Methods & Sources

FORMSofLABOUR combines archival research with the development of new theoretical perspectives to examine the full range of work and workers in the late medieval and early modern Economy. Here we describe some of the methods and sources we are using.

Work task database

We are continuing to develop the methodology developed in the Women’s Work in Rural England (WWRE) project of collecting incidental evidence of work tasks from court documents (primarily church court depositions and quarter sessions examinations). This methodology is described on the WWRE project website. The findings using these methods are presented in our Economic History Review  (forthcoming Feb 2020). WWRE collected 4300 examples of work tasks (specific people carrying out specific work activities) from South-West England. We are now expanding that database by collecting data from Northern England and East-Central England, with the aim of accumulating 15,000 examples of work tasks in total. This dataset will be used by Jane Whittle and Mark Hailwood to write a book on The Experience of Work, looking at the gender division of labour, as well as the timing and location of work; types of workers and employment relationships; and regional difference. It will also inform all our other outputs.

Church court depositions

Church courts heard cases relating to church administration (e.g. tithes), the probate system, marriage contracts, and moral offences (defamation, sexual misdemeanors). Depositions are the witness statements collected by the courts, and are often rich in details of everyday life. Project Research Fellow Hannah Robb is collecting evidence from depositions for the work task database. Hannah and Jane will also use evidence from tithe disputes to write an article about the organization of agricultural work c.1550-1640. Building on her PhD research which used 15th century church court records to look at popular attitudes to debt and credit, Hannah will also use evidence from the database and church courts to write an article examining the portrayal of commercial work activities in church courts.

You can see transcribed and explained examples of church court depositions here.

Quarter sessions records

Quarter sessions were county-level criminal courts. Late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century quarter sessions records include examinations: witness statements and confessions detailing the circumstances in which particular crimes and misdemeanors took place. Project Research Fellow Taylor Aucoin is collecting evidence from the examinations about work tasks for the database. The quarter sessions were also the main court concerned with enforcing the labour laws, and Taylor is also collecting evidence of enforcement for a joint article on this topic written with Jane. Taylor’s PhD research focuses on Shrove Tuesday celebrations and other forms of play (such as football) in early modern society. He will use evidence from the database and quarter sessions to write an article about the seasonal cycle of work and play.

You can see transcribed and explained examples of quarter session examinations here

Household accounts and manorial accounts

James Fisher, research fellow joined us in August 2020 and will begin analysing household and manorial accounts. English manorial accounts are particularly rich for the fourteenth century, recording wage labour by agricultural and craft workers, alongside manorial servants and servile tenants. Gentry household accounts, which survive in significant numbers from the 1580s onwards, also record a range of types of worker (servants, agricultural labourers, craftsmen, and specialist workers) and their wages. This evidence will be used by Jane and James to write a joint article on the development of forms wage labour in late medieval England, as well as by the research fellow to write an article on the topic of their choice.

Poor Law records

James Fisher will begin research on ‘work, poverty and coercion’ in early modern England, looking particularly at pauper apprenticeships. Pauper apprenticeships placed children who had been orphaned or who came for poor labouring families in ‘apprenticeships’ for up to 10 years or more, during which time they worked in return for food and lodging but not wages. This system was created by both the labour laws and poor laws. He will examine both the particular circumstances of the people who were forced to work in this way, as well as the wider implications of this system for attitudes to work, poverty, service and apprenticeship during the early modern period.

Rethinking underlying theories

The three strands of FORMSofLABOUR each aim to offer fresh ways of looking at the nature of work in historic societies. The Experience of Work book based on the database evidence takes an anthropological approach to show there was much more to work than wages and contracts, and these other aspects have important implications for our understanding of early modern society and economy. Rethinking Women’s Work explicitly addresses the persistent debates within the history of women’s work such as causes of the gender division of labour and the gender pay gap, and the way work is defined and understood, building on the approach taken in Jane’s 2019 article in Past and Present. The third strand of the project is more experimental and takes a wide range of approaches, sources, and comparisons to consider the variety of forms of employment and forms of control within the labour markets of preindustrial Europe. The first output will be an edited volume on the comparative history of Service and the Labour Laws in Europe, jointly edited with Thijs Lambrecht of Ghent University.

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