Mark Hailwood and Jane Whittle

We have written about the most important aspects of our project’s methodology in a variety of different blog posts: the below essay draws together and expands on those discussions to provide a more comprehensive guide to how and why our database has been constructed in the way it has. There are five sections:

– our definition of work

– an outline of our ‘task-oriented’ approach

– our criteria for recording work activities

– what information we record in the database

– our sample

Defining work

Modern understandings of work are usually taken as self-evident. Work is very largely paid work or employment. Occasionally people are ‘self-employed’, but they have clearly defined income-generating activities. Activities that do not bring in income, such as child-care and housework, are rarely considered to be work in contemporary society. While they are not normally seen as leisure, they are also not seen as part of the wider economy unless someone is paid to do them for you. Applying such common-sense modern definitions to the pre-industrial rural economy is far from straightforward. In sixteenth-century England only a minority of people depended on wage labour as their main form of income. Historians therefore tend to discuss ‘making a living’ and the ‘income generation’ activities of early modern households. But put under scrutiny, these terms are also problematic. When an early modern housewife made cheese, or a husbandman grew wheat, much of which was consumed directly by the household although some was sold at market, to what extent were they engaged in income generation? What if these activities were primarily aimed at directly feeding the family, and a surplus was only sold if the necessity arose? Was it still work? What about a maidservant employed to undertake child-care and housework, but doing occasional agricultural work when needed – was that work?

On the whole, historians approach these issues by trying to separate market-orientated work from ‘domestic’ work, and perhaps income-generating work from subsistence work and caring work, but these distinctions were not current in the sixteenth century. To sixteenth-century observers such as Thomas Tusser, all these activities were work necessary for the prosperity and continuance of the household. And given how slim our evidence is of who actually did what within early modern farming households (the majority of households in the period), separating out these types of activities relies heavily on guesswork. It is often said that women did the majority of ‘domestic’ work and men dominated income-generation but this is (a) an assumption and (b) raises a further question about the definition of ‘domestic’ work. Does domestic work mean the equivalent of modern child-care and housework? It seems unlikely that these tasks would have taken up the majority of most women’s time in the early modern economy. Really, given that ‘domestic’ means ‘of the home’, and that the home was the primary location of work in the early modern period, calling women’s work ‘domestic’ is not particularly helpful in terms of defining a type of work.

These issues are not unique to historical societies. The UN’s national accounting guidelines (used globally to calculate GDP) have been criticised for under-recording women’s work. As a result, in 1993 it adopted a broader definition of ‘productive activities’ (or work) based the idea of the ‘third party criterion’, originally developed by economist Margaret Reid. In her 1934 book The Economics of Household Production, in which she was concerned to account properly for work undertaken within the household, Reid argued that any activity that could be substituted with purchased goods or services should be considered ‘productive’ and part of the economy. Thus sleeping, eating and leisure would fail to qualify under the third party criterion, as they lose their purpose if undertaken by someone else, while in contrast child-care, cooking and home maintenance do qualify and are considered productive activities even if undertaken as unpaid work within one’s own home.

To date, no-one has tried applying the third party criterion to an analysis of the early modern economy. And contrary to what we might expect, it seems possible that caring work and housework were more monetized in the early modern period than they became in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Servants were commonly employed to undertake this work, with wage assessments explicitly describing the work of a skilled female servant in a farming household as being equivalent to that of the wife. Even breast-feeding was available as a monetized service. As a result, early modern householders almost certainly had a much more accurate understanding of the monetary value of child-care and housework than modern historians do. Looking at work in this way – with the tasks undertaken by family members which provided goods and services directly for the family seen as a means of saving expenditure and contributing to the household economy – is probably much closer to early modern understandings of work than the ‘common-sense’ definitions modern historians have attempted to apply. Whether or not caring work and direct-subsistence work was dominated by women rather than men, using the third party criterion – any activity that could be substituted with purchased goods or services – offers a clearer and better justified definition of work within the typical early modern household. This is the definition our project works with.

The task-oriented approach

Reconstructing the work undertaken by women within the typical early modern household is far from straightforward, especially if we adopt the methodologies conventionally used to study men’s work. The recovery of occupational descriptors for instance—which has been the focus of much important work by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure—is of limited usefulness as a window onto women’s work as occupational titles were so rarely accorded to women in early modern records. Wage data has been another valuable source of information for historians of men’s work—and a significant recent article by Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf has now produced a wage series for women from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries—but the majority of women’s work was not waged. We need, then, to adopt another approach, and for this our project has drawn inspiration from what has been called the ‘verb-oriented’ approach, first pioneered by Sheilagh Ogilvie in her study of early modern Germany and since developed by Maria Ågren’s ‘Gender and Work’ project on pre-industrial Sweden. The central principle here is to use records that contain evidence of people doing work activities: not to try and assume these activities from occupational titles or wages paid, but to uncover specific references to people directly engaged in various types of work. The advantage of such an approach is that it allows us to try and build an understanding of historical work patterns out of the most basic unit of work: the individual task.

The records that can be used to identify ‘verb-phrases’ pertaining to work activities are many and varied, ranging from court records of various types (Ogilvie used prosecutions for sabbath-breaking, for instance), to account books, petitions and diaries. Importantly, these types of records tend to provide much better coverage of women’s lives than do wage data or occupational records. Court records in particular, as social historians of early modern gender have long since shown us, very often involved women as plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses.  For our project we have looked at three main types of record that are particularly abundant in the English context. The first are quarter sessions examinations, which are essentially witness and defendant statements taken for criminal cases at the county level courts, and usually arise from instances of theft, assault and other petty crimes. The second are church court depositions, which are again witness statements but taken in these courts which dealt with moral offences such as adultery and defamation, as well as matrimonial, testamentary, and tithe disputes. The third are coroners’ reports, which provide accounts of accidental deaths and what people were doing at the time, for example drawing water from a well when they fell in and drowned.

Each type of record has its inherent biases: they do not necessarily give us a representative view of the range and frequency of work activities people undertook. Coroners’ reports over-represent dangerous forms of work; church court tithe disputes are overwhelmingly about arable agriculture as the amount of grain due to the church is often what is under dispute; quarter sessions cases over-represent activities that have a connection to criminality. We have ways for trying to deal with the most obvious examples of certain sources over-representing certain activities, discussed further below, but we hope that by using a range of different records, and a range of types of cases within each court, that we capture a wide variety of different work activities. We are also in a position to compare the results we produce from each type of source and to identify just how strongly the sources are dictating what we find.

In important ways our approach differs from the pioneering works of Ogilvie and Agren et al. For instance, whilst the Gender and Work project looks for examples of the ‘use of time with the goal of making a living’, we use a broader definition of work based around Margaret Reid’s ‘third party criterion’ idea: any activity that could be substituted with purchased goods or services. This ensures we record examples of child-care, cooking and home maintenance which may not necessarily be classed as ‘making a living’, but which were an important component of women’s work.

Moreover, whilst we focus on verb-phrases in our sources, we adopt a relatively narrow focus on verb-phrases relating to specific individuals engaged in specific tasks. We do not, for instance, include examples such as ‘owning a farm’, or even ‘working in service’. For us, these examples still obscure as much as they reveal. An individual described as ‘owning a farm’ may rely on others to carry out agricultural tasks; to manage the farm accounts; to take it’s goods to market and to sell them. It tells us relatively little about who does what tasks on that farm. Likewise with ‘working in service’: this could cover a range of activities from agricultural labour to carrying out financial transactions that represent very different types of work. By focusing our project on evidence of specific individuals actively engaged in specific tasks we get a clearer sense of who is actually doing what at the everyday level, recording individuals caught in the (work) act.

Criteria for recording work activities

How do these definitions of work and the principle of focusing on specific tasks work in practice? When reading through our sampled quarter sessions examinations, church court depositions, or coroners’ reports – more on our sample below – we looked for examples of work activities that met the following criteria:

a) a specific individual (b) professing to have done or observed doing (c) a specified work activity

Simple enough on the surface – but each of these components comes with some additional criteria:

(a) a specific individual

As a minimum requirement for an individual to be recorded we need a gender – for a project about the gendered character of work this is an important piece of information! Any other information (names, age, etc) is recorded but not essential. (It’s worth pointing out here that we recorded both women’s and men’s work, to allow us to compare the two). It must also be clear that that individual has engaged in the work act themselves, not potentially employed someone else to do it for them (for instance, a farmer in a tithe dispute may talk about ‘growing oats on his land’, but that would not be sufficient evidence that he himself either sowed or harvested the same – he could possibly have paid others to do all of these tasks).

(b) professing to have done or observed doing

The crucial thing to note here is that we are not looking for definitive proof that an individual did an activity, only that there is a plausible account of them doing so. For instance, in many court cases an individual will claim to have bought a sheep they are accused by other witnesses of stealing. We do not want to try and second guess the ‘truth’ of these claims, so where a plausible account of a work activity is provided we record it, adopting a kind of Natalie Zemon Davis ‘fiction in the archives’ approach – it must have needed to be plausible if it was going to convince the court.

Take the following example: in 1598 one Thomasine Weather was accused of having stolen a sheep, but claimed that she could not have done so because at the time of the crime she had been elsewhere. She deposed that:

‘upon Thursday was fortnight about five of the clock in the afternoon, she went forth from her mother’s house to fetch a burden of wood, who went for the same to one Henry Burnard’s ground called the Butte Moore about a quarter of a mile off, and then returned home again about six of the clock in the same night, and after that stayed in her mother’s house all night.’

True or not (and it seems from other witness statements in the case that it may not have been – they all had different versions of precisely when she had gone out and come back, and what sort of wood she had gathered) we would nonetheless record this as a plausible account of a work activity: fetching wood.

(c) a specified work activity

Anything that comes under the ‘3rd party criterion’ discussed above – any activity that could be substituted with purchased goods or services – whilst relating to a specific task (spinning, mowing etc) rather than being a more general description such as ‘service’ or ‘labouring’ that could encompass any range of work activities.

Another illustrative example might be useful to highlight how this applies in practice. This is the deposition of Alice Kingston, of Exeter, Devon, given in a church court tithe case in 1634: She said that

[she] ‘did live with Mr Street late of St Edmund’s parish three years and half or thereabout ended now about a year since, and in that time the said Mr Streete did keep three milk kyne [cows] which commonly all the summer time did pasture upon the grounds of [Mr] Joanes in every the said years … and saith that this deponent hath divers tymes in the said years milked the said kyne in the grounds called the shillowes.’

What do we record here? Well, we record Alice Kingston as a specified individual, professing to have done a specific work activity, milking cows. We would not record anything else: Mr Street may have helped to secure a living by ‘keeping three milk cows’, but there is not enough evidence here to say what activities, if any, he was involved in as a result: he may simply have owned them, and paid others – such as Alice Kingston – to do the specifics of ‘keeping’ them. Mr Jones may have taken cows in to pasture on his land as a way of making a living – again, though, it is not explicit what specific tasks this involved him in.

In addition to applying this criterion of specificity we have also excluded certain types of activity that would otherwise overwhelm the database. Broadly speaking our intention was to record activities that were incidental to the court case, not the central focus of it, to minimise the over-representation of certain types of work by certain types of court case. The most significant of these exclusions is criminal activity – not because we don’t consider it as a form of work necessarily, but because it would end up accounting for 90% of our entries given its prominence in the quarter sessions in particular (especially theft).

For similar reasons we also excluded the performance of any form of office-holding, including duties of constables and the clergy, and any activities that constitute part of the legal process itself. This includes activities such as the drawing up of wills in testamentary cases, and any duties undertaken by an executor in the process of administering a will; any fetching of witnesses to wills or marriage contracts or any other contract / payment central to the case, or fetching of people to discuss the central features of a case with them, or fetching of suitors in matrimonial cases; the writing, witnessing, discussion of bonds, contracts, debts etc when these are the subject of / central to the case itself. Other activities were excluded on the grounds of being intrinsic to certain types of commonly occurring case: for instance the preparation of tithe corn for collection, and said collection, as this again would end up being significantly over-represented by the large number of tithe cases in the church court records; likewise the delivery, exchange or purchase of gifts in matrimonial cases are excluded.

Of course, some types of activities that we have recorded are still likely to be over-represented by our sources [e.g. buying and selling in theft cases where these activities are given as plausible alternatives to accusations of theft] but the principle was to try and avoid the over-representation of activities that were not routine or typical work activities [e.g. making a will, searching a house for stolen goods, buying wedding gifts, burying a corpse, collecting tithe payments, giving a sermon, ministers or officials carrying out duties] but would appear so if we had recorded them from our sources. That is not to say that we did not record unusual work activities, but we wanted to avoid making unusual activities appear as a dominant features of everyday work repertoires because they are significantly over-represented in our sources.

Another way in which we have attempted to deal with this issue is by assigning each work activity we recorded an ‘information status’. Where the work activity is mentioned simply in passing and has nothing to do with the central matter of the case – for instance if a deponent was weeding in a field when they overheard defamatory words exchanged by two passers-by – then we have recorded this activity as ‘incidental’ information. Where a work activity is at the centre of a case, and its occurrence itself is either in dispute or closely connected to a criminal activity that is the subject of a case, we have recorded such activities as ‘integral’ information. Common examples here are accounts of having bought goods that an individual has been accused of stealing, and individuals conducting legitimate work activities with stolen goods, such as boiling stolen mutton. Such activities are recorded in the deposition because of their significance in the case, and they are therefore much more likely to be over-represented in that type of case than ‘incidental’ activities.

We also deploy a third status of ‘related’ information, which falls between the first two. The most common example of this comes from tithe cases – such as the one discussed above of milking cows – where an activity is not the central matter of the case nor under dispute itself, but does have some bearing on the case. So, if an individual gave evidence that they knew how much tithe corn their master should pay because they had helped to reap their master’s corn that summer, it is the value of tithe due that is under dispute, not the activity of reaping the corn itself. Such activities are not the central matter in tithe cases, but their recording is not completely incidental, so they are likely to be heavily represented in that type of case but not to the extent that integral activities are. In practice, of course, the lines between these three categories are not absolute and the researcher has to use their best judgement on which status to assign – but we have ensured that like-for-like cases are always assigned the same status. This classification allows us to experiment with filtering out work activities that still appear to be over-represented by certain types of court case even after our above exclusions have been applied.

A final point to highlight here is how we deal with ‘verbs of command’, i.e. when an individual orders or asks another individual to do something. For instance, in 1598 Edmund Bishop of Culmstock deposed that Matthew Foxe ‘willed him’ to deliver a heffer to Tiverton. We would record the delivery of the heffer as a work activity, but we would not record ‘will another to deliver heffer’ on the part of Matthew Foxe as an activity. This applies where all we have is the verb of command – essentially a speech-act – attached to the individual doing the ordering. However, in instances where ordering/asking takes place in the context of someone having gone somewhere to arrange something, this has been included as a work activity, i.e. when a verb of command is accompanied by another verb that denotes evidence of time-use above and beyond a speech-act. This also helps to clarify that the commander has personally engaged in the task, whereas a command without this could in theory have been communicated by another, or by a letter etc. This approach allows us to record evidence of this type of managerial work, without having to record every – often quite abstract – reference to a verb of command as a work activity.

The information we record in the database

When an activity has passed the test, we then recorded as much contextual detail as we could about the individuals involved and the context in which the activity took place. The full range of information we have recorded can be seen in the screenshots of our database, below. First we record a variety of archival information and references, including the type of case and the county it took place in. Then we record information about the actors and witnesses involved in an activity. Where it is provided – and almost all of the following categories are unevenly recorded across our sources – we record the name, gender, marital status, parish of residence and age of our actors. We record any familial, service, or employment relations they have where these are specified, and where their deposition has been signed we record whether this was done with a mark or a full signature. We record their role in the case – Actor? Witness? – and any occupational or status descriptors accorded to them – something that allows us to compare occupational titles with the work activities an individual actually engaged in.


With regards to the activity, we record the number of individuals involved in it, if specified; a transcription of the relevant passage of the deposition describing the activity (we do not transcribe the entire deposition, but we do archive photographs of each deposition to allow us to refer back to the original record if necessary), this is then converted into a standardised activity – usually in the verb-noun format – which is then assigned to one of our overarching work categories (e.g. ‘Agriculture and land’ or ‘Commerce’). We record as much information as possible about the date and time at which it took place, as well as the parish and any more specific information about the activity’s location.


We then assign the activity an ‘info status’, as explained above, record whether the task was done for another and if so the nature of that relationship if specified (e.g. for another – service; or for another – kin). Finally we record any information about payment for work and any further notes of interest, and assign the activity to a sub-category within its broader work category (e.g. ‘field work’ within ‘Agriculture and land’).


Taken together all of this information allows us to analyse the ways in which both women’s and men’s work was structured by age, by seasonality, by space, by time, by employment relations, and so forth, as well as by gender.

The sample

Our sources are examinations / depositions from the following courts:

– Devon Quarter Sessions (including Cornish material)

– Somerset Quarter Sessions

– Wiltshire Quarter Sessions

– Devon (Bishop of Exeter) Consistory Court (including Cornish material)

– Somerset (Bishop of Bath and Wells) Consistory Court

– Wiltshire (Bishop of Salisbury) Consistory Court

– Hampshire (Bishop of Winchester) Consistory Court

– Coroners’ Reports relating to Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, taken from the database of the ‘Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England’ project.

Between them they cover a swathe of counties from south and west England from Hampshire to Cornwall, selected because they contained a range of agricultural regimes and rural industries, some of which favoured women’s employment and some which did not. The years covered by each court vary: the church court records are concentrated in the years 1550-1700, the quarter sessions 1600-1700, and the coroners’ reports 1500-1600. Where survival allows we have taken roughly one year’s worth of quarter sessions and one church court deposition book per decade. This amounts to approximately 15000 depositions that we have consulted, which have yielded evidence of 4300 work activities being undertaken. The table below shows the distribution of these activities by county and court, and the ‘hit rate’ for each (i.e. the % of depositions from that court that contain a work activity). Devon and Somerset dominate the sample (accounting for 34% and 39% of activities respectively), and the majority of activities come from quarter sessions examinations (57%), with the church courts accounting for 38% and the coroners’ reports just 5%.


We can also see the balance between male and female activities observed in different counties and in the different types of court in the table below. For both church courts and quarter sessions approximately 30% of the activities recorded were done by women. For coroners’ reports it is much lower at 15%.


In our final results we will be in a position to consider the prevalence of different types of women’s work in different counties, and the different picture that emerges from each different type of court material.

Hopefully this essay provides a helpful overview of the methodology we have deployed for this project and the information we have gathered as a result. In due course the database itself will be deposited in an open access repository that we will link to from this website, and at the same time we will deposit a full list of the detailed data entry rules and conventions that were followed in constructing the database, allowing full access to all of our material and a complete guide to our methodology. If you have any questions in the meantime do contact us.