The best introductions are fashionably late and retrospective, right?
I began my 3-year project researching pauper apprenticeships in the summer of 2020, which will contribute to a key strand of the FORMSofLABOUR project examining the relationship between freedom and different forms of work in early modern England. This is the first in a short series of posts to introduce the topic, share some provisional research, and explore a few puzzling features.
Here I will provide a brief sketch of the overall approach and intervention into current historiography, before illustrating this with a closer look at the statutory origins of pauper apprenticeships.
A Distinct Form of Labour
The basic approach is to investigate pauper apprenticeships as a device of labour regulation as well as poor relief. As a key provision in the consolidated Poor Law of 1601, the apprenticing of poor children by parish officers has overwhelmingly been studied as a response to and way of managing poverty. But this framework is too limited.
Firstly, its distinctiveness as a form of work – as compulsory, unpaid, long-term service in another’s household, for both girls and boys – has rarely been addressed in any depth. The working lives of pauper apprentices has mostly been considered from a humanitarian perspective concerned with the treatment of the child in terms of abuse by masters or miserable living conditions. This project seeks greater understanding of the structural condition that left children vulnerable to potential abuse, namely their lack of freedom as workers. Continue reading
Unprecedented episodes of disease, such as the current outbreak of COVID-19, are moments of fluidity when parts of existing societies are laid bare as not fit for purpose. Wars create similar moments of flux. The Second World War created the consensus that allowed the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State. Could our current state of crisis lead to something positive and long lasting, amid all the disruption, trauma and loss?
My research focuses on another such moment, the consequences of Black Death of the 14th century. In the midst of the Black Death the English government made the significant decision not to strengthen the institution of serfdom but instead to increase the regulation of waged labour with the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349.
The Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague that raged across Europe between 1347 and 1349 and killed an estimated 50% of the English population. Fortunately the mortality rate of COVID-19 looks to be closer to 1% of those infected (and thus lower for the total population). Yet in our highly interconnected modern society its impact is already shaping up to be enormous. Historians have long puzzled over the fact that the immediate social and economic impact of the Black Death appears to have been remarkably slight. Social, economic, and political structures remained in place. However, this is to overlook the innovation of the labour laws. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 was a revolutionary piece of legislation. It marked the end of serfdom and beginning of an economy dependent on wage labour, but it signalled that the government’s attitude to wage workers would be far from lenient. Although initially announced as an emergency measure by the monarchy, when Parliament next met in 1351 it was enthusiastically endorsed. The measures remained in force until the early 19th century. Continue reading