Womenfolk, farmhands and gender categories: Significant words in early modern Sweden
This article takes Denise Riley’s and Joan Scott’s call to historize the categories of women and men as its starting point and presents an investigation of words used to designate people in two different text corpora from early modern Sweden.
The first corpus is a selection from the database Korp that contains printed texts from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, mainly newspapers. The other corpus is the Gender and Work (GaW) database based mainly on court books, but also on diaries and other accounts. The frequency of Swedish equivalents of ”woman”, ”wife”, ”Mrs”, ”madame”, ”widow”, ”maid”, ”girl”, ”man”, ”Mr”, ”gentleman”, ”farmhand”, ”boy” and several similar words have been studied in both corpora, complemented by an in-depth study of the GaW corpus.
The investigation shows that words used to denote people in early modern Sweden regularly included several intersectional elements: almost always gender, but also information about household position, age, kinship and social status. For women, ”wife” (hustru) was the most common title in both corpora. For men, the word ”man” (man) was quite common in the Korp corpus but rather unusual in the GaW corpus. In the latter the word ”man” and ”woman” were used in a few instances when someone wanted to point out the sex of otherwise anonymous people. Both ”man” and ”woman”, but especially ”woman”, were also used with a derogatory meaning. The only context in which a version of the word ”woman” (kvinnfolk) was used regularly was in lists of women’s wages in accounts from royal demesnes.
The use of words is governed by context. In legal courts, people’s legal status and credibility were important, as were their family and kinship relationships, especially in cases involving property and inheritance. The words most commonly used about women in court – ”wife”, ”widow”, ”daughter” and ”maid” – testified to these very circumstances. In addition to the professional-like titles, the same types of words dominated for men. Early modern Sweden was a corporative society and a person’s position in various corporations – the household, the family, the village, the guild, etc. – was signaled in the language.
The intersectional character of early modern designations underlines the importance of doing gender history without stating the importance of certain categories in advance: we should not, for example, presuppose that female sex was a more important signifier than subordinate household position in the word maid. In the corporative, unequal society of early modern Sweden, people almost never had reason to talk about what Joan Scott called ”a collectivity named ’women’” and historians of early modern society should be cautious to assume that there was a general ”femininity” in common for all women, constructed in relation to a comparable general ”masculinity” in common for all men.