Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700

It has become increasingly clear that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represented a period of dramatic economic and social change in England. Indeed, the latest research from CamPop’s ‘Occupational Structure of Britain, 1379–1911’ project suggests that the most significant developments in English economic history may have occurred in these earlier centuries, and not in the period classically associated with the Industrial Revolution (c.1760-1840). Moreover, there is a growing sense that economic changes in the early modern period may have had much to do with changes in the working lives of women: Jan de Vries famously hypothesised that the century between 1650-1750 witnessed an ‘Industrious Revolution’ in which workers came to dedicate fewer hours to leisure and more hours to working, or especially in the case of women, came to direct their time not only towards domestic and subsistence work, but increasingly towards the production of goods to sell commercially.

Yet for all the emphasis on the extent of these changes, we still have remarkably little empirical evidence about the everyday working lives of early modern women. Part of the problem is that much of the ground-breaking research into the economic changes of the period focuses on the prevalence of different occupational groups at different times. As both Tawny Paul and Jonas Lindström have pointed out on this blog before, there are some important limitations to this approach. One is that women are rarely given an occupational title in the archival records from our period – they tend to be described by their marital status – and another is that occupational labels often obscure the fact that a man who is known as a ‘carpenter’, for instance, may actually be engaged in a wide range of work activities, such as farming or retailing ale, that are not captured by that title.

Our project, ‘Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700’, sets out to address some of these shortcomings in our understanding of women’s work.

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based at the University of Exeter, our project team of Professor Jane Whittle, Dr Mark Hailwood, and a PhD student, Imogene Dudley, will spend the next three years gathering data about women’s work from archives across the South West of England, covering the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. Not only do these counties have excellent surviving records from this period, they also contain areas that represent most of the main sectors of the early modern English economy: upland pastoral areas of Cornwall and Devon; downland arable areas of Hampshire; cloth producing parts of Somerset and Wiltshire; and proto-industrial mining areas such as the Mendips in Somerset. This should allow us to draw wider conclusions about women’s work in different sectors of the early modern English economy.

Our methodology, designed to overcome the problems inherent in focusing on occupational labels, will be focused instead on collecting evidence of work activities done by both men and women, gathered from a range of court records – quarter sessions examinations, church court depositions, and coroner’s reports (the latter courtesy of Steve Gunn’s accidental death project) – that provide vignettes of everyday life in which people describe doing work or witnessing work activities taking place. This approach is not entirely untested: it was pioneered by Sheilagh Ogilvie in her 2003 study of early modern Germany and is currently used by Maria Ågren’s ‘Gender and Work’ project on pre-industrial Sweden. Our project adapts and develops this ‘verb-oriented approach’ for the English evidence.

In important ways our approach will differ from these pioneering works. For instance, whilst the Gender and Work project looks for examples of the ‘use of time with the goal of making a living’, we will be using 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 is to ensure we record examples of child-care, cooking and home maintenance which may not necessarily be classed as ‘making a living’, but which we believe are an important component of women’s work. A more detailed discussion of our definition of work can be found in this recent blog post by Jane Whittle.

Moreover, whilst we will be focusing on verb-phrases in our sources, we will be adopting a relatively narrow focus on verb-phrases relating to specific individuals engaged in specific tasks. We would 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 gathering evidence of specific individuals actively engaged in specific tasks, we hope to be able to get a clearer sense of who is actually doing what at the everyday level. What we hope to record then are individuals caught in the (work) act. We will be blogging again soon on our project website with more detail about our criteria for what types of information we are recording in our study.

Possibly the most exciting thing about undertaking this project is the potential it will yield for comparisons with other research projects. Although our definition of work will differ from that of the Gender and Work project, we are confident from our early discussions with them that we will be able to make valuable comparisons between England and Sweden if we work closely together on the way we sort our work activities into larger categories of work types that can then be compared. The same will also be possible for comparing our results with Shelagh Ogilvie’s findings on early modern Germany. It will also be possible to classify our activities into ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ forms of work to make our results compatible with the Occupational Structure project.

The project is still in its very early stages – though you can read about some of our first archival finds in Mark Hailwood’s blog post on women’s role in agriculture – but we hope that we will be able to produce data that will make a major contribution to our empirical knowledge of early modern women’s work in England, and that will feed into wider debates both about women’s work across Europe and about more general economic development before industrialisation.

Dr Mark Hailwood is a full-time Associate Research Fellow on the Women’s Work in Rural England project. Mark is a social historian of England in the period 1500-1750, with a particular interest in the relationship between historical change and the everyday lives of ordinary men and women. His published work to date focuses on early modern drinking culture and on occupational identity.

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