Herein lies the second installment of my blog series on woodcut images of workers…
As I sit here in fenland fog, my mind drifts back to sun-baked Californian afternoons at the Huntington Library. Often I would avail myself of a short break from such wonders as the Ashby-de-la-Zouch manor court records, and pop upstairs to the office of the Director of Research, Steve Hindle (who also happens to have been my PhD supervisor) to either pick his brains or raid his bookshelves.
On one such afternoon we fell to discussing the following painting that hangs upon his office wall, a depiction of the Montagu family at their Sandleford Priory estate in Berkshire, by Edward Haytley, commissioned in 1743:
At first I was a bit worried – what was this flag bearer of ‘history from below’ doing with an aggrandising portrait of the rural gentry in pride of place on his wall? I was reassured to find out that Steve was interested in the representation of rural labourers in the picture, and in the way that the social relations of production were being portrayed by Haytley (something he is currently working up a paper on).
It was with this conversation fresh in my mind that I was struck by some—rather cruder—seventeenth-century representations of rural labour, whilst in the course of exploring the woodcut search function on the EBBA website. Scanning through images of workers, I encountered this depiction of hay making in the ballad ‘Lanthorne for Landlords’:
What hints about the nature of working life in the seventeenth-century might we glean from such an image? Well, as in the images of spinning I discussed in a previous post, it once more indicates that women were a key component of the early modern workforce—especially at harvest time, many women took on additional labour in the fields to boost household incomes. It’s no surprise then that 6 of the 8 harvest labourers in Haytley’s painting are female, and that women predominate in another harvest-scene woodcut found reprinted on a number of ballads:
We might also note here the young girls in the bottom right of the image. As with most depictions of children in the seventeenth century, including those on the gentry tombs found in many a parish church, they are shown as small adults, rather than having distinctive child-like features. Children were also key workers in this economy.
There is another characteristic of these scenes of harvest work that struck me – there are a number of labourers not really doing any work. In the background of the first woodcut, and the foreground of the second, some degree of cavorting is being preferred to getting on the tools. This may reflect a perception that was especially common in the period between 1650 and 1750 – that it was difficult to get the working population to really put their back into gruelling toil.
A related concept that historians have developed is that of the ‘leisure preference’ – the idea that most workers in pre-industrial society would only work hard enough to meet their basic necessities, and when faced with the choice of more work for more pay, or downing tools and heading to the alehouse, the latter choice invariably won out. Although the reality of this ‘leisure preference’ is much debated by historians – as is the precise date of when it gave way to the more disciplined and industrious modern industrial workforce – we may be seeing here the contemporary trope that seventeenth-century workers didn’t care to work too hard.
Or perhaps the key to ‘reading’ these images lies less in understanding contemporary debates about industriousness, and more in the straightforward explanation that the hay harvest, providing a mixed gender work environment, was also a key focus for merriment and courtship. After all, wouldn’t images of lust, rather than laziness, have worked as a better sales technique for adorning ballads that were, in essence, commercial products?
As I stated in the first of this series, I’m not at all confident or trained in using visual sources such as these, but I’m keen to give them some thought. So I’d like to hear any competing interpretations of these images and their value.
**UPDATE, 2/4/2013**; Steve Hindle has now written a blog post about the Montagu painting, over at the Huntington’s blog, Verso. Find it here.
 See John Hatcher, ‘Labour, Leisure and Economic Thought Before the Nineteenth Century’, Past and Present, 160:1 (1998), pp.64-115.