Two Worlds of Female Labour: Gender Wage Inequality in Western Europe, 1300-1800

January 19, 2021 | Blog
Home > Two Worlds of Female Labour: Gender Wage Inequality in Western Europe, 1300-1800

The full article from this blog post was published on The Economic History Review, and it is now available on early view at this link:


By Alexandra de Pleijt and Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University)


The tragedy of studying female labour market engagement in the past is that inevitably it is a study of discrimination, exclusion, and huge gender wage gaps. Yet, we can learn lessons from it, because the degree to which women participate in labour markets, and how they are remunerated, differed between regions, and they are important determinants of female autonomy that may also affect their demographic behaviour. Such patterns become clear when the gender wage gap is studied in the very long run, and when trends in a number of countries are compared with each other.

In this paper we try to reconstruct the earnings of women in the labour market. Several authors have documented women’s wages in different times and places,  but Humphries and Weisdorf (2015), were the first to produce sufficient evidence on the long-run evolution of women’s wages in England  between 1260 and 1850. We study these issues from a broader European perspective, supplementing the wage series provided by Humphries and Weisdorf  (2015), with evidence on women’s day wages for a set of European cities and regions between 1300 and 1800.  Following Allen (2001), the series of wages of unskilled female workers has been derived from key publications to provide evidence for Flanders (Antwerp), Spain (Aragon, Navarre and Seville), Italy (Piedmont and Naples), Germany (Augsburg and Wurzburg), Sweden (Stockholm), and Austria (Weyer).

Our evidence (Figure 1) shows that there were two worlds of female labour.  In Southern  Europe, women earned about 50% of the wage of unskilled male labourers, a ratio that seems to be fixed by custom. In Northern and Western  Europe, this ratio was much higher during the Late Medieval Period, but declined between c.1500 and 1800.  We hypothesise that slack labour markets help to explain the decrease in the relative wages of women. Periods of economic growth saw an increasing wage ratio, as occurred in Antwerp in the 16th century, Sweden in the early 17th century, and England between 1650-1750. When labour scarcity was caused by population decline due to warfare, such as in Germany after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), women seem to have profited as well. While periods of declining real wages for men, for example England in the 16th century, often also witnessed a decline in the gender wage ratio. The implication of this finding is that in Northern and Western Europe women appear to have suffered more than men in times of economic hardship; when real wages for men declined, those for women declined even faster.


Figure 1. The evolution of the gender wage ratio in Europe, 1270 – 1800. Source: as per article.


We also estimate how many days of work were needed for women to earn the barebones basket (i.e. minimum subsistence package for one person, Allen 2001; Allen and Weisdorf 2011). When they were allowed to work casually, the number of days gives an indication of whether they were able to generate enough income to maintain a single household. When  legal constraints restricted  single women working casually, such as in Medieval England, the number of days gives us a useful indication of how much married women could add to the family income. The picture that emerges  is that there was a “golden age of labour” in Western Europe. In the countries bordering the North Sea approximately 75 days of work were required for the barebones basket before the Black Death; this had declined to between 25 – 40 days of work in the first half of the 15th century. After 1500, when the population level recovered to pre-plague levels, there was a tendency to increase again. Consequently,  it appears that it was possible for a woman with access to the labour market to earn an income that allowed her to remain single.

Table 1. The number of working days required for a barebones subsistence level, 1300-1800. Sources: see Figure 1.

In conclusion, we offer good and bad news. When women had access to the labour market, they could earn an income that was sufficient for their own subsistence, especially during the late Middle Ages, when labour was scarce after the Black Death pandemic (1348).  On the other hand, the gap with  men’s wages was large and stable in the South, whereas in the North and West, the gap between women and men increased dramatically (especially in England).  In both regions female relative wages were unrelated to physical strength or skills, but strongly affected by discriminatory customs (South) or the relative scarcity of labour (North-west).


To contact the authors:

Alexandra de Pleijt,, @SdePleijt

Jan Luiten van Zanden,



Allen, R.C., ‘The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War’, Explorations in Economic History, 38 (2001), pp. 411-47.

Allen, R.C. and Weisdorf, J.L., ‘Was There an Industrious Revolution Before the Industrial Revolution? An empirical exercise for England, ca. 1300-1830’, Economic History Review, 64 (2011), pp. 715-29.

Humphries, J., and Weisdorf, J.L., ‘The Wages of Women in England, 1260-1850’, The Journal of Economic History, 72 (2015), pp. 405-47.