Falling ill with Covid four days before the start of my own conference was a bad joke, but one I took in as much good humour as I could manage, reflecting that until that point the FORMSofLABOUR project had been remarkably unaffected by the pandemic. Fortunately, the conference could go ahead without me, in the extremely capable hands of the rest of the project team. All I had to deal with was my disappointment of missing a wonderful set of interesting papers and lively discussion with the speakers. Reading these blogs was therefore a great pleasure, allowing me to capture a little of what I missed.

I want to start with Giovanni Lista’s blog title ‘Too much work, not enough freedom?’ (And who couldn’t say that about their life?) It is true that social and economic historians are more comfortable unearthing the details of past work practices than viewing such work through the lens of freedom/servitude, theorising about what freedom might mean in different circumstances. Freedom is a slippery concept, but one I think we need to grapple with to understand the full implications of work practices for past lives. This is perhaps particularly true of studies of women’s work, where historians have done a fantastic job of uncovering neglected forms of female employments, exemplified here in the blogs by Gettings, Reinke-Williams and Marcon. But as Sarasúa concludes her blog, ‘To what extent extremely poor married women can be identified as “free workers” when entering the labour market remains for discussion.’ Both marriage and poverty constricted choices and shaped what such women gained for their work. Jover-Avellà’s careful reconstruction of the family background of female olive-pickers suggests family-level decisions about girls entering waged work rather than, or as well as, individual women’s agency – and raises the question whether their wages also went into a family pot of earnings. Froide’s study of family businesses and marital breakup shows both the complexity of economic relationships in many families and the legal powerlessness of married women in protecting the fruits of their labour.

Sometimes the lack of freedom is painfully obvious. The work of enslaved female domestic workers in southern Europe has often been overlooked because most were female, their work took place within the home domestic, and because of a persistent narrative that slavery was absent from late medieval and early modern Europe. Their slavery was particularly gruelling and intimate, entailing a lack of control over their own bodies, with owners using them for sex, for bearing of children, and for wet-nursing, as Peres shows in her blog. Yet Witcombe also reminds us that such women did not necessarily suffer ‘social death’ and might, as a consequence of their close relationship to owners, be granted manumission.

Most forms of labour in early modern Europe combined elements of freedom and coercion. Apprenticeship is an example of a form of work that promised greater future agency in return for a period of subservience. The blog by Nieto Sánchez stresses the positive aspects of apprenticeship while that by Sandy is more circumspect, noting how the terms of apprenticeship could perpetuate social inequalities. Knight observes the contrasts between the depictions of different trades in Thomas Deloney’s sixteenth-century writings: self-employed shoemakers were seen as independent while weavers, whose work was organised by clothiers, were viewed less favourably. The dependency of protoindustrial work is also explored in Tomaszewski’s blog, describing the example of a Swiss village that was built in the late seventeenth century as a linen production plant. Workers were free to come and go, but when working within the community their lives were heavily controlled by their employer. Some early modern industrial workers were even less free: Goodare notes that some colliers and salters in seventeenth-century Scotland were effectively subject to serfdom: owned by their employers and unable to leave.

The idea of tenants being tied to the land by various forms of serfdom is a familiar one: but serfdom is normally assumed to be absent from early modern Western Europe. Elements remained however, as shown by Vidal’s blog about landlords coercing free tenants to stay on their land in fifteenth century Italy, or the performance of labour services by tenants in seventeenth-century Scotland as noted by Goodare. In the agrarian economy of Western Europe, however, it was coerced forms of waged labour and service that dominated in the early modern period. Labour laws, poor laws and vagrancy laws all sought to enforce work for the able-bodied and relatively poor, and especially the young, reinforcing unequal power relations between employers and workers. The English poor laws allowed the creation of systems in some communities that coerced all young people from labouring households into unpaid labour, described in Fisher’s blog. The blogs of both Uppenberg/ Andersson and Aucoin emphasise the extent to which the laws assumed that young people had to be forced to work as servants. Those who failed to comply could be imprisoned in Bridewells, as Kolenda-Mason describes, or disciplined with physical violence from their employer, as shown by Taylor. At the end of the seventeenth century, Lista describes how the Scottish republican activist, Andrew Fletcher, was still seeking new ways to force the ‘idle poor’ to work as compulsory servants.

On the other hand, the Swedish cottager described in Andersson’s blog might seem the epitome of early modern freedom, making a living from fishing and livestock farming on a small island in the Baltic Sea in the mid-sixteenth century. But his lifestyle also contains traces of dependency. Lacking the means to grow grain, he must have worked for wages. This is a reminder of how often people have been forced to exchange their freedom for the means of survival, and bargain unequally in markets of labour. These blogs demonstrate that focusing on freedom causes us to look carefully, not only at slavery and serfdom, but at the exact nature of wage labour and craft production: at workers’ ability to negotiate contracts, the types of contracts imposed, methods of payment, interactions between workers and employers, the social status of workers, and the involvement of the state in regulating work.