For our opening keynote roundtable we welcomed Sheliagh Ogilvie, Raffaella Sarti and Judith Spicksley to explore and unpick the first of our conference themes: ‘freedom’ in relation to the history of work c.1250-1750. We asked our keynote speakers to consider the following: How did forms of work affect people’s freedom? How did degrees of freedom affect the way people worked? And, more broadly, how were work and un/freedom connected?

Each of our speakers challenged any notion of ‘freedom’ as an absolute state (to be free or unfree) and eschewed any attempt to define a single concept of ‘freedom’ to apply to different historic contexts. Sarti offered a critique of the restrictive teleology that presents a transition from slavery to serfdom to freedom, and advocated adopting an ‘emic’ perspective (from that of the subject) rather than ‘etic’ (from that of the observer) to reconstruct historical understandings of freedom.

Ogilvie stressed the importance of institutions in regulating and restricting the freedoms of the marginalised worker in a ‘free’ society, emphasising ‘gradations’ of freedom and coercion and the nuances of lived experiences. Ogilvie encouraged us to set aside grand concepts of freedom and instead investigate the effects of different institutional mechanisms of coercion and the ‘revealed preferences’ of actors exercising agency within highly constrained contexts.

Spicksley focused on the nuances of language and legal culture in changing early modern understandings of slavery. Her exploration of the legal state of chattlehood in English law considered significant linguistic shifts in the terms ‘slave’, ‘chattel’, ‘unfreedom’ and ‘slavery’. Through the legal peculiarities of English systems of chattel status, a literature developed around involuntary servility that increasingly relied upon the binary concepts of freedom and unfreedom in subjection.

In the discussion, the panelists reflected on how much freedom mattered and the role of agency. Ogilvie shared her knowledge of systems of serfdom in eastern Europe and gave examples of individual workers who were prepared to violate the terms of their serfdom to contract work to other masters, demonstrating agency in the pursuit of economic freedom. Sarti highlighted implications of social and domestic structures that determined access to certain forms of work. Taking the household as a site of labour, both productive and reproductive, Sarti detailed the limitations imposed on women’s work as well as the opportunities that arose from working within household economies. The household as a space of women’s work was compared to work outside the household and Sarti explored the cultural and legal points of contestation between the institutions. Judith Spicksley problematised the notion of agency through a discussion of legal notions of ‘voluntary chattelhood’. Legal definitions of ‘chattel’ changed from denoting a socio-legal state to one that described coerced labour.

The final reflections of the keynote tended to agree with a framework of ‘freedom’ that considered gradations of freedom and coercion that challenge understandings of freedom as an absolute. We should not diminish the differences, particularly when considering systems of slavery (agency does not rehabilitate coercive systems of labour) but there were ‘gradations of freedom’. It is necessary to ascribe agency to workers and to understand emic perspectives of freedom in order to understand the choices made by labourers to self-exploit and the sacrifices made to achieve greater freedom.

Sheilagh Ogilvie is Chichele Professor of Economic History at All Souls College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy. She explores the lives of ordinary people in the past and tries to explain how poor economies get richer and improve human well-being. She has written books about proto-industry, women’s work, long-distance trade, and craft guilds. Her articles and essays range widely across guilds, gender, consumption, retailing, demography, serfdom, micro-finance, moral regulation, social capital, the growth of the state, and the economic role of institutions. Her research has been recognised by the Gyorgy Ranki Prize (1999, 2021), the Anton Gindeley Prize (2004), the René Kuczynski Prize (2004), and the Stanley Z. Pech Prize (2008). She is currently investigating the economics of serfdom and the role of human capital in European economic growth between 1600 and 1900. She has a particular interest in the economic and social history of Central and Eastern Europe. Her latest book is The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis (Princeton, 2019).

Rafaella Sarti is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Urbino, Italy, where she is the Director of the lifelong learning programme on Gender History, Globalization and Caring Democracy. She has also worked in Paris, Vienna, Bologna, and Murcia. She is a member of the editorial collective of Gender & History. Her studies address work in a gendered perspective, especially domestic service and care work; Mediterranean slavery; marriage and celibacy; family and material culture; gender and the nation; masculinity; graffiti and wall writing. Her research presents a long-term and comparative approach on gender history and the history of work, especially of domestic and care work from the late Middle Ages to the present in both a European and global perspective. Her co-edited book, What is Work? Gender at the Crossroads of Home, Family and Business from the Early Modern Era to the Present (2018), explores the concept of work and presents a particular view of work from the margins of society.

Judith Spicksley is a Lecturer in Economic History in the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull. She researches the economic and social history of the early modern period, with interests in debt and slavery, single women and credit, and medicine and infertility. She is currently preparing a long-run study of the socio-legal sanctioning of the ownership of people for publication.