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Archaeology and History

Blog discussions 2020/21

Each blog (1000-2000 words) will be pre-circulated. The online discussion session will last for one hour, with time at the start to read (or reread) the blog. There will be an assigned discussant for each paper (who will be the presenter of the previous blog), who will start the discussion with some pre-prepared questions. This will be followed by an open discussion in which everyone is encouraged to take part.

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In the memoirs of a Devon yeoman, 1593

Housewifery took centre stage in ideas about women’s work, skill and expertise in early modern England. Yet when historians approach women’s work they have tended to use analytical frameworks that favours male occupational models and modern understandings of work. Thus studies have concentrated on looking for women’s participation in particular occupations and in paid work, and have been dismissive of housewifery. In my recent Past and Present article I criticised historians’ approach to women’s ‘domestic work’. My aim is to follow that up with an article on housewifery, which explores how this architype of women’s work and skill was characterised during the early modern period. This blog focuses on one strand of that, the remarkable family memoir of Robert Furse, a wealthy Devon yeoman, written just before his death in 1593, and recently published in an excellent modern edition by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society. 

Robert Furse and his relatives existed on the cusp of the gentry: Robert himself purchased a manor late in his life so that he could call himself a gentleman. A number of his ancestors came from the minor gentry or married into them. Others had more humble origins, including a carpenter and an inn-keeper, although most were farmers. The memoir was written for the benefit of Furse’s son, John, and is primarily a record of the family’s landed wealth, tracing the land bought, sold and accumulated by generations of relatives spread across the county of Devon and stretching back to the fourteenth century. But it is also about people, and relates the history of particular relatives. In part, this was to demonstrate the pitfalls that might undermine a family’s wealth (idleness, misjudged marriages, vexatious lawsuits, ruthless stepfathers), but also to demonstrate what could be done well. Among the positive traits that Robert Furse emphasises are good husbandry and housewifery, as well as education and intelligence. In this blog I concentrate on his comments about good housewifery and women’s behaviour. 

It is important to note here that the original meaning of housewife had nothing to do with working within the house, or with housework, and little to do with marriage. The housewife, or to use the medieval form, the ‘huswif’ was the female equivalent of the husband or ‘husbond’. The husband was the male head of household (house + bond/peasant), while the huswife was the female head of household (house + wif). At this date the word ‘wif’ simply meant ‘woman’, not necessarily a married woman. Derived from these words are ‘husbandry’ and ‘housewifery’, denoting the work and skills of the husbond and huswif. In the sixteenth century we find both ‘husbandry’ and ‘huswifery’ being used to mean good economic management with thrift and prudence, as well as competence in a set of practical skills needed to run a farming household. 

Robert Furse is particularly striking in the way he complements only certain women in his family for their skills as good housewives, implying that these were not commonplace skills that were achieved by every woman. His family history names and describes over a hundred of his ancestors, but he reserves the complement of good housewifery for three exceptional women. Annes Furse (nee Adler) was his paternal great-grandmother, who died in 1540 at the age of 80. She was a widow for thirty years after her husband’s death ‘and maintained a very good house … and was a woman of great wealth’. Robert writes ‘she was in her lifetime a very wise and discrete woman and a perfect good housewife and a careful woman for her business’. He approvingly lists a series of leases she had arranged during her widowhood.  The second was Nicole Moreshead (nee Sparke), his maternal grandmother. Her husband was wayward in his youth, and even after marriage had a difficult relationship with his father. Furse notes that it would have been ‘much to his hindrance if his wife had not been for her painfulness, great labour and wise behaviour, did many time pacify the old man’s [his father] anger’. In her youth Nicole was ‘a great labourer’, ‘a very beautiful woman decent in her apparel and a perfect good housewife’. Like Annes she ended her life with a long widowhood. According to Furse, in her nineties ‘she was a very good alms woman and liberal with the poor …. she lived until she was near 100 years of age’. 

The third and perhaps most interesting woman was Joan Rowland, his wife’s mother. Her first husband died in 1560, and she lived another 33 years. She made a disastrous second marriage which lasted 19 years, to a minor gentleman who quarrelled with her, ‘forsook her company’, ‘misused her and put her in great danger of her life’, and wasted her wealth and goods. With the aid of her friends she obtained a legal separation, and spent the rest of her life circulating between the households of her married children, including that of Robert Furse. Despite this history he writes of her: ‘this Joan was a wise woman and decent in her apparel, an excellent good housewife and careful, a perfect woman to do anything with her needle, to knit, to make bonelace. She was a fine cook and well esteemed of all people, she was much bent to fast, pray and give alms to the poor, she was a pleasant woman in company and was ever of honest life and good conversation ….’ Thus even a disastrous marriage and the lack of one’s own household did not preclude a woman being considered an ‘excellent good housewife’.

As Garthine Walker pointed out some years ago, being a good housewife was important part of a woman’s reputation. Furse is not a disinterested commentator: it served his purpose to enhance the reputations of his forebears. It is helpful therefore to contrast his ‘good housewives’ with female relatives who he chose not to describe in this way. His strongest comments are reserved for a relatively distant relative, the wife of one his grandfather’s brothers, who consumed her husband’s wealth ‘wantonly in bringing up her children in idleness and pleasure’. Others are criticised for particular actions. The second wife of his grandfather, was ‘a gentlewoman born’ was ‘a very good woman but … she had many children and a mighty kindred’, as a consequence her husband had to pay her debts when she died. His third wife, Margaret Cuttleyefe, was ‘a very trim woman wife and a discreet woman’. She successfully went to law to get her husband released after he was wrongly imprisoned in the aftermath of the Western Rebellion of 1549. But Furse criticises her for failing to execute his grandfather’s will as she should have done, and selling some of the family silver. Nicole Earle, the daughter of his aunt, suffered from the early death of both her parents: ‘she was a little woman and rudely brought up’. When her husband died she made legal errors and alienated all their marital wealth to his family. 

Both husbandry and housewifery encompassed two distinct elements. One was the ability to manage a household, and the wealth and property that was needed to maintain prosperity. The other was a set of distinct work skills. As Furse’s book is largely concerned with managing property he says little about work skills, although he mentions cooking and needlework as we have seen above. It is necessary to turn elsewhere, such as to Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife (1615) to understand housewifery as a set of skills. Nonetheless, it is striking that Furse places considerable emphasis the necessity both for hard work and intelligence as essential elements of housewifery.  For instance, he begins his book with advice to his son on choosing a wife which starts by saying, ‘get thee a wise woman and she shall rule well thy house and that in good order’; as well as noting ‘a wise woman can play the parts of a gentlewoman and of a good housewife, but there are some clean fingered gentlewoman that can do nothing but sit at home and pick in a clout [do embroidery] or suchlike service’. Thus my argument is that early modern commentators placed more emphasis on women’s abilities and skills than many historians have done, and we cannot fully understand the values placed on women’s work in the period unless we take care to consider the many meanings of housewifery.

Further Reading

  • Robert Furse, A Devon Family Memoir of 1593, ed. Anita Travers (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, vol. 53, 2010).
  • Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, ed. Michael R. Best (McGill and Queens University Press, 1986).
  • Garthine Walker, ‘Expanding the boundaries of female honour in early modern England’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series, Vol.6 (1996), pp. 235-45.
  • Jane Whittle, ‘Housewives and servants in rural England, 1440-1650: evidence of women’s work from probate documents’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series, Vol.15, (2005) pp. 51-74.
  • Jane Whittle, ‘A critique of approaches to “domestic work”: women, work and the preindustrial economy’, Past and Present 243 (2019) pp.35-70.

Household Accounting in Early Modern England

An increase in printed literature advising on how to manage accounts across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries suggests that numerical literacy and accounting was increasingly recognised as an essential skill to manage a household. The author John Mellis, revising an earlier edition of an accounting manual published in 1541, warned that ‘where as lacketh order and guiding, there must consequently ensue great confusion and errour’. He recalls instances of informal reckonings made on scraps of paper and recalled by memory leading to legal suits in which roles were reversed with the money lender finding themselves to be indebted to the borrower. By 1675 Stephen Monteage penned a manual advising on accounting practices addressed to young scholars, husbandmen, farmers, gentlemen, shopkeepers, craftsmen and merchants. A skill once identified as belonging to lowly tradesmen and merchants was soon recognised as a key skill for gentlemen and a tenet of early education. Whilst the business accounts of merchants and gentry households attest to an increasingly professional and standardised form of accounting we have little evidence of the type of accounting that took place on a daily basis in commercial exchange. Written on scraps of paper or stored in receipt books often held in workshops, accounts of commercial credit for tradesmen and smaller households are rare. Debts owed to a seller could be marked on a chalkboard or scored into the wall of the local alehouse, worked out on a counter board, notched into a tally stick or simply counted with commonplace objects such as wooden spoons. When Monteage addressed the accounting practices of the farmer he confessed he omitted ‘many of their ways and Dealings, Bargains or Barters’ for he himself was ‘ignorant and untaught in their Mysteries’. These credit agreements and the accounting of them, the ‘Mysteries’ of everyday trade, are difficult to trace. The material objects associated with their counting are ephemeral and often it is only through probate accounts we learn of the existence of debt books, abacuses, counting boards or tally sticks on which reckonings were routinely made. Yet it is this quotidian credit and informal financial accounting that underpinned much of the commercial exchanges of the early modern period supporting what Fernand Braudel referred to as the ‘shadowy zone […] lying underneath the market economy’.

In this blog I draw on the incidental evidence found in ecclesiastical courts and recorded as part of the ‘Forms of Labour’ project that describe the types of financial management activities essential to the maintenance of the early modern household. Keeping written accounts has long been acknowledged in the historiography as a form of work. The maintenance of domestic financial records represented ‘hours of careful labour over years or over a lifetime, a commitment to a quantitative representative of the domestic’. Keeping accounts was essential for the maintenance of larger early modern households. Account books recorded rents collected, wages paid, expenses for daily consumption, credit extended and the interest collected on outstanding debts. Often accounts were structured around the social and charitable interactions of the household and served as a means to justify the profits of the author, producing an autobiographical account in which economic transactions were subsumed in personal introspection. Outside of account books written credit agreements, including bonds and bills of exchange, and debt books appear in the court records along with more informal forms of accounting such as the mental arithmetic required to ‘reckon accounts’ that relied on a shared memory of commercial exchange. The maintenance of these records constituted a form of financial management and alludes to the the everyday work tasks associated with the maintenance of a credit worthy household.

One particularly interesting case in the records, centred around the identity of a priest in relation to the collection of tithes in Danby, reveals through the incidental evidence of a witness the use of a debt book in a tailor’s shop in York. In 1571 in the city of York the draper Mr Caytome sold brown and blue cloth, totalling 8s 6d, to a priest. After the cloth was cut and handed over to the priest Mr Caytome turned to his son William and willed him to write the price of the cloth in his ‘debt book’ as the priest ‘had not money then presently to pay’. The priest had given a name of Michael Watson and claimed to be curate of Birdsall and had ‘subscribed his name unto the said note’ written by William in the debt book. The identity was false and the priest was uncovered as a fraud when John Posgate, curate of Greson, happened to pass him leaving the shop with the cloth in hand. He enquired with Mr Caytome and his son of the exchange and revealed that the priest was in fact one Simon Thyarkleby, curate at Danby. After an unsuccessful search for the priest through the streets of York, John Posgate pledged himself to the draper for the cloth and William amended the note in the debt book. When Simon was uncovered as having fraudulently contracted the credit he sent to Mr Caytome the sum of 8s. and paid in person the remaining 6d some time later. Upon revisiting the drapers the priest asked if William’s father would ‘be so good unto him as to blot out of his book his former name’, the entire exchange however, recalled William in his deposition remains ‘briefly noted in his said father’s debt book’. In refusing to blot out the encounter from the debt book, the actions of Mr Caytome and his son attest to the material significance of accounts as trustworthy forms of proof. Accounting manuals stressed the importance of accuracy claiming ‘the beauty of your Accounts consists materially in expressing the truth of every Transaction ; Let your Accounts be kept so, as if there be occasion to produce them before a Court of Judicature, you may be able to swear to the truth of them’. Ultimately the debt book remained true to the encounter and recorded the interaction with the priest including the attempted fraud.

Accurate accounting was imperative to both creditor and debtor. In the village of Hawkshead, Lancashire, in 1624 one Magson entered the home of Alexander Tomlinson tendering a debt he owed. With money in hand he demanded the return of the bond held by Tomlinson. When Tomlinson admitted he did not have the bond ready Magson refused to hand over the money. Without the accurate paperwork and the return of the creditor’s half of the bond, Magson might be liable to pay his loan twice, should Tomlinson have pursued him in the courts. In a case of usury in Thirsk, 1614, against a member of the clergy the deponents recalled how the cleric employed a clerk who drew up bills and bonds and kept for his own record copies of the bills in case the cleric sort legal recourse. These incidental details highlight the ways in which accounts might be used after a debt was settled and the importance attached to the material objects associated with credit. Bonds and bills were significant not only for the words inscribed on the parchment but also for their materiality, with both parts of a bond matching neatly along the torn lines.

Household financial management was not the preserve of men. Though the spread of numerical literacy was irregular, women were by no means excluded from the trend for numerical accounting. The account books of Joyce Jeffries and Sarah Fell from the early seventeenth century along with evidence from court cases such as that between Elizabeth Hatcher and Elizabeth Carter, explored by Alex Shepard, show that not only were women actively keeping financial accounts but that these extended beyond the remits of household management. The manual, Advice to Women and Maidens (1678), actively encouraged women to learn basic arithmetic and accounting. Women in the records appear to have taken an active role in financial management. In a case of slander in Chester presented in 1664, Margaret Henshall stood accused of slandering her husband claiming that he had ‘eaten or destroyed more than the whole family had done’. Her accusations of his poor financial management went alongside an attack on his masculinity, claiming she would rather kiss her own dog’s tail than her husband. In front of company she mocked her husband and boasted of her own financial independence, claiming she had lent sums of 60 li, 40 li, 6 li and 15 li ‘and that she had interest for it’. Money seems to be at the centre of the marital dispute and witnesses attest to the fact that John Henshall had in fact maintained his wife ‘in good fashion and to the best of his ability’. Margaret had three or four cows of her own and was granted permission to dispose of her husband’s corn and malt as she pleased. In 1692 in the vicarage of Weverham, Elizabeth Pickering performed penance for accusing John Pickering of the neighbouring parish of Middlewich of being an ‘arrand knave, a theife, & hath or has stolen out of my house a Book of Accompts’. Though not explicitly her own accounts, Elizabeth appears to have taken some charge over their maintenance and keeping at the very least.

The experience of female borrowing and lending differed according to status and wealth. Though the account books of gentlewomen attest to a group of elite female moneylenders who maintained a tight grip on their household finances, the experience of financial management in the day-to-day exchanges of women lower down the social order is much harder to reconstruct. Depositions that recall buying from female sellers in a marketplace rarely record the means of exchange. The wives of butchers were left to man the stalls at the market in York and fishwives on the beaches on the east coast of Scarborough haggled for trade. Yet the deponents give little indication whether they paid for their goods in coin or by credit. In most of these instances the buyer and seller were known to one another and imply a long standing commercial relationship yet we know from petitions to parliament over coin shortages and problems of small change that it is these very same small victualers and traders, predominantly female, who suffered when petty coins were scarce hampering their ability to give change and trade. In order to fully reconstruct the experience of female financial management from the evidence in the database more analysis needs to be done on those exchanges in which objects were borrowed or pawned and a closer investigation of the types of commercial activity involving women.
The accounts of the deponents in the court records highlight the range of activities associated with financial management in the early modern period. Categorising activities such as the verbal reckoning of accounts, the recording of sales in a debt book and the payment of a bond alongside the activities of more formal accounting draws together the wide range of work associated with financial management in the early modern period.

Early Indentures for Parish Apprentices, 1598-1630

An early indenture for a parish apprentice from 1624 - binding Anthonie Johns to Thomas Lane in St Mary Major, Exeter (Ref: 51/1/16). With permission from the Devon Heritage Centre.

An indenture for apprenticeship written on 12th August 1605 stated that a young girl in Exeter named Elizabeth Whittye ‘hath by her owne free will and assente... Putt her self an Apprentice'. But it also stated that she did so with the consent of the churchwardens and overseers of the poor, ‘according to the termes of the Statute’. This almost certainly referred to the recent Poor Laws of 1598 and 1601, which granted legal power to parish officers to bind poor children to other households until the age of 21 (girls) or 24 (boys). A defining characteristic that distinguished these new parish (or pauper) apprenticeships from established private apprenticeships was that the binding was compulsory rather than voluntary (at least in principle). The juxtaposition of the claim that Elizabeth bound herself voluntarily – as found in private indentures – with the apparent exercise by parish officers of their legal authority under the poor law, is therefore a little puzzling. It complicates the neat distinction between the two forms of apprenticeship. While I do not wish to overstate the importance of such phrasing for the practice of apprenticeship, the wording of such legal documents mattered. As a minimum, they offer some insight into the administration of this new form of labour and the attitudes of authorities.

The earliest indentures I’ve found for parish apprenticeships are full of similar surprising features. Yet these have been overlooked because the vast majority of studies have relied on indentures from the eighteenth century (e.g. Lane), with some stretching back to around 1660 (e.g. Farrell), and almost none from before 1630 (e.g. with partial exception of Sharpe). Moreover, previous studies have been almost entirely quantitative, recording the countable particulars (ages, genders, trades). Qualitative analysis has been mostly limited to anecdotal peculiarities of individual indentures, giving only an impressionistic picture. This is partly an effect of a focus on the later period: indentures after 1700 were highly standardised, often using printed templates, with little variation across time and space. Such standardisation seems to limit any meaningful textual analysis beyond identifying the standard form itself. While this may be unproblematic for the eighteenth century, indentures from the first half of the seventeenth century present a different challenge.

A more subtle reason why variation has been overlooked is the modular structure of indentures (and indeed most contracts). By which I mean, they were constructed by selecting and combining standardised units (i.e. clauses), enabling a high degree of diversity between indentures when considered as a whole. Hence on first encounter indentures appear more consistent than they actually were, because each one contains a series of familiar clauses which can be found elsewhere, yet rarely the same ones in the same combination. The flexibility of the modular design also means there is a systematic pattern to their variation (rather than myriad small and arbitrary deviations), which makes both qualitative and quantitative analysis possible. 

Why might a qualitative analysis of early indentures be useful? My research project seeks to compare parish apprenticeships to other forms of labour and a focus on indentures helps answer the question: how similar were parish apprenticeships to private apprenticeships? Our current understanding, heavily based on late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century indentures, is too simplistic and inaccurate for the early period. A systematic analysis of parish indentures over time and between regions, in comparison with private indentures, will enable a more precise account of their similarities and differences over time. (This must also include ‘charity apprenticeships’, in which a charitable organisation funded and organised the apprenticeship, but which is not discussed here).

Before the analysis, some background. An indenture was a formal written contract in a specific material form (two versions cut in a unique jagged line for later authentication), which had been used to bind apprentices since the thirteenth century and were further institutionalised by the Statute of Artificers 1563, which extended the custom of London across the kingdom, including binding by indenture. Parish apprenticeships were established in a statute for the relief of the poor in 1598, but their administration was vague. Clause IV gave power to churchwardens and overseers, with the consent of two Justices of the Peace, to bind poor children as apprentices, 'to be as effectuall to all purposes as if suche Child were of full Age and by Indenture of Covenant bound him or her selfe'. Setting aside the thorny question of consent, we can note that although an indenture was referenced as the legal benchmark, it was not explicitly mandated. The first guide books interpreting the statute for magistrates and local officers made no mention of indentures. It was only in the second edition of The Country Justice in 1619 that Michael Dalton added a crucial note: 'but such binding must be by Indenture' (82). It therefore appears that there was initial uncertainty regarding whether an indenture was required at all.

The first model parish indenture, providing a full template, was published in the 1630 edition of Dalton’s guide. This provides a useful reference point to compare actual indentures produced up until 1630. We can also use a model private indenture, published in 1590, as another reference point (from a guide for scriveners, Symbolaeographia, sect.398). For the purpose of simplification I will assume for now (and interrogate later) that this private indenture was a stable standard, as the consensus is that they were standardised by the mid-sixteenth century. In short, the 1590 model shows the standard indenture that had to be adapted when drawing up new parish indentures between 1598 and 1630, while the 1630 model shows the first published attempt to define a new standard for parish indentures. 

For illustrative purposes, I have selected three key differences between the 1590 private model and the 1630 parish model and summarised these in the table below:


1590 Private Model

1630 Parish Model

Contracting Parties

Between child and master

Parish officials acting alone

Binding Agent

Child binds themselves

Parish officials bind child with justices’ consent

Training Clause?

Master/Mistress promises to ‘teach and instruct’ in their trade

No training clause

I have transcribed a small sample of 20 parish indentures from 8 parishes in Devon. It must be stressed that this is not a representative sample, so precise figures are unimportant. It is also worth noting that these are mostly from towns, crucial to understanding the administrative process that produced them (see below).

The following table shows how many indentures exhibit the feature of each model, along with alternatives to both.


1590 Private Model

1630 Parish Model


Contracting Parties



5 = Between parish and master

5 = Between child & parish and master

Binding Agent *



2 = Bound by Justices, including Mayor

Training Clause?



1 = ‘Trayne up’

*These add up to over 20 as some indentures include more than one, as discussed below.

As can be seen immediately, the sample of indentures binding poor children before 1630 did not adhere to a single standard. Indeed, almost the only element they have in common is the explicit involvement of parish officers and / or magistrates in arranging the apprenticeship, which distinguishes them from a private indenture. Perhaps more importantly, they do not obviously align more closely to either model, and clearly retained key features of private indentures.

The questions of contracting parties and binding power are central to the fundamental distinction between voluntary private and compulsory parish apprenticeships. It is striking that half are structured as an agreement between child and master in the same manner as a private arrangement, in which the parish officers are described as ‘consenting’ parties. None adopted the form later recommended by Dalton, in which the indenture simply witnessed the unilateral action of parish officers. Instead, many chose the alternative in which parish officers replace (or join) the child as one contracting party.

Similarly, almost half stated that the child bound themselves, although a slight majority stated clearly that parish officers were binding the child. All those in which the child was the sole contracting party with the master state that they bound themselves. However, some contain a peculiar mix. For example, in 1600 Agnes Tooker’s indenture named her as a contracting party, yet explained that because she was in receipt of poor relief, the churchwardens and overseers 'have putt and bound thesaid Agness’, but then added that ‘she thesaid Agnes doth also putt and bynd herself Apprentis'. While using their power to bind a fatherless girl to long-term service in ‘housewiferie’, the authorities stuck closely to the model in which boys apprenticed themselves to crafts. Did they believe this was Agnes’ genuine will (but what choice did she have anyway?), or was this merely a legal fiction? Either way, these differences in the fundamental nature of the covenant raise questions about the kind of arrangements being made.

The exchange of labour for training was the defining characteristic of private apprenticeships. There is a broad consensus that training was not the primary purpose of parish apprenticeships, but the relative role and importance of training (or learning of some kind) is unclear. Some suggest it was irrelevant, while others stress that it continued to be an important secondary purpose in certain contexts. It is therefore notable that nearly all, 18 out of 20, included a training clause (only one of which altered the standard phrasing). Only two excluded it entirely, and both involved girls.

In the long term the training clause was progressively excluded from parish apprenticeships, but not in a straightforward manner. A clear example is that Dalton consciously added the training clause into his model parish indenture in his 1635 edition, which was then maintained through all later editions to 1677. Some other guides included it, others did not. There was therefore a range of opinion throughout the seventeenth century about the expectations of a parish apprenticeship. Now of course an indenture alone does not tell us about the actual learning experience of the child. But we know that for private apprenticeships a master’s failure to provide suitable training could be grounds for discharge by the courts. One line of enquiry therefore concerns whether this ever occurred with parish apprentices. In any case, mapping the pattern of training clauses in relation to location, gender and trade could be revealing about varying expectations.

An obvious objection to all the above is that these clauses had become empty formulae that were included or not based on the habits or arbitrary whim of a bored clerk. My response is that we do not know their significance until we investigate them. The relationship between the wording of indentures and practice, the extent to which they shaped it directly through legal force or through the more subtle assertion of customary norms, is an open question, and one that can only be answered through careful reconstruction with other sources.

In summary, I want to make two key points about the earliest phase of parish apprenticeships. Firstly, there was no single standard form of an indenture. Consequently, early indentures are a richer source of evidence than has been previously recognised, with potential to provide insights into how pauper apprenticeships were understood and implemented. And rather than examining a static standard, we need to trace the dynamic process of standardisation over time.

Secondly, poor law authorities modelled parish apprenticeships very closely on private apprenticeships. It clearly took time for parish apprenticeships to develop into a fully distinct form of labour, with its own conventions. As with the implementation of other poor law provisions, this was no doubt slow and uneven across the country. The typical parish apprenticeships more familiar from the eighteenth century did not emerge fully formed from the statute, but had to be invented through countless local interpretations and experiments based on borrowings and revisions from existing labour relations

Note: Sample indentures from: city of Exeter (6), borough towns of Totnes (4) and Barnstaple (3), and the market towns of Okehampton (3) and Modbury (1), with only a couple from more rural parishes of Sampford Peverell (2) and Bishops Tawton (1).

Further Reading

  • Dalton, Michael, The countrey iustice containing the practice of the iustices of the peace out of their sessions (London, 1630)
  • Farrell, Jerome, 'Lutterworth pauper children and apprenticeship, 1673-1856', Leicestershire Historian, Vol. 3 (1983), 17-24.
  • Hindle, Steve and Herndon, Ruth Wallis, Ch. 2 ‘Recreating Proper Families in England and North America Pauper Apprenticeship in Transatlantic Context’, in Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America, eds Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray (Cornell University Press, 2009).
  • Lane, Joan, Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914 (UCL Press, 1996). See useful table of ‘typical’ indentures on p.72.
  • Merson, A.L., ‘Introduction’ in A Calendar of Southampton Apprenticeship Registers, 1609-1740 (Southampton University Press, 1968), compiled by Arthur J. Willis, edited by A.L. Merson.
  • Sharpe, Pamela, ‘Poor children as apprentices in Colyton, 1598-1830’, Continuity and Change, 6 (2) (1991), 253-270.
  • West, William, Symbolæographia. Which may be termed the art, description, or image of instruments, couenants, contracts, &c. Or the Notarie or Scriuener (London, 1590).

Compensation for loss of life in late Mughal (early 18th century) India

This post, like James Fisher’s excellent one preceding mine, begins by looking at a legal document - one related to employment. Where James was looking at documents that initiated a period of employment, mine deal with a particularly violent ending to one such relation of work. In my case, the person employed had been killed in the course of his work, and the female members of his family sought compensation from his employer for this loss to their key manpower resources. By looking at the document in detail, I am going to open up some questions about legal norms and the extent to which they were shared, while also attempting to explore cultures of employment, especially the mutual expectations of landlords and retainers, in the period of imperial crisis towards the end of the Indo-Islamic Mughal empire in India. Some of the points below were clarified during discussion with the HERB group; many thanks for pushing me on my thinking!

In or around the year 1121 Hijri or 1709 CE, five Muslim women turned up at the court of the qāzī (Islamic judge) in a small town called Dhar in central India, which was then under the Indo-Islamic Mughal empire. The women’s names were Nanho, Nur Bibi, Taj Bibi, Chand Bibi and Hayati Bibi. Nanho was the widow of a man called Daulat Khan, the other women were his daughters. All these women were complaining against Daulat Khan’s employer, a Hindu landlord called Hira chaudhrī, about Daulat’s disappearance, possibly death, while on a dangerous mission. They narrated that Daulat had been sent to the neighbouring district of Amjhera by Hira chaudhrī to bring news of another servant who had failed to return. Now, Amjhera was the stronghold of a Rajput lineage who incumbent patriarch was called Jasrup, and Jasrup hated Hira chaudhrī. (Rajputs were a Hindu warrior group, frequently employed by the Mughals.) Daulat’s fate was similar to that of the previously desptached servant; he was cast into the Rajput noble’s private prison, where he perished after a few months. It appears that his employer, Hira chaudhrī, himself died soon afterwards. The women of Daulat’s family went up to Hira’s son, Bardman, and demanded that he bring Daulat back. Since Bardman was unable to, in their desperation they brought their plaint to the court of the city judge of Dhar, Muhammad Mustafa. The qāzī  had a riwāyat (another word for fatwā, legal opinion) brought from the muftī (juriconsult) of the larger neighbouring city and provincial capital of Ujjain. It was decided on the twin legal basis of sulḥ (resolution/truce)and legal opinion, that the women be awarded 50 rupees as compensation. Thereafter, they wrote out a deed saying that they had received the money in question and brought it into their possession, and thereby relinquished all further claims on Hira chaudhrī’s heirs of their own free will and while in full possession of their senses.

The document recording this legal declaration is not a judgement – no record series similar to the court registers or sijillāt of the Ottoman empire have been discovered for Mughal India. Instead, the document recorded a binding legal declaration or iqrār; which, when written down and sealed by the Islamic judge or qāżī, formed something very similar to a deed. Such documents are still ubiquitousall over South Asia even today, mostly rotting in attics in private homes.

Fig. 1 Qazi’s Seal

The qāzīnamed in the document – Muhammad Mustafa – was the established local judge for around thirty years between 1690 and 1720. We see his seal on numerous documents associated with the local landlord lineage, on whom I have written a book, Negotiating Mughal Law. In this instance, Muhammad Mustafa sealed the document, and wrote a short note which simply recorded that the wife of Daulat Khan and his daughters had made an iqrār or a legally binding declaration. His seal bore the date 1121 Hijri or 1709 CE, and that is the date that I attribute to the document, although qāzīs’ seals were not always updated every year. Several people witnessed the document on its margins – there were three Muslims of unknown professions, who used even more backdated seals and wrote notes or had notes written for them in Persian; there was a note in Hindi (Nagri script) of Hamir Chand, who I know was one of the biggest landlords of Dhar, a scion of the lineage I had researched, and may have been Bardman’s relative; and there were ‘signs of the hand’ by the women, who were most likely illiterate.

So, what does this document show us?

Sociologically, it reveals the turbulent and highly militarized nature of the area. The murderous violence of the Rajput chief and his tendency to make people disappear may have been enabled by the rapid decline of Mughal power and attacks by new state-builders, the Marathas, in this period, but the area had always been turbulent. Existing literature already tells us that Rajput chiefs, especially the bigger ones, while signing up to work as imperial servants for the Mughals, remained practically autonomous rulers in their local strongholds. The Mughals formally enabled this by modifying their system of assigning ranks and fiefs in favour of certain privileged Rajput lineages.

Here, it is necessary to step back a minute to clarify matters for the non-specialist; historians of Mughal India can safely skip this paragraph. The Mughals were a Central Asian dynasty, descended from Chinggis Khan and Amir Timur, who invaded northern India and set up rule in 1526 CE. By the third generation, they had developed an inter-linked strategy of matrimony and recruitment to nobility; defeated chieftains, including Hindu Rajput ones, gave daughters as wives to the Mughal emperors and their sons, and were recruited into the nobility. The Mughals had ambitious bureaucratization and centralization aims – hence their regime has been called ‘patrimonial-bureaucratic’ – and  they treated their multi-ethnic and multi-religious nobility as rank-holding officials, graded by a decimal system, calling them mansabdārs (Persian, ‘rank-holders’). Each rank-holding officer was assigned the temporary right to collect taxes from certain designated areas, called jāgirs, in order to defray the costs of maintaining a specific number of equipped horsemen, which corresponded to their rank. To prevent entrenchment in any area, assignments were changed every few years.

The exception to this rule of circulating officers and changing jāgir assignments were those Rajput lineages that got to keep their own erstwhile kingdoms as their waṭan jāgirs (homeland jāgirs). The Rajput lineage of Amjhera was not very eminent, but they seem to have enjoyed a waṭan jāgir, because lineage histories show them entrenched in the same place since the sixteenth century. 

Existing literature focusses upward, on the mode of attaching such military lineages to the Mughal (and other regimes). There is considerably less clarity about the effect this had on the local area itself, and especially the effect it must have had of creating flashpoints of conflict with neighbouring martial landed lineages, and no-go zones for imperial functionaries such as the Islamic judge.

On the other hand, the document shows that whatever the politico-geographical fragmentation caused by the recruitment and entrenchment of such warrior lineages, retainers expected not only protection from their employers, but also the protection of imperial Mughal law. The bereft women did seek redress from their employer’s son first. But when he proved unhelpful or simply unable to help them, they turned to court.

The justice they expected was formally Islamic, but to a great extent pragmatic. Islamic law offers the right of proportionate retaliation for physical injury or death of a relative; these provisions, derived from the Quran, are called qiṣāṣ. It also recommends mercy, and the offers the alternative of forgiving the errant person with or without compensatory payment, which is called diya. These complementary legal provisions are still operational in several countries around the world that apply Islamic law, both Sunni and Shiʿa; for a really lively depiction of how mercy may work in law, and in relation to Indian migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, I recommend the Indian film Dor. Comparison with the American legal provision of civil claims for injury and death can help de-exoticise the Islamic legal provision of diya. Unlike the American legal system however, the basic principle in Islamic law is that the unlawful killing of a person did not constitute an assault on the state (the monarch or officers of state were in a different category); it was a loss inflicted on the dead or injured person’s family, and to be compensated through the principle of equivalence (an eye for an eye…). An Islamic regime might indeed punish those who unlawfully assaulted, injured and killed others, thereby causing disorder, and make specific rules for such, which are classified under tāʿzīr (chastisement), but it was not mandatory in Islamic law. To deal with this ambiguity, the historian of Iran Arzoo Osanloo has referred to homicide in Islamic law as ‘crimtort’.

No Islamic legal provision, however, provided for the claim that the women successfully made, which was not against the killer himself, but against the employer of the person killed. In making such a claim, they seem to have been working with an idea of reasonable responsibility and liability of an employer for the safety of his retainers; something like a very precocious version of health and safety duties!

Legal choices and expectations: Cultural and social factors appeared to have had striking impact on the choices people exercised with relation to retaliation and compensation. In his ongoing work on legal cultures in nineteenth-century Iran, Farzin Vejdani is finding that a surprising number of women sought retaliation for the killing of their relatives, and even chose to execute the guilty party themselves. In contrast, records from (other parts of) late eighteenth-century India, when the incipient British judicial system was still using Islamic criminal law, shows overwhelming preference for monetary compensation. We also have records of people explaining their choice; people said that they did not see any benefit in killing other people’s relatives. 

Poverty, and the need for monetary compensation, especially on the death of an important bread-winner, must have complemented what might appear to be a pacific tendency. There is also the very real possibility that, people who turned up in court asking for compensation were the ones who did not have the wherewithal to avenge themselves directly; people like Daulat Khan’s widow and daughters, who seem to have lacked an adult male relative. They were likely to be aware about the limits of the state’s reach – if a Rajput noble was able to imprison and kill with impunity, and their employer was unable or unwilling to avenge them, the regime would be unlikely to deploy resources to avenge a poor man.

It is also worth noting that although South Asia in the late Mughal period was a highly violent place, the claim of Daulat Khan’s relatives arose from the fact of his unlawful and unexpected killing. While employed as a retainer and messenger, and possibly in possession of a stick or spear, Daulat Khan was noted in the document to be of the community of ‘momin safīd bāf’ which translates literally as ‘the spinner of white stuff, a believer’, which shows that he was from a community of weavers. Daulat Khan was not a professional soldier, and did not expect to be killed in confrontations. His imprisonment and killing, by action or inaction, was unlawful, and that is why his family felt legally entitled to compensation. But it is striking that these bereft and illiterate women knew enough of the provisions of Islamic to pursue their claims in court, and were pragmatic enough to know what kinds of claims were most likely to succeed.

Fig. 2 Women’s witness marks

‌The value of a life was calculated in the process of this legal case, and the answer arrived at was a significant but not princely sum. We know from other documents in the same collection that a modest house in the same city cost 13 rupees; we also know from another document in the same collection that a tailor’s yearly earnings were 48 rupees. If that is so, then the family may have been offered his wages for a year. This would postpone immediate penury, perhaps, but no more.

Finally, to the archives that preserved this tantalizing document. Currently, this specific document is housed in the National Archives of India, in New Delhi, as part of its acquired Persian papers series, which are collections sold or gifted by various private families, mostly in the 1950s. As part of my research for my book, I established that the 80 or so documents pertaining to this collection in the National Archives were part of a larger collection pertaining to, and before the 1950s, preserved in, a landlord family in the city of Dhar – the family of Hamir Chand, who appears as witness. I was able to put 188 such documents, and for those interested, there is a list here.

Historians of Islamic law, who generally miss out on pre-modern India, have tended to focus on fatwā collections (collations of responsa from jurists), in association with registers of decision summaries (known as sijillāt). This documentary landscape, which to some extent has been generalized, is actually specific to some regimes – most consistently that of the Ottomans. In South Asia, for example, there are fatwā collections, but no registers or series of legal decisions has been discovered so far. Instead, what we have are household archives, of landed or merchant lineages or of religious corporations. Most records in these collections pertain to the entitlements of the lineage itself; but there are also stray documents, such as this one, which are somewhat eccentric. It is possible, of course, that Hamir Chand maintained a copy of this document because he was related to the employer Hira chaudhrī, but we have no direct evidence of that. So there is also the possibility that he kept document which he had witnessed, and since he did not keep many of such, perhaps he kept it because of potential interest to himself as an employer of retainers himself.


  • Nandini Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge, 2020. Open access.
  • Colin Imber, Ebu's-su'ud: The Islamic Legal Tradition (Edinburgh, 1997), Chapter 9 ‘Crimes and Torts: Offences against the Person’, pp. 236-68.
  • Dirk Kolff, Naukar, Rajput, and Sepoy: the ethnohistory of the military labour market in Hindustan, 1450-1850 (Cambridge, 1992)
  • Arzoo Osanloo, Forgiveness Work: Mercy, Law and Victims’ Rights in Iran (Princeton, 2020)
  • J. F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Nandita Prasad Sahai, Politics of Patronage and protest : the state, society, and artisans in early modern Rajasthan (New Delhi, 2006)
  • Radhika Singha, A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India (New Delhi, 2000)

The nature of work in early modern England

Following my Wellcome Trust-funded project on the ‘Medical World of Early Modern England, Wales and Ireland c.1500-1715’  I am writing various books on early modern medical practice, both nationally and  two case studies, one of early modern Bristol, and the other of a practitioner/author William Salmon, active in London between 1663 and 1712, as well as preparing for public release a database of medical practitioners during this period, along with Peter Elmer, Alun Withey and others. In this blog I want to discuss some of the ways in which studying medical practice raises issues about the nature of work central to HERB’s programme for this year, and where evidence about the nature of work generated by medical sources is, I strongly suspect, much more informative than is the case for most other occupations, and where the corresponding historiography is also perhaps more developed than for other occupations. Rather than providing a single document, I hope it will be OK to raise a series of issues. What are the boundaries between paid and unpaid work, an occupation and a practice? What are the key features of a type of work, and how should the skills be learned? What exactly is being paid for (and how) when work is remunerated? How far is work regulated by the state, town or guild? How do urban and rural experiences differ?

An interesting first question is why I am discussing ‘medical practice’ not ‘medical work’, and why our database is of ‘medical practitioners’ not medical workers. Historiographically, the term ‘practitioner’ is intended to be a more neutral term than, say, ‘professional ‘ and to cover a range of occupational labels without privileging one of them (such as physic). In early modern usage, both ‘practitioner’ and ‘professor’ (not in an academic sense) of physic/medicine were used, as well as ‘doctor’ (officially meant to signify being an M.D. but often used more loosely), as well as physician, apothecary, surgeon, barber-surgeon etc. But to what extent does referring to practice/practitioner still mark off medicine as something different from other work, and draw upon the modern language of ‘general practice’ or of professions such as medicine and the law as having ‘practices’ not workplaces? 

One possible answer is that almost everyone in the early modern period was a ‘medical worker’ in some sense, and that we reserve the term ‘practitioner’ to describe those for whom this work was a paid occupation (though not necessarily their sole or even main occupation). This is critical given that much medical care was provided in the home, particularly but not only by women (leading many to compile collections of remedies), and that providing medical care/supplies without cost was also an important aspect of charity, both personal and institutional (and this duty extended to practitioners, who were expected to cure at least some categories of poor patients gratis, or at least at a reduced fee they could afford). There was no clear boundary between medical care and the tasks of feeding and nursing/caring central to household management, and the predominant medical ideas of the period reinforced this overlap, by emphasising prevention (with diet, exercise and domestic environment central among the so-called ‘non naturals’) and treatment aimed at correcting the balance of the body’s humours/spirits. There was no clear distinction between foods and medicines in doing this, via purging, strengthening etc., while many medicines, especially herbal simples, could be ‘made’ at home. Good housekeeping was therefore central to health, so one could regard most household work as, at least partially, medical work, while most medical work took place within the household, with very little institutional care (hospitals being primarily care/residential homes for those like the old or military without a household to look after them) and medical practitioners also tended to visit patient’s homes or prescribe treatments to be administered at home by the household.

There is an ongoing debate about the correct balance to strike between emphasising domestic medical provision, and recognising the role of more specialised medical ‘practitioners’, as also of a shift from medicines produced (as well as administered) in the home to those purchased commercially, including pre-packaged medicines as well as those made up by apothecaries on prescription. As Ian Mortimer’s Exeter PhD showed (using probate accounts), pre-mortem medical expenditure rose dramatically in what he termed a 17C ‘medical revolution’, and lots of other evidence suggests a growth in both medical practitioner numbers and expenditure on commercially-produced medicines during the period 1600-1750, though the exact chronology and how far this was focussed on urban areas and/or certain parts of the country is still not clear. But it is clear that most households were not self-sufficient medically - even if ‘domestic medicine’ remained central, there was demand to sustain a large and growing set of medical practitioners, especially to cater for those medical needs seen as more serious or specialised. So, for example, bleeding was regarded as requiring a specialist, as was bonesetting or treating major wounds or accidents. In the countryside, these same skills may also have been exercised on animals, though farriers do not appear to have performed human medical tasks in towns. 

Sandra Cavallo (formerly at Exeter) has labelled Italian workers of this kind ‘artisans of the body’, and drawn attention to the overlap of skills between various groups working on bodily care, only some of which we now label ‘medical’. The most extensive such overlap in England was that of the ‘barber-surgeon’, combining the barber’s work of shaving and other treatment of the skin and hair of the body with surgical work, including bleeding and treatment of wounds. The common feature here, apart from knowledge of the body’s skin and anatomy, was the necessary skill in both preparing and using sharp metal instruments, hard to keep sharp before steel was developed, as Alun Withey has shown, and their characteristic equipment was their box of instruments. Barber-surgeons learnt their practice by apprenticeship, both in the manual skills involved and in managing a shop and network of customers. This was also true of apothecaries, who prepared and sold medicines. Both groups were largely town-based, particularly apothecaries, though barber-surgeons and surgeons also went on ships and with armies, and their growth in numbers is partly explained by growing mercantile and military demand, as well as urbanization: it is less certain that they met a growing share of rural medical needs (though of course rural people went to towns for medical treatment alongside other products and services). 

Both in the early modern period and in modern scholarship much of the discussion of medical work has revolved around the relationship between barber-surgery and pharmacy as medical ‘trades’, learnt by training, and the ‘profession’ of medicine, as defined by physicians who learned physic through a formal education and book learning. There is also a debate about how far individuals did practice as both barbers and surgeons, prior to the formal split between the two in Paris, London and Bristol in the 1740s: was there always a group of ‘mere surgeons’ superior to the others? Historians’ modern occupational tables differ wildly in whether they characterise all these medical occupations as professions or as services, or if they distinguish some as trades (artisan or retailing) and others as professions. In the early modern period this was a highly contested matter of hierarchy and boundary definition: the physicians wished to distinguish their ‘mental’ work from the manual, menial work of the others, so defining themselves as ‘gentlemen’ and also justifying their charging high fees essentially for diagnosis and prognosis, thus identifying the correct therapeutic and preventative regimes, leaving surgeons and apothecaries (or indeed family members) to carry out treatments or prepare medicines in line with their instructions. Yet, as their critics/satirists loved to point out, their ‘work’ was often itself menial, notably in its reliance on the observation of urine and excrement, and their success rate often questionable, lacking the evident outcomes of the barber-surgeons (in dressing wounds, mending fractures or healing skin conditions) or even the apothecaries, or indeed of numerous empirics who offered to identify and cure patients based on experience rather than formal learning/qualifications. Contemporaries found it hard not to regard the actual practices of treatment/curing as constituting medical treatment, and assuming that those who could do the latter were also capable of acting as ‘physicians’. 

Particularly in London, there were constant demarcation disputes between the physicians (the elite College of Physicians), barber-surgeons and apothecaries (both with city guilds, though the Apothecaries only separated from the Grocers in 1618), as well as with other physicians who were outside the College and with all sorts of empirics and part-time healers. These disputes have generated a massive amount of both manuscript and printed evidence about the character of medical work – mostly very partisan and contradictory, but still far in excess of the evidence about how any other occupations were carried out. There is much less evidence of similar disputes outside London, though graduate physicians across the country complained constantly about competition from others who had not undertaken their long and expensive education. As Margaret Pelling and Hal Cook have demonstrated, the London physicians struggled to make their collective case amidst a largely free medical marketplace, with little sustained institutional support from either crown or civic/local authorities, though many individual physicians made very good incomes. But it seems likely that both surgeons and apothecaries in practice offered much advice and treatment of internal medical conditions, and that outside London many medical practitioners were, in effect, general practitioners, combining physic, surgery and pharmacy, just as surgeons had to do on ships. In the eighteenth century this reality was increasingly acknowledged in new forms of medical training and the emergence of terms like ‘surgeon-apothecary’, although resistance from physicians and Oxbridge conservatism, meant that it was not until the 19C that new models of education were officially introduced, centuries after they had been proposed during and after the Civil War period.

Another aspect of the disputes was the question of payment, both in terms of what was being paid for, and how payment was calculated. Was the payment for medical advice, for specific goods or services rendered or was it for (and so contingent on) a successful outcome (and if so, how measured)? Was it calculated by a period of time, by expenses incurred, or was it a contracted or voluntary payment for an agreed result? To be consistent with his model of the physician’s role, a physician could only be kept on a retainer by a patient/family, or paid a fee for medical advice (plus perhaps expenses for travel and/or attendance), ideally paid spontaneously by the grateful patient and not paid by therapeutic outcomes, but in practice even physicians often seem to have charged on these other models, while other types of practitioner might well have standard charges for particular services/products, or ‘contracted for a cure’, either directly with the patient or with their family or employers, parish or other institution. The inherent uncertainty of how long a case might last, and what would count as cure (exacerbated by the lack of a concept of a specific disease that started and finished) offered huge potential for disagreement, and led to numerous court cases, quite apart from disputes when treatment failed or patients failed to pay. All this was aggravated by the practice of ‘multiple resort’ whereby people sought medical help from a range of different practitioners simultaneously or in turn (especially if the problem persisted) and also practices of multiple consultation, especially in serious cases: this was common among physicians but also prescribed by barber-surgeon’s guilds in dangerous cases, where pursuing risky surgery was forbidden without consulting the guild’s officers. All of this related to the legal convention that medial men were entitled to payment and also protected against prosecution for causing harm or death (regardless of outcome) provided they had acted according to medical convention. 

Medical practice also raises interesting questions about regulation of work. The current orthodoxy is to stress that England had a ‘medical marketplace’ characterised by a general freedom to practise, and for patients to shop around for medical services, by comparison both with other countries in the period, or the modern state’s professional regulation of medicine. But this marketplace was a contested one, with several overlapping types of regulation in place, and with patients probably influenced by qualifications and official/civic status. From the 1520s there was a national scheme of medical licensing by the church, although it was patchily applied, even to the physicians and midwives to whom it was largely restricted, with barber-surgeons and apothecaries regulated, if at all, by town guilds, although many towns lacked such guilds, or saw medical practitioners included in larger conglomerate guilds. Only in London did the state make any attempt at overall regulation of medical practice, and as noted, its attempt to create a hierarchy led by an elite College of Physicians was never very effective – the crown, the courts and civic authorities proved reluctant to reduce patient autonomy or the rights of other guildsmen. Elsewhere, it seems that medical practitioners relied largely, in the task of building a practice, on winning trust from customers by deploying social networks of kinship and experience, either through apprenticeship, partnership with an established practitioner or inheriting a practice, and this applied as much to physicians as to others, despite their claims to specialist educational qualifications, as Andrea Davies’s Exeter PhD on graduate physicians in Devon and Suffolk demonstrated. Regulation (and indeed formal training) should probably be understood as one factor within the local establishment of trust and authority, rather than treated in isolation, and it involved a complex mixture of cooperation and competition between the local practitioners, as well as with both their patients (clients/customers?) and the domestic provision of medical care.

Download the full list of further reading here.

‘Forget not the feasts that belong to the plough’: Festive Work Relations in Thomas Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry

This blog post explores the relationship between work and festivity (and play more generally) in early modern England, through the lens of Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry united to as many of Good Huswifery.¹ Tusser’s poetic advice manual on Elizabethan agrarian life provided useful and entertaining information for modest landholders, addressing the farming year, working day, and household management, among other subjects. Published and reworked in stages from 1557 until the author’s death in 1580, it was immensely popular during Elizabeth’s reign (perhaps the best-selling book of poetry), with eighteen editions in the 16th century and periodic re-printings throughout the 17th. During the 18th and 19th centuries the treatise remained a cultural touchstone, with new editions adding commentary which reflected contemporary rural practices. Structured around the agrarian calendar, issues of seasonality and festive custom naturally pervade the text. Yet one section in particular celebrates the feasting days of rural servants and workers, and that will be my focus here.

But first, a little more background on the author and the publication history. Thomas Tusser was a gentleman farmer and poet, born around 1526 in Essex. Educated at St Paul’s, London (as a chorister), Eton College and then Cambridge University, Tusser began his career as a musician at the royal court, under patronage of William Paget, from around 1544 to 1552. After his patron fell from royal favour, Tusser left court, married, and took up farming in Cattiwade (Suffolk). Here he began writing his farming manual, initially entitled A Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (published 1557). Due to his wife’s ill health, Tusser moved to Ipswich (where his wife died) and then settled with a new wife and family in West Dereham (Norfolk). They would move again to Norwich, and finally to Fairsted (Essex), where Tusser would spend the remainder of his life farming on tithe land. Although not a particularly successful husbandman, Tusser’s real and varied experience as a farmer in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex would greatly influence his poetry.

Over the last two decades of his life, Tusser continually shaped his husbandry manual. In 1562 he ‘married’ his hundred points on husbandry (focused on the husbandman’s monthly tasks) to ‘a hundred good points of huswifery’ (focused on the huswife’s daily labours). This format was published again in 1570 and 1571, and then in 1573 expanded to ‘five hundred points’ of advice. This was essentially the final form of the book, though there were small changes and additions throughout the 1570s, and particularly in the 1580 edition. As will be discussed below, these small edits could significantly supplement or alter meaning.

Subsequent editions largely copied the 1580 format, until Daniel Hilman’s Tusser Redivivus (1710). This was a partial re-print with substantial ‘observations explaining many obsolete terms…and what is agreeable to the present practice’. Later scholarly editions in 1812 (Mavor), and 1878 (Payne and Herrtage) would follow Hilman’s lead, attempting both interpretation and contemporary comparison. As a result, the many editions of Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry provide something of a running commentary on rural industry and custom in England from the mid-16th through the 19th centuries, with notes on change over time and regional differences.

This intertextual conversation is particularly pertinent to the section called ‘the ploughman’s feasting days’. First appearing in the 1570 edition, in the ‘book of huswifery’, it describes a series of celebrations important to servants-in-husbandry. The opening quatrain sets the stage:

Good huswives, whom God hath enriched enough,

forget not the feasts that belong to the plough.

The meaning is only to joy and be glad,

for comfort with labour is fit to be had.

Stanzas follow dedicated to each feast and its associated activities. They proceed in calendrical order, starting with Plough Monday – traditionally the first day back at work after Christmastide break:

Plough Monday, next after that Twelfthtide is past,

bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last.

If ploughman get hatchet or whip to the screen,

maids loseth their cock if no water be seen.

This quatrain captures the general spirit and form of the others which follow. For simplicity’s sake, I have distilled the rest of the poem into a chart below, summarizing and interpreting where possible. Of course, the Plough Monday stanza also captures just how difficult interpretation can be when dealing with obscure terms and festive customs. What is going on with the ‘hatchet or whip to the screen’ or the cock and the water, for instance?

To parse these customs’ meanings, historians and literary scholars have perhaps been too quick to rely on subsequent commentaries. Payne and Herrtage (1878) and Mavor (1812) drew heavily on contemporary descriptions of festive ‘survivals’, and most heavily on the ‘observations’ of Daniel Hilman. While an early modern himself, Hilman was a surveyor from Surrey who wrote 140 years after Tusser. His explanations of these feast day activities likely say more about customs in his own time and region than they do about Tudor East Anglia. We should not fall into the trap of thinking festive customs immutable or invariable.

Indeed, Tusser supplies direct evidence of regional variance in these feast day traditions through his own glosses. From the 1580 edition onwards, glosses indicate in which (nearby) counties these customs were found (i.e. they were not universal). Such glosses replaced older ones (from the 1570, 1571 and 1573 editions) which clarified the feast day occasion, sometimes with comical redundancy. For example, the stanza, ‘Shrovetide: At Shrovetide to shroving, go thresh the fat hen’ includes the superfluous gloss *At Shrovetide.

Still, elsewhere the glosses provide our only direct evidence of occasion. Using these glosses, and prioritizing contemporary (or near contemporary) evidence, the following chart presents the full panoply of the ploughman’s feasts, with attempts to discern ‘hen-threshing’ and the like. The original verses can be viewed in this online edition of Payne and Herrtage.

The ploughman’s feasting daies. [Original terms/text in italics]

Feast Title

Summary/Interpretation of Activities

Gloss – Occasion (Editions 1570, 1571, 1573)

Gloss – County (Editions 1580 onwards)

Plough Monday

Back to work after Christmastide. Competition to avoid being last husbandman to bid out with the plough. Also competition within household to return tools to the screen/hearth first [ie finish tasks first], between serving-men [ploughing, pruning] and maids [fetching water]. Prize at stake seems to be a cockerel, perhaps for eating/play at next feast.

At Twelfthtide

[Monday after Plough Sunday, ie first Sunday after Twelfth Day, 6 January]



Devoted to ‘shroving’ [carousing/celebrating]. A fat hen given to the serving-men to thresh – a blood sport where blindfolded competitors try to strike the immobilized bird, killing and tenderizing it. Besides feasting on this poultry, servant-maids make enough fritters and pancakes for the household. Even the lowly slut [scullery maid] gets one for company sake [fellowship’s sake].

At Shrovetide [Moveable festival ending with Shrove Tuesday on eve of Lent, falls in February or March]

Essex and Suffolk

Sheep Shearing

Feasting during/after the shearing of sheep. Huswife to prepare the dinner, sparing flesh neither corn and making wafers and cakes. Seems to be a communal work activity which includes the neighbours as well as servants in husbandry, all expecting good cheer and welcome.

At Midsummer

[24 June]


Wake Day

Maids tasked with staying up on the eve of Wake Day, baking flans in the oven. The parish festival would be characterised by general revelry for the serving-men and women, when every wanton [merry girl] may dance at her will, both Tomkin with Tomlin, and Jankin with Gill.

The Wake Day

[Dedication feast for parish church or chapel, most occurred between June & October]


Harvest Home

After the harvest finishes, the ploughmen are given a harvest home goose to feast upon.

In August


Seed Cake

During this week, if the weather hold clear, the last of the wheat sowing should be completed. The huswife is tasked with preparing the seed Cake, the Pasties [pies], and Furmenty pot [similar to cream of wheat] for a celebratory feast.

At Hallowtide

[Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, ie 31 Oct-2 Nov]

Essex and Suffolk

Twice a Week Roast

By custom and right, good ploughmen expect roast meat suppers twice weekly. Who so keeps these and the above customs, they will call thee good huswife, [and] love thee likewise.

Twice a Week

[On Sunday and Thursday nights]

What conclusions can we draw about early modern work, play and festivity from these ploughmen’s feasts, and what further questions do they spark?

First, we might view them in terms of classic historiographical approaches to festivals. Social histories of festive culture in early modern England (and Europe more broadly) often query, in a general sense, how far festive phenomena reinforced or subverted the social or political order through public action (Burke, 1978). In more specific senses, they focus on periods of contestation, when the very ideas and actions of festivity became the subject of political conflict. Early modern England was full of such periods, from macro reformations, revolutions and restorations (Hutton), to micro struggles over local enforcement of King James I’s Book of Sports (Marcus).

Tusser’s poem, in contrast, speaks more to festivity’s ability to inform the social order of a single household, rather than society as a whole. It also highlights the vital and enduring social importance of festivity, whether or not it happened to be a political football contested at the time.

Scholarly approaches to feasting as a reciprocal act informing social relations might be more pertinent here. Felicity Heal’s research on gift-giving, hospitality and charity in early modern England, for example, has highlighted how feasting and food-gifts ‘established and developed the bonds of good lordship and clientage’ in premodern society (2008:45). Most scholarship in this vein, however, has focused on the bonds between hosts and guests, tenants and landlords, and neighbours, often with an emphasis on Christmastide feasting.

Tusser’s ploughmen feasts stand somewhat apart in concentrating on the master-servant relationship, and in taking place outside the high holy seasons of Christmas, Easter or Whitsun. Indeed, most of his feasts had only a tenuous link to the liturgical calendar and, significantly, were characterised by blurred lines between work and play: ‘comfort with labour is fit to be had’. These feasts thus do not sit easily within classic labour-leisure models, where ‘pre-industrial societies had festivals…while industrial societies have leisure’ (Burke: 137; Marfany). If the latter was so, where did premodern festivals infused with work fit? Nor do they complement early modern elite understandings of play as antithetical to work, projecting instead a sympathetic view of play as essential to work identities and relations. A perspective perhaps indicative of Tusser’s experience as a musician and poet.

More broadly, the ploughmen’s feasts point to the complexity of the festive gift economy as a social and symbolic system. We know feasting informed early modern social relations, but the specific seasonal (not to mention liturgical) context of a feast could influence exactly which social bonds were informed and why. Tusser, for example, devotes a separate section of his book to Christmas feasting, highlighting the multi-lateral giving among various levels of society during that season [emphasis mine]:

At Christmas be merie and thankfull withall,
And feast thy poore neighbors, the great with the small,

This stands in contrast to the more pointed, downward giving to household servants during the ploughmen’s feasts (save perhaps sheep shearing, which included neighbours as well).

Lastly, if these feasts speak to the master-servant relationship, what do they say? For one, the latter should be definitively renamed the ‘dame-servant’ relationship, for Tusser makes clear that the huswife negotiated, managed and maintained such work relations. Elsewhere in his book, Tusser advises huswives how best to order, manage and discipline servants. But on the feast days, the shoe was on the other foot: feasts were both practical and symbolic manifestations of a social contract (a two-way exchange), epitomising what was owed the servant by ‘custom and right’ in this relationship. Tusser employs imperative after imperative to reinforce this point: ‘This must not be slept / Old Guise must be kept’. With a final flourish, he drives home the far reaching significance of these festive exchanges, not just to household cohesion and amity, but also to the essential premodern commodity of reputation:

This doing and keeping such custom and guise,
they call thee good huswife, they love thee likewise.

[¹] I have modernised Tusser’s spellings throughout this post, with exceptions here and there, when the early modern spelling helps draw a distinction between premodern and modern definitions (e.g. ‘huswifery’ and ‘huswife’) or contributes to meter or rhyme.

Further Reading



  • Burke, Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978, rev. repr.; Farnham, 2009).
  • Burke, Peter, ‘The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe’, Past & Present, 146 (1995), 136-50.
  • Heal, Felicity, ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the Politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, 199, 1 (2008), 41-70.
  • Hutton, Ronald, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700 (Oxford, 1994).
  • Marcus, Leah, The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes (Chicago, 1986).
  • Marfany, Joan-Lluis, ‘Debate: The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe’, Past & Present, 156 (1997), 174-191.
  • McRae, Andrew, God Speed the Plough: the Representation of Agrarian England, 1500–1660 (Cambridge, 1996).
  • McRae, Andrew, ‘Tusser, Thomas (c. 1524–1580), writer on agriculture and poet’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

Multiple tasks undertaken by male workers in the Shuttleworths’ accounts, Lancashire, 1582-1621

Examples of account entries

When the multiple tasks or diverse occupations of workers in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been discussed by historians such as Alan Everitt and Mark Overton, the traditional view has been that the main occupation of most inhabitants in rural England was farming, but that they also engaged in by-employment to support their families. This conclusion is mainly supported by evidence from probate inventories which show agriculture being combined with crafts and retailing in many households. This has been challenged by Sebastian Keibek and Leigh Shaw-Taylor who argue that by-employment is overrepresented in probate inventories. When turning to the household and farm accounts, economic historians, such as mostly recently Humphries and Weisdorf, have been more interested in selecting records of wages to construct long-term wage series. Managerial or financial responsibilities, and the specific occupational titles recorded in the accounts have been used to separate skilled from unskilled workers. However, the multiple tasks undertaken by wage workers have been ignored in this classification. Based on Shuttleworths’ accounts of 1582-1621, this blog discusses some findings related to multiple tasks undertaken by male workers. The Shuttleworths were a gentry family who lived at Smithills near Bolton, before moving to Gawthorpe Hall in Padiham parish (now a National Trust property), in 1600.

Before analysing the data, some explanations should be made here. Incomplete records made it impossible to create a complete record of tasks undertaken by workers over time. For example, when William Morres worked for the Shuttleworths from May 1586 to April 1589, seven entries provided detailed information about his tasks, including harrowing, working at turves and driving lambs to Haslingden [a small town in Rossendale, Lancashire]. However, the remaining seven entries detailed only the days worked and wages paid but not the tasks undertaken. In addition, general entries that did not name the workers employed mean we cannot know the maximum amount of work undertaken by particular labourers. And thus, this discussion concentrates on those labourers for whom detailed information is available, including names, tasks, days worked and payment. In terms of their tasks, three types of work are used here to make further classification, namely agricultural labourers, building labourers, and other day labourers. Among which, other day labour was mainly composed by ditching and hedging.

Using these principles, we find that among the 255 male labourers, whose names and tasks are specified, hired in 1586-98, 58 did at least two types of tasks; of 93 male labourers hired in 1600-02, 30 did at least two types of tasks; of 89 male labourers hired in 1617-20, 25 did diverse tasks. Although the proportion of labourers who did diverse tasks was not that high, specific attention needs to be paid to their occupational identifications. Looking at particular examples of labourers who undertook multiple tasks illustrates this further.

Oliver Stones was paid for slating roofs at Lostock with or without his man from 1583 to 1590. His family did not appear in the accounts until June 1592, when he and his children were paid for different tasks. After that, Oliver Stones, his son and his brother worked at Smithills undertaking diverse tasks between 1593 and 1598. Oliver Stones’ son was paid for getting moss, and he also worked with his father ‘driving out and filling the dung’, and mending ponds. Oliver Stones’ brother was paid 4d for one days’ shearing corn at Smithills, and Oliver Stones himself was paid for mending the stairs and ‘cleaning the slate’. He also worked as agricultural labourer and received payment for ‘getting’ hay. Oliver Stones and his family provide an example of a family who undertook multiple types of work for the Shuttleworths. This work fell into all three categories of agricultural work, building work and other work.

Richard Stones was an agricultural labourer who drove the plough at Hool for a payment of 4d a day. But later, he became a middle man and was in charge of providing meat such as wildfowl, chicken and fish to the Shuttleworths from September 1588 to August 1595. He provides an example of someone who appeared to change his specialism over time, perhaps after marriage.

When John Morres worked at Lostock from 1586 to 1593 inconsecutively, he was paid for mowing and threshing. Outside harvest time he also ‘filled dung’ and got turves. Yet John Morres was also a craftsman as he was paid for making shoes and mittens, although the payment was not high.

Roger Cockshott was a worker who did diverse tasks during his employment from May 1600 to February 1600/01 including building work and agricultural work. The tasks he was paid for included shifting timber, fehing [dressing or cleaning] the ground of the new hall, serving the waller, working at hay, ditching at different places and so on. His wage rate ranged between 2d per day and 3d per day.

John Roe, a worker hired by the Shuttleworths from 1617 to 1620, was not only paid for spinning and weaving but also shearing corn and threshing. In fact, this was not the first time when this name John Roe appeared in the accounts. He was also recorded for mowing and carrying hay on 11 August 1604.

These examples show that some workers hired by the Shuttleworths did multiple types of tasks to earn money, including agricultural work, building work and other types of work. The more skills they acquired over time, the more tasks they could do to earn wages. And the diverse tasks undertaken by both them and their family members could contribute more to their family incomes. In addition, the evidence of day labourers and day labour from the Shuttleworths’ accounts shows a flexible pattern of work, which prompts us to reconsider the traditional view that the main occupation of workers in early modern England was farming. This opinion was based on the evidence from probate inventories, which are biased towards more wealthy households as Sebastian Keibek and Leigh Shaw-Taylor argue in their article. For those who did not leave inventories, there may also have the opportunity to do more than one type of work during their life-cycle.

Another related issue is the meaning of labour/work. Both farm accounts and inventories have long been used by historians to identify occupations of people in early modern England. But to what extent was this kind of identification important to labouring people themselves? Alexandra Shepard argues that the assumed connection between labour/work and the loss of autonomy might be an important reason for labouring men and women in the church courts to try to present their honesty and credit. Compared with occupational labels which may imply ‘dependence’, perhaps it was more important for workers to stress their ‘independent status’, although they might have to do diverse tasks to make a living.

In addition, what mattered the most to people living in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Lancashire, a period of poor harvests and high mortality, were job opportunities. Multiple tasks undertaken by wage workers could definitely help them earn more money and overcome difficulties. Thus the most appropriate way of characterising their types of work is the concept ‘economy of makeshifts’, the multiple means of making ends meet discussed by historians of poverty.

Further Reading


  • The House and Farm Accounts of the Shuttleworths, 1582-1621, Lancashire Archives DDKS 18/2-5, 9.


  • Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 1500-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  • Alan Everitt, ‘Farm Labourer’, in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, IV, 1500-1640, ed., Joan Thirsk, (Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 396-465.
  • Sebastian A. J. Keibek and Leigh Shaw-Taylor, ‘Early modern rural by-employments: a re-examination of the probate inventory evidence’, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 61, No. 2(2-13), (2013), pp. 244-81.
  • Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf, ‘Unreal Wages? Real Income and Economic Growth in England, 1260-1850”, The Economic Journal, 129 (October), (2019), pp. 2867-2887.
  • Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf, ‘The Wages of Women in England, 1260-1850’, Journal of Economic History, v. 75, iss. 2, (2015), pp. 405-47.
  • Alexandra Shepard, ‘Poverty, Labour and the Language of Social Description in Early Modern England’, Past & Present, No. 201, (Nov. 2008), pp. 51-95.
  • A. H. Smith, ‘Labourers in Late Sixteenth-Century England: a Case Study from North Norfolk [Part I]’, Continuity and Change, 4(1), (1989), pp. 11-52.
  • Steven King and Alannah Tomkins (ed.), The poor in England 1700-1850: An economy of makeshifts (Manchester University Press, 2003).

‘Creating new work and a new profession for women’: Florence Nightingale and the Rural Health Missioners of North Buckinghamshire 1891-1892

In 1891 the North Bucks Technical Education Committee instigated the “Rural Health Missioners” (RHM) Health at Home scheme in collaboration with Florence Nightingale. The scheme appears to be short lived and remained specific to North Buckinghamshire (although it was promoted elsewhere), with only one report, which is the focus of this blog, produced by the committee in 1892. The committee’s report can be viewed online at the Wellcome Library.

It is within this report that Florence Nightingale writes that the RHMs must create ‘a new work and profession for women’ with the added caveat that ‘she [the RHM] must make this work acceptable to women of the labouring class’.  I would therefore like to explore what was new about this work, the women who were going to carry out the role of the RHM, and why it was needed. 

Firstly, some context to the scheme.   The committee’s chairman was Frederick Verney, Liberal Councillor for Buckinghamshire County Council since its inception in 1889 and Florence Nightingale’s nephew, the stepson of her sister Parthenope and Sir Harry Verney.  Florence had lived with them for some time at their Claydon estate in Buckinghamshire and knew the area well; she was affectionately referred to as Aunt Florence.  Sir Harry had established a strong link between the family and the health of the locality, especially the poor; most notably raising funds for the building of a hospital in Aylesbury following successive cholera outbreaks (pinpointed to the duck-breeders and fatteners of Aylesbury).  1891 was a difficult time for the Verney family with Frederick’s brother, Edmund, having fled the country following his conviction for procuring a girl under 21 for immoral purposes.  His wife Margaret was a member of the rural school board and co-opted onto the Buckinghamshire county education committee and contributed the section ‘Hints for the health-missioners’ to the report.  In his introduction to the committee’s report, Frederick emphasises the apparent neglect of the rural population by the government, who had, in his opinion, been spending too much money on urban sanitation schemes.  The women of the labouring classes who were the object of this new scheme of Rural Health Missioners were experiencing a sharp decline in employment opportunities due to the loss of the traditional female textile trades of lacemaking and straw-plaiting.  However, this decline was tempered by an increase in the activities of the Aylesbury duck industry as a response to the agricultural depression.

The RHM scheme was to be Nightingale’s last significant intervention on public health and one that represented a major shift in her pedagogical methods.  By now, Nightingale had realised that books were an inadequate medium for instructing poor, rural women about sanitation and health prevention, but that this need was imperative as it was in this very population that the future of the country resided.   To achieve this vision Nightingale deftly reversed the accepted and usual imperial knowledge flows by drawing on the experiences of similar schemes in India (which she had the opportunity to discuss at Claydon House with the Indian delegates attending the 7th International Congress of Hygiene and Demography).  The success of these schemes rested on women moving beyond campaigning to become the agents and authority in effecting a ‘real’ change in public health.  As she wrote in her paper ‘Rural Hygiene’ presented to the Leeds Conference of Women Workers in 1893:

"Let not England lag behind – especially not in the conviction that nothing can be done without personal friendship with the woman to be taught.  It is a truism to say that the women who teach in India must know the languages, the religions, superstitions, and customs of the women to be taught in India.  It ought to be truism to say the very same for England.  We must not talk to them, or at them, but-with them. [italics original emphasis]"

To overcome the limitations of book-learning, Nightingale proposed the creation of the RHMs. The RHMs would be middle-class women who would give interactive lectures to village women and visit their homes to offer personalised advice (This was the most important element). The scheme can be interpreted as a partial return to the traditions of the ‘Lady Bountiful’ described by Jessica Gerard where elite women, through charitable gifting and visiting the homes of the needy, cemented the structures of the rural hierarchy. However, there were significant differences; firstly, these women [RHM] did not already ‘exist’ in Nightingale’s opinion, but had to be found and trained, secondly, they had to be paid to avoid them being considered as ‘amateurs’, and thirdly, charitable giving to the village women was strictly forbidden. The RHM weekly wage (for working five days a week), once qualified and in post, was seven shillings a day plus travelling expenses as they moved from village to village, but they were always to remain in the immediate locality. For the village mothers, learning about managing the health of their family and home was not reliant on innate skills but was to become a ‘trade’ to be learnt the same as any other (dressmaking for example).

The report available at the Wellcome library is a later edition published after Nightingale’s death in 1910 which has the notable addition of a montage of photographs of Florence Nightingale and places that were associated with her (including St Thomas Hospital and her house in London). Drawing heavily on the iconography of ‘the ministering angel of the Crimean War’ the photographs assert Nightingale’s authority even though the RHM were not to be considered as, or trained as, nurses. The bulk of the report consists of letters from Florence Nightingale to the committee and the ‘village mothers’, instructions to potential missioners, syllabus of missioners training, a specimen lecture, template forms as well as reports on the scheme and the suitability of individual candidates for the role.

The committee wished to equip ‘certain ladies, who were willing to devote themselves to the work, with the knowledge indispensable for Health Missioners’. The RHMs were required to follow a syllabus of lectures, delivered by a local Medical Officer (the wonderfully named Dr De’ath) and pass examinations (oral and written) which were the ‘summary of the Science of Hygiene, and are to give the scientific basis, on which the popular familiar village teaching’ is to be founded. Although the committee agreed with Nightingale that only a man could teach the RHMs the knowledge they required, it was Nightingale herself who, in effect, interviewed and chose Dr De’ath for the role. Once trained the RHMs would give lectures to the village women on the ‘Sanitary condition of the Person, Clothes and Bedding, House, Management of Health Adults, Women before and after Confinements, Infants and Children’. The RHMs were required to ‘be of good character, good health, acceptable to village mothers, and have belief in and enthusiasm for the work’. It was important the RHMs were from the immediate locality as it was felt that urban women would not be able to understand the demands of rural life and work and would not be tolerated by the village women.

Nightingale herself was anxious not to follow in the footsteps of the Devonshire County Council who had earlier that year started a similar scheme which had failed to attract any local support or co-operation because the ladies came from the Sanitary Ladies Association in London at a cost of 5 guineas a week and had no understanding of rural life. The RHMs were not to have too much knowledge and to understand the limitations of that knowledge; they were not to try and be nurses or doctors. The RHMs were to be unmarried as work of this kind was considered incompatible with the responsibilities of looking after a house and family of their own. Twelve ladies were selected in response to the initial scheme. After the examinations, the three highest scoring candidates were named as Miss Deyns, Miss L Rowland, and Miss A Bartlett. I have been able to trace Miss Deyns on census returns and in newspaper reports which give an indication how this new work impacted her life. On the census of 1861 she is recorded in Norfolk as the new-born daughter of a surgeon, by 1891 she is living with her single brother (a local GP) in north Buckinghamshire and her sister (also single) who is a music teacher. Her familial connections and her interest in the role of the RHMs suggest that she had acquired a certain amount of vicarious medical knowledge but that her gender and status prevented her from pursuing this further. Miss Deyns has no occupation on the census and local newspaper reports only mention her name in connection with social and charitable events where she served tea or played the pianoforte. However, by 1894, she is reported as an energetic and popular teacher giving two ‘Health Course’ lectures a week at different locations in the Buckinghamshire town of Winslow as well as visiting cottage homes, strictly by invitation, afterwards. By 1896 she was the honorary secretary to the local Science and Arts Institute and on the committee for organising the annual Arts Industries and Loan Exhibition.

In the report Florence Nightingale addresses the “Village Mothers” directly in a letter, setting out the importance of their homes not just to them and their families but to the whole nation:

"‘The Cottage Homes of England are after all, the most important of the homes of any class, that they should be pure in every sense, pure in body and mind’."

As it was unequivocally the responsibility of the mother to cleanse the home of dirt and disease in was the role of the RHM to help them achieve this through ‘sympathy and friendliness’. This approach would enable the RHMs to show poor mothers and girls ‘better things without giving offence’ with village lectures being like a ‘picture book, with lively images to rouse the imagination, and retain the attention of the Village mother’. These colourful images were balanced by more practical advice that required the RHMs to be knowledgable about the prices and availability of utensils and equipment they were recommending (such as the prices of toothbrushes and towels)

Lectures were tailored to the local communities at a parish level; the specimen lecture entitled ‘Our Homes’ told women that illness was caused through ignorance and the breaking of God’s Laws. To make this point relevant the cases of cholera caused by the keeping of ducks in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire was cited as a warning. It was therefore the duty of every woman to learn about health and so much more; the lectures on the ‘bedroom’ included whitewashing walls, filling holes in floorboards with sand and glaziers’ putty, making furniture out of old boxes and the folly of storing lumber and potatoes under the bed. But it was in the personalised visits to the cottage homes that the RHMs were at their most innovative – these visits were not for the acquisition of statistics on the state of the poor for a parliamentary commission but to apply the contents of the lectures to the living conditions of the individual women. Although some lectures covered aspects of rural life that would appear to beyond the remedy of the individual, such as choosing a healthy dwelling (avoid valleys because of fog, pick a southerly aspect) they did encourage and validate the women to complain to the relevant authorities and landlords about lack of sanitation, poor repairs etc by providing information on how to negotiate the bureaucratic process involved.

As Celia Davies identified when discussing the female health visitors of Manchester, the RHMs were pushing at the boundaries between the public and private spheres to identify a sphere of work that was only for women. However, unlike the health visitors, the RHMs were also disrupting class barriers by carrying out their work as a ‘friend’ to the village mothers, acknowledging that the learning/teaching was happening on both sides of the equation and that being poor did not relinquish the right to a private life. However, what is missing in the report is the voice of the female labouring class. Despite being portrayed as partners in the scheme they remained as the passive recipients of advice that increased their work and responsibilities.

Further Reading

  • Paul Crawford, Anna Greenwood, Richard Bates and Jonathan Memel, Florence Nightingale at Home (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
  • Celia Davies, ‘The Health Visitor as Mother’s Friend: A woman’s place in public health, 1900-1914’ Social History of Medicine, 1 (1988) 39-59.
  • Jessica Gerard, ‘Lady Bountiful: Women of the Landed Classes and Rural Philanthropy’, Victorian Studies, 30 (1987) 183-210
  • Jharna Gourlay, Florence Nightingale and the Heath of the Raj (London: Routledge, 2004)
  • Florence Nightingale, Rural Hygiene 1894
  • Florence Nightingale, Health and Local Government 1894
  • Collected Works of Florence Nightingale: Florence Nightingale on Public Health Care, edited by Lynn McDonald, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004
  • Dr. Gresswell's report to the Local Government Board on the general sanitary condition of the Buckingham rural sanitary district, 1889

'Working Seamen in a Maritime Republic, on Reciprocal Rights and Duties'

Petitioning directly the government was a common occurrence in the Republic of Venice, across all social groups – subjects, citizens, even patricians – but also for foreigners. As Venice was a most bureaucratic state, all petitions were channelled to a single governmental body – the Collegio – which sifted them and moved them forward to the appropriate governmental agency. These volumes, where original petitions are filed by their date of delivery, are a magnificent window into the concerns of pre-modern individuals, and a great barometer of the general social and economic situation in the Venetian territories at large.

On 8 April 1682 a petition was presented not by an ‘individual’, but by 

"a number of maritime subjects who, at present, have no way to exercise their profession as they are excluded from serving on Venetian vessels, as – even though they are subjects of Your Seignory – merchant shipping is now ruled by foreigners who employ their own fellow countrymen, and we are rejected.[1]"

This attack on the disruptive role of foreign labour immigration within the maritime sector – the load-bearing pillar of Venetian economic activity and identity – was swiftly followed by a possibly even more threatening justification of the reasons behind these practices. The culprits for these practices are those ‘merchants’ who prefer to employ foreign vessels and crews to more easily practice contraband in the Adriatic Sea, in breach of the law. The petition continued by accusing these merchants of justifying their behaviour by spreading lies about the expertise of native seamen. The petitioners challenged the Venetian authorities to perform a census of lost ships, including the nationality of their masters and crewmembers, arguing that the results of such an exercise would clearly show that the vast majority of losses involved Venetian ships which were crewed and mastered by foreigners.

The accusation, implying a serious criminal offence, went also straight to the heart of the Republic’s desire to quash what was perceived to be an increase in insurance fraud.
After the accusation of insurance fraud, the petition changed its tone once more, moving to the ‘lamentation’ and ‘pleading’ elements which were part of the traditional rhetoric between ruled and rulers. The ‘maritime subjects’ lamented that if this dearth of employment opportunities was to continue they would be forced to abandon their homes and emigrate to look for work:

"like these Northerners, who have themselves abandoned their wives and children to look for opportunities to earn the money to feed them, and there we shall attempt to live like Veneti amongst foreigners, as in our own patria we cannot survive […]."

This time the accusation was that their own fatherland was damaging their employment prospects through favouring foreign workers because of the greed of Venetian merchants, thus reneging on the most fundamental duty of taking care of one’s own subjects. The Venetian seamen's perspective intriguingly reverses the Elizabethan propagandistic narrative of these very same events; with a complete reversal of the rhetoric of Hakluyt and other writers, the Northerners here are not described as daring conquerors of new markets or valiant exploiters of economic opportunities abroad, but instead as poor and sad migrants forced to abandon their dwellings to find employment away from their own country and families. Were these Venetians writing today, they would probably describe the Northerners with the derogatory label of ‘economic migrants’. This passage is evocative in its usage of rhetoric under two rubrics: first, it highlights the fundamental differences between Venice and England in regard to their subjects’ employment conditions and welfare provisions; and, probably more importantly, it also gives the reader a clear image of their self-perception as active and fundamental parts of the body politic. These Venetian maritime workers directly engage their own government with a clear idea about the reciprocal rights and duties of rulers and ruled. The tone is appropriately respectful, but the substance is socio-political dynamite.

After the traditional pleading came the presentation of the evidence, and the petition continues with a detailed list of the legislation recently promulgated in the kingdom of France under the aegis of Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Ordonnance de la Marine. Such a substantive shift in the text – moving from a pleading for care worded as an appeal from humble subjects to the paternalistic nature of government, to a precise listing of foreign legislative measures – proves the collective nature of this petition and powerfully exemplifies the dialogue between government and subjects. The anonymity of the text, presented as it was by ‘a number of maritime subjects’, does not permit us to know who actually initiated it. However, the variety of issues raised and the varying rhetoric employed in different passages make it abundantly clear that all social and economic levels of the maritime sectors had been involved in its conception, from merchants and shipowners to simple seamen. Each of these groups maintained its distinct voice, and put forward specific concerns within a single document addressed to their rulers.

The example of the French legislation was juxtaposed with the supposed attitude of the Republic:

"here, on the contrary, Your Serenity lavishly grants the Venetian flag and patents to any foreigners, even to those who are settled in Alien States, and this harms both the Public and Private interest [of the Republic], as it introduces foreigners by the ‘boatful’ (à barchate) to keep locals from employment, thus damaging the seaworthiness of nationals, and exterminates our own miserable families […]"

The penultimate section of the petition highlighted their status as loyal subjects ready to sacrifice their lives in times of war to defend the Republic (as had recently happened in the long War of Candia – 1646-1669), and in times of peace to pay all taxes levied by the Republic, unlike foreigners. Their undying loyalty and fiscal propriety was not being reciprocated, and this was deemed to be both against reason and contrary to the most basic moral tenets which underlined the pact between the State and its subjects. The petitioners reiterated with a flourish:

"we trust that mercy towards your own children will penetrate the heart of Your Serenity, our Prince and Father, and that this will inspire you to apply to us the treatment due to your legitimate progeny."

The rhetoric was effective, and the tone was constructed so as to soften the implicit threat about future actions by sternly loyal – even if currently neglected – subjects. Still, the petitioners knew well that their depiction of the legislative situation in Venice was a gross exaggeration, if not a downright misrepresentation, so their petition terminated with a list of Venetian laws to support the employment of citizens and subjects within the maritime sector, closing with a plea not so much for reform, but for their effective application.

This petition is an absolute masterpiece – in its original etymological sense – of the sophisticated rhetoric underpinning the dialogue between the Republic and its subjects. Across the territories ruled by the Republic, petitions frequently spearheaded the legislative process. They were submitted by everyone: patricians, citizens of all varieties, subjects and foreigners. They followed a traditional and well-honed rhetorical form, with the insistence on ‘service’ and loyalty’ towards the Republic as the prerequisite preamble before the case was described and the specific request formulated. This particular one is sophisticated and nuanced in presenting the multifaceted concerns of an entire sector of the economy, and plays with great dexterity upon the rhetoric of service within a republican government and with the evident and well-known financial concerns of the state.

This is what the Northern Invasion looked like from the perspective of those employed in the maritime sector who had been suffering the brunt of its impact and whose livelihoods were in danger. Even taking into account the traditional insistence on ‘need’ which characterises all petitions and which should not be taken at face value, this text goes well beyond a lamentation on lack of working – and hence – earning opportunities. Its sweeping narrative encompassed the disruptive role of foreign labour immigration within the maritime sector – an essential element of Venetian economic identity and self-representation. Connected with this was the accusation of collusion against local native – Venetian – merchants, who preferred to increase their profits to the detriment of the State, another powerful statement as the official rhetoric of the Venetian state always underlined that a properly functioning economy benefitted both the public purse and private individuals. This last point was further connected with allegations about the weakening jurisdictional power of Venice and its claim of exercising full dominion over the Golfo (Adriatic Sea), allegations which implied the existence of widespread and multifaceted financial fraud: tax evasion within maritime trade, straight contraband and insurance fraud. This had social, economic and, above all moral implications as it was provided as evidence of the Republic’s neglect towards the necessary care of its own citizens and subjects.

[1] ASV, Collegio, Risposte di dentro, reg. 95, cc.n.n. (8 April 1682)

Further readings:

  • A clear synthesis of Venetian government's structure is in P.F. Grendler, ‘The Leaders of the Venetian State, 1540–1609: a Prosopographical Analysis’, Studi Veneziani, 19 (1990): 35–86;
  • On the Collegio: F.C. Lane, Venice. A Maritime Republic, Baltimore, 1973, 254–256 and F. de Vivo, Information and Communication in Venice. Rethinking Early Modern Politics, Oxford, 2007, 37.
  • On Venetian petitioning practices: R.C. Davis, Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal. Workers and workplace in the preindustrial city, Baltimore-London, 1991, 183–197
  • On petitions concerning the economic sphere see M. Fusaro, Political Economies of Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean: The Decline of Venice and the Rise of England 1450-1700, Cambridge, 2015, 178-181.

‘The devill & pox rott them all’: networks of care in early modern England

In April 1674, Richard Howell alias Taylor of Hopton in the Hole (or Hopton Cangeford) in Shropshire died.  His death may have passed without any real fanfare (and may have left no trace in the archives) had it not been for a subsequent dispute that arose between his sister Elizabeth Mathews and a man named John Evans over entitlement to Richard’s property.  In a suit heard in the church court of the diocese of Hereford that lasted over a year, depositions from nine witnesses tell us about Richard’s final months and the care he received during his sickness.

We learn just a little about Richard himself.  ‘Alias Taylor’ was added to his name because (as witnesses note) he was illegitimate.  His age isn’t given, but Richard was probably not a young man: one witness reported that she had known him for what I think says ’50 years’ (although an unhelpful tear on the page makes it unclear!)  We don’t know the cause of his death, although his neighbour testified that Richard ‘was troubled with a weakness in his Limbs’, suggesting he was bed-ridden or of limited mobility.  His social status is unclear: he is described as having been ‘for sometime a workeman with John Evans’, and in these records, ‘workman with’ usually means ‘workman for’.  He appears to have been single and lived alone.

Competing testimonies on the behalf of plaintiffs and defendants can make it is difficult to establish a straightforward narrative of what actually happened.  But in this case, although different versions of the ‘truth’ are presented by witnesses, the events they recall in their testimonies largely align.  We can therefore roughly map out the last six months of Richard’s life:

A fortnight before Christmas 1673, Richard fell sick at John Evans’s (the defendant) house and remained there for around five weeks.  Some witnesses insisted he was well looked after by John, while others contended that Richard sent for his sister Elizabeth (the plaintiff) who diligently looked after him while he was there.  Three weeks after Christmas, Richard asked Elizabeth and her husband, William, to help him return home to Hopton as he became ‘unwilling to trouble’ John any longer.  Perhaps his condition worsened because on 31 Jan 1674, he sent for John Baley and John Slade to witness him make a Deed of Gift, entitling his sister to ‘all that I have’.  Over the next two months, Elizabeth and her husband appear to have been primarily responsible for his care.  But they lived in Brimfield in Herefordshire, around eight miles away from Richard’s home, and so sometimes hired people to care for him when they could not.  Particularly between Sat 14 and Mon 23 March, Abraham Powell was appointed his carer and received a wage for his labour.  It’s at this point that the story takes a bit of a turn.

On the afternoon of Sun 15 Mar, Richard called his neighbour, Elizabeth Maylard to his house.  She was summoned (along with Abraham, Richard’s temporary carer) to hear his new intentions for his property: he had now decided to give half to John Evans and made him executor of this nuncupative will.  The following Sun (22 Mar) Richard made plans to return to John’s house after three months away.

But all this seems to have been occasioned by Elizabeth and William Mathew’s absence from Richard’s house for – as Abraham reckons – nine nights and ten days.  They returned on Mon 23 Mar and persuaded him not to go to John’s house.  Instead, they arranged for him to come to their own house in Brimfield.  Around 10 Apr, Richard made the eight-mile journey from Hopton in a bed loaded upon a cart, accompanied by his sister and her husband, their apprentice and a ploughmaker (who might have supplied the cart).  On the journey, Richard requested a stop-off at an alehouse called The Bell in Ludlow, where he informed the hosts, Charles and Margaret Hopton that Elizabeth, his sister was to be the sole heir to his estate when he died.  No mention of John Evans was made.

Richard stayed in Brimfield until his decease on 25 April.  John Evans must have moved swiftly to seek administration of the will and claim Richard’s goods.  Less than one month after Richard died, the first two witnesses had travelled to Hereford to depose on Elizabeth’s behalf against John Evans’s claim.  Intriguingly, Abraham Powell, the final witness to testify in the case over a year later, mentioned that before Richard left for Brimfield, he reminded Abraham that John Evans was to be his executor and was to receive half his goods, adding these ominous words: ‘When I am dead, the game will begin’.

Testamentary disputes like this are so frequently centred around care.  This is a tussle between two parties who both felt they had a right to Richard Howell’s property by virtue of the care they had provided.  Care had a widely acknowledged economic value in early modern society that testamentary cases highlight.  Where a child’s parents had died, litigants quibbled over whether the costs incurred by their legal guardian in maintaining them were offset by the labour the child had performed under their roof.  Elsewhere, the specific costs of maintaining the sick, young and elderly are set out in detail.  Yet the role of care is often downplayed in studies of early modern inheritance and property transfer, while kinship is instead emphasised.  But testamentary suits tell us an enormous amount about the dynamics and workings of care, including the physical toil, economic costs and emotional labour of care.

Richard Howell was a single man living alone (an uncommon household type in early modern England, that has yet to really be studied).  He appears to have had no servants.  The testimonies recorded in this case offer a relatively unusual glimpse into how the care of a man of limited means (although clearly he was not of no means) was managed and experienced.  Some forms of support appear to have been in place before Richard’s five-month decline.  His neighbour, Elizabeth Maylard assisted in his care: she deposed that she ‘did wash most of his Linnens for which he agreed with & paid [her] yearly’ and brought him milk regularly.  She also noted that once Richard had returned to his home from John Evans’s house, he would ‘make a noise whereby [she] and others did goe unto him’ upon Elizabeth and William’s absence.  She brought him milk and food, for which she later received compensation from his sister.  When he returned home, his care was provided for by his sister and her husband – but they lived a considerable distance away and so this must have placed a strain on their home and working life.  The couple also appointed and hired people in their stead to care for Richard: Abraham Powell lived in with him for 10 days and attended upon him.  Care appears to have fell to a community of carers rather than one person.

Church court depositions are full of references to women watching over and attending the sick, often with little indication of whether they received pay.  The line between care as a form of work and a form of charity or familial obligation was blurred in early modern England (as it is today).  But whatever the practicalities, there appears to have been an expectation that care work should be remunerated in early modern England.  In this dispute, little (if any) care work was unremunerated and expectations of compensation were clear.  But the economic side of care was not straightforward, nor was the relationship between care-giver and the sick.  It could be incredibly fraught.  John Evans charged Richard £3 for staying with him, which caused Richard to be ‘angry’ as this was apparently ‘more than he was willing to pay or that he ever paid for dyett before that’.  When Richard returned home in Hopton and subsequently moved to Brimfield, John apparently failed to visit him, but witnesses deposed that ‘nor did the deceased desire his company being very angry with him’.  When we think of friendships and social relations, we tend to think of long-lasting connections and deep affections cemented and consolidated over time.  But a period of sickness could alter and even destroy relationships.

The word ‘angry’ is used in several of the depositions to describe Richard’s feelings towards his sister, her husband and John.  The emotional side of care was not just bound with economic concerns.  Richard’s decision to bequeath only half of his estate to Elizabeth was founded on what seem to be feelings of abandonment.  During Elizabeth and William Mathews’ absence from his house in March, Richard allegedly often said ‘the devill & pox rott them all’.  One witness commented on the testator’s character at this time, describing him as ‘a cross or forward person’ who would be ‘displeased when Mathews and his wife did stay longer from him than he expected & would swear and curse at them’.  Distance clearly heightened feelings of anger and perhaps loneliness and abandonment.  Richard attached an economic value to those feelings, choosing to reduce Elizabeth’s inheritance while she remained away. 

While some of the eleven witnesses sought to promote Elizabeth’s case, others backed John’s and we can never know exactly what Richard Howell’s wishes for his property were.  My hunch is that he simply changed his mind regularly, basing his evaluation on a combination of the physical, emotional and economic support he felt he had received from the opposing parties.  These remarks are from the testimony of ploughmaker, John Haines who accompanied him on the journey from Hopton to Brimfield, and they capture this sentiment perfectly:

‘When he the said deceased was brought unto the said house he desired to have his bedd laid before the fire but the said William told him that it wasbetter to lay his bedd by the side of the Chimney near the fire, more convenient then the place where the deceased desired to lye And thereupon he the said deceased said I wish I were at my Mr Evans his house againe (meaning the producents house) & repeated the same words againe at the same time whereunto the said William Mathews replyed & told the deceased that if he had a desire to goe unto his Mr Evans he would send him notice by his man that he might come & fetch him, to which the said deceased returned noe Answear.’


The case discussed here is taken from the depositions of the church court of the diocese of Hereford: Herefordshire Archive and Records Centre, HD4/2/16b, Elizabeth Mathews v John Evans and John Evans v Elizabeth Mathews (1674)

Further reading

  • Cressy, D., Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1997), Chapter 18.
  • Heal, F., Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990).
  • Newton, H., Misery to Mirth Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England, (Oxford, 2018).
  • Pelling, M., The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (London, 1998)
  • Shepard, A., Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2014), esp. Chapter 6.
  • Wrightson, K., Ralph Tailors Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague, (Yale University Press, 2011), esp. Chapter 4.

Agent or employee? The shipmaster and the changing nature of maritime employment in the Southern Low Countries (15th-16th centuries)

In the sixteenth-century Low Countries, the legal and economic position of the shipmaster changed rapidly. As is evident from medieval sources of maritime law such as the Rôles d’Oléron (a version of which was in use in medieval England, known as the Black Book of Admiralty), a master was up to the fifteenth century was often a shareholder in the venture (i.e. sharing in the costs and profits) and, at least in part, owned the ship that carried cargo across Europe. Of course, ships were an expensive investment, and as a result a system of joint ship co-ownership was common as maritime trade increased in late medieval Europe. Yet that shipmasters were commonly agents, and therefore possessed significant bargaining power and agency, was undeniable. On 31 July 1525, for example, the Southern German Antwerp-based merchant Joachim Pruner concluded an agreement with a Zeeland ship-owner only named as Lamprecht with the notary Jacob de Platea, stipulating that Pruner would hire Lamprecht as shipmaster and his ship, the Noel van Zierickzee, if he was able to charter the ship with sufficient cargo within a month, to sail to the Andalusian port of San Lúcar de Barrameda. Pruner agreed to pay all operational costs of the venture, although Lamprecht was in charge of sufficiently preparing the ship to sail to Andalusia.

This freight contract, though fairly straightforward in its nature, tells us a lot about the legal and economic position of the shipmaster in the sixteenth-century Low Countries, and perhaps about his (as a master was by default a man) position in the expanding maritime economy of Europe and the changing nature of maritime labour. Freight contracts offer an excellent window into maritime labour: in the major commercial cities of the Southern Low Countries, Bruges and Antwerp, freight contracts were often recorded and registered before a (civil law) notary or before the local aldermen, providing legal security to all parties in a maritime venture. This was already common in the early fifteenth century, as a significant number of freight contracts preserved for the France-England-Low Countries trade (primarily in wine) shows. As shipmasters still (part-)owned their ships at this point, they appeared to have a stronger legal position to demand contributions from merchants to operational costs of the ship (e.g. pilotage), as the case of Pruner and Lamprecht shows. Over the course of the sixteenth century, this changed. The Della Faille family firm, for example, started investing in ships and hired shipmasters for one venture, although the firm also continued doing business in the ‘old way’. The sixteenth century, therefore, provides an excellent laboratory to study the increasing precarity of maritime labour (at least theoretically), a development that cannot only be observed in the Low Countries but also in Castile.

What may have driven the changing status of the shipmaster from (powerful) shareholder to employee? I suggest three (interconnected) reasons. First, this might have been the result of capital accumulation of merchants and investors, who were able to buy ships as an investment (either alone or with a few partners). Yet in Antwerp, the main centre of commerce in north-western Europe of the sixteenth century, investment opportunities were aplenty and as a result investment in ship ownership was often low on the priority list. A second explanation might be competition: in contrast to most other European cities, Antwerp’s skippers’ guild did not have a monopoly on trade to and from the city’s port. As a result, particularly Hollandish skippers presented heavy competition due to rigorous cost-cutting, joint ship ownership and cargo spreading (i.e. spreading risk by putting cargo on different ships). This competition also diminished the bargaining position of local shipmasters. Third and finally, many foreign merchant communities used their own ships and personnel, for example the powerful Castilian merchants and the English Merchant Adventurers. They could do following the extensive privileges for foreign merchant communities, the so-called nationes.

Either a cause or a consequence of the change in the labour status of the shipmaster was that his liability became stricter. For example, new legislation promulgated by the Habsburg ruler of the Low Countries in 1550, 1551 and 1563 obliged the shipmaster to pay for all losses unless an Act of God or a deliberate loss for the common benefit (so-called General Average) could be proved. Otherwise, both the common law and civil law incorporated so-called barratry into their legal statutes, a term that signals criminal liability for theft or other fraudulent acts in a maritime setting. Clearly the economic and legal position of the shipmaster changed, at least in sixteenth-century Europe, and arguably worsened when one looks at the legal sources. Yet as Maria Fusaro has shown in her previous project, shipmasters and other maritime personnel were able to cope with these new developments and went on the offensive. In sixteenth-century Antwerp, shipmasters also often appeared in court to defend their actions, or recorded evidence and testimony of their actions before a notary when a loss occurred. This suggests that the developments were not all negative from the perspective of the master: even if freight rates generally decreased (and thence profit margins), sixteenth-century Antwerp also witnessed a boom in the volume of trade, particularly as local merchants increasingly took over the trade from foreign merchants. Moreover, even formal law still dedicated the status of primus inter pares (i.e. of the crew) to the master, simultaneously pinning liability on the master but also giving greater leeway for the master to make decisions in times of danger, for example by jettisoning cargo in a storm or to escape pirate attacks.

In conclusion, the position of the shipmaster, and in extenso, the nature of maritime labour, significantly changed in the sixteenth century as the result of structural factors in the economy. Yet the shipmasters in Antwerp appeared to avert a ‘precarian’ status, as they were instrumental in the maritime sector on which Antwerp’s economic system thrived. Whilst the liability of the shipmaster was tightened in royal legislation and later also in Antwerp municipal law, shipmasters also found ways to evade the strictest liabilities, for example by pinning losses to insurers. Moreover, formal law did offer a number of ways for masters to make their own decisions. As a result, the economic position of the master diminished, but his legal position actually may have improved.

Further reading

  • Rossi, G., ‘The Liability of the Shipmaster in Early Modern Law: Comparative (and Practice-Oriented) Remarks’, Historia et Ius, 12 (2017), paper 12, 1-47.
  • Rossi, G., ‘The Barratry of the Shipmaster in Early Modern Law: Polysemy and mos Italicus’, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis, 87, 1-2 (2019), 65-85.
  • Rossi, G., ‘The Barratry of the Shipmaster in Early Modern Law: The Approach of Italian and English Law Courts’, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis, 87, 3-4 (2019), 504-574.
  • Sicking, L.H.J., ‘A Wider Spread of Risk: A Key to Understanding Holland’s Domination of Eastward and Westward Seafaring from the Low Countries in the Sixteenth Century’, in: Brand, H. & Müller, L. (eds.), The Dynamics of Economic Culture in the North Sea- and Baltic region (Hilversum 2007), 122-135.
  • Ward, R., The World of the Medieval Shipmaster: Law, Business and the Sea c. 1350-c. 1450 (Cambridge 2009).