Our conference concluded with a keynote roundtable on the theme of ‘work’. We invited our keynote speakers, Andrea Komlosy and Jane Humphries, to reflect on the papers across the conference and on the following questions: in what sense were workers in the early modern economy ‘free’ (or not)? And to what extent does the context in which people worked matter? Our speakers also took the opportunity to identify new paths of research that meaningfully explore coercion, freedom and work.
Both Komlosy and Humphries drew threads from our earlier discussion of freedom in our opening keynote roundtable. Komlosy questioned what freedoms work could bring. Freedom is not simply the ability to work, but the freedom to choose, to be productive and create objects, and the freedom to escape bondage. She drew attention to a potential blind spot in our understanding of freedom in work, asking: what freedom was there for contractors to exploit? Freedom could be a means of gaining political agency and social freedom could be obtained through work, but freedom could also mean the freedom to employ and, by extension, the freedom to exploit.
Humphries focused on the freedom of wage workers and the market as the key economic institution in early modern Britain. Freedom can be defined as a ‘freedom from want’. Workers can work to earn subsistence but this does not grant freedom, and coercion can be exacted through poverty. Her study of monopsonistic yarn masters outlined the increasing exploitation of poor women alongside growing poor law legislation that made charity conditional on work. Yarn masters were able to determine and lower wages at the same time as legislation on rights to poor relief preserved a duty to work. Concurrent developments in political and economic thought instilled a belief in the natural propensity of the market to secure the optimal allocation of resources. Hence Humphries argued that wages do not always enable freedom and access to resources can be conditional on work. As stated by Andrea when reflecting on the work of women, ‘there is coercion in independence and independence in coercion’.
The discussion turned to the dynamics of power: what power did workers hold over the value of their pay in volatile economies where coin could be debased? What rights did they have to revolt on a small scale and on a wider political scale? To this end Komlosy questioned whether we might consider a broader transition from a world of status-based freedoms to the rights-based freedoms of legal subjects. Looking at the relevance of our research for modern societies, Humphries asked how we might explore coercion in market-based economies, such as coercion to work longer hours than those contracted, and agency through the ability to make choices free from ‘false consciousness’.
A key question raised by our keynotes and discussed at length by the delegates was how to properly value non-waged labour. The question not only bookended our final roundtable but drew interesting threads from our opening keynote session around freedom, asking the degree to which a wage grants freedom in early modern society and if so what does this freedom look like? Komlosy began with this very question, considering the historiographical narrative of a transition from a system of work based on status and obligation to one based on contract and market value. Komlosy questioned the degree to which market values can be ascribed retrospectively without carrying with them engrained attitudes on the hierarchy of work and its worth. How can we account for inherent biases that undervalue certain forms of work based on gender, race, skill and education? When Humphries tackled the same problem she questioned how we might begin to measure this work – whether it should reflect the time spent on a task, the labour intensity of a task, or the value ascribed to the work by others in that community.
The debate around whether to quantify unpaid labour in monetary terms, or analyse it through alternative qualitative approaches, generated a lively discussion. One possibility was that ascribing values was a starting point from which we might explore the inherited cultural biases that undervalue certain forms of work whilst allowing us to measure its contribution to economic growth. We were left with a provocation from Komlosy to connect the micro studies of work and workers to the larger concepts of coercion and freedom.
Andrea Komlosy is Professor at the Department for Economic and Social History at the University of Vienna, Austria, where she is part of the Global History and Global Studies program coordinators. She has published on work and labour, migration, borders and uneven development on a regional, a European and a global scale. Her book, Work the Last 1,000 Years (2018), explores forms of labour and shifting labour relations in a global context.
Jane Humphries is Professor of Economic History and a Fellow of All Souls College. Her interests include labour markets, industrialisation and the links between the family and the economy. She has published extensively on gender, the family and the history of women’s work and has interests in the causes and consequences of economic growth and structural change. Her recent book, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution drew on a very large number of autobiographies by working men and used an innovative quantitative and qualitative methodology to illuminate aspects of children’s lives which are inaccessible on the basis of more conventional sources. The monograph was awarded the Gyorgi Ranki Prize for an outstanding book in European Economic History by the Economic History Association in 2011 and provided the basis for a successful BBC4 documentary, The Children Who Built Victorian Britain, which she co-wrote and presented.