Sickles, Scythes and Slaughter: Images of Work in Books of Hours

Jane Whittle

Late medieval books of hours provide a wealth of attractive illustrations, apparently of ordinary people going about their work across the agricultural year. Conventionally, books of hours begin with a calendar of Christian festivals illustrated with the labours of the months and the signs of the zodiac. In this blog I re-examine some of these ‘labours’, making comparisons with initial findings of the ‘Women’s work in rural England 1500-1700’ project, looking particularly at the gender of workers, and the seasonality of activities.

For the historian of rural England, the basic question is: how far can these images be taken to illustrate English rural life, rather than that on the continent? Some elements are clearly alien, such as viniculture, and the architecture of Flemish farmhouses. But collecting firewood, shearing sheep, mowing hay, harvesting grain, ploughing and sowing, and the slaughtering of animals – all staple images from the books of hours – were also essential activities for the inhabitants of rural England. It is on these activities that I focus here.


April, Da Costa Hours

Most late medieval books of hours were produced in Flanders and France. The workshop of Simon Bening in Bruges, Flanders, produced a series of particularly captivating hours in the early sixteenth century such as the Da Costa Hours (c.1515)[1]; the Hennesy Hours (c.1530)[2]; and the ‘Golf’ Book (c.1540)[3]. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Recreating Work Activities: A Valuable Visit to the Weald & Downland Museum

Mark Hailwood

On the 8th and 9th of September (2016) our whole project team headed over to Sussex to participate in a ‘Knowledge Exchange Workshop’ with the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum. In basic terms this involved us telling museum workers some of our findings about work activities in early modern England, and in turn them showing us how some of the activities would have been done in the period. The event was fascinating and fun in equal measure, and I wanted to take the opportunity in this blog to provide a brief account of some of the highlights and offer some thoughts on how this type of interaction between ‘academic history’ and ‘living history’ can be particularly fruitful. Continue reading

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Workers of the Week: Family Fortunes

Mark Hailwood

For the Women’s Work project this summer is shaping up to be the ‘summer of love (doing lots of data entry)’. At a recent meeting we drew up our wish-list of publications we would ultimately like to produce – more on those in future posts – so for the next few months it is a case of harvesting as much evidence of work activities as we can to give us a healthy quantity of data to base them on.

But ‘data entry’ probably isn’t the best way to describe the harvesting process that is currently our focus: reading thousands of depositions (I recently estimated that I’ve read somewhere between 6000-7000 individual depositions so far this year) and all of the stories of everyday life that they contain, and then carefully converting these complex qualitative sources into usable quantitative data, is a more varied and stimulating exercise than the term ‘data entry’ conjures up.

One of the upshots of this kind of work is that in among all the lengthy tithe and testamentary disputes that often turn out to be of little use to us, you occasional unearth a remarkably rich case that contains a veritable jackpot of work activities. And it is one such case that I want to discuss in this installment of our ‘Workers of the Week‘ series.

‘Households in a landscape’

Step forward, then, our ‘Workers of the Week’: the Conant Family of Moretonhampstead. Continue reading

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How ‘domestic’ was women’s work?

Mark Hailwood

It has been a busy spring for the project team, presenting lots of papers about our methodology and preliminary results. It has been a valuable opportunity to develop our thinking, and now the dust has settled a bit after our recent bout of ‘touring’ we wanted to offer some of our emerging reflections on one of our key research questions: how ‘domestic’ was women’s work in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

It is a commonly held perception – and one often endorsed by historians – that the majority of women throughout history have spent the majority of their time engaged in ‘domestic duties’ of various sorts. But what exactly do we mean by ‘domestic’ here? Whilst the term might seem like a relatively straightforward and intuitive one, historians that have deployed the term ‘domestic’ in reference to work activities have often done so with different meanings of it in mind. Three principal meanings are common in the literature:

(1) it is used to refer to certain types of task (cooking, cleaning, washing – what we tend to think of as modern ‘housework’ – and childcare)

(2) used to refer to the location of work (within the home)

(3) used to refer to its market orientation (with domestic work equated with subsistence work – the production of goods or performance of services that are consumed by members of the same household, rather than producing goods or providing services outside of that household unit for pay in either cash or kind).

Confusingly, historians have often used the term without explicit explanation of which of these meanings they have in mind, or in some cases have invoked these different meanings interchangeably and/or bundled them together in characterising ‘women’s work’. In other words, whilst there is a widespread willingness to associate women’s work with the term ‘domestic’, the latter is not generally deployed with much precision.

As we continue to gather evidence of women’s everyday work activities from English court records from the period 1500-1700, one of our aims is therefore to interrogate the applicability of the term ‘domestic’ to women’s work. Our preliminary results suggest significant limitations to all three applications of the term outlined above. Continue reading

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Why do women carry things on their heads?

Jane Whittle

Agnes Parker of Chilton Cantelo, Somerset, was crossing a bridge in 1592 with a bundle of hay on her head and a pot for milking in her hand, when a gust of wind blew her off and into the water below, where she drowned. Clearly the combination of a large load of hay on your head, a heavy woollen dress and high winds could be fatal. Mark has already mentioned this case from the coroners’ inquests in his post on agricultural work. But it got me thinking about another set of issues altogether. Why did (and do) women carry things on their heads?

There is good visual evidence from medieval and early modern north-west Europe that it used to be commonplace for women to carry heavy or awkward loads in this way. The earliest English example I know is in the Luttrell Psalter, an exceptionally revealing illuminated manuscript from the early fourteenth century, now owned by the British Library. Among its many scenes of agricultural life is one of sheep being milked in a pen, whilst two women walk away with pots on their heads, presumably carrying the milk back to the farm:

luttrell Continue reading

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Workers of the Week: Night Owls

Mark Hailwood

In this latest instalment of our ‘Workers of the Week‘ series I’m going to depart from the usual focus on historic work activities from this particular time of year. Instead, I want to explore a seasonally inspired question. It’s that time of year – the bleak midwinter – when the short daylight hours mean that many of us find ourselves both going to and coming home from work in the dark – or, rather, in the artificial glow of street- and head-lights. For us, then, the length of daylight hours does little to dictate the hours we work. But how, in the age before electric light and widespread street-lighting, did the length of daylight hours shape the working lives of our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ancestors? Continue reading

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