How to define and understand early modern work?

This post on defining work comes from Jezzica Israelsson, a doctoral student at Uppsala University, where she is a member of the Gender and Work project. Her thesis analyzes descriptions of work in petitions to certain regional administrations in Sweden between ca. 1760 to 1880, in order to find out what role work played when people sent in these letters and what meanings they ascribed to work in their struggle to protect their rights.

Jezzica Israelsson (Uppsala University)

In today’s society, the concept of work is strongly connected to productive and remunerated activities, often performed outside of the home.[1] In early modern times however, there were no clear boundaries between either home and work or leisure and work. Many things people did for their sustenance were not paid, and if they were it was often in kind or through lodging and food.[2] Recent research has also shown that men and women rarely had one occupation, but engaged in many different tasks to make a living.[3] In addition, society was characterized by some living off the returns of their property and others by their manual labour.[4]

First page of Anna Nilsdotter's letter
Anna Nilsdotter’s letter, 1734, Uppsala landsarkiv (See note 5 below)

These complexities make it clear that delineating what constituted early modern work can be quite problematic. In this post I will highlight two situations where these difficulties are illustrated and what consequences different definitions might have. The examples are taken from the sources I am working on within my thesis project: petitions to regional administrations in Sweden.


In March 1734, Anna Nilsdotter – the wife of an absconded sailor – was requested to pay the debts she owed to a local tradesman. The regional administration of Uppsala, headed by the governor, ordered her to explain herself. She did so about a month later, in a letter where she described that her husband had put her in debt to other creditors. In order to keep her credit with them, without which she said she ‘could not honestly feed myself and my child’, she had had to pay them and thus needed extra time to pay the petitioning tradesman.[5]

About twenty years later, in April 1758, the vicar of Munktorp parish asked for permission to enclose a pasture, in order to make it into a hay-producing meadow. Up until then, the people living nearby had been allowed to let their animals graze on the same plot. Among them was the curate Johan Baggstedt who, when he heard of the vicar’s request, sent in his own letter to the regional administration of Västmanland asking to be able to continue to use this land for his animals. Because, he stated ‘how else would I provide for myself?’[6]

First page of Johan Baggstedt's letter
Johan Baggstedt’s letter, 1758 , Uppsala landsarkiv (see note 6 below)

Neither Nilsdotter’s action to settle her debt or Baggstedt’s efforts to keep the right to use the pasture could be qualified as productive or remunerated, yet they both claimed what they did was crucial for their sustenance. With a delineation of work as something waged, these activities would fall outside of the scope and consequently, some strategies of how early modern people made a living would be overlooked. Another problem with studying productive and/or remunerated work is that activities performed by women are generally underreported in the sources or hidden behind the name of the household head. The same is the case when using occupational titles to define work, as – at least in the Swedish case – women were rarely given such a denomination.[7] In the example above, Nilsdotter was titled ‘wife’ (hustru) which gives no indication of how she supported herself. Baggstedt’s title, might even be misleading since it is not apparent that engaging in a legal process as a means to secure your sustenance would be part of a curate’s (komminister) tasks. More recently however, the actual work activities that early modern people performed has come under scholarly scrutiny, together with a broader view on what constituted work. Within the Gender and Work project at Uppsala University, work has been defined as ‘time use, the purpose of which is to secure a living […]’.[8] With this definition of work, it is possible to encompass the activities of Nilsdotter, Baggstedt and many other petitioners, and to get a more complete picture of how people provided for themselves in preindustrial society.




[1] The reality can of course be more complex. For a discussion of what might constitute work, see Ronco and Peattie, 1988, ‘Making Work: a Perspective from Social Science’ in On work. Historical, Comparative & Theoretical Approaches (R.E. Pahl ed.), Oxford.

[2] Pihl, 2012, Arbete. Skillnadsskapande och försörjning i 1500-talets Sverige, Uppsala, pp. 13 – 14, 155.

[3] Lindström et. al, 2016, ‘The Diversity of Work’, in Making a living, Making a Difference. Gender and Work in Early Modern European Society (Maria Ågren ed.), pp. 34 – 35.

[4] See Shepard, 2016, Accounting for Oneself. Worth, Status & the Social Order in Early Modern England, Oxford, chapter 5;  Jacob, 1994, Le travail, reflet des cultures, Paris, p. 26.

[5] Uppsala landsarkiv (ULA), Länsstyrelsen i Uppsala län (LU), Landskansliet (LKa), D IV c:10, petition 17340313/17340424 (Helin Johansson ./. Nilsdotter). Translation by the author: ’kan jag mig och barn intet ärligen föda’.

[6] ULA, Länsstyrelsen i Västmanland, LKa I, D IV a:24, petition 17580407/17580429 (Axelsson ./. Baggstedt). Translation: ’huru skal iag bärga mig eljest?’

[7] Ågren, 2016, p. 4; Fiebranz et al., 2011, ’Making verbs count: the research project “Gender and Work” and its methodology, in Scandinavian Economic History Review, 59:3, p. 278.

[8] Ågren, 2016, p. 221. Another project focusing on work activities is Women’s Work in Early Modern England at the university of Exeter, where every activity which can be substituted for purchased goods or services is seen as work. For more information, see the projects’ respective homepages:;


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