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The sweetest gender: feminine subjectivities and the gendering of sweets in Barcelona (1650-1800)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SWEET (The sweetest gender: feminine subjectivities and the gendering of sweets in Barcelona (1650-1800))

Reporting period: 2020-09-01 to 2022-08-31

The project examined the cultural associations between sweetness, sweet food and femininity in early modern Spain, as well as the role of women in the production of sweets and trade, with a particular focus on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Barcelona. To date, scholarship has mainly focussed on the sugar plantation system and the Atlantic slave trade, foregrounding how sugar was connected to social status and race in the early modern world. However, the gender dimension of sugar has been comparatively underexplored. This study explored the complex ways in which women were associated with sweetness in early modern Spain. It also investigated how women appropriated, negotiated and developed new cultural meanings and uses of sugary food in the period of growing consumption of sugar and enslavement. This project traced the stories of women of various social backgrounds —from elite housewives and tradeswomen to street sellers and nuns— who shaped the flourishing sweets market in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Barcelona. Overall, this project uncovered the complexities between cultural representations and women’s lived experiences. As this study has shown, when symbolic ‘sweet femininities’ prevailed in popular imagery, women actively participated in the confectionery trade despite the limits prescribed by social and institutional norms. By re-centring the research focus on the role of women and using local-level analysis, this project has opened new insights into the cultural meanings of sugar in an era of emerging globalisation, capitalism and empire.
Drawing on a wide range of textual, visual and material sources, this project has shown the multifaceted ways in which women were linked to sweet food in early modern Spanish imagery. This study has demonstrated that the links between sweetness and women projected, on the one hand, ideals of femininity, sensuality and domesticity, and on the other, critiques of women’s consumerism and excessive attraction to luxury commodities, reflecting the complex discourses on gender roles, social identities and consumerism in the eighteenth century. Not only were women expected to embody sweetness through their social behaviour and taste, but also through the domestic production of sweets. Furthermore, this study has shown that women of various social backgrounds leveraged the changing legislation as well as their culinary knowledge and social networks to expand their commercial activities in response to the emerging sugar craze in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Barcelona. This project comprised a wealth of underexplored archival material, including court and municipal records, guild documents, family and institutional account books, and recipe collections, among others. The major results of this research project have been published in a peer-reviewed journal article (winner of the 2022 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History). Three additional accepted publications are in preparation. I also presented the research results at 17 international conferences, seminars and workshops. Together with Dr Melissa Calaresu, I organized the international scientific event ‘Beyond Cooking: Global Histories of Food-Making and Gender across the Early Modern World’, which consisted of four online seminars and a two-day conference in Cambridge. An edited volume bringing together the conference results is in preparation for publication. In addition, I disseminated the project to diverse general audiences through public talks, webinars and a blog post. I have been involved in the European Commission’s Science is Wonderful! 2021 as well as the Cambridge Creative Encounters —a public engagement project. The main output of this project was on display at an exhibition as part of the Cambridge Festival 2022.
To date, studies on early modern sugar have mostly focused on plantation economies and the Atlantic slave trade, with a particular focus on the British Empire, while the Spanish case has been overlooked. By focusing on Barcelona, this project complements and broadens the important historiography on plantation slavery, global trade networks, and expanding colonisation by offering a distinct scale and geographical context. This study changed the research focus from macro-historical analyses of sugar economies to the work of women in local sugar-related activities, thus making a major contribution to the field, both in scope and methodology. In recent years, scholars have emphasized the role of women in shaping consumer practices and tastes; although women’s agency in the confectionery trade remains poorly understood. This project has stressed the social and economic contributions of women to the marketing of sweets in early modern Barcelona, offering an important counterpart to the existing historiography on gender and labour. These project results, therefore, complicate and expand general assumptions about the exclusion of women in urban economies in early modern Europe. The project’s methodological approach, foregrounding a gender analysis, can be applied to other geographies and contexts, and foster further comparative research in the study of gender, food and labour in the early modern period.