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

Visualising the early modern state

Brodie Waddell

What did the state look like in early modern England? There are, of course, many different ways you might answer this question. The most famous is Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which the king literally embodies his subjects. Or, if one wanted to be a bit more realistic, an image of a court sitting might give you an idea of what the state looked like to someone formally facing its majestic authority. Or, as Jonah Miller has recently argued, perhaps the most realistic image of all would be a picture of a local constable, for these were the representatives of the state who ordinary people most often encountered in their daily lives.

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Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651); Benjamin Ferrers, The Court of Chancery (c.1725); Thomas Dekker, The Belman of London (1608)

However, I’d like to offer a rather more practical, and much less aesthetically pleasing, answer. In one of the first sessions of my ‘Crime, Poverty and Protest’ module at Birkbeck, I try to give students an idea of what the court system – and in fact ‘the state’ more generally – looked like in the early modern period. So, I created a sort of tabular diagram in which I attempted to include on a single page all the most important components of this system that a student might need to know about. Here is the result as pdf and full-size jpgWaddell (2019) Scheme of courts, 1550-1750

I then released the image to the #twitterstorians of the world to tell me what I’d missed and what I’d gotten wrong. Pleasingly, I had plenty of responses. You can go to the tweet itself to read them all, but I’ll try to summarise them below… 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.

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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

Middling Culture Project Launch: The Middling Sort – Some Reflections…

Jonathan Willis

I was lucky enough to travel down to Canterbury on Tuesday 25 June 2019 to attend the launch of a new ARHC project, ‘Middling Culture: the Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort, Writing and Material Culture, 1560-1660’.  The project is being run by Catherine Richardson (Kent), Tara Hamling (Birmingham) and Graeme Earl (KCL), along with Callan Davies and Ceri Law, and you can find out more about it (and read their own blog) here.

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The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society.  The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.[1]  Middling households had to work for their income, but they were operating at a higher level than their own subsistence, and so had money and time to invest in non-essential objects or practices, and they might be even wealthy enough to employ servants of their own. Jonathan Barry, who co-edited an important collection of essays on the middling sort in 1994, suggested that while attempts at precise quantification are neither possible nor helpful, the middling sort may have constituted between thirty and fifty per cent of early modern society at one time or another.

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