Alice Clark’s *Working Life of Women in the 17th Century* at 100: An Online Reading Group

Mark Hailwood

The conditions under which the obscure mass of women live and fulfil their duties as human beings, have a vital influence upon the destinies of the human race…

Alice Clark, 1919

It was this conviction that drove Alice Clark to write her pioneering study of the working life of women in seventeenth-century England. One hundred years later, few historians would now contest such a statement, and as a consequence the obscurity of women’s lives in the early modern past is less acute than in Clark’s time. But how far have we come in our understanding of women’s work? How have historians added to, and revised, the picture mapped out by Alice Clark?

s-l1600The centenary of the publication of this seminal work presents a great opportunity to both celebrate the scholarship of Alice Clark, and to reflect on the current state of the history of early modern women’s work. And so, we would like to invite you, dear reader, to join an online reading group here on the many-headed monster that will do just that.

Between now and October of this year we will read one chapter a month of Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (freely available on here). For each chapter a leading historian will offer their reflections on it in a blog post, which will serve as a starting point for discussion ‘below the line’ in the comments section (and/or on twitter, no doubt).

The blog posts will be published at the start of each month, on the following schedule, with a double-header in early April to kick us off: Continue reading


A Page in the Life of William Kempster: Master Mason and Scribbling Accountant

[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, Dr Judy Stephenson (@judyzara) of University College London explores the possibilities for historians created by a master mason’s messy account book.]

Early modern writers may be sought after by social and cultural historians for their descriptions of daily life or for their literary endeavours, but most economic historians are interested in them for something more prosaic: the prices they paid for goods and the money they earned.

Wages and prices are the backbone of all long run data sets in economic history. The long-suffering work of E. Thorold Rogers over seven centuries of manuscript records still offer most researchers their first sources before 1800. Rogers gathered prices from places like Westminster Abbey, and Oxford and Cambridge colleges which had long run accounts. Until recently, all long run wage series have been based on the prices unearthed by him of ‘day work’ paid to masons, carpenters, bricklayers and their labourers.

Private account books that state wages are rare because not many people in the early modern world were paid a weekly or daily wage.  When they do exist, they are almost never those of the sort of wage earners thought ‘representative’ by economists. Recently, however, I came across some individual account books that were very representative, because they showed that the actual wages paid to craftsmen on a big London building site – St Paul’s Cathedral – were different to the ‘day rates’ recorded in the institutional accounts. They were lower, because building contractors took a mark-up on selling their work and services, and they were much more varied.

The manuscripts were the ‘day books’ of William Kempster. Kempster was the son of Christopher ‘Kit’ Kempster who was Christopher Wren’s most favoured mason and assistant on Tom Tower and many City churches. The family hailed from Burford in Oxfordshire, where they quarried and increasingly contracted for stonework. William started contracting at St Paul’s Cathedral in late 1700 and became Master Mason there in 1714.

Account of the Mens Time: The National Archives

Account of the Mens Time: The National Archives

My analysis of the day books in a recent article has created all sorts of controversies about wages, but the books also give us a wonderful insight into an early modern businessman as a writer and accountant, and offer some useful insight for quantitative historians about how to turn such sources into meaningful data.

Continue reading

A Page in the Life of Thomas Parsons: Masculinity and the Lifecycle in a Stonemason’s Diary

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Tawny Paul introduces us to a frustrated eighteenth-century artisan whose life she explores in more detail in her new article on ‘Accounting for Men’s Work’.]

In 1769, Thomas Parsons, a young stonemason in Bath, penned a daily account of his life. He may have written quite a lot over the years, but only one volume of his diary survives, covering a period of eight months. Though relatively modest in size, the text provides an entry into the world of a young man at a formative stage of life.

Parsons was twenty-five years old when he produced the diary. At this age, many young people in the eighteenth century married, finished training, assumed occupational status, and became more independent. Parsons’ diary therefore gives us insights into many themes related to lifecycle. This makes the text extremely valuable, because while histories of women have done remarkable work in uncovering the nuances of female lifecycle experiences, we know rather less about how men transitioned through life’s stages.

His entry for 13 April 1769 shows this in vivid detail as it centres on his struggles with his father: Continue reading

Alexandra Shepard’s *Accounting for Oneself* and early modern social categorisation

Brodie Waddell

Sorting people into groups is something that we, as scholars, spend a lot of time doing. As Alexandra Shepard shows in her powerful recent book, Accounting for Oneself, it is something that early modern people constantly did too.

9780199600793This is not the place for proper review of the book as there are already plenty of those available, including a substantial analysis by my co-blogger Mark. However, I would like to look slightly more closely at one particular aspect of the book which speaks directly to an issue that we have struggled with repeatedly on this blog: how do we divide up early modern society?

Historians have been debating this question for decades and many models have been proposed. For example, is it a binary society, split between the elite and everyone else? If so, what should we call these groups? The patricians and the plebs? The elite and the people? The gentry and the commonalty? The better and the worser sort of people? Or perhaps it is a tripartite society. If so, is it ‘richer’, ‘middling’ and ‘poorer’? Or simply ‘upper-class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’? Or maybe a society of three ‘estates’ (clergy, aristocracy, commons)? Or a hierarchy of ‘degrees’ and ‘ranks’ (peers, gentry, merchants, yeomen, husbandmen, labourers, vagrants)? Continue reading

Understanding Sources: Court Depositions

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



Mark Hailwood

My favourite early modern primary source? When you have spent the last year working almost exclusively with one type of source you come to either love it or loathe it. In the case of the court depositions I have been reading extensively for the Women’s Work Project I’m glad to say it’s the former. They undoubtedly top my list.


Scenes of everyday life

For a historian driven above all by a desire to recover the everyday lives of ordinary women and men in the past the witness statements they gave in their tens of thousands before the courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent a rich seam indeed. In recounting the details surrounding cases in criminal, civil and ecclesiastical courts, deponents provide accounts of myriad aspects of day-to-day experience. They tell us about their working lives of course – about mowing corn, spinning yarn or shearing sheep at the time of witnessing a crime, say – but also how they spent their leisure time – about trips to the alehouse describing who they drank with, how much they drank, and who subsequently fell out with who. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Class conflict in Elizabethan Norfolk?

Brodie Waddell

In early March 1601, four men got into an argument in the small village of Wicklewood, about eleven miles west of Norwich. Although no blows were exchanged, one of the men uttered words that were dangerous enough to lead to a legal examination by a local magistrate. It is only thanks to this brief deposition – which I’ve transcribed at the end of this post – that we have any knowledge of what was said that day.

I came across this document last summer at the Norfolk Record Office when I was searching through the county quarter sessions files looking for something else. I’d completely forgotten about it until Mark put up a post last week that discussed the history of conflict hidden in England’s rural landscape. That post reminded me that the argument recorded in this deposition might provide some further illumination of this oft-debated aspect of early modern history.

The story, as recorded on this small slip of paper, goes like this. Roger Wells of Wicklewood had hired John Chibocke and Richard Hamond of the neighbouring village of Morley ‘to worke with him’. But Chibocke and Hamond arrived very late and Wells was angry. He declared that if he paid them the wages they really deserved, they wouldn’t be pleased. The two workmen replied that Wells and his ilk ‘Cared not thoughe poore men wrought the[i]re harts out’ and wished ‘that wee might have warres againe, [for] then we should have Corne Cheaper’. At this point, William Seaborne – presumably a partner or employee of Wells – stepped in. He rebuked Chibock and Hamond for their rash words, saying ‘these be matters you understand not’. Yet this just incensed Chibock further. ‘If a thowsand mysters were deade’, he said, ‘we poore men should farre the better’. Continue reading