeneralization. For example, was the sexual division of labor among the Irish really that similar to the rest of Europe in the Early Middle Ages? However, despite these possible shortcomings, this study appears to present a credible explanation of the evolution of women's public labor throughout the Middle Ages. As such, this reviewer will have no hesitation in suggesting this book as a resource to anyone interested in this topic.