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


However, there are two problems with the data in this form. (1) Women’s work in under-represented and (2) types of court cases affect the reporting of some types of work. 29.4% of work tasks we recorded were carried out by women (and 70.6% by men). Because we included all types of work, including housework and care work, this could only be a true reflection of the distribution of work tasks between women and men if women had more leisure time than men. This is extremely unlikely to have been the case. Time-use studies from almost all societies show that women work longer hours than men. Early modern commentators such as Fitzherbert and Tusser suggest that women’s work was never-ending and more time-pressured than men’s. In addition, we can show that the under-reporting of women’s work is largely a consequence of the courts’ preference for male witnesses. Only 26.5% of the witnesses who reported the work tasks we collected were female. Both men and women were more likely to report the work activities carried out by people of the same gender (91% of male work tasks were witnessed by men).

A simple solution to this issue is to make the (quite conservative) assumption that at least 50% of total work tasks were undertaken by women. To turn 29.4% into 50% requires us to multiple the number of tasks recorded as done by women by 2.41. If this is then applied to the totals of women’s work tasks in the different categories the findings look like this:

Table 2: Female work tasks by category with 50/50 multiplier applied

Category Female tasks recorded Female tasks multiplied by 2.41 50/50 multiplier % of tasks by women
Agriculture and land 213 513 37.3
Care work 106 255 79.2
Commerce 353 851 50.5
Crafts & construction 108 260 43.7
Food processing 73 176 43.6
Housework 218 525 86.9
Management 73 176 54.3
Mining and quarrying 3 7 22.4
Transport 106 255 38.2
Other 8 19 30.0
Total 1261 3037 50.0


The final column shows the percentage of tasks within that category that were carried out by women rather than men with the multiplier applied. These findings look plausible: women dominate housework and care work, but are well represented in other categories – making up half of these engaged in commerce and over half of those carrying out management tasks (financial and work arrangements). Women make up a significant proportion of those carrying out manufacturing, construction and food processing, but slightly less than men. Even in the male dominated activities of agriculture and transport, over a third of work tasks were carried out by women.

While these figures offer a reasonably robust picture of the gender division of labour within each category, they are more problematic when used to infer a picture of women’s or men’s overall work patterns by making comparisons between categories. Table 3 shows the percentage of work tasks undertaken in each category by either women or men (that is, the percentages are calculated down the columns, not across the rows). Here the influence of types of court cases becomes problematic in some categories.

Table 3: The distribution of work tasks across categories by gender

Category Female:

All data



Incidental and related data only (%)


All data (%)


Incidental and related data only (%)

Agriculture and land 16.9 21.0 28.4 37.7
Care work 8.4 10.8 2.2 3.1
Commerce 28.0 17.9 27.4 17.1
Crafts & construction 8.6 8.9 11.0 13.4
Food processing 5.8 5.6 7.5 4.3
Housework 17.3 21.3 2.6 2.3
Management 5.8 5.1 4.9 4.9
Mining and quarrying 0.2 0.3 0.8 1.1
Transport 8.4 8.4 13.6 14.3
Other 0.6 0.8 1.5 1.8
Total 100.0 100.0 99.9 100.0


To guard against this we labelled tasks in the database according to whether they were ‘integral’, ‘related’ or ‘incidental’ to the court case (see the methodology piece for more details). Including work tasks that were integral (or very closely related) to cases inflated the totals of commerce and to a lesser extent, food processing (tasks commonly reported in theft cases in the quarter sessions). If we take these cases out of the analysis, and use only the incidental and related evidence, which was not heavily influenced by the court cases, we get a distribution that reflects the likelihood of women or men carrying out these activities, rather than of the courts recording them.

This is as close as we can get to time-use data. It has some similarities with the modern technique of ‘random spot check observation’, where data on time use is collected by contacting people at certain times of the day, and their activity at that time is recorded. It suggests the relative importance of different types of work to women and men. The findings show that agricultural work tasks (21.0%) had a similar importance to women as housework (21.3%), and that women’s work tasks in commerce (17.9%) were more frequently reported than care work (10.8%). Together women’s housework and care work took up about a third of their work time (32.1%): while this was much higher than the proportion of work tasks carried out by men involving housework and care work (5.2%), it suggests very strongly that the majority of women’s work time was spent doing other things – such as agriculture, commerce, craft production and food processing (53.4% in total).


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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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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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