Court record books as a source for early modern agency and work

This post is from Petteri Impola,  a doctoral student and member of Early Modern Morals – a research center at the Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä. His thesis-in-progress entitled: “The Agency and Intangible Capital on the Edge of Estate System in Sweden during the Age of Greatness (c 1620–1720)”, examines the connections of agency, work, and estate and social status in 17th century Sweden. The focus of the thesis is on types of agency that were not attached to one single estate status in early modern everyday life, even though estate-based society and the profession privileges associated with it ideally demanded a strict distribution of work.

 

Petteri Impola (University of Jyväskylä)

Estates formed the foundation of most societies in early modern Europe. In Sweden, for example, it was the four estates that formed the basis of the society: the nobility, the clergy, the burghers, and the peasants. These categories functioned as legal and political hierarchies, but were also essential in the process of distributing work. Most of the privileges employed to regulate work and trade in mercantile societies were based on statuses derived from the estate-based order.

Even if the distribution of work was in general based on estates, certain professions were carried out by individuals belonging to different estates and of different social statuses. Trade, for example, was traditionally the privilege of the burghers but was practiced, though illegally, by agents from all of the estates. There were also forms of agency, like legal representation, which was not privileged to one estate, and every capable man could participate. Moreover, certain groups of people remained outside the formal estate-structure, as is the case with groups such as vagrants and soldiers. Hence, a significant amount of early modern work took place on ‘the edges of the estate-based order’.

Therefore, in my thesis I examine early modern agency not just from the perspective of gender but also by the intersections of estate position and social status. I compare three different (semi-)professions, which cannot be explained through estate-based privileges: cunning folk, self-educated midwives, and legal representatives. Legal representation, for example, was an emerging profession because of the developing legal system, and almost every man with some reading, writing, and legal skills could help others in the courts. There were sons of clergy and burghers, soldiers, clerks and other low-level civil servants and even peasants working as representatives. The skills and reputation of the agents were crucial for their agency, not just their ancestry. Continue reading “Court record books as a source for early modern agency and work”

Advertisements

Using Negatives to Fill in the Gaps: Sources for Early Modern Women’s Work

This post comes from Amy Creighton, who is starting her second year as a PhD student at the University of York. Under the supervision of Dr. Mark Jenner, her research focuses on early modern women’s work and conceptions of skill, physical capacity and labour. In particular, she looks at London and York from c. 1660 to 1750. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in History and French from Seattle University and a Master’s degree in Early Modern History from the University of York. To contact Amy, get in touch on Twitter @amyecreighton

Amy Creighton (University of York)

Researching the gendered-nature of skill and labour in early modern England can often present difficulties in finding source that speak to the experiences of women. In order to better understand the nuances of attitudes towards women’s work, a number of different source-types must be examined using various perspectives. Evidence that details negative aspects of trades or instances of work gone wrong can be used to expand upon and complicate studies of women’s work. One such source is petitions for the dissolution of apprenticeship. Since the time of Adam Smith, debates have raged over how oppressive the apprenticeship system was in early modern times, but recent research has begun to explore the way in which apprentices had some control over their own paths. Patrick Wallis, for example, has shown how petitions of dissolution help uncover the expectations apprentices had of their masters and vice versa.[i] By applying such methods of source analysis to cases of female apprenticeship, I seek to reveal how women in particular formed self-constructed narratives within the economic sphere. The quarter session papers of the City of London and Middlesex hold numerous examples of women investing in their skillsets through petitions.[ii]

Historians have addressed the problem that young girls may have often been used for cheap labour rather than true apprentices. Although this was true in certain instances, the petitions provide examples of how women used the system to learn skills that could benefit the family economy or, sometimes, to help create an individual business. As such, when masters or mistresses failed to instruct and denied necessaries the courts provided opportunities to change the situation. Such cases demonstrate contemporary acknowledgement that women could expect to learn skills similar to the way in which men did, and families sought to prevent girls being taken advantage of as domestic servants or hard labourers.

AN00976641_001_m[1]
‘Domestick Employment Washing’, Charles Spooner, c.1750s. Image courtesy of the British Museum.
Continue reading “Using Negatives to Fill in the Gaps: Sources for Early Modern Women’s Work”

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”

Learning to Look: Built Environments as Sources of Insight on Women’s Work

Historic American Buildings Survey Arthur C. Haskell, Photographer Aug. 5, 1935,Huntington House, State Route 47, Hadley, Hampshire County, MA
Historic American Buildings Survey Arthur C. Haskell, Photographer Aug. 5, 1935,Huntington House, State Route 47, Hadley, Hampshire County, MA

An Irish immigrant passes along the plastered stone walls and tiny windows of her New York employer’s basement kitchen and ascends the stairs. One flight takes her to the family’s main living spaces and another to the halls outside their bedrooms before she opens the door to the winding, steep and narrow set of tower stairs that offer the only access to the attic, and the three adjoining servants’ rooms there.  A row of pegs on the plaster walls suggest that no chests of drawers sit on the room’s pine floors, but her modest wardrobe would scarcely require one. She reaches toward a shelf mounted high on the wall and lights a candle, the only flame in this hearthless room.  Soot drifts across the whitewash.

Today, domestic servants like this woman often languish in what curator Patricia West has called “documentary obscurity.”[1]  The Irish women who once labored in and around Lindenwald–the Kinderhook, New York, home of retired U.S. President Martin Van Buren [1782-1862]–rarely appear in the archival record apart from the occasional passing reference in family correspondence, census records and other fragmentary mentions.  The carbon shadow still visible on the wall today is among the few physical traces that remain of these women’s lives on Van Buren’s estate.     Continue reading “Learning to Look: Built Environments as Sources of Insight on Women’s Work”

Taxing History: Space, Place, and Gender in Early Modern Edinburgh

The issues of ‘space’ and ‘place’ have been sources of increasing interest for historians in recent years. Concerns relating not only to where people lived and worked, but what those locations can communicate about the nature, sociability, and respectability of lives and occupations have inspired exciting new research questions that help us to understand not only where people lived, but how they lived. Of course, one of the main drawbacks of this avenue of enquiry, particularly for medieval and early modern historians, is the paucity of sources. Information regarding location can sometimes be pieced together, but discrete sources that clearly communicate locations are few and far between.

One of these rare sources that provide a wealth of information regarding the layout of an early modern town is the 1635 Housemaills Tax for Edinburgh, Scotland. Continue reading “Taxing History: Space, Place, and Gender in Early Modern Edinburgh”