Imagining early modern working women, or, economic history’s image problem

Brodie Waddell

In 1658, the Czech scholar John Amos Comenius published what’s been called ‘the first children’s picture book’. It proved extremely popular and was republished many times, in many different languages. What brought it to my attention was the fact that it included 150 pictures of ‘the visible world’, a rare treat in an early modern publication.

It was designed to teach Latin and, in the 1705 edition, English to young people, so most of its illustrations depicted the sorts of things a child might be expected to know from life. They would find, for example, pictures of youth at study and at play, stilt-walking or bowling.

At school and at playHowever, the ones that caught my eye were the many illustrations of working life. If you, like me, teach or write about early modern economic history, you’ll know that this particular subfield has an ‘image problem’. Perhaps thanks to a strong seam of ‘iconophobic’ Calvinism, post-Reformation England was not exactly awash in imagery of any kind and I have often found it particularly difficult to find images of economic life. One can find many pictures of kings and noblemen. But there are frustratingly few depictions of ordinary people doing their jobs, whether as artisans, traders or labourers. This gap is partly filled by the broadside ballad woodcuts on EBBA that Mark Hailwood has discussed here before. However, it remains difficult to find the sort of rich visual material that one can find, for instance, in Dutch ‘Golden Age’ paintings or in nineteenth-century periodicals. Continue reading

Workers’ Representation Part Three: Mining and Modernity

Mark Hailwood

So, I thought it was about time to introduce another image of woodcut workers from my trawls through the English Broadside Ballad Archive, and what could be more appropriate than an image from a special new year’s ballad: A New-Years-Gift for Covetous Colliers, published sometime in the 1680s or 1690s. The ballad itself praises Parliament for acting against price-hiking colliers – those involved mainly in the distribution and sale of coal – but includes an image of the primary workers in the coal trade, miners:


The image isn’t particularly remarkable. There is no evidence in this depiction of the hostile stereotype that miners were a ‘race apart’ from other workers; no coal-blackened faces to help symbolise this cultural otherness; no visual indicators that miners were, as Daniel Defoe put it, ‘subterranean wretches…a rude, boorish kind of people’.[1] Continue reading

Workers’ Representation Part Two: Making Hay

Mark Hailwood

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:

The Montagus at Sandleford Priory
Source: hayinart

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? Continue reading

Workers’ Representation Part One: Spinning a Yarn

Mark Hailwood

As Christopher Thompson rightly notes over at Early Modern History, one of the great things about working at The Huntington is the people you get to meet over coffee. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time Patricia Fumerton, from the University of California Santa Barbara. Paddy is the pioneer of the online ballad database, EBBA, a digital resource that has been indispensable to my own research, and has been linked to on this blog numerous times already.

This gave me the chance to tell Paddy how great I think the site is, and in particular to praise its latest function that I have been playing around with: the ability to search, by category, the woodcut illustrations that adorn most seventeenth-century broadside ballads. I’ve been working on an article on representations of workers in these ballads – in particular artisan tradesmen – but my focus has been on how they were represented in the text of these ballads: how they were described and characterised. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to looking at the pictures – but might these too be a useful source for the kind of cultural history of work and workers that I am interested in? I entered a search for woodcuts that had been categorised as depicting ‘occupation / trade’, and spent some time perusing the 122 results that came up.

I’m not sure I have the skills or training to confidently deploy this kind of visual evidence in a formal historical paper or article, but I do find it fascinating, and thought I would offer up some of my thoughts in a series of blogposts entitled ‘Workers’ Representation’.

One of the first things that caught my eye was the common depiction of a key category of women’s work: spinning.

A woodcut taken from the ballad ‘Whipping Cheare’, from the Pepys collection, vol. I, no.208-109, c.1625. Source: EBBA

Continue reading