What was the conference about? And why did we organise it?

We explained the rationale in our Call for Papers (and can’t improve on it)…

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.

As you’ll see from the selection of research on display here, the conference covered most of these themes and pushed them in new directions.

But conferences don’t just pop out of nowhere, or appear at the mere idea of them.

This conference was organised and financed by the European Research Council ‘Forms of Labour’ project, which runs from 2019 to 2024. The aim of the project is to create a new (or renewed) history of work for the late medieval and early modern periods, focused mainly on England but seen in a comparative perspective. As stated in our Call for Papers, a key aim is to create a history of work that focuses on women and young people as much as adult men. The project has three strands: one strand focuses on the experience of work, another on the nature of women’s work, and the final strand relates to the topic of freedom and work – hence this conference.

This aspect of the project examines different forms of labour and the relationship between freedom (or lack of freedom) and work. It includes an edited volume on Labour Laws in Preindustrial Europe (forthcoming) along with a host of new research into pre-industrial England: parish apprenticeships as a coerced form of youth labour; the enforcement of the English labour laws in the late 16th and 17th centuries; the nature of (‘free’) wage labour recorded in medieval manorial accounts and early modern household accounts; and the relationship between service and slavery as forms of labour. One of the main benefits of the conference was to be able to place English labour history in comparative context.

We would like to thank everyone who participated and contributed to a vibrant event. And we hope that attendees and non-attendees alike will find much of interest in this selection of short essays, as well as the sometimes surprising threads between them.

Hannah, James, Taylor, Vivienne, Jane and Mark