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. 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. Recent research has also shown that men and women rarely had one occupation, but engaged in many different tasks to make a living. In addition, society was characterized by some living off the returns of their property and others by their manual labour.
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.
The education of new generations and the transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to another is of course the fundament of any society, at any time. Recent historical researches have underlined the complexity of apprenticeship in early modern Europe and also its numerous varieties: apprentices could learn at home, with their parents and relatives, with the master or mistress and his/her family, or in charitable institutions. The topic of apprenticeship is, by its own nature, transversal and needs multidisciplinary analysis. Labour history, history of the techniques, of innovation and artistic creation, history of education and gender and family history are some of the approaches that can be used for a comprehensive study of apprenticeship in early modern Europe.
Some questions that can guide our analysis:
– Apprenticeship and guilds: is it a necessary link?
– Places of apprenticeship: family home, the master’s – or mistress’ – house and workshop, charitable institutions?
– Which knowledge and skills were transmitted to apprentices?
– What was the relation between apprenticeship and innovation?
– What kind of relations could exist – or had to exist – between masters, mistresses and apprentices?
– Was apprenticeship a work relation or a mode of education?
– Who could have access to apprenticeship?
– What happened to apprentices after the end of the apprenticeship period?
– What was the role of apprenticeship in the general economic evolution of early modern Europe and in the « little divergence » ?
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.
The evidence collected by the Swedish Gender and Work project supports Tawny Paul’s point about men’s work. It certainly deserves the same kind of detailed analysis as women’s work.
The verb-oriented approach, which uses descriptions of activities instead of occupational titles as the key source to how people in the past made their living, was initially developed in order to tackle the very same problems that Dr Paul describes: few women had occupational titles and common designators such as ‘labourer’ and ‘tenant’ are vague. Very soon, however, the collection of verb-phrases made it obvious that people who did have occupational titles made their living in more ways than their title suggests. We also find tailors who were engaged in retailing, as well as shoemakers who sold beer, a hat-maker who delivered a clock on behalf of someone else and a goldsmith who cut down trees, to name a few examples. Again, this is impressionistic evidence, but it urges us to do more empirical work on what people actually did. Moreover, and more substantially, it calls for a theoretical understanding of early modern life that does not reduce work to occupation.
According to recent news reports, the number of people in the UK who have side jobs is on the rise. A recent poll of Scottish workers found that 24% had more than one job, while data released by the Office of National Statistics suggests that nearly 1.2 million people in the UK have second jobs.[i] While this trend reflects the failure of wage rates to support basic living costs and the increasing challenge of finding full-time work, it also poses a challenge for working identity. If we work two jobs, which occupational title do we choose? To what extent do our job titles define our social status, and to what extent does an occupational title describe what we actually spend our time doing?
While taking on a second job seems to point to a crisis today, the one-career/one-job model is relatively recent in historical terms. Early modernists have been debating by-employments for some time: how to measure them; how prevalent they were; the relationship between occupational titles and the work that people did.[ii] Continue reading “What’s in a name? Men, work and occupational identity”→