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. Continue reading “Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700”

Men’s Work: A Comment by Jonas Lindström on Tawny Paul’s, ‘What’s in a name? Men, work and occupational identity’

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.

Continue reading “Men’s Work: A Comment by Jonas Lindström on Tawny Paul’s, ‘What’s in a name? Men, work and occupational identity’”

What’s in a name? Men, work and occupational identity

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”