Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900

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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

PRE-REFORMATION ROOTS OF THE PROTESTANT ETHIC: Evidence of a nine centuries old belief in the virtues of hard work stimulating economic growth

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500). From Wikimedia Commons <;

Max Weber’s well-known conception of the ‘Protestant ethic’ was not uniquely Protestant: according to this research published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, Protestant beliefs in the virtues of hard work and thrift have pre-Reformation roots.

The Order of Cistercians – a Catholic order that spread across Europe 900 years ago – did exactly what the Protestant Reformation is supposed to have done four centuries later: the Order stimulated economic growth by instigating an improved work ethic in local populations.

What’s more, the impact of this work ethic survives today: people living in parts of Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

The researchers begin their analysis with an event that has recently been commemorated in several countries across Europe. Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther allegedly nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and thereby established Protestantism.

Whether the emergence of Protestantism had enduring consequences has long been debated by social scientists. One of the most influential sociologists, Max Weber, famously argued that the Protestant Reformation was instrumental in facilitating the rise of capitalism in Western Europe.

In contrast to Catholicism, Weber said, Protestantism commends the virtues of hard work and thrift. These values, which he referred to as the Protestant ethic, laid the foundation for the eventual rise of modern capitalism.

But was Weber right? The new study suggests that Weber was right in stressing the importance of a cultural appreciation of hard work and thrift, but quite likely wrong in tracing the origins of these values to the Protestant Reformation.

The researchers use a theoretical model to demonstrate how a small group of people with a relatively strong work ethic – the Cistercians – could plausibly have improved the average work ethic of an entire population within the span of 500 years.

The researchers then test the theory statistically using historical county data from England, where the Cistercians arrived in the twelfth century. England is of particular interest as it has high quality historical data and because, centuries later, it became the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution.

The researchers document that English counties with more Cistercian monasteries experienced faster population growth – a leading measure of economic growth in pre-modern times. The data reveal that this is not simply because the monks were good at choosing locations that would have prospered regardless.

The researchers even detect an impact on economic growth centuries after the king closed down all the monasteries and seized their wealth on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, the legacy of the monks cannot simply be the wealth that they left behind.

Instead, the monks seem to have left an imprint on the cultural values of the population. To document this, the researchers combine historical data on the location of Cistercian monasteries with a contemporary dataset on the cultural values of individuals across Europe.

They find that people living in regions in Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago reveal different cultural values than those living in other regions. In particular, these individuals tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

This study is not the first to question Max Weber’s influential hypothesis. While the majority of statistical analyses show that Protestant regions are more prosperous than others, the reason for this may not be the Protestant ethic as emphasised by Weber.

For example, a study by the economists Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessman demonstrates that Protestant regions of Prussia prospered more than others because of the improved schooling that followed from the instructions of Martin Luther, who encouraged Christians to learn to read so that they could study the Bible.


‘Pre-Reformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic’ by Thomas Barnebeck Andersen, Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard and Paul Sharp is published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Thomas Barnebeck Andersen and Paul Richard Sharp are at the University of Southern Denmark. Jeanet Sinding Bentzen and Carl-Johan Dalgaard are at the University of Copenhagen.


Constructing Equality? Women’s wages, physical labor, and demand factors in Sweden 1550-1759

by Kathryn E. Gary, PhD candidate, Lund University


Women were important workers in the past, but they are still under-studied and their contributions largely absent from big-picture discussions of historical living standards. This is largely because women’s work remains to some extent a black box, but recent research has both challenged assumptions about how women participated in the paid labor market (c.f. Humphries and Sarasua 2012) and provided data about women’s payment for different kinds of labor (c.f. Humphries and Weisdorf 2015). The current work contributes to both these areas, by creating series of men’s and women’s wages in early modern Sweden, and by exploring both the mechanisms behind the gender gap in pay as well as the conditions under which women enter paid labor, with the goal of better understanding work in the past in general.

Primary data come from unskilled workers in the construction industry in Southern Sweden, predominantly from the towns Malmö and Kalmar; these are combined with published data from Stockholm, also from construction workers (Jansson, Andersson Palm, and Söderberg 1991). All data are for individuals paid by the day; relative wages are simply the percentage of men’s wages that women earn.


Figure 1 shows women’s relative wages from 1550 to 1759. Relative wages are high at the beginning of the period, around 80 percent, and increase to levels of parity in the early 17th century, after which they decline substantially, reaching as low as 40 percent during the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. This is a substantial decline over the period of not much more than a generation.
Some relative wage peaks are related to events that change both the demand for and supply of labor. Kalmar was a border town between Sweden and Denmark; from 1611 to 1613 the two countries fought the Kalmar War. Following these years women’s wages peaked, likely due to necessary rebuilding and a shortage in the supply of men. There is a wage spike in the same city following a fire in 1647 – while the national average weighs down the peak values, the deviations are still clear in the series, and when Kalmar is examined individually women’s relative wages peak as high as 1.33.


Table 1: Women’s work days as a percentage of all workdays in Kalmar, 1614-1710


Women’s ability to earn high wages goes against many of our theories about women’s earning potential – women are expected to earn less than men in physical tasks, because women are not as strong as men, and so are less productive physical laborers (Burnette 2008). Other theories suggest that women face constant wage discrimination (c.f. Bardsley 1999) – but this, too, is confounded by women’s ability to out-earn men, and by the large changes in the relative wage series. Something else is happening.

To understand we must look more closely at the data. In Kalmar workers are almost universally identifiable, allowing for deeper examination of the workforce. Table 1 shows the percentage of paid workdays that were worked by women, compared with the total number of paid work days in five year periods. Comparing the proportional feminization of the workforce with the amount of work, we see that the periods with the greatest amount of work are those in which the workforce is the most feminized – these periods are also those during which women’s relative wages are highest (see figure 1).

In combination with the relationship between total paid workdays and women’s relative wages across the whole country (figure 2), we are faced with a pattern that is familiar from the first and second world wars – when labor demand is high, women enter the labor force in higher numbers and are able to command higher wages. There is less evidence that women were systematically paid less either due to discrimination or because of their lower productivity – instead, women are responsive to economic forces, and especially to demand forces.

Figure 2: women’s relative wages and total paid workdays in Sweden, 1550-1759


It is simple to to extend our sense of what is ‘traditional’ deep into the past, and to apply broad categories of ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ work. However, when we are able to suspend our assumptions and dig deeper into the evidence, the data tell a less expected story; women in Sweden worked in physical occupations, alongside men, often for similar wages. They worked especially hard when the need was highest, and women’s wages only fell away from men’s when work became less regular and men and women weren’t employed together.

Accounting for women’s work shifts our understanding of household living standards in the long run, and provides strong evidence for what is intuitively clear: we cannot truly understand the past if we continue to discount the experiences or contribution of half the population.

The full working paper can be read here, and a shorter version from the EHS annual conference is available here.

How accounting made financial markets in the Early Modern age

by Nadia Matringe, London School of Economics


In the early modern age, accounting was the site of finance.

From the sixteenth century onwards, the unprecedented growth of international trade and banking gave rise to the great exchange fairs (Lyon, Bisenzone, Castile, Frankfurt, etc.), with international clearing and banking functions. To exploit these new opportunities while limiting risks, a growing number of banks at the fair locations specialised in the commission business, which required a high demand for goods and capital to yield substantial profits.

Both these transformations deeply affected the international payments system. In particular, they gave rise to new uses of accounting as a payment and credit instrument.

The research, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference, analyses this transformation and highlights the role of accounting in shaping early modern financial markets. It shows that at that time, accounting tables were not only used as local means of payment through book transfers initiated by oral order: they also became the sole material support for a growing number of international fund transfers and credit operations.

Indeed, as chains of commission increased in length and density, both the exchange and the deposit business changed in form and started to be increasingly operated through the accounting medium.

The classical exchange operations, which usually involved four parties (a drawer, a remitter, a payer and a payee) and the circulation of a bill of exchange between two markets, could now be conducted by two parties through their corresponding accounting systems, on behalf of several clients.

In these transactions, bank A would draw on and remit monies to bank B on behalf of clients who appeared as drawers and remitters by proxy. Payments on both markets took the form of book transfers, and no bill of exchange was issued: banker A simply informed banker B in his usual correspondence to credit and debit the pertinent accounts according to agreed exchange rates.

Such transactions performed multilateral clearance between distant regions of the world, where the bankers’ clients had business.

Two-party exchange transactions reduced to accounting entries also served banking activity at the local level. In this case, at least one side of the exchange transaction (the remittance or the draft) was meant to lend or to borrow money in one of the two markets. The exchange was followed by a rechange in the opposite direction, and at a different rate, and interest was charged according to the differences in exchange rates.

Finally, the taxation of overdrafts on current accounts at the fair location enabled clients to buy bills of exchange on foreign markets without provision, and to postpone payment of those drawn on them. Consequently, deposits in Lyon, Antwerp or Castile could create credit in Florence, Paris, London, etc.

Furthermore, this old fair custom of deferments gave rise in the sixteenth century to autonomous deposit markets whose rate circulated publicly, enabling ‘outsiders’ who otherwise had no business in the fairs, to invest their savings there.

The research thus shows that in the context of the rapid development of international banking centres and the correlated rise of commission trading, accounting made financial markets.

Its function was similar to that of modern algorithms used to match orders and perform financial transactions. Accounting tables were used to make payments, transfer funds, operate clearance and grant interest-bearing loans – all of which could be combined in a single game of book entries in the accounts of corresponding partners.

International trade and banking were supported by a network of interconnected accounting systems. This accounting network appears as a major infrastructure of early modern trade, without which the whole European payment system would have collapsed.