The ‘Lowest Sort’ in the Print Trade of 17th-Century England

Our latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is from Joe Saunders. Joe has just started a PhD at the University of York using wills to study the social networks of the print trade in England c.1557-1666. Find Joe on twitter at @joe_saunders1.

We are this year ‘working from home’; struggling with work-life balance; and have ‘Key Workers’ in our supermarkets, hospitals and care-homes. What constitutes important labour is a contemporary debate but also interests historians who seek to define and locate work. Histories of literature are a case-in-point, with focus oscillating between the labour of authors, readers and publishers. In recent decades we have come to know a great deal about text creation and circulation during the hand-press era with work on the producers and movers of texts; publishers, printers and booksellers as they turned an author’s ideas into something tangible and passed them to an audience. The transfer from the author’s mind to printed page and then to the reader required a significant amount of labour from a variety of actors in a myriad of roles from financing a text through to those who carried the finished products along country roads.

Men working at a printing press- Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Bertolt Brecht in his 1935 poem ‘A Worker Reads History’ imagined how the workers who built the great monuments of the world figured into histories dominated by great men. He asked ‘but was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?’. Of course, the answer is no, but their names adorn these structures nonetheless. Though the process of text creation and movement in early modern England was gendered, classed and regionalised research has necessarily focused on the better offs who left their names on imprints and records of the Company of Stationers; the livery company which held a theoretical control over the membership and products of the print trade. This is the case across the History of the Book where source survival means most work on reading and authorship is also done on the middling sorts and elites.

The 2020 publication Women’s Labour and the History of the Book in Early Modern England brought together a range of essays dealing with reading, authorship and production. The focus was more towards countesses than chapmen-or-women but an exception was Craig’s essay on the rag-women who collected material for papermakers. This research recovered the labour of people who were critical to the production of texts but are largely absent from the records and therefore from our understanding. It was argued implicitly that to look for the lowest sort of women in the trade is the first step to finding them.

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Responding to a Crisis: the Black Death, COVID-19, and Universal Basic Income

In this guest post, Professor Jane Whittle of the University of Exeter looks at the governmental response to the Black Death, and advocates a revolutionary new social policy for our own period of crisis. 

Jane Whittle

Unprecedented episodes of disease, such as the current outbreak of COVID-19, are moments of fluidity when parts of existing societies are laid bare as not fit for purpose. Wars create similar moments of flux. The Second World War created the consensus that allowed the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State. Could our current state of crisis lead to something positive and long lasting, amid all the disruption, trauma, and loss?

My research focuses on another such moment, the consequences of Black Death of the fourteenth century. In the midst of the Black Death the English government made the significant decision not to strengthen the institution of serfdom but instead to increase the regulation of waged labour with the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349.

The Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague that raged across Europe between 1347 and 1349 and killed an estimated 50% of the English population. Fortunately the mortality rate of COVID-19 looks to be closer to 1% of those infected (and thus lower for the total population). Yet in our highly interconnected modern society its impact is already shaping up to be enormous. Historians have long puzzled over the fact that the immediate social and economic impact of the Black Death appears to have been remarkably slight. Social, economic, and political structures remained in place. However, this is to overlook the innovation of the labour laws. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 was a revolutionary piece of legislation. It marked the end of serfdom and beginning of an economy dependent on wage labour, but it signalled that the government’s attitude to wage workers would be far from lenient. Although initially announced as an emergency measure by the monarchy, when Parliament next met in 1351 it was enthusiastically endorsed. The measures remained in force until the early nineteenth century. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: Conclusion

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the ‘Conclusion’ of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, as well as on the posts in this series as a whole. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

Alice Clark ended Working Life of Women by summarizing her findings in terms of her central themes. What does it mean for women when the individual rather than the household is the primary actor in the modern economy? Why don’t women get as much specialized training as men?  As the essays in this series have shown, the story of women’s work is considerably more complicated than Clark’s argument allows.  But Clark raises two new issues in her conclusion.  First, the subordination of women.  She argues that capitalism is not the source of the subjection of women; instead, ‘the subjection of women to their husbands was the foundation stone of the structure of the community in which Capitalism first made its appearance.’ (p. 300)  Second, she raises questions about political theory.  She asks about the impact of the ‘mechanical state’, represented by the works of both Hobbes and Locke.  What does it matter when women are invisible in formulations of what the state means?  Clark argues that these issues draw attention to a much wider range of issues and a longer chronology than those which have been the focus of the book.

Reading her conclusion alongside the essays that have made this series so interesting demonstrates one reason we – and our students – keep reading Alice Clark: she raises big questions.  She understands women’s work, and women’s position in society, first in relation to the history of capitalism.  At the end, though, she tells us that the big question is part of two even bigger ones, about fundamental social structures and the history of political thought.   Both of these have been the focus of extensive research over the past 40 years.  The tension between women’s agency and their subordination has been a central theme in women’s history.  We have simultaneously demonstrated women’s agency not just as economic actors but as political ones while we have explored domestic and sexual violence.[1]  Allyson Poska’s suggestion that we consider what she calls “agentic gender norms” that co-exist with patriarchy and provide a counter-vailing set of norms may be a useful way of thinking about these tensions.[2]  Similarly, scholars in the history of political thought have unpacked the ways in which contract theory not only erased women, but made women’s political action far more complex.[3] Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Professions’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Mary Fissell offers some reflections on chapter six of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Professions’. Mary is Professor in the History of Medicine at The John Hopkins University. You can access the book here.

Mary Fissell

Alice Clark’s chapter on Professions is startlingly prescient in its view of early modern women’s medical work. Many of the themes, sources, and topics she includes have become central to our discussions of early-modern medicine over the past few decades, but were not any part of the history of medicine when I started graduate school 35 years ago. Equally, when I re-read her chapter this time, I was struck by how deeply Clark’s own experiences shaped her account of women’s healing work.

Clark repeatedly uncovered women’s healing work that was largely ignored in the literature until very recently. In 1919, most English people would have thought that nursing started with Nightingale. Clark drew upon records from London’s great ancient hospitals to show us women working as nurses and matrons in them, although she wasn’t very flattering, noting that they were not “the most efficient type of women”. In the countryside, Clark found traces of nursing in local payments from parishes or charities for nursing the poor. She unearthed records of a female surgeon or two, and recognized that women performed many tasks as domestic healers, including making medicines and preserving recipes, a substantial topic in today’s literature. Such women, she noted, were trained informally in female lineages, rather than the formal education their brothers might have enjoyed. She describes the work of “searchers”, older women who inspected bodies for signs of the plague, a category of medical work almost completely ignored until the late 1990s.

Midwifery is Clark’s paramount example of the narrative of loss familiar from other chapters, as men gained access to increasingly formal scientific and medical training that became ever more valuable as knowledge progressed. But she couldn’t help noting that midwives’ skills probably didn’t worsen over the course of the seventeenth century. Here Clark was bucking the trend; as obstetricians created their specialty in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, they engaged in a fair amount of midwife-bashing about the old “Sairey Gamp” type of practitioner, but Clark saw a lot of good in the early modern midwife, noting that some were “of a high level of intelligence” and possessed “considerable skill”.

What struck me the most, however, was the ways in which Clark’s understanding of women and medicine was deeply tied up with her own personal history. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Crafts and Trades’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Laura Gowing offers some reflections on chapter five of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Crafts and Trades’. Laura is Professor of Early Modern History at King’s College London. You can access the book here.

Laura Gowing

When is a carpenter not a carpenter? When she is a seamstress. Guild or company records loomed large in Alice Clark’s survey of women in crafts and trades, yet their evidence was often confusing or ambivalent. This was particularly so in London, where the Custom of London from the early seventeenth century had enabled women and men with the Freedom of the City to engage in any city craft, not just the one of their own company. Hence, the girls apprenticed to Carpenters located by Clark’s research, who turn out to be apprenticed to seamstresses and silk-winders.

It is now evident that these female apprentices in the Carpenters’ were mirrored across the companies of late 17th century London, with artisans’ and merchants’ wives taking on apprentices in increasing numbers, almost always in sewing and keeping shops to sell the goods they made. Long before the mantua-makers of the late seventeenth century brought women up against tailors, women were sewing smocks, cuffs and bands for the London market, and girls were being apprenticed to learn from them.


Philips Konnick, The Seamstress, 1671

Sewing dominated in the crafts and trades in which women worked, particularly in London. London’s particular customs thus brought skilled sewing work into guild management, not in terms of quality of work but as a means of incorporating training. By the late seventeenth century free single women and freemens’ wives and widows were taking apprentices in a range of seamstress and textile trades that reflected the specialised construction of garments, shoe and headwear: making children’s coats, periwigs, silk stockings, buttons, lace, gold and silver thread.

In other crafts, and outside London, Clark amassed a host of detail of the conflicts between guilds and the girls and women who found themselves on their margins. Carpenters’ wives being forbidden to unload timber, women bakers excluded from the trade for not having been apprenticed, pewterers ordered to buy no lead from women all reveal not only the arguments around inclusion, but the numbers of women working in trades which to modern eyes were ‘most unlikely’. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Textiles’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy Erickson offers some reflections on the third main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Textiles’. Amy is a University Lecturer in British Economic and Social History 1500-1750 at the University of Cambridge. You can access the book here.

Amy Erickson

Alice Clark’s chapter on textiles concentrates on spinning, the textile production process which involved the most people, the overwhelming majority of whom were female. The production of cloth required several times more spinners than weavers (who were primarily male), whether the fibre in question was derived from a plant (flax or hemp) or an animal (wool or silk). As Clark puts it, ‘From the general economic standpoint, the textile industries rank second in importance to agriculture … but in the history of women’s economic development they hold a position which is quite unique.’ This was not only true of England: textiles were the principal export of most European countries over 300 years.

An early post on Many Headed Monster by Mark Hailwood explored the ubiquity of spinning and included two woodcut images of women sittingindex at spinning wheels that were used to illustrate early modern ballads. The term ‘hand-spinning’ describes spinning both by wheel and by distaff or drop spindle, a method which can be used while walking, as in Paul Sandby’s mid-18th century drawing of a woman carrying a distaff (courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum).

A decade after Working Life, Ivy Pinchbeck provided further evidence on spinning in the period 1750-1850, when hand spinning in the home was largely replaced by water-powered factory spinning. This transition from hand to machine, from home to factory, has recently received detailed attention. Craig Muldrew (2012) estimated that by the later 18th century hand spinning employed nearly 75% of all women over age 14, or 1,500,000 women. The transition to mechanisation, which not only increased productivity but also employed increasing numbers of men rather than women, would have caused mass female unemployment and thereby significant impoverishment. Continue reading

Another Page in the Life of Joseph Bufton: Some Verses of My Owne Making

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell explores the wider implications of a rather clumsy poem about the cloth industry written by a seventeenth-century tradesman.]

The Essex town of Coggeshall was not known for literary genius. It inspired no Hamlet nor Paradise Lost nor even a Pilgrim’s Progress. Its only published authors were two clergymen who spent a few years there in the 1640s.

However, in the late seventeenth century, it was home to a tradesman named Joseph Bufton, who filled up notebook after notebook with a diverse array of writings. He devoted a great many pages to chronicling his local community and the state of the nation as a whole, a practice which I discussed in an earlier post.

But he also filled many volumes with other sorts of writing, including devotional texts, financial accounts and even a bit of poetry. I’ve just published a new article in the Journal of Social History that looks at what Bufton and others like him can tell us about literacy, work and social identity in early modern England, so I thought I would mark the occasion by offering another page from his notebooks that illuminates some of these themes. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Agriculture’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Jane Whittle offers some reflections on the second main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Agriculture’. Jane is a Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Exeter. You can access the book here.

Jane Whittle

index1I’m reading the chapter in my 1982 edition of Alice Clark (the only history book I stole from my mother’s bookshelves), complete with a woodcut of a woman haymaking on the cover (although this image has been edited to remove the couple canoodling in the background which is present in the original below). Is this deeply significant? Probably not …

Alice Clark’s chapter on agriculture offers a microcosm of the book’s overall argument. As she concludes on the last page of the chapter, the ‘review of the whole position of women in Agriculture at this time, shows the existence of Family Industry at its best, and of Capitalism at its worst’ (p.92). As explained in her ‘Introductory’ to the book, she gives Family Industry and Capitalism quite precise meanings. Family Industry is ‘the form in which the family becomes the unit of production of goods to be sold and exchanged’ (p.6); whereas Capitalistic Industry (or Capitalism) is ‘the system by which production is controlled by the owners of capital, and the labourers or producers, men, women and children receive individual wages’ (p.7). For Clark, Family Industry, which in the agriculture chapter is represented by the lives of farmers, husbandmen and their families, represented everything that was good about the seventeenth-century economy. On the other hand, Capitalism, illustrated by the experience of wage earners, represents everything that was bad in what was to come. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Capitalists’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy M. Froide offers some reflections on the first main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Capitalists’. Amy is a Professor of History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can access the book here.

Amy M. Froide

When we were organizing this blog project I very quickly claimed Clark’s chapter on capitalists (and I may have even said I was willing to fight Amy Erickson or Laura Gowing for the privilege of writing about this chapter. When we made up our schedule I found that this post would be due right at the end of term, and it was then I realized why the wily Erickson and Gowing so graciously ceded the field to me).  This anecdote does contain a salient point: many of us early modern historians have chosen to study issues pertinent to women and work and this group is a marker of Alice Clark’s influence and legacy.

It is notable that the first body chapter of Clark’s book is on the topic of capitalists. As Tim Stretton noted in his biographical post on Alice Clark, she herself was a capitalist, a director of the family firm that is now Clarks Shoes Ltd. (It is good to know that the money I have shelled out to that company over the years is in a way a homage to Clark). Despite her personal knowledge, Clark eschews a detailed definition of capitalism in this chapter and instead simply equates it with the control of wealth.  She also notes that in seventeenth–century England, capitalists included those who had obtained their wealth through commerce and trade but also the aristocracy who had long controlled wealth in the form of land. The latter are in fact the primary focus of her chapter. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Introductory’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the opening ‘Introductory’ chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

s-l1600Those who have never read Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women might wonder why we would pay any attention to a work that is a hundred years old, and superseded by recent research on women.   Yet anyone who works on the history of women, and particularly the history of women’s work, in early modern England owes a debt to Alice Clark’s work. It was reissued in 1982 with an introduction by Miranda Chaytor and Jane Lewis, and again in 1992 with an introduction by Amy Erickson. As Natalie Davis noted in a paper delivered at the Second Berkshire Conference in 1974, Clark consulted archives, differentiated among women, and had an overarching theory.[1] For me, Clark’s work is one of the two or three books that have fundamentally shaped my understanding of early modern British history, even as I know more and more about the limitations of her work.

Clark’s ‘Introductory’ raises the key thesis of her work, that industrialization fundamentally changed women’s roles and experience; that women were better integrated into the economy under household and family systems of production than in industrial systems.  She admitted how little she knew – her discussion of medieval women’s work “rests chiefly on conjecture” (p. 4); Tim Stretton has noted that her modern comparison was not the 18th century, but her own experience.  As we will see over the coming months in this roundtable, Clark didn’t get it all right.  But she got it enough right that it helps. Continue reading