Understanding Sources: doing history by numbers


To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources


Brodie Waddell

It is remarkable that Peter Musgrave’s 200-page introduction to The Early Modern European Economy (1999) does not include a single table or graph. Although I’m a firm believer in qualitative methods and in exploring multiple facets of unique stories, images and objects, I also think that there ought to be a place for quantitative methods in our attempts to understand past societies. This is especially true of early modern economic life where if we elide the difference between a seventeenth-century ‘yeoman’ earning £15 per year and his neighbour earning £150 year we risk misunderstanding the structural inequalities in early modern society.

In my chapter for Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, I try to make a balanced case for the value of both ‘quant’ and ‘qual’ approaches to history, and I review some of the key sources available to us. Here, I’d like to take a slightly closer look at one ‘quant’ source that I didn’t mention in the chapter: early modern books.

I’m hardly an expert at bibliometrics, but thanks to the online EEBO-TCP n-gram tool, anyone can have a stab at it. In my article on the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s, I looked at the frequency of certain ‘economic’ terms in the published texts of the era. What I found, pleasingly, is that there was a lot more talk of ‘trade’, ‘money’ and ‘tax’ in the 1690s, as I’d expected. But can such methods tell us anything else about the economy at this time?

Inspired by a half-remembered conversation with Mark, I decided to take a quick look at the use of certain occupational labels: artificer, craftsman, shopkeeper and tradesman. These are, essentially, the people above the level of an unskilled labourer but below the level of an overseas merchant. One might even call them ‘the middling sort’, though that would open a new historiographical can of worms.

EEBO-TCP ngram - tradesmen, artificers, shopkeeper, craftsmenA more careful study of context (and testing more variants) would be necessary to draw any firm conclusions, but it is noticeable that ‘tradesmen’ (for which see Mark’s articles in TRHS and HLQ) and ‘shopkeeper’ (for which see Jon Stobart’s work) are essentially absent from printed discourse before the end of the sixteenth century. By contrast, ‘craftsman’ was significant at first but seems to have gradually fallen out of contemporary conversations. Meanwhile, ‘artificer’ was common throughout the whole period despite being rarely used by historians.

So what does this tell us? The popularity of ‘tradesman’ in the seventeenth century is not hugely surprising. It was one of the most versitile of labels and could be applied to anyone from a wage-earning journeyman to a master craftsman to a well-off retailer. It is rather more surprising that it wasn’t really in use before the 1590s – was the rise of this label in print purely a linguistic shift or was it, as I would guess, part of an economic development that pushed men of this rank into public discussion?

The same question applies to ‘shopkeeper’. It started slower and use remained fairly infrequent, though it is notable that it overtook ‘craftsman’ after the Restoration. This must be linked to the explosion of dedicated ‘shopping’ venues in London after the Great Fire and the rise of provincial shopkeepers at roughly the same time.

The first result when I googled 'master craftsman'

The first result when I googled ‘master craftsman’

The steadily low level of discussion of ‘craftsmen’ might seem notable to some, as this is a word that we are very familiar with. When most of us think of early modern production, we probably picture a ‘craftsman’ – perhaps a weaver or a carpenter – busily labouring in his workshop. Yet contemporaries only occasionally used this term and the trend-line here confirms my suspicion that it was declining in the seventeenth century.

Instead, ‘artificer’ was a term of choice to describe someone who produced finished goods. It was there from the sixteenth century and remained quite popular throughout the whole period. (In the final couple of decades ‘manufacturer’, which had roughly the same meaning, emerged and soon surpassed ‘craftsman’ in popularity.) I can think of a couple of reasons for this, though there may be others. The first is that it is the sort of name that someone with a grammar school or university education might use, rather than the more vernacular ‘tradesman’, and it was members of this highly educated minority who dominated published authorship at the time. The second reason is that it is conveniently gender-natural, which allowed the inclusion of the huge numbers of women who worked in the cloth industry and other manufacturing trades.

I’m sure that much more could be said about these squiggly lines – and I would love to hear some of your interpretations – but for now that will have to serve as my attempt to convince you that quantitative analysis has potential. You need not pack your next publication with dozens of tables and charts, but if you are writing an economic history of early modern Europe, please at least include a few numbers!

Update (03/08/16): A friend asked about rural occupations, so here’s the EEBO-TCP n-gram for ‘yeomen’, ‘husbandmen’ and ‘farmers’.

EEBO-TCP farmers, husbandmen, yeomen



5 thoughts on “Understanding Sources: doing history by numbers

  1. I would hazard a guess that the term of artificers was in part because of the statutes that applied to them as well. It may only be a marginal cause, but the acknowledgement of an artificer was useful for distinguishing between groups that have specific standings in relation to the law.

    Aside from that i loved this piece… and i am enjoying your chapter in the book which is the first one have started with.

  2. A few useful comments from twitter from John Reeks and Andy Burn on ‘artificers’ and ‘tradesmen’…

    And from Helen Rogers on other ‘qualititative’ sources that can be ‘counted’…

  3. Pingback: Understanding Sources: the source of it all | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Understanding Sources: Churchwardens’ Accounts | the many-headed monster

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