Experimenting with the Database

Credit Networks of Married Women in the Early Modern Rural Economy

Hannah Robb

When I was invited to contribute to the workshop ‘Networks, Behaviour and Strategies in Early Financial Markets’ at Stockholm University I was in the midst of research, reading thousands of depositions from church courts in the north, east and south west of England. At the time I had just finished reading a detailed case outlining the financial networks of a professional money lender, Thomas Emmenson, an official in the church court in the bishopric of Cleveland in north east Yorkshire who I have written about on this blog series before; Money lending; ‘a notorious usurer’. Emmenson had lent large sums of money at interest and had been facilitated in his lending by other professionals in the court; public notaries and curates. The depositions were detailed and recalled the interest charged, the relationships forged through kin networks and the location of creditors and debtors. Buoyed with confidence I felt sure the depositions would produce multiple Thomas Emmensons and a network of creditors operating in the credit economy would emerge in the project database. Yet Thomas Emmenson was a unique case in the court records. Aside from a handful of incidental mentions of money being ‘bought’ for a ‘groat more than its value’ or claims to having money out on loan for interest there are, in the database, few mentions of professional money lenders or the networks through which they operated. The project, ‘Forms of Labour; Gender, Freedom and Experience of Work in the Preindustrial Economy’, now has a database that has amassed a total of 9,650 examples of work described in the depositions recorded following a verb oriented method; 2115 associated with commerce, 331 relating to financial management and 77 instances of pawning. (More about the project and our research can be found here) What then could the database tell us about credit networks in rural early modern England?

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Schrödinger’s Training Clause: The Puzzles of Pauper Apprenticeships, Part II

James Fisher

This is the second post in a short series on different strands of research into pauper apprenticeships as a compulsory form of labour. Read Part I here.

The essence of an apprenticeship is the exchange of labour for training. Hence when examining pauper apprenticeships, we immediately have to confront the basic question: Were they seriously intended to provide training for poor children, and if so, to what extent was this achieved in practice?

After over a century of scholarship there is still no clear consensus. Broadly speaking, a negative view has prevailed that training was not the primary policy aim of pauper apprenticeships or a key contractual duty of the master. Instead, the aim was simply for the child to be maintained and to relieve the burden on their parents and the poor rate.[1] But this account has been repeatedly challenged by those who paint a more nuanced or even positive picture.[2] In particular, many have insisted that there was at least a minimal intention for children to learn something of practical use to enable them to support themselves in adulthood.[3]

One way we can examine the intentions of authorities is to focus on the apprenticeship contracts (indentures) that defined the legal arrangement and specified the duties of the master. Continue reading

The Missing 1550 Act: The Puzzles of Pauper Apprenticeships, Part I

James Fisher

The best introductions are fashionably late and retrospective, right?

I began my 3-year project researching pauper apprenticeships in the summer of 2020, which will contribute to a key strand of the FORMSofLABOUR project examining the relationship between freedom and different forms of work in early modern England. This is the first in a short series of posts to introduce the topic, share some provisional research, and explore a few puzzling features.

Here I will provide a brief sketch of the overall approach and intervention into current historiography, before illustrating this with a closer look at the statutory origins of pauper apprenticeships.

A Distinct Form of Labour

The basic approach is to investigate pauper apprenticeships as a device of labour regulation as well as poor relief. As a key provision in the consolidated Poor Law of 1601, the apprenticing of poor children by parish officers has overwhelmingly been studied as a response to and way of managing poverty. But this framework is too limited.

Firstly, its distinctiveness as a form of work – as compulsory, unpaid, long-term service in another’s household, for both girls and boys – has rarely been addressed in any depth. The working lives of pauper apprentices has mostly been considered from a humanitarian perspective concerned with the treatment of the child in terms of abuse by masters or miserable living conditions. This project seeks greater understanding of the structural condition that left children vulnerable to potential abuse, namely their lack of freedom as workers. Continue reading

New Ways of Working (1): Discussion and Collaboration Online

Jane Whittle

Due to Covid-19 over the last 15 months almost all meetings have been online rather than in person. This blog explores the benefits of these new ways of working for academic researchers, and historians in particular. Rather than focusing on online conferences, which have already generated quite a bit of discussion (https://manyheadedmonster.com/tag/the-craft/), the blog looks at other ways of meeting to exchange research ideas. Despite frustrations, meeting online has many advantages: it’s low cost, time-efficient, and brings people in disparate locations together; its environmental impact is minimal. I’m writing from the perspective of academic running a research project, but I think that these observations have a wider relevance. The blog concentrates on two types of meeting: project meetings (regular meetings of a small group working on a project) and research seminars (a presentation to a group of interested people, followed by open discussion). Continue reading

The Magiconomy of Early Modern England

Taylor Aucoin

On the night of 8 April 1693, a burglar broke into Thomas Masterman’s house in Stokesley, making off with the hefty sum of £2 10s. To identify the thief and reclaim his money, Masterman trekked south through the north Yorkshire moors to Byland Abbey. There he met with William Bowes, described by Masterman as ‘a man who pretends to discover stolen goods by casting of figures or otherwise’. Bowes proceeded to do just that, and ‘in a glass did show…the likeness & physiognomy of Richard Lyth’,  a tailor to whom Masterman had recently repaid a small debt. Bowes advised to look no further than Lyth for the thief, adding that, ‘he could not have power to dispose of the money, but within a few days it would be brought again & thrown in a corner near [Masterman’s] house’. For this information and service, Bowes received one shilling in payment.[1]

Masterman’s story, captured in a court deposition from the North Riding of Yorkshire, is not altogether unusual for the time. We know that many premodern English men and women similarly consulted and contracted local magical practitioners (variously called wisemen, cunning folk, or soothsayers) to cure ailments, find lost or stolen property, or fix other problems. While reading through court depositions from quarter sessions of the peace for counties of northern England, I’ve come across a number of references to such ‘practical magic’, as well as more classic examples of malicious witchcraft. And since it’s Hallowtide, it seems the perfect time to survey these magical findings and discuss their relevance to the project: what they suggest about the relationship between work and magic during this period, and the ways in which some magical activities could constitute ‘forms of labour’ in their own right.[2]

In the northern quarter sessions at least, I’ve found that depositional evidence of magic usually derives from just a few types of criminal cases. Continue reading

‘The Frolic of the Day’: Harvest Work and Forms of Labour

The harvest was the heartbeat of the preindustrial economy, and how the associated work was organised provides valuable insights into the character of labour relationships (something we have explored in an earlier blog post). Here, project PI Jane Whittle marks the season with some reflections on a remarkable account of the wheat harvest in north Devon. 

Jane Whittle

A few weeks ago I was browsing through Charles Vancouver’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon, published in 1808, and was startled to find the following description of harvest work in north Devon:

The wheat being ready to cut down, and amounting from 10 to 20 acres, notice is given in the neighbourhood, that a reaping is to be performed on a particular day, when, as the farmer may be more or less liked in the village, on the morning of the day appointed, a gang, consisting of an indefinite number of men and women, assemble at the field, and the reaping commences after breakfast, which is seldom over till between eight and nine o’clock. The company is open for additional hands to drop in at any time before the twelfth hour, to partake in the frolic of the day. By eleven or twelve o’clock the ale or cider has so much warmed an elevated their spirits, that their noisy jokes and ribaldry are heard from a considerable distance, and often serve to draw auxiliary force within the accustomed time. The dinner, consisting of the best meat and vegetables, is carried into the field between twelve and one o’clock: this is distributed, with copious draughts of ale and cider; and by two o’clock the pastime of cutting and binding the wheat is resumed, and continued without other interruption than squabbles of the party, until about five o’clock, when what is called the drinkings are taken into the field, and, under the shade of a hedge-row or large tree, the panniers are examined, and buns, cakes, and all such articles are found, as the confectionary skill of the farmer’s wife could produce for gratifying the appetites of her customary guests of the season. Continue reading

The Pudding Pinching Heifer Heisters

Taylor Aucoin

The Deposition Dramas blog series highlights some of the rich human stories preserved in early modern court depositions, the primary source material for the Forms of Labour Project. Each post in the series follows a different court case, diving into the narrative of these legal documents to explore the comedies and tragedies of everyday life and work in early modern England.

About a month before Christmas 1626, a company of men approached the house of one ‘Duck-wife Lucas’ in Hoghton, Lancashire, knocking at her door and demanding ‘to come in and drink’. Being ‘about ten of the clock in the night time’, the whole family were then in their beds. Nevertheless, Henry Lucas, the duck-wife’s son, arose to let the company in and fill them some ale. After a time, members of the party, particularly two named James Garstang and Edward Cattrell, grew ‘outrageous and unruly’, and demanded Henry ‘give them some pudding’. Henry answered that ‘he could give them none’, and then fetched his mother out of bed.

Duck-wife Lucas quickly moved to placate the rowdy group, assuring them they ‘should have anything in the house that was fitting’, as long as they would ‘keep good order among themselves’. This proved too much to ask. No sooner had she taken ‘water & set over the fire & boyled two puddings’, then someone filched them ‘out of the pan…before they were half-ready’. Then the company began taking down cheeses ‘from the shelf’, cutting, eating, and absconding with them ‘at their pleasure’. But Garstang and Cattrell soon went beyond discourteous cheese-eating and pudding-pinching. Evidently feeling affronted in some way, they gave ‘fowle words’ to Henry Lucas and his mother, before finally levelling this ominous threat: ‘they would be even’ with Duck-wife Lucas, ‘before hunting time went out’.

Such was the information Henry Lucas gave to a justice of the peace on the last day of May 1627. His testimony, along with those of five other men, provided evidence for a criminal case that had been the talk of the township for half a year, and would now be heard at the Midsummer Quarter Session in Preston. For as Henry concluded in his deposition, a few nights after her threatening treatment Duck-wife Lucas had ‘a black heifer [young cow] stolen out of her ground’.[1]

[1] Lancashire Archives, QSB/1/25/31.

Illustration of April in Michael Beuther, ‘Calendarium Historicum’ (Frankfurt, 1557) ©The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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Money lending; ‘a notorious usurer’

Hannah Robb

In June 1614, ‘on a day of correction’ held at the house of widow Elizabeth Thalthropp in Thirsk, Yorkshire, Thomas Bell, vicar of Felixkirk, accused the gentleman Thomas Edmondson of being a ‘huge knave’, a ‘notorious usurer’ and threatened to ‘make him do penance for his usury’. The words were spoken before a congregation of churchmen and neighbours gathered in Elizabeth’s home and led to a hotly contested suit of defamation. The depositions that followed reveal the activities of a professional money lender in the early seventeenth century.

This case really struck me when I encountered it in the deposition books from the Consistory Court at York as part of my research for the Forms of Labour project. Evidence of formal money lending in the depositions is not usually as clear as in this case. We have indications that long running accounts were ‘reckoned’ at harvest time when tithes were due and instances of testamentary cases show executors were left chasing outstanding debts owed to the deceased. Clearly the credit economy was prevalent in many of the exchanges and relationships we encounter in the deposition books. Rarely however, are there explicit accounts of the work involved in formal money lending. However, in this defamation case we have evidence that formal lending was indeed prevalent in the rural economy.

Three deponents confessed to having borrowed Continue reading

From the Labour Laws to Basic Income via the Black Death and COVID-19

Jane Whittle

Unprecedented episodes of disease, such as the current outbreak of COVID-19, are moments of fluidity when parts of existing societies are laid bare as not fit for purpose. Wars create similar moments of flux. The Second World War created the consensus that allowed the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State. Could our current state of crisis lead to something positive and long lasting, amid all the disruption, trauma and loss?

My research focuses on another such moment, the consequences of Black Death of the 14th century. In the midst of the Black Death the English government made the significant decision not to strengthen the institution of serfdom but instead to increase the regulation of waged labour with the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349.

The Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague that raged across Europe between 1347 and 1349 and killed an estimated 50% of the English population. Fortunately the mortality rate of COVID-19 looks to be closer to 1% of those infected (and thus lower for the total population). Yet in our highly interconnected modern society its impact is already shaping up to be enormous. Historians have long puzzled over the fact that the immediate social and economic impact of the Black Death appears to have been remarkably slight. Social, economic, and political structures remained in place. However, this is to overlook the innovation of the labour laws. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 was a revolutionary piece of legislation. It marked the end of serfdom and beginning of an economy dependent on wage labour, but it signalled that the government’s attitude to wage workers would be far from lenient. Although initially announced as an emergency measure by the monarchy, when Parliament next met in 1351 it was enthusiastically endorsed. The measures remained in force until the early 19th century. Continue reading