Gender in the Transition to Merchant Capitalism

Martha Howell

in The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe

Published in print August 2013 | ISBN: 9780199582174
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191749919 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in History

Gender in the Transition to Merchant Capitalism

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  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)


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This essay argues that the slow transition from the commercial economy of the later Middle Ages to early modern merchant capitalism produced significant changes in gender roles and gender meanings for women and men from the middle and upper ranks of cities where commerce had found its most secure home. The changes in gender were filtered, however, through a public/private divide that had taken shape in such cities during the centuries closing the Middle Ages, making this a story not just about economy and gender, but also about sociopolitical space. As prosperous men and women in commercial cities of the era came to be newly positioned along the axis dividing the public from the private, both acquired a new class identity presaging much that would characterize bourgeois Europe.

Keywords: merchant capitalism; urban social structure; entrepreneurial status; public space; private space; women's work; male honor; domesticity

Article.  8160 words. 

Subjects: Gender and Sexuality ; Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)

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