Court Depositions of South West England, 1500-1700: A Digital Resource

Charmian Mansell

Last month, the Women’s Work team celebrated the launch of our new digital edition of Quarter Sessions and Church Court depositions (you can find it here).During my time on the project, I spent several months selecting, transcribing, annotating and coding this material and it’s a real pleasure for me to finally see the fruits of this labour. The resource contains 80 fully transcribed and annotated depositions relating to a selection of 20 cases from across South West England. These depositions have been at the centre of our project and are an essential resource for anyone interested in the social, economic and legal environment of early modern England.

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The Drowning of Henry Abbott

In celebration of this launch, this latest instalment of our project blog focuses on the case of Henry Abbott of Bridgwater in Somerset.  The depositions of this case can be read in full here.

Early one September morning in 1650, five men of Bridgwater (Somerset) – Richard Weekes, Henry Abbott, Thomas Robinson and his two sons – entered Richard Glover’s field to reap corn.  Upon arriving, it began to rain and so they returned to the town and drank beer in the house of one William Wookey, which cost them 15d.  As the weather improved, the men returned to the field, but Henry Abbott remained behind and continued drinking.  A can and a half of beer later, he too returned to the field as the men stopped work for breakfast.  He told them that he had run into Richard Glover who had requested that they cut the corn lower and further. Continue reading

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The Project’s Findings: What work did women and men do in early modern England?

Jane Whittle

The project blog has been quiet for a while – I’ve been working away on a series of articles from the project, Mark has taken up a lectureship in History at Bristol University, and the project has been joined by Dr Charmian Mansell in January 2018. However, to celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re starting a new series of blogs looking at the project’s main findings. Please read these alongside our piece on methodology, also available on the project website.

So what work did women and men do in early modern England? We collected 4300 instances of specific work tasks carried out by specific people from church court depositions, quarter sessions examinations and coroners’ reports from Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Cornwall, dating from between 1500 and 1700 (although mostly after 1550). We sorted these work tasks into ten broad categories of types of work, shown in table 1 below. These show that none of these broad areas of work were gender exclusive: all involved both women and men.

Table 1: Work tasks by category: raw data

Category Total Male Female % Female
Agriculture and land 1077 864 213 19.8
Care work 173 67 106 61.3
Commerce 1187 834 353 29.7
Crafts and construction 443 335 108 24.4
Food processing 301 228 73 24.3
Housework 297 79 218 73.4
Management 221 148 73 33.0
Mining and quarrying 28 25 3 10.7
Transport 520 414 106 20.4
Other 53 45 8 15.1
 TOTAL 4300 3039 1261  29.4

Continue reading

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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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