Freedom & Work in Western Europe (c. 1250-1750)

6-8 July 2022 | Three-day conference | Exeter, UK

Work can be a source of freedom, wealth and self-respect, but also exploitation, poverty and subjugation. Existing grand narratives suggest that labour in fifteenth-century Western Europe became ‘free’ after the end of serfdom. Yet some workers had more freedom than others. Women were excluded from many occupations, while in some cultures married women had no right to own property or the fruits of their labour. Labour laws controlled workers such as servants and apprentices, who were placed in the same legal relationship to the household head as children. As recent studies of serfdom and slavery have shown, we need to move beyond a sharp division between bondage and freedom to explore the many factors that restricted or promoted freedom within and through work.

This conference explores these complex relations between freedom and work in Western Europe from 1250 to 1750. It especially encourages approaches which extend outside the employer-employee relationship to explore how family, community and state determined the degree of exploitation or empowerment in working life; broaden our scope beyond the adult male worker to centre previously marginalised workers, like women and servants; apply theoretical ideas from other disciplines to re-examine the nature of freedom in relation to historical forms of work; compare relative degrees of freedom or unfreedom across different forms of labour, cultures, legal systems or time periods; and/or contextualise labour in Western Europe with respect to forms of colonial slavery.

The conference will feature 43 papers across 14 panels spread over 3 days. It will open and close with two keynote roundtables discussing the relationship between our two main themes, the first featuring Sheilagh Ogilvie (Oxford), Raffaella Sarti (Urbino) and Judith Spicksley (Wilberforce Institute), and the second featuring Andrea Komlosy (Vienna), Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Andy Wood (Durham).


If you would like to attend the conference, please register using the link below. There is limited space so early booking is essential. Deadline for booking is Monday 6th June, 2022.

Programme (provisional)

The provisional programme is below. Please note that timings may be subject to change.

You can also download the provisional programme in PDF

Day 1: Wednesday 6 July

13:00-14:00 Registration
14:00-14:15 Welcome
14:15-16:00 Keynote Roundtable 1: Freedom
Sheilagh Ogilvie (Oxford), Raffaella Sarti (Urbino) and Judith Spicksley (Wilberforce Institute)
A broad discussion about the concept of freedom in relation to the history of work. Each speaker will present their ideas, followed by a discussion amongst panellists, before a Q&A with the wider audience.
16:30-18:00 Panel 1. Indentured Youth: Contracts, Consent & Control
Sonia Tycko, English Parish Children Sent to Colonial American Servitude
Rhiannon Sandy, Degrees of Freedom: Controlling Apprentices’ Behaviour in Medieval England
James Fisher, Beyond the Labour Market: A Compulsory Apprenticeship Scheme in a Rural English Village c.1670-1750
Panel 2. Ideas of Unfree Labour
Giovanni Lista, ‘For Improving Able Beggars to the Best Advantage’: Forced Labour in pre-Union Scotland (1670-1707)
Julian Goodare, Discourses of Forced Labour in Early Modern Scotland
Simon Knight, Idealising the Labour of Shoemakers and Clothiers in Thomas Deloney’s Prose Works
19:00 Dinner at The Cosy Club

Day 2: Thursday 7 July

9:30-11:00 Panel 3. Accessing Freedom & labour through the Law
Martin Andersson, The Rural Laboring Poor in Sweden, 1300–1600
Mark Bailey, The Institutional Framework of the English Labour Market in the Fourteenth Century
Taylor Aucoin, Employers and Employees’ Use of the English Labour Laws, c.1550-1700
Panel 4. Family Economies & Women’s Independence
Kathryne Crossley, ‘That no evil suspicion shall light upon her’: The Domestic Work of Early Modern Women at Oxford Colleges
Eliska Bujokova, Mistresses and Housekeepers: Navigating the Male World of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
Amy M. Froide, What happens to the household trade when the spouses break up? Marital Separation and Family Businesses in 18th-century London
11:00-11:30 Break
11:30-13:00 Panel 5. Institutional Power & Economic Relations
Marco Tomaszewski, Lordship and Labour. Protoindustrial Textile Production of the Gonzenbach Company in Hauptwil (Eastern Switzerland), ca. 1650-1700
Tommaso Vidal, Coercion in the Fields: Semantics, Institutions and Practices of Coercion in North-eastern Italy (1200s-1400s)
Hannah Robb, Obligations before the Court in Early Modern England
Panel 6. Rethinking Wage Labour
Carmen Sarasúa, Wages to Fight Poverty: The Work of the Wet-nurses Employed by Foundling Hospitals in 18th-century Spain
John Styles, Wages of Spinning
Miquel Faus Faus, Understanding the Day Labourer in Late Medieval Valencia: New Sources and Methodologies
13:00-14:00 Lunch
14:00-15:30 Panel 7. Sex Work: Coercions & Economic Opportunities
Michelle Armstrong-Partida, The Economics of Concubinage and the Labor of Concubines in the Late Medieval Mediterranean
Roisin Cossar, Concubines as sex workers in the clerical households of 15th century Ferrara
Panel 8. Mobile Work: Freedoms & Restrictions
Daniel Gettings, Opportunity in exhaustion: The social and economic freedom of water work in early modern England
Richard Blakemore, Freedom and Unfreedom at Sea: Seafaring as Work in the Early Modern Period
Charmian Mansell, Workers on the Move: Freedoms and Constraints on Itinerant Labour in Early Modern England
15:30-16:00 Break
16:00-17:30 Panel 9. Workers on the Margins: The Poor & Infirm
Marie-Louise Leonard, Health and Work in Early Modern Venice
Henry French, ‘… some measures may be adopted for the employment of the families of Labourers in this Parish’. Work, Welfare, and the Household Economy in an Eighteenth-Century English Parish
Mark Hailwood – TBC
Panel 10. Freedom to Trade 
Ed Legon, ‘’Freedom and Resistance to Search in England’s Cloth Industry, 1603-1714′
Judy Stephenson, Freedom of Contract or Freedom to Contract? Unskilled Labouring and Entrepreneurship in London 1660-1750
Tim Reinke-Williams, Indictments of Publicans in the Home Counties, 1603-1642: Geography and Gender
18:00 Performance of early modern ballads by music ensemble Passamezzo

Day 3: Friday 8 July

9:00-10:30 Panel 11. Mechanisms of Coercion: Violence, Prisons, Courts
Hillary Taylor, Violence and Labour Discipline in Early Modern England
Margo Kolenda-Mason, Captive Work: Bridewell Prison’s Theory of Labor
Gabriele Marcon, Lost Labour: Patterns of Coercion and Gendered Labour in Early Modern Mines
Panel 12. Women’s Agency through Work
Eugene Costello, The Origins and Economic Importance of Gendered Livestock Husbandry in North-west Europe
Gabriel Jover-Avellà and Joana Maria Pujadas-Mora, Looking for Agency in Southern Europe: Life Course and Wages of Female Olive Pickers, Mallorca, 1645–1696
Nancy Haijing Jiang, Women of Credit and Female Spirituality in Pre-modern England
10:30-11:00 Break
11:30-13:00 Panel 13. Labours of the Enslaved in the Mediterranean World
Hannah Skoda, Slavery in Late Medieval Dubrovnik and Genoa: Slaves Using Law
Corinna Peres, Beyond Unfree Slaves and Free Servants: Forms of Labour in a Merchant Household in Late Medieval Tuscany
Teresa Witcombe, ‘This Woman’s Work’: The Lives and Labour of Enslaved Muslim Women in Thirteenth-century Toledo
Panel 14. Labour over the Long Durée, 1300-1900
Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, Reassessing the Role of Female Labour in the Little Divergence Debate: The Case of Portugal in Comparative Perspective, 1565-1760
José Antolín Nieto Sánchez, Artisan Apprenticeship in Castilian Cities at the Early Modern Age
Martin Andersson & Carolina Uppenberg, Remuneration and Coercion: The Servant Institution in Premodern Northern Europe
12:30-13:30 Lunch
13:30-15:30 Keynote Roundtable 2: Work
Andrea Komlosy (Vienna), Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Andy Wood (Durham)
A broad discussion, mirroring the first keynote panel and with reflections on the papers throughout the conference, about the history of work in relation to the theme of freedom. Each speaker will present their ideas, followed by a discussion amongst panellists, before a Q&A with the wider audience.
15:30-16:30 Afternoon Devon Cream Tea
16:30 Post-conference Social (details TBA)

This conference is organised and hosted by Forms of Labour: Gender, Freedom and Work in the Preindustrial Economy, led by Jane Whittle at the University of Exeter. This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 834385).