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

It’s not particularly surprising to find spinners prominent among woodcut workers – millions of yards of woollen yarn went into making the English cloth that was so central to the early modern economy, and almost all of it was spun by women and children from poor and middling families. Spinning constituted a significant proportion of the work hours undertaken in the period.

What is more curious is the way the clothing of this spinner is depicted: our spinner looks more akin to Queen Elizabeth than a peasant wife. One possible explanation here is that the woodcut was looking to depict spinning as a work activity that conferred a degree of cultural status upon women – even though it was primarily undertaken by women of low social status. Unusually for women’s work in the period, spinning was recognised by contemporary men as requiring a high degree of skill, and the ability to produce a quality end product was lauded. What is more, Cambridge historian Craig Muldrew has recently calculated that the wages women earned from spinning could contribute over 30% to household income in the period 1550-1770. [1]

Another woodcut representation presents us with a more humble looking spinner, sporting a headscarf:

Pepys collection, vol.I, no.520-521. Source: EBBA

This woodcut comes from a ballad entitled An Excellent New Ballad of Patient Grissel – which recounts a story that also appears as The Clerk’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (and is a folklore staple). In this telling, Grissel is a humble woman taken as a wife by a noble marquis, who then proceeds to test her loyalty to him in a number of extremely cruel and callous ways – that nonetheless fail to break her obedience to him. The tale is an interesting one in itself, but I don’t want to get into it here. I just wanted to note the initial description of Grissel as she is spotted by the noble as he is out hunting:

‘A fair and comely Maiden
As she did sit a spinning
his gentle eye espy’d:
Most fair and lovely,
And of comely Grace was she,
although in simple attire’

So Grissel here is more realistically depicted – both in image and text – as a simply attired women of lowly status. And yet the noble is taken with her nonetheless, and makes her his bride. Is her spinning significant here? Does it perhaps convey a certain cultural status upon this fair maiden in spite of her humble social status? There may be something about this vision of industriousness that ballad readers would have identified as a valuable quality in a potential bride, in an era when women’s spinning work contributed so significantly to household incomes.

More on industriousness in my next post, but for now I’ll leave you with the following suggestion: a woman of lower or middling status didn’t need to wear the highest quality clothing to win a man’s heart – she needed to be able to make it.


[1] Craig Muldrew, ‘”Th’ancient Distaff” and “Whirling Spindle”: measuring the contribution of spinning to household earnings and the national economy in England, 1550-1770’, Economic History Review, 65:2 (2012), pp.498-526.

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9 thoughts on “Workers’ Representation Part One: Spinning a Yarn

    • Well here I am again, digitally. 🙂 One thought to consider re: the images of women spinning is that such hand-work stressed their virtue, which may be one reason assumed by the reader/viewer of the Grissel ballad as to why the marquis was instantly attracted to Grissel on seeing her spinning. Women keeping their hands busy at spinning or–as often represented in the drama–doing stitchery proved they weren’t the kind of women who might get busy putting their hands (and other parts of their bodies) to no good–though such hand-work also allowed for alternative subversive activities on the part of women. See Lena Cowen Orlin’s essay, “Three Ways to be Invisible in the Renaissance: Sex, Reputation, Stitchery,” in my edition, _Renaissance Culture and the Everyday_.

  1. As always with ballads, it’s very easy (at least for me) to skip straight to analysing the text and forget about the ‘multimedia experience’. Your thoughts on the imagery are a really good example of the way we (or at least I) need to resist that instinct.

    The other oft-neglected aspect of the ballad is its tune. After all, it wasn’t a ballad if you couldn’t sing it! Chris Marsh’s excellent work in Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010) on ballads as music is thus really welcome and EBBA is making it even easier by letting us search ‘by tune’.

    One particular tune is especially relevant here: ‘The Spinning Wheel’ was apparently quite popular, with 17 hits on EBBA, including one of my favourite ballads, ‘The Troubles of the World’ (Pepys 2.87). I asked Chris about this tune a while ago, and he noted that, among other things, the tune was used for a lot of songs about love, sex and courtship. So perhaps the message in your images (viz. looking for a spinning wheel is a good way to find a wife) carried over into the associations attached to ‘The Spinning Wheel’ melody.

    – Brodie

    • That’s very interesting, I’ll keep an eye (or should it be ear?) out for that tune and its associations. This also ties in nicely with Jonathan’s post about music – it’s good to see this emerging as a theme on the blog: a sign of – and help to – some of the more text-orientated historians (me!) becoming more sensitive to sights and sounds. This was after all, as Chris Marsh puts it, ‘the era of the ear’.

      – Mark

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