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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Workers of the Week: Winter is Coming

Mark Hailwood

Brueghelian winter

Brueghelian winter

It’s time for another post in our recently launched ‘Workers of the Week‘ series, in which we highlight some appropriately seasonal examples of the work activities the project is finding. The focus this week, then, is on workers doing tasks designed to make ready for the onset of winter.

A significant number of our examples from late November and early December relate to the replenishing of wood supplies to fuel much-needed winter fires. On the 25th of November 1591, Thomas Ven, an 80-year-old husbandman of King’s Brompton in Somerset, was up a ladder pruning an oak tree with an axe when he plummeted to his death. Locals must have started to wonder if evil spirits possessed the wood of Barlynch Grove, where Ven had fallen, for in December of the following year the 28-year-old Edward Norman met his end by falling out of an ash tree that he had climbed to cut branches from. Continue reading

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Workers of the Week: Autumnal Gatherers and Cider Makers

Mark Hailwood

This is the first post of a new series – ‘Workers of the Week’ – that we are going to be running on the blog, designed to highlight some interesting examples of both women’s and men’s work activities that we are finding and recording. There won’t be a post every week, but we’ll aim to produce them on a regular basis, and we’ll be picking examples that date from roughly the same time of year as the post. This way, we hope the series will help us to think about seasonal patterns of early modern work, as well as adding a bit of historical context to the changing of the seasons today.

AcornsSo, our first ‘Worker of the Week’ is a suitably autumnal example: William Thomas (alias Whitegh), a husbandman of Whitechurch, Somerset, who on October 1st 1559, between 9am and 10am in the morning, climbed an oak tree to collect acorns. Unfortunately William faltered and fell to his death – and hence this activity is recorded in the coroners’ reports that we are using as one of the sources of information for the project.[1] Continue reading

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Finding Work (in the Archives)

Mark Hailwood

In a nutshell, the aim of our project is to gather an unprecedented level of information about women’s work in early modern England (1500-1700) by drawing on incidental information about everyday work activities contained in witness statements given before the courts. When you crack open the nutshell, though, it soon becomes clear that such an endeavour is far from straightforward.

First of all, there is the issue of how we define work. This is something Jane has already blogged about, here, but if you want another ‘nutshell’ summary, we are defining it as: any activity that could be substituted with purchased goods or services. Then, though, there is the issue of what we mean by a work ‘activity’. This is an issue I’ve tackled in another blog post, here, the nub of which is that we are focusing on specific work tasks (mowing grass, shearing sheep), rather than more general activities that contribute to making a living (owning a farm, working in service) that are composed of a wide range of unspecified tasks – we want to build an understanding of historical work patterns out of the most basic unit of work: the individual task.

Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, written c. 1306

Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, written c. 1306

So, we’ve got our ducks in a row on these issues, but how do we translate these principles into a working methodology that we can apply to our sources? Well, we’ve been working on this too, and in this post I want to set out some of the nuts and bolts of our methodology for identifying work activities in the archive and for recording them. We would welcome any feedback you might have in the comments section. Continue reading

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Work in Progress

Mark Hailwood

milkmaidsIt has been a busy couple of months on the project, and a crucial period in the development of our project team, database and methodology. This post is intended to provide a brief update on what has been happening, and to signpost a few items of interest for followers of the project and the blog. Continue reading

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Did Women Work in Agriculture?

Mark Hailwood

Domestic work

Kitchen Interior, by Emanuel de Witte (Dutch, 17thC). Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Credit: Seth K. Sweetser Fund

As Jane discussed in our previous post – ‘What is Work?’ – women’s work in early modern England is often assumed to have been principally ‘domestic’, taking place within the home and consisting mainly of childcare and housework. One key aim of our project is to uncover as much information as we can about such ‘domestic’ work, and to give it its due as an important and productive part of the economy. At the same time, however, we think it ‘unlikely that these tasks would have taken up the majority of most women’s time in the early modern economy’, as Jane puts it. Another key aim of the project then is gathering evidence of the full range of work activities that women undertook. In this post I will consider the extent to which these might have included agricultural tasks. Continue reading

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What is Work?

Jane Whittle

Tusser: women’s work ‘has never an end’.

Tusser: women’s work ‘has never an end’. But what is it?

Thomas Tusser, in his Elizabethan farming advice book, Five Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry United to as Many of Good Huswiferie (1573) noted that women’s work ‘has never an end’, yet historians of women’s work have struggled to find evidence of women’s work in the rural economy. Men appear to have outnumbered women as day labourers, and the main areas of agriculture – arable and livestock husbandry – seem to be male dominated. And yet authors such as Tusser who wrote about sixteenth century farming were sure that women’s tasks were important to the household economy and kept them endlessly busy. The solution to this conundrum surely lies in two areas, both which this project aims to investigate. One is the type of evidence historians use to document work activities – something we will return to in future blog posts. The other is how we define work: what is work exactly? Continue reading

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