British perceptions of German post-war industrial relations

By Colin Chamberlain (University of Cambridge)

Some 10,000 steel workers participate in a demonstration to demand a 10 per...
A demonstration in Stuttgart, 11th January 1962.  Picture alliance/AP Images, available at <;

‘Almost idyllic’ – this was the view of one British commentator on the state of post-war industrial relations in West Germany. No one could say the same about British industrial relations. Here, industrial conflict grew inexorably from year to year, forcing governments to expend ever more effort on preserving industrial peace.

Deeply frustrated, successive governments alternated between appeasing trade unionists and threatening them with new legal sanctions in an effort to improve their behaviour, thereby avoiding tackling the fundamental issue of their institutional structure. If the British had only studied the German ‘model’ of industrial relations more closely, they would have understood better the reforms that needed to be made.

Britain’s poor state of industrial relations was a major, if not the major, factor holding back Britain’s economic growth, which was regularly less than half the rate in Germany, not to speak of the chronic inflation and balance of payments problems that only made matters worse. So, how come the British did not take a deeper look at the successful model of German industrial relations and learn any lessons?

Ironically, the British were in control of Germany at the time the trade union movement was re-establishing itself after the war. The Trades Union Congress and the British labour movement offered much goodwill and help to the Germans in their task.

But German trade unionists had very different ideas to the British trade unions on how to go about organising their industrial relations, ideas that the British were to ignore consistently over the post-war period. These included:

    • In Britain, there were hundreds of trade unions, but in Germany, there were only 16 re-established after the war, each representing one or more industries, thereby avoiding the demarcation disputes so common in Britain.
    • Terms and conditions were negotiated on this industry-basis by strong well-funded trade unions, which welcomed the fact that their two or three year long collective agreements were legally enforceable in Germany’s system of industrial courts.
    • Trade unions were not involved in workplace grievances and disputes. These were left to employees and managers meeting together in Germany’s highly successful works councils to resolve such issues informally along with engaging in consultative exercises on working practices and company reorganisations. As a result, German companies did not seek to lay-off staff as British companies did on any fall in demand, but rathet to retrain and reallocate them.

British trade unions pleaded that their very untidy institutional structure with hundreds of competing trade unions was what their members actually wanted and should therefore be outside any government interference. The trade unions jealously guarded their privileges and especially rejected any idea of industry-based unions, legally enforceable collective agreements and works councils.

A heavyweight Royal Commission was appointed, but after three years’ deliberation, it came up with little more than the status quo. It was reluctant to study any ideas emanating from Germany.

While the success of industrial relations in Germany was widely recognised in Britain, there was little understanding about why this was so or indeed much interest in it. The British were deeply conservative about the ‘institutional shape’ of industrial relations and had a fear of putting forward any radical German ideas. Britain was therefore at a big disadvantage as far as creating modern trade unions operating in a modern state.

So, what economic price the failure to sort out the institutional structure of the British trade unions?

Transatlantic Slavery and Abolition: a Pan-European Affair

By Felix Brahm (German Historical Institute London) and Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool)

Slavery Hinterland. Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680–1850 is published by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History’. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher -offer ends on the 28th June 2018. See below for details.


coverThe history of transatlantic slavery is one of the most active and fruitful fields of international historical research, and an important lesson of the latest work on maritime countries like Britain and France is that there the profits of slavery and indeed abolition ‘trickled down’ to very wide sections of the population and to places well away from the principal slave-trading ports. Recently historians have started to look beyond the familiar Atlantic axis and to apply the same paradigm to the European hinterlands of the triangular trade. That is, they have sought its traces and impacts in territories that were not directly involved (or were relatively minor participants) in the traffic in Africans: the German-speaking countries, Scandinavia, Italy and Central Europe. And they are finding that the slave trade, the plantation economies that it fed, the consequences of its abolition, and not least the questions of moral and political principle that it threw up, were very much a part of the texture of society right across Europe.

In material terms, it is clear that the manufacture of trade goods – the wares with which Europeans paid African traders for the enslaved men, women and children whom they then shipped to the Americas – was an important element of many regional economies. Firearms, iron bars and ironware travelled from Denmark and the Baltic to Western Europe’s slaving ports. Glass beads were exported from Bohemia (the Czech lands), and the higher quality Venetian products attracted Liverpool merchants to set up branch offices in Italy to secure their supply. The Swiss family firm Burckhardt/Bourcard began by supplying cotton cloth for the slave trade and importing slave-produced luxury goods and moved into equipping its own slaving ships. Textile plants in the Wupper Valley in Western Germany and the hand looms of Eastern Prussia provided linens of varying quality for use on the slave plantations, though because they were shipped through English and Dutch ports their German origins have often been obscured. And the trading networks established in the context of the slave economy supported German exporting projects even after the trade was abolished, as German firms continued to trade into territories – Brazil and the Caribbean – where slavery persisted until the late 19th century.

Germans in particular were keen observers of the Atlantic slave economy, and they had their own perspective on international debates about the trade and its abolition. At the beginnings of the trade, the rulers of Brandenburg Prussia had some hopes of buying into it, establishing a slave fort on the Gold Coast between 1682 and 1720. One of the key documents of this episode is the diary of a ship’s barber, Johann Peter Oettinger, who sailed on slaving expeditions. He chose to make no comment about the brutalities that he witnessed and recorded. Characteristically, though, when the diaries were published for German readers 200 years later, they were given a moralising spin; by the 1880s, Germany was at the forefront of the Scramble for Africa, justifying colonisation in the name of suppressing the internal slave trade. Before that, and once the German states were no longer involved in the slave trade, German-speaking scientists and administrators placed themselves in the service of those states that were: Ernst Schimmelmann, whose family had one foot in Hamburg and one in Copenhagen, was a plantation owner and manager of the Swedish state slaving company, but also responsible for the abolition of the Danish slave trade in 1792. And initiatives for the post-abolition exploitation of tropical territories relied on the work of German scientists in service to the Danish state like the botanist Julius von Rohr.

Scholarly attention to the German case is also bringing the Atlantic plantation economies into dialogue with the practices of unfree labour that existed in Central Europe at the same time. Analysis of the conditions of linen production on eastern Prussia’s aristocratic estates indicates that their low production costs helped to keep down the costs of production on slave plantations. And when Germans confronted the moral and legal challenges to slavery that were crystallising into a political movement in Britain and France by the 1790s, they could not escape the implications of abolitionist arguments for the future of their own ‘peculiar institutions’ of serfdom and personal service. This was true of Theresa Huber, the author and journalist who stands for two generations of Germans who engaged in transnational abolitionist networks, and who was equally sharp in her critique of serfdom. And it was true of Prussian administrators who, when challenged by enslaved Africans on German soil to enforce the notion that ‘there are no slaves in Prussia’, could not help asking themselves what that might mean for the process towards reform of feudal institutions.

These issues have only begun to receive greater attention – more studies are needed to gain a clearer understanding of the various links through which continental Europe was connected to the Transatlantic slave business and its abolition.


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To contact the authors:
Felix Brahm (;
Eve Rosenhaft (

EHS 2018 special: Foreign sailors in Nelson’s Navy: a forgotten story

by Sara Caputo (University of Cambridge) 


Nelson as a Midshipman, 1775. Available at <;

Few aspects of British history have attracted more patriotic enthusiasm than the nation’s naval exploits at the time of Nelson and Trafalgar. A less-known fact is that during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France (1793-1815), the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign sailors.

My doctoral research, co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Robinson College, Cambridge, aims to reconstruct these men’s experiences for the first time, as well as giving an indication of the size of the phenomenon.

A quantitative study conducted on a sample of crews, chosen among those serving the furthest away from Britain – and thus most likely to include foreigners – revealed that 14.03% of the seamen sampled (616 out of 4,392) were born outside Britain or Ireland. Aboard one of the ships stationed in Jamaica in 1813, the proportion rose to 22.83%.

These sailors came from every corner of the world, and their numbers oscillated depending on the British state’s need for skilled seafarers in times of crisis. But their presence is often forgotten in favour of nationalistic narratives of British glory. Quantitative analysis of this kind helps to confirm that the British Navy of the Age of Sail, of Nelson and Trafalgar, was far from being manned only by ‘True Britons’. If Britannia ruled the waves, it was not always entirely by her own devices.

Americans were the largest group found in the sample (176 men), followed by natives of what today is Germany, West Indians, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, Dutchmen, Portuguese and East Indians. Italians, Frenchmen (even though they were nominally the enemy), Africans and Spaniards were also well represented, and other smaller groups included Poles, South Americans, Russians, Maltese, Finns, one Greek and even – quite surprisingly – a Swiss, an Austrian, a Hungarian and a Chinese.

Previous studies have analysed the composition of crews in the eighteenth century Navy, but because no one has focused specifically on foreigners the samples had been chosen and interrogated in different ways. My research aims to cast light on changes over the whole time span of these wars, and across different geographical stations.

Three ships were chosen from each of three points in time – roughly the beginning, middle and end of the wars. The results show that the proportion of foreigners was lower in 1793, at the start of the conflict, with only 6.24% of the men in the sample coming from abroad, but went up to 14.94% in 1802, halfway through the war, and 18.49% by 1813, towards the end of it.

This is likely to be a symptom of the Navy’s increasing hunger for manpower, as the war progressed with heavy casualties and the British reserves of seamen becoming depleted.

As is often the case when dealing with matters of national belonging, the status of many of the men in the sample is potentially ambiguous: legal distinctions between ‘British’ and ‘foreign’ were complex and far from clear-cut, depending on ideas of birthplace and ‘blood’, but also on cultural aspects such as personal choice, length of service, political loyalties, social status and general usefulness to the country.

If the British armed forces today only employ UK or Irish nationals, or Commonwealth nationals with settled status, this was not always the case: 200 years ago, men we would nowadays define as foreigners were actively sought and recruited by the British monarchy, and played an important role in British society and economy at large, as well as in the construction of an overseas empire.

EHS 2018 special: Upstairs, downstairs? Experiences of female servants in England, 1550-1650

Charmian Mansell (University of Exeter)


Servants in London, 1600. Available at <;

Despite women’s increased participation in the workforce, women in 2014 still carried out on average 60% more unpaid work (including cooking, cleaning and childcare) than men. The gender division of labour attracts considerable attention today and the domestic nature of women’s work is assumed to have a longstanding history. Cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and childcare are thought to have made up the bulk of women’s paid and unpaid work.


This conception of women’s work is tied to ideas of female economic and social vulnerability and oppression in the past. The female domestic servant depicted in televised historical dramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs corresponds with this view of women’s work. We picture her moving silently around the household of her upper-class employers, lighting fires, making beds and doing laundry, and confined to a life below stairs.

My research shifts the focus to sixteenth and seventeenth century service and to servant-employing households of various levels of wealth. It shows a very different pattern of female service. Around 60% of 15-24 year olds were employed in rural and urban, rich and poor households across the country in exchange for wages, bed and board.

Domestic tasks were a more prominent feature of service in the households of the wealthy, where specific roles such as dairymaid, cook and chambermaid were more common. But in smaller households, there was less requirement for such specialisation or for this type of work.

The workloads of most English women in service between 1550 and 1650 were not made up of what we might classify as domestic chores. Witness statements from early modern church courts detail female servants reaping barley, brewing beer or ale, picking apples, fetching wood and running countless errands. One servant was even involved in the sale of pigeons in Basingstoke in 1631.

As evidence of these work activities suggest, service was an experience that did not confine women to their employer’s homes. Female servants spent only around 50% of their time inside the home. Their working and social lives took them into the streets, fields, marketplaces and a variety of other spaces.

These women were not simply employees – they were also important members of the communities in which they lived. In addition to the work tasks they performed outside of their employers’ homes, they visited their neighbours and friends, attended parish events such as markets and fairs and were embedded in community affairs.

While some women faced vulnerability and subordination within their employer’s households, other servants enjoyed the support and friendship of their neighbours. This was by no means a golden age for women in service; but my research demonstrates the need to assess women’s work in the past on its own terms.

EHS 2018 special: How the Second World War promoted racial integration in the American South

by Andreas Ferrara (University of Warwick)

African American and White Employees Working Together during WWII. Available at <;

European politicians face the challenge of integrating the 1.26 million refugees who arrived in 2015. Integration into the labour market is often discussed as key to social integration but empirical evidence for this claim is sparse.

My research contributes to the debate with a historical example from the American South where the Second World War increased the share of black workers in semi-skilled jobs such as factory work, jobs previously dominated by white workers.

I combine census and military records to show that the share of black workers in semi-skilled occupations in the American South increased as they filled vacancies created by wartime casualties among semi-skilled whites.

A fallen white worker in a semi-skilled occupation was replaced by 1.8 black workers on average. This raised the share of African Americans in semi-skilled jobs by 10% between 1940 and 1950.

Survey data from the South in 1961 reveal that this increased integration in the workplace led to improved social relations between black and white communities outside the workplace.

Individuals living in counties where war casualties brought more black workers into semi-skilled jobs between 1940-50 were 10 percentage points more likely to have an interracial friendship, 6 percentage points more likely to live in a mixed-race neighbourhood, and 11 percentage points more likely to favour integration over segregation in general, as well as at school and at church. These positive effects are reported by both black and white respondents.

Additional analysis using county-level church membership data from 1916 to 1971 shows similar results. Counties where wartime casualties resulted in a more racially integrated labour force saw a 6 percentage points rise in membership shares of churches, which already held mixed-race services before the war.

The church-related results are especially striking. In several of his speeches Dr Martin Luther King stated that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life. And yet my analysis shows that workplace exposure of two groups can overcome even strongly embedded social divides such as churchgoing, which is particularly important in the South, the so-called bible belt.

This historical case study of the American South in the mid-twentieth century, where race relations were often tense, demonstrates that excluding refugees from the workforce may be ruling out a promising channel for integration.

Currently, almost all European countries forbid refugees from participating in the labour market. Arguments put forward to justify this include fear of competition for jobs, concern about downward pressure on wages and a perceived need to deter economic migration.

While the mid-twentieth century American South is not Europe, the policy implication is to experiment more extensively with social integration through workplace integration measures. This not only concerns the refugee case but any country with socially and economically segregated minority groups.

Writing history as if people mattered

The editors Paolo Di Martino, Andrew Popp, and Peter Scott present the volume People, places and cultures. Essays in honour of Francesca Carnevali, Boydell & Brewer, 2017

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Click the link, add to basket and enter offer code BB500 in the box at the checkout. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291 and quote the same code. Offer ends on 22nd February. Any queries please email

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 11.34.33

This edited book celebrates the career and the scholarly contribution of the historian Francesca Carnevali (1964-2013). During her unfortunately short career, Francesca ventured into a number of topics, explored different methodologies, and engaged with a variety of conceptual and theoretical frameworks. The aim of our book is to take on and develop these paths, to analyse the state-of-the art and Francesca’s contribution to it, and to try set an agenda for future research.

The book is divided into a thematic and a methodological section. In the former, various chapters analyse the main steps of Francesca’s intellectual journey covering key topics in business and economic history such as bank-industry relations, the functioning of industrial districts, consumerism, the development of “luxury” goods, and the “history of small things” (specifically the piano industry), the last research project Francesca started. In the latter methodological section, various chapters address theoretical issues and approaches Francesca engaged with, such as micro history, comparative history, and the dialogue between social, cultural, economic and business history.

Although individual chapters preserve their own identity and reflect the opinions of individual authors, the book aims at conveying a general message; one which emerges from Francesca’s work and, according to the editors and contributors, truly represents her intellectual legacy.

The first general point of this message is the necessity to go beyond artificial distinctions between sub-disciplines (and, one would argue, artificial attempts at establishing intellectual monopolies) and embrace history as a multi-faced challenge only addressable by creating bridges, rather than by establishing borders. If, as Francesca would put it, our aim is to understand “how things are made”, we have to understand technology and production, but also who finances such production, who buys it, who distributes and markets it. Thus economic history has to meet business, financial, social, and cultural history, meaning that history, sociology, economics and business studies should talk to each-other.

This dialogue, the volume argues, has to rotate around the study of human beings: history should be written “as if people mattered”. This, however, creates enormous challenges once real people, and not the idealised homo economicus, are put at the centre of the scene. Among many others, a key question that naturally arises is the extent to which economic incentives motivate and explain human behaviour in the economic arena as compared to the opportunity and limitations due to social norms, cultural habits and so on. This is a question that the book mainly applies to the functioning of specific local trading communities or “industrial districts”, but that can easily be transplanted into any other area of exchange or production. In fact, the book argues, looking at social and cultural elements as mere interference into rational economic behaviour is a mistake: culture and society might be part of the very construction of the economic action.

This point opens the door to another set of questions. Can generalisation be possible only under the rigid assumption of economic rationality? If so, does the explicit reference to culture and society force us to limit our perspective to specific events in time and space? The answer to both questions, the book argues, is No, and this is because we have methodological devices allowing us to generalise without necessarily being chained to strict assumptions. The first device is micro history and its ability to paint a general picture from a detail. The second one is comparative history, a way of obtaining a general picture by comparing the specific aspects of individual ones.

Big questions, probably leading to further questions rather than definitive answers, is what the book proposes to the reader. And this is what Francesca offered over the years, fighting intellectual conformism, easy answers, and convenient shortcuts.


Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Click the link, add to basket and enter offer code BB500 in the box at the checkout. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291 and quote the same code. Offer ends on the 9th February. For any queries please email

Jane Whittle ed. Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2017, ISBN (978 1 78327 239 6).
Contributors: Christine Fertig, Jeremy Hayhoe, Sarah Holland, Thijs Lambrecht, Charmian Mansell, Hannah Østhus, Richard Paping, Cristina Prytz, Raffaella Sarti, Carolina Uppenberg, Lies Vervaet, Jane Whittle.


UntitledOne of the most distinctive features of the early modern economy of Europe was the presence of large numbers of servants. Across Western Europe servants typically made up between 5% and 15% of the total population. Rather than being domestic servants in the nineteenth-century sense, the term ‘servant’ was used in early modern society to describe wage workers who lived in their employer’s household, and were employed for several months to a year at a time. Servants were usually young unmarried people between the ages of 15 and 25, and men and women were employed in roughly equal numbers. Servants did all kinds of work, ranging from agriculture, craftwork, and retailing to housework and childcare, depending on the needs of their employer. The majority of days worked by wage workers in the rural early modern economy were undertaken not by casual labourers employed by the day or task, but by servants. Given this ubiquity, it is surprising how little attention servants have received from economic historians. There are a number of excellent studies of urban servants, but the majority of servants, like the majority of the population in early modern Europe, lived in rural communities. Servants in Rural Europe 1500-1900 is the first book to offer a European overview of the topic.

The book has chapters on Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, England, France and Italy, with research focusing on periods from the early fifteenth century to the early twentieth century, and varying in scale from in-depth studies of single farms to national overviews. Yet strong common themes underpin the contributions. For everyone the starting point is the ground-breaking work of Peter Laslett and John Hajnal. From the 1960s onwards Laslett and Hajnal repeatedly asserted the importance of acknowledging and understanding the ubiquity of (and variations in) the employment of servants for the comparative demographic history of Europe. The institution of service allowed young people to circulate between households before marriage, acquiring skills and saving wages, and redistributing labour according to demand. It was part of the European marriage system which was characterised by a first age of marriage for women in their early to late twenties, and a relatively high proportion of people never marrying: service was how many adults supported themselves when they were not married. It also allowed young people to accumulate the resources to set up a new household at marriage and to do so independently from their parents. This contrasts with the situation in many societies based on small-scale agriculture in which parents controlled the choice of marriage partner and timing of marriage, women married in their mid to late teens and marriage was almost universal, and where young people began married life as junior members of the parents’ household.

But service, or working as a servant, was much more than part of demographic system. It was an integral element in the development of wage labour in early modern Europe, and an element that was heavily controlled by law. From the late medieval period onwards governments passed legislation that attempted to regulate servants’ contracts, wage rates and mobility. A consistent theme was the insistence that young unmarried people should work as servants rather than day labourers. Once within a contracted period of service, servants became the legal dependents of their employer, with a status similar to children within the household. For early modern governments, concerned about the implications of growing numbers of landless labourers for levels of poverty, crime and social unrest, service was a far more attractive prospect. It combined the flexibility of wage labour with social control within landholding households, as part of the existing social order. In countries such as England and Sweden, service was compulsory for young unmarried people. In England this was inconsistently enforced, but in eighteenth-century Sweden enforcement was very effective. There, the government even regulated how many children could stay at home and how many servants each household could employ. Servants remind us that the story of western Europe’s economic development during the early modern period was not simply one of smooth transition from an economy based on small scale agriculture (peasant society) to one where the majority of the population were landless wage earners (capitalism). The early modern economy had characteristics which set it apart from both earlier and later periods, and service is perhaps the most important of these.

To contact the author:
Twitter: @jcwhittle1

Pieces of Eight: Sailors, Wages, and Trade

by Richard Blakemore (University of Reading) – research conducted at the University of Exeter thanks to a ERC project.


In April 1642, Michael Johnson sailed from London aboard the Fame. The voyage took him to northern France, southern Spain, and the Caribbean, and Johnson started it with a ‘venture’, a personal investment of cash or goods, worth £5. He spent the voyage ‘turneinge and winding’ (as one of his shipmates put it) his venture and his wages: hiring out his cabin to passengers, buying and selling at each port. By the time the ship was heading for home, Johnson had accumulated 200 pieces of eight and some cargo, altogether worth roughly £50 – ten times his original ‘venture’.

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A white sailor seated and a black sailor standing; to left, the black sailor standing with the white sailor seated in profile facing right, and with a ship behind to right; a round composition. c.1660 Etching. From The British Museum, available at


This example invites us to reconsider the traditional image of mariners as wage workers, as poor and unskilled labourers, sitting at the bottom of a strictly ranked workforce. That is what this article is set to do.

This idea of mariners has endured among historians in part because it was popular among those mariners’ contemporaries, especially during the early modern period when global trade and shipping expanded enormously. A proverb from that period claims that ‘the sea and the gallows refuseth nobody’. Yet this interpretation has also been founded on a relatively limited analysis of sailors’ wages, which sought mainly to identify averages across the sector. This article presents a more detailed discussion of this topic, based on a dataset gathered from the papers of the High Court of Admiralty. It is possible to download the dataset here.

The data confirms the impression of a hierarchical labour market, with clear thresholds between ranks. Most mariners (sailors with no specific role) earned less than most specialists (men with a specific job, like boatswain, gunner, or carpenter); most specialists earned less than masters and master’s mates, who navigated and commanded ships. However, there was also remarkable variety – across the seventeenth century, mariners earned between 5 and 55 shillings a month, specialists between 13 and 100 shillings, though in both cases there was predictable lumping around a median point.

Such variation can be explained by the circumstances of a voyage, such as length, destination, and anticipated riskiness. In wartime, for instance, wages rose for most seafarers. This also reflects different levels of skill and social capital for individual sailors at all levels of the shipping industry. In other words, we must recognise that at least some mariners, as well as those at higher ranks, were experienced workers who could claim a skill premium in their wages.

As well as exploring this variety in wages, we also need to look beyond them to other forms of income – something which, like wages, scholars have often treated briefly, and with more attention to the activities of shipmasters. There were multiple available arrangements. Sailors might receive a share of the profits from a voyage, especially when working on a fishing vessel or a privateer, and they also expected a full ‘diet’ aboard ship, and protested loudly when the food did not meet their expectations.

Most crucially, it seems that Michael Johnson was not alone. Many sailors of all ranks carried goods aboard ship, sometimes in their own cabin or chest, sometimes in larger volumes with the ship’s other cargo. This is an area that historians have begun to investigate in more depth (as in this article by Beverly Lemire, and this roundtable edited by Maria Fusaro). Though there is not enough evidence on the value of these goods for a systematic analysis, we can at least establish that the practice was ubiquitous, and that it formed a significant portion of many seafarers’ incomes.

There are implications from this evidence for our wider understanding of the shipping industry and early modern economic developments. As well as the idea that they were unskilled, sailors have often been seen as an exploited group, essential to but not benefitting from European economic growth, to which shipping and trade were dynamic contributing sectors. There is some truth to this picture: sailors’ working lives were certainly hard and dangerous, and the period saw rising inequality, with wages falling behind inflation. Nevertheless, studying seafarers’ wages and trade shows us that they sought to make the best of, and some of them were able to successfully operate in, the venture economy of early modern shipping.


Full article: Blakemore, R. J. (2017), Pieces of eight, pieces of eight: seamen’s earnings and the venture economy of early modern seafaring. The Economic History Review, 70: 1153–1184. doi:10.1111/ehr.12428. Available here

To contact the author:



On archives, macroeconomics and labour markets

Everything (well,… most things) you know about wages 1650 -1800 is wrong. That’s a great opportunity for historians

by Judy Stephenson (University of Oxford)


My forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review (abstract available here) makes some big claims about the level of nominal and real wages in urban England before industrialization. There is an early working paper version here

Specifically, I argue that the data used for the years between 1650 and 1800 are completely wrong because the people who compiled them (who go back in some cases to the 1930s and late nineteenth century) took figures from bills for construction services rather than actual wage books. As an actual wage book from the contractor who built the South West Tower of St Paul’s shows, men were not paid these charge out rates, they were paid considerably less.

This has some big ramifications for some influential economists and historians who have relied on long established data sets of ‘builders wages’, such as those of Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955, 1956) to create macroeconomic models of the past to calculate real wages and infer GDP; to argue that Britain had ‘high wages’; or a comparative advantage in traded goods; or a narrower ‘skill premium’ and better institutions.

In truth, that these wages were ‘wrong’ is in no way surprising to anyone who has ever done work on early modern earning. Any historian of the eighteenth century sensed that these ‘average wages’ were unreasonably high and that their implied welfare ratios gave a falsely rosy picture. (As someone face palmed; ‘A labourer in London able to afford a respectable basket of goods for a family in the mid eighteenth century?? Have you read Dorothy George?’). Those who have ever worked with labour records and account books know that the homogenous figures found by Elizabeth Gilboy were questionable, and indeed in 2011, John Hatcher had successfully called into question the golden age of the fifteenth century. ‘Real’ day wages and wage accounts are always fascinatingly messy, unpredictable, and varied, yet econometricians clung to the old data sets because they believed it was too difficult to find anything else.

Chart showing comparative real wages, in grams of silver, of European cities 1650 -1800, based on Allen, (2001), where the nominal wage has been reduced by 25%.

My findings make the idea that Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the long eighteenth century hard to sustain. If paid wages were 25% lower than we thought, the real wage for labourers through this period in London was not the highest by far. Rather, it seems, they were at the lower end of NW European advanced economies.

This is exciting for economists who think that explaining why the industrial revolution happened in Britain is the ‘Holy Grail’ (it’s back up for grabs). But, the debunking of these inaccurate wage series also makes it a really exciting time for people who want to understand the role of labour in the economy, and who think that the period before collective bargaining and factories has some strong parallels with our own. Lots has been written about the decline of ‘history’ in economic history, but the new opportunity is as wide and bright for historians as it is for economists and econometricians. This breakthrough in this long-run view on wages came not from new statistical techniques, but from the margins of dusty parchment, little iron pins, raggy old papers, smudged watered down ink, and the tentative ‘x’s’ and proud flourishes of the archives.

It’s time to stop recycling tired old data sets and expecting new technology to tell us something different about them. There is a wealth of sources and data in London archives, which have never been used before because they didn’t look comparable to Elizabeth Gilboy’s ‘day rates’, but which offer historians and economists the potential to look at earning, bargaining and the capital labour relationship in new ways. There is exciting work in progress from established and new scholars in the field. No one data set will ever be able to replace the supposed reliability of Phelps Brown and Hopkins, but even they were very tentative about their sources.

To contact the author:

References list available here

Slavery in medieval England: broad continuation between the 12th and 17th centuries

by Judith Spicksley (University of York)

Slavery in England had apparently been replaced by serfdom in the twelfth century, yet writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continue to use terms such as ‘slave’, ‘serf’, and ‘villein’ interchangeably. This research seeks to make sense of this historical conundrum.

Reeve and serfs in feudal England, c. 1310. From Wikimedia Commons <;

Historians of medieval England have suggested that slavery had disappeared by the twelfth century. Explanations include the growth of a new notion of chivalric behaviour, and the liberalising effects of an expanding Christianity, in which enslavement of fellow Christians became unthinkable.

But most emphasis has been placed on the effects of economic development, through a combination of technological change, demographic expansion, market growth and a shift in the nature of agricultural production.

In the view of many commentators, serfdom – the system of unfree labour associated with the manorial system – replaced slavery as the main method of restricting the freedom of the individual. Slaves were of unfree status, but serfs, who were given access to land in return for providing a varied mix of labour, goods and cash – were of unfree tenure.

The term ‘serfdom’ has wide application across a range of European manorial systems, but in England, it is usually referred to as ‘villeinage’, since this was the name of the common law institution that developed in the twelfth century.

While there has been considerable debate about the causes of slavery’s decline, there has been much less disagreement about its timing. More recent research has suggested that domestic slaves – mostly women – were retained and underwent something of a revival in southern Mediterranean towns in the later medieval period. There are also examples of young women who were kidnapped and sold as prostitutes in England.

This research suggests that for a number of reasons, we have missed the broader continuation of slavery between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. In part this is because it did decline, but it also became less visible.

On the one hand, the economic roles undertaken by slaves were no different from those done by individuals who were free. On the other hand, the institution of villeinage used a new language to define itself: the unfree were villeins, bondmen and nativi, and were not identified as ‘slaves’.

It is also clear that there was an overlap between unfree status and unfree tenure that has not yet been adequately investigated. Later histories have been heavily influenced both by the transatlantic slave trade, which provided an unforgettable image of the ‘slave’, and by the emergence of two major theoretical approaches: classical economic theory; and the Marxian materialist dialectic.

Together these factors have been instrumental in bringing about a reluctance to translate the Latin word servus as ‘slave’ in the legal texts, literature and documentary evidence of late medieval England, and give preference instead to the language of villeinage.

Slavery may have changed its appearance in the late medieval period, but in law, little had changed. Those of unfree status still owned nothing, could devise nothing and were at the will of their lords; moreover, their children inherited their unfree status.