My research contrasts the depictions of shoemakers and clothiers in the works of late-Elizabethan author Thomas Deloney (c.1543-1600), an impoverished silk-weaver and popular writer of ballads. In his four proto-novels, written in the last five years of his life, Deloney celebrates two crafts, each with its own rich cultural history: shoemaking in The Gentle Craft, parts one and two, and the ‘art of clothing’ in Jack of Newbury and Thomas of Reading. In the early modern period, shoemaking was an artisan craft, whereas the clothing industry relied on an early form of division of labour, the ‘domestic’ or ‘putting-out’ systems. The shoemaking and clothing industries, therefore, are representative of two different modes of manufacture: the artisanal and proto-industrial. Deloney’s narratives ‘amplify’ the perceived advantages of each industry, allowing us to see the implications that each mode of manufacture has for the labouring individual.

In this post I read Deloney’s depictions of technology and work in light of relevant theory by Karl Marx and Bruno Latour. I focus on Jack of Newbury, where the wealthy clothier Jack has centralised the clothing industry, bringing a vast workforce together under one roof. Jack’s workshop is described in a lengthy passage of verse, of which the following is just the beginning:

Within one roome being large and long,
There stood two hundred Loomes full strong:
Two hundred men the truth is so,
Wrought in these Loomes all in a row.

                                                                        (JN, p. 20)

The increased division of labour within the structure of Jack’s industrial-scale operation forces his ‘great number’ of employees into distinct, specialized roles. Jack’s two hundred spinners sit at their stations ‘all day’ and ‘never [stop]’ (p. 20).  For Marx, the breaking down of work into ‘permanently uniform activity’ is ‘harmful to both soul and body’, making labour ‘one-sided and machine-like’, and made worse still by working with machines.[i] Unlike with the handicraftsman, who ‘animates’ his tools with his own ‘skill and strength’, Marx argues that with the machine-worker, ‘it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker’.[ii] Jonathan Sawday, summarising Marx, writes that this change is ‘akin to a shift in syntax’: ‘Where once people had worked with machines, now machines worked with people.’[iii] This ‘shift in syntax’ rings true in Deloney: in Jack’s workshop, it is the two hundred looms, not the two hundred men working them, that are described as ‘full strong’; and not only are the machines ‘full strong’ in place of the men, but they are mentioned first.

Van Vliet, Jan Georg. ‘Weaver’. Look and Learn History Picture Archive. 1635. Accessed 22/08/2022. 

Marx argues that with machine-work, the worker’s activity ‘is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery’.[iv] Deloney registers anxiety about this aspect of machine-work on the first page of Jack of Newbury, when ‘youths of the town’ tease Jack about his diligence and long working hours: ‘Doubtlesse (quoth one) I thinke some female spirit hath enchaunted Iacke to his treadles, and coniured him within the compasse of his Loome, that he can stirre no further’ (p. 3). Jack turns their criticism around, using it as an opportunity to assert his ideal balance between work and leisure, namely six days work and rest on Sunday: ‘if you haue the leasure to stay till the Charme be done, the space of sixe dayes and fiue nights, you shall finde me ready to put on my holy-day-apparell’ (p. 3). This episode nevertheless betrays anxiety on some level about being ‘encompassed’, or ‘regulated’ by the loom, especially when compared to the shoemaker’s tools, which seem only to inspire possibilities for freedom.

Thus Deloney touches on the moral dimension of technology. Philosopher Bruno Latour notes the ‘flux of possibilities’ a person envisages when picking up a tool in his analysis of the relation of technology to morality, arguing that a ‘substantial part of our everyday morality’ is dictated by ‘technological apparatuses’.[v] He cites the example of his desk, an apparently benign technology, but one which is designed so that a single drawer cannot open without the others being completely shut. This means that when using the desk, he – his body – is ‘obliged’ to obey its ‘moral law’ (‘bound by it!’)[vi] Thus, the two regimes – of technology and morality – are ‘indissolubly mingled’, in much the same way that prepositions are mingled: ‘there is no particular domain of ‘in’ that we can separate from the territory ‘by’’.[vii] Marx is similarly preoccupied with prepositions and technology, questioning ‘how far men work through machines and how far they work as machines’.[viii] When applying this principle to Deloney, one is left to question whether Deloney’s two hundred weavers, who ‘wrought in their looms’ (JN, p. 20, my italics) are actually ‘wrought by their looms’; and likewise in the case of shoemakers, whether Saint Hugh ‘wrought in a shoomakers shop’ (GC Pt 1, p. 82, my italics), or was ‘wrought by a shoomakers shop’ (later, he literally is ‘wrought’ by shoemakers, who fashion tools from his bones). If the worker is wrought by the technology, then looking at Deloney’s depiction of two industries, one would expect that the shoemaker’s shop (Latour’s definition of technology is far-reaching), with its multiple functions as home, social space, retail space, and productive space, would produce a well-rounded individual; and conversely that the loom, built for a singular, repetitive, solely economic function – which would certainly dictate the moral habits of the body in a similar manner to that of Latour’s desk – to produce a one-dimensional figure. Likewise, if, as Marx suggests, working through machines leads to working as machines, one would expect the weaver to be far less animated than the shoemaker. Indeed, this is more or less how Deloney’s portrayals play out: the shoemakers are strong, independent, politically active, and mutually supportive, and their tools are ‘animated’ with the life of Saint Hugh; the weavers (apart from Jack, who soon transcends that occupation) are, for the most part, only visible when economic power is being displayed, or when they are impoverished; and they are potentially anxious about being trapped inside the loom.

Simon Knight is a PhD Student in English at the University of Bristol. He completed his BA and MA at Cardiff University and specialised in the topic of labour in early modern literature, his two dissertations being on ‘Shakespeare and the Concept of Work’ and ‘Shakespeare and the Rise of Capitalism, Bureaucracy and the Monetary System’. His current doctoral research project, provisionally entitled ‘Idealising Labour from Deloney to Milton’, looks at how early modern writers imagined freedom, dignity and satisfaction in work: how they conceived of not only what work is, but what work should be.

[i] Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’, in Early Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1975), pp. 279-400, (pp. 285, 291).

[ii] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (London: Penguin Books in Association with New Left Review, 1993), p. 693.

[iii] Sawday, Engines, p. 73.

[iv] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 693.

[v] Bruno Latour, ‘Morality and Technology’, Theory, Culture & Society, 19.5-6 (2002) 247–260 (p. 250).

[vi] Latour, ‘Morality and Technology’, p. 253.

[vii] Latour, ‘Morality and Technology’, p. 248.

[viii] Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’, pp. 291.