Workers of the Week: ‘Ploughmen go whistling to their toils’

Mark Hailwood

Our ‘Women’s Work’ project is at an exciting juncture: we have just reached the end of the data entry phase and attention now turns to the analysis and writing up of results. We will be showcasing these in a number of upcoming papers, and in due course in a series of major articles. As we take a brief pause for breath between these two phases I thought I would take the opportunity to return to our occasional series on seasonal work activities with a look at ploughing.


Engraving from Clare Leighton’s wonderful book The Farmer’s Year

As a treat for surviving a long winter of data entry, I have indulged myself in recent days with some invigorating morning walks, enjoying the first signs of the turnover of the seasons (well, we have one daffodil out in the garden at least) a phase that the poet John Clare called ‘the thaw’ (the title of this post is borrowed from Clare too).[1] This time of year was a key watershed in the early modern agricultural year, of course, as thoughts drifted back to the fields after their dormant winter. With the passing of the frosts it was time to start ploughing the earth in preparation for sowing crops in the spring. It was time to set the agricultural cycle in motion once more.

It seems a reasonable assumption that it was not a favourite work task in the period, yoking the oxen (in the vast majority of our examples it was oxen rather than horses pulling the plough[2]) and heading out in inclement weather (Clare again: ‘March month of “many weathers” wildly comes’). There was certainly an element of danger involved. On 21st February 1564, James Treherne, a servant, was ‘driving six oxen of his master’s drawing a plough tilling the ground’ in Rowde, Wiltshire, when one of the oxen knocked him down, whereby he fell on an axe he was carrying and was fatally wounded. In 1651, Thomas Harding, of Bradninch, Devon, was giving testimony in a testamentary dispute when he recalled that the deceased, Thomas Potter of Broadhembury, had ‘died of a wound received by a ploughshare [blade] in his thigh as he was in a field at plough, which happened some days before his death’.

It was hungry work too. In 1591 one Edridge was ‘minded to go to plow’, but not before he had enjoyed a good breakfast in the hall of his employer—during which he was interrupted to go and witness his employer’s will. In February of 1616 Thomas Crispen, a 38 year old man from Morchard Bishop in Devon, had been ‘at ploughing work in the ground of William Shobrooke in the parish of Sandford and dined with the said William in his house’ after doing so. A hearty meal was not the only perk a hard day’s ploughing could bring. When Sara Pitterd was accused in 1627 of stealing a thimble from a neighbour in Kingsbury Episcopi, Somerset, her father William came to the rescue, telling the magistrate that ‘he found the thimble in a close where he was at plough… about one flight shot off from John Drayton’s house’. William had given his find to his daughter as a gift.


And whilst ploughing a furrow was hard graft, it was at least a task usually undertaken in company. A team of two was needed: one to hold and guide the plough – this was the strenuous part as you had to ram the plough down into the soil – and another to lead the oxen or horses. William Dowdinge and his brother Bartholomew, of Stogursey, Somserset, paired up to take their father’s team of oxen ‘to plough a close called Scopington’ in early March of the year 1600; William Smith and William Brunsdon ‘did yoke and go to plough together’ in Cliffe Pypard, Wiltshire, in 1631; and in 1682 William Haglie and John Paine ‘began to keep a plough between them’ and did ‘plough about 13 or 14 acres of their own’. This latter pair were enterprising ploughmen, for ‘when they had no work with their plough of their own… they did use to plough for the rest of the parish who had need of it… and employed them’.

That Haglie and Paine sold their ploughing services raises questions about the market-orientation of this task. Was ploughing something that most husbandmen farmers would undertake for themselves, or was it more common to pay specialists to come in and till your land? Whilst Oliver Hanford of Burrington, Devon, gave his occupation as ‘Ploughman’ in a 1557 tithe dispute, he was the only person in our database to do so. If this was a specialist occupation it is not reflected in occupational descriptors, but that may be due to the seasonal nature of the work: a ploughman was not a full-time job, so anyone who undertook this as paid work most likely did so as a form of by-employment.

35a6fec81150fc9f82059a4d7f4242daThe evidence we have suggests that ploughing very often was undertaken as paid work. In 1683 Joane Bayly went to Joane Hele’s house in Ashreigney, Devon, to request ‘some money due unto her husband from the said Joane Hele’s father for ploughing’. Another Devonian, John Hayman of Otterton, was paid ‘by the acre’ for ploughing the grounds of William Browne. In 1551 Thomas Turney did plough the land of Mr Nicholas Snell of Chippenham, and ‘for his said labour’ Snell – who was the tithe collector for the parish – used to cover the cost of Turney’s tithes: ‘viz 6 shillings for every year’. Not everyone paid for ploughing work on the labour market though, and many made use of their own kin or servants to furrow the fields. As we have already seen, the Dowdinge brothers ploughed their father’s fields; William Smyth of Botley in Hampshire ploughed ground for his brother in 1579; and in 1584, John Priddy, a servant to Joan Castle of West Pennard, Somerset, was seen by fellow parishioners ‘going with her plough … and [doing] all other necessary business to be done by such a servant’.

In fact, it is in a case of servants being used in ploughing work that we find our only example of a woman being involved in the task. In 1551 one Margaret Parsons, servant to one Symes of Weston Zoyland, Somerset, ‘did both help to plough the said Symes’ ground and sow it with barley’, and later in the year ‘she did help to reap the said corn’ too. The use of ‘help to’ may be instructive here: it seems likely Parsons would have been leading the oxen, a job often undertaken by boys and occasionally by women. It nonetheless serves as a useful reminder of something we have found again and again in our database: that even work tasks that were heavily gendered either male or female were rarely exclusively so, and it is usually possible to find at least one exception to the rule. The gendered division of tasks was rarely absolute.

That said, ploughing does appear to have been overwhelmingly a form of male work. For many women the end of winter thaw would have instead been a prompt to turn their attention to the parallel task of preparing the garden for the growing season. John Fitzherbert’s The Boke of Husbandry of 1533 advised that:

‘In the begynnyng of Marche or a lytell afore, is tyme for a wyfe to make her garden,  and to gette as many good sedes and herbes as she can, and specially such as be good for the pot and to eate and as oft as nede shall requyre it must be weded, for els the wedes wyl ouergrowe the herbes.’

Evidence of gardening tasks taking place has, however, proved difficult to find in our sources. There is no shortage of examples of people being in their gardens at the time that they witnessed a defamation, or were fetched to witness a will or matrimonial contract, but it is rare that they specify exactly what they were doing at the time. Although it seems safe to assume that many of these women were doing gardening work, we have only been able to record a very small number of explicit activities. One such was undertaken by Alice Burge, a pregnant and married woman from Ashton Keynes in Wiltshire, who was observed by her neighbours in March of 1632 ‘digging and working in her garden… a little before the birth’, a fact that they felt had contributed to her ultimately miscarrying.

We need to be wary here though of sketching out a scenario in which men worked in the fields and women worked in and around the household (something I have written about on this blog before), or assuming that because ploughing was heavily gendered male that the same was true for arable agriculture in general (again, something I have blogged about). Another recurring finding of our project is relevant here: broader categories of work activities—such as agriculture, textile work, or food processing—were often mixed gender, but those categories were composed of a number of more specific tasks, some of which were gendered—such as ploughing or milking—others of which were done by men and women—such as sheep shearing or skinning animals.

So, ploughing may have been men’s work, but as our above example of Margaret Parsons points to, women were involved in other forms of field work such as sowing, weeding and even reaping. There may be a case here for thinking about the ways in which the spatial division of labour changed with the seasons. In February and March the fields may have been a predominantly male domain, with men returning to plough whilst women tended to the garden. But as the seasons progressed women became more prominent in the fields as the range of field work tasks expanded, and by the time of the hay and corn harvests the meadows and fields of early modern England were transformed into mixed gender working environments. If the gender division of labour in sixteenth and seventeenth century rural England was complex, it appears even more so when we recognise its spatial dimensions and seasonal variations.[3]

[1] More specifically from his The Shepherd’s Calendar. For more on Clare – ‘The Peasant Poet’ – he was the focus of a recent In Our Time  episode.

[2] We do have some examples of horses being used in Hampshire, so there may be a regional pattern.

[3] For a fuller discussion of these themes see Amanda Flather, ‘Space, Place, and Gender: The Sexual and Spatial Division of Labor in the Early Modern Household’, History and Theory, 52, no. 3 (October 2013), 344-360.


About manyheadedhailwood

Mark Hailwood is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Bristol
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7 Responses to Workers of the Week: ‘Ploughmen go whistling to their toils’

  1. Dave Postles says:

    This is a ‘normalized’ or ‘normative’ gender mixing. Is there any sense when women doing heavy work is considered transgressive?


    • Women's Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 says:

      Good question. It may be the nature of our records but there isn’t evidence in them of women’s heavy work being considered transgressive, not that I can think of. Some forms of women’s work could be – their involvement in forms of retailing, such as in the drinks trade, attracted negative comment in character references – but no explicit criticism of women doing heavy work.


      • Have you found that women’s involvement in the malting process became transgressive by the end of the 17th century? I have only found “maltster” listed as a man’s occupation, whereas the heavy work on the malting floor seemed to be restricted to women during the 17th century. After that women seem to disappear from the process.


      • Women's Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 says:

        I don’t think we have enough examples of women involved in malting in our database to be able to say anything about changes over time with any great confidence, but I will keep an eye out for this as we do more analysis. There is, of course, Judith Bennett’s work on brewing that suggests a masculinisation of the trade in the 17thC, so it seems reasonable to hypothesise that the same occurred in malting.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed your article, Mark. I’m reminded of Gervase Markham (in Farewel to Husbandry – here is a link to a beautiful copy from 1676, including drawings of the husbandman’s tools: writing that ploughing was done several times in the year, and that the ploughman was at the mercy of the soil. For example, in stiff ground a team could only get through one or one and a half acres in a day, whereas in light soil four acres were possible. I should think that the ingenious Haglie and Paine would have found many willing customers!


    • Women's Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 says:

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post. You are right that the ploughman was at the mercy of the soil – after I published the post I found a great example from Hampshire in the 1580s of a ploughman who had been asked to plough a piece of ground that had been freshly ‘grubbed’ (i.e. a piece of waste land that had been cleared of brambles, tree roots, etc), and he broke two ploughs in the process! On the flip side, he was able to charge 5s per acre rather than his usual rate of 2s 6d because the job was that much harder.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dave Postles says:

        Yes, there was ploughing for sowing of winter corn. Then there were fallow stirrings.
        As to soils, heavy soils=swing plough with oxen; light soils=wheeled plough with horses (crudely).


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