Medieval Clothiers and their workers: an early ‘gig’ economy?

by John S. Lee (University of York)

The Medieval Clothier is published by Boydell Press. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 13th December 2018. See below for details.


Dyers soaking red cloth in a heated barrel. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Casual wage-earners dependent on wealthy entrepreneurs for their work are not just a modern phenomenon. A new book by John S. Lee, The Medieval Clothier, charts the rise of clothiers in the period 1350-1550, and the innovative ways in which they organised their workforce.

Clothiers co-ordinated the different stages of textile production and found markets for their finished cloth. They increasingly managed all the stages of cloth-making, operating what historians have called the ‘putting out’ system. In this method of organising work, clothiers put-out raw materials for spinners, weavers, fullers and other cloth-workers to process. Clothiers paid these cloth-workers, often based in their own homes, on a piece-rate basis, rather than receiving a regular wage.

Like the modern ‘gig’ economy, the benefits of this system were hotly contested. Clothworkers enjoyed the independence to choose their own hours, and combine their craft with other activities; clothiers incurred no overheads for work done in the homes of their workers and benefitted from lower labour costs. When clothworkers protested in Suffolk in 1525, their spokesman, John Green, explained that the clothiers

‘give us so little wages for our workmanship that scarcely we be able to live, and thus in penury we pass the time, we our wives and children.’

Another, a group of weavers, accused ‘the rich men, the clothiers’ of setting a single price for their work. Others complained that clothiers reimbursed their workers in ‘pins, girdles, and other unprofitable wares’ rather than in cash. Clothiers were even accused in 1549 of paying poor labourers with ‘soap, candles, rotten cloth, stinking fish, and such like baggage’.

Local and national governments responded with ambivalence. On the one hand, cloth exports brought welcome revenue through customs. Governments were also aware though, that disruptions to overseas cloth sales created unemployment and unrest. The putting-out system relied on outworkers, whom the clothier only paid when work was available, and on keeping labour costs low. Following disruption to overseas markets, the government tried to prevent clothiers from laying off their workers. Even the king’s leading minister, Cardinal Wolsey, pressurised London merchants to continue buying cloth from the clothiers.

A few clothiers were able to amass great wealth from this industry, construct lavish mansions and erect elaborate church memorials, which can still be seen today. Thomas Paycocke’s house at Coggeshall, Essex, built to impress in 1509-10 with its stunning woodcarving and elaborate panelling, is now a National Trust property. The wealth of Thomas Spring III, ‘the rich clothier’ of Lavenham, Suffolk, caught the attention of the royal court’s poet, John Skelton, in 1522. The screen constructed to surround Spring’s tomb in Lavenham church in Suffolk engaged craftsmen familiar with commissions for the royal court.

Clothiers that profited from their trade often remembered their workers in their wills. Thomas Paycocke, who died in 1518, left bequests in their wills to ‘my weavers, fullers and shearmen’. He gave additional sums for those ‘that have wrought me very much work’. Paycocke’s bequests to his workers, which totalled £4, may have stretched to as many as 240 workers, while those of Thomas Spring II of Lavenham, who died in 1486, may have supported nearly 4,000 workers. Both these clothiers operated large-scale production through the putting-out system, although exactly how large must remain a matter for discussion.

Cloth-making became England’s leading industry in the late Middle Ages – no other industry created as much employment or generated as much wealth. By the 1540s, as many as 1 in 7 of the country’s workforce were probably making cloth and 1 in 4 households were involved in spinning. This book offers the first recent survey of this hugely important and significant trade and its practitioners, examining the clothiers and their impact within the industry and in their wider communities.

Intended for the general reader, as well as students and academics, this book is the first in a new series – Working in the Middle Ages – which will examine different trades, professions and industries. The series aims to provide authoritative, accessible guides to medieval trades and professions, offering surveys of their origins and development, alongside the practicalities of the occupation.

New proposals for the series are welcomed, and should be sent to the series editor, Dr James Davis, School of History, Queens University Belfast ( or to the Editorial Director (Medieval Studies), Boydell and Brewer (


SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code BB150 online at Offer ends 31 Dec 2018. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email


To contact the author:

How well off were the occupants of early modern almshouses?

by Angela Nicholls (University of Warwick).

Almhouses in Early Modern England is published by Boydell Press. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 13th December 2018. See below for details.


Almshouses, charitable foundations providing accommodation for poor people, are a feature of many towns and villages. Some are very old, with their roots in medieval England as monastic infirmaries for the sick, pilgrims and travellers, or as chantries offering prayers for the souls of their benefactors. Many survived the Reformation to be joined by a remarkable number of new foundations between around 1560 and 1730. For many of them their principal purpose was as sites of memorialisation and display, tangible representations of the philanthropy of their wealthy donors. But they are also some of the few examples of poor people’s housing to have survived from the early modern period, so can they tell us anything about the material lives of the people who lived in them?

Paul Slack famously referred to almspeople as ‘respectable, gowned Trollopian worthies’, and there are many examples to justify that view, for instance Holy Cross Hospital, Winchester, refounded in 1445 as the House of Noble Poverty. But these are not typical. Nevertheless, many early modern almshouse buildings are instantly recognisable, with the ubiquitous row of chimneys often the first indication of the identity of the building.


Burghley Almshouses, Stamford (1597)


Individual chimneys and, often, separate front doors are evidence of private domestic space, far removed from the communal halls of the earlier medieval period, or the institutional dormitories of the nineteenth century workhouses which came later. Accommodating almspeople in their own rooms was not just a reflection of general changes in domestic architecture at the time, which placed greater emphasis on comfort and privacy, but represented a change in how almspeople were viewed and how they were expected to live their lives. Instead of living communally with meals provided, in the majority of post-Reformation almshouses the residents would have lived independently, buying their own food, cooking it themselves on their own hearth and eating it by themselves in their rooms. The importance of the hearth was not only as the practical means of heating and cooking, but was central to questions of identity and social status. Together with individual front doors, these features gave occupants a degree of independence and autonomy; they enabled almspeople to live independently despite their economic dependence, and to adopt the appearance if not the reality of independent householders.


Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 16.40.44
Stoneleigh Old Almshouses, Warwickshire (1576)


The retreat from communal living also meant that almspeople had to support themselves rather than have all their needs met by the almshouse. This was achieved in many places by a transition to monetary allowances or stipends with which almspeople could purchase their own food and necessities, but the existence and level of these stipends varied considerably. Late medieval almshouses often specified an allowance of a penny a day, which would have provided a basic but adequate living in the fifteenth century, but was seriously eroded by sixteenth-century inflation. Thus when Lawrence Sheriff, a London mercer, established in 1567 an almshouse for four poor men in his home town of Rugby, his will gave each of them the traditional penny a day, or £1 10s 4d a year. Yet with inflation, if these stipends were to match the real value of their late-fifteenth-century counterparts, his almsmen would actually have needed £4 5s 5d a year.[1]

The nationwide system of poor relief established by the Tudor Poor Laws, and the survival of poor relief accounts from many parishes by the late seventeenth century, provide an opportunity to see the actual amounts disbursed in relief by overseers of the poor to parish paupers. From the level of payments made to elderly paupers no longer capable of work it is possible to calculate the barest minimum which an elderly person living rent free in an almshouse might have needed to feed and clothe themself and keep warm.[2] Such a subsistence level in the 1690s equates to an annual sum of £3 17s which can be adjusted for inflation and used to compare with a range of known almshouse stipends from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The results of this comparison are interesting, even surprising. Using data from 147 known almshouse stipends in six different counties (Durham, Yorkshire, Norfolk, Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire and Kent) it seems that less than half of early modern almshouses provided their occupants with stipends which were sufficient to live on. Many provided no financial assistance at all.


The inescapable conclusion is that the benefits provided to early modern almspeople were in many cases only a contribution towards their subsistence. In this respect almshouse occupants were no different from the recipients of parish poor relief, who rarely had their living costs met in full.

Yet, even in one of the poorer establishments, almshouse residents had distinct advantages over other poor people. Principally these were the security of their accommodation, the permanence and regularity of any financial allowance, no matter how small, and the autonomy this gave them. Almshouse residents may also have had an enhanced status as ‘approved’, deserving poor. The location of many almshouses, beside the church, in the high street, or next to the guildhall, seems to have been purposely designed to solicit alms from passers-by, at a time when begging was officially discouraged.

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 one month after the date of upload. Any queries please email



[1] Inflation index derived from H. Phelps Brown and S. V. Hopkins, A Perspective of Wages and Prices (London and New York, 1981) pp. 13-59.

[2] L. A. Botelho, Old Age and the English Poor Law, 1500 – 1700 (Woodbridge, 2004) pp. 147-8.

THE ‘WITCH CRAZE’ OF 16th & 17th CENTURY EUROPE: Economists uncover religious competition as driving force of witch hunts

“The Pendle Witches”. Available at

Economists Peter Leeson (George Mason University) and Jacob Russ (Bloom Intelligence) have uncovered new evidence to resolve the longstanding puzzle posed by the ‘witch craze’ that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and resulted in the trial and execution of tens of thousands for the dubious crime of witchcraft.


In research forthcoming in the Economic Journal, Leeson and Russ argue that the witch craze resulted from competition between Catholicism and Protestantism in post-Reformation Christendom. For the first time in history, the Reformation presented large numbers of Christians with a religious choice: stick with the old Church or switch to the new one. And when churchgoers have religious choice, churches must compete.

In an effort to woo the faithful, competing confessions advertised their superior ability to protect citizens against worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil by prosecuting suspected witches. Similar to how Republicans and Democrats focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds during US elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters, Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch trial activity in religious battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians.

Analysing new data on more than 40,000 suspected witches whose trials span Europe over more than half a millennium, Leeson and Russ find that when and where confessional competition, as measured by confessional warfare, was more intense, witch trial activity was more intense too. Furthermore, factors such as bad weather, formerly thought to be key drivers of the witch craze, were not in fact important.

The new data reveal that the witch craze took off only after the Protestant Reformation in 1517, following the new faith’s rapid spread. The craze reached its zenith between around 1555 and 1650, years co-extensive with peak competition for Christian consumers, evidenced by the Catholic Counter-Reformation, during which Catholic officials aggressively pushed back against Protestant successes in converting Christians throughout much of Europe.

Then, around 1650, the witch craze began its precipitous decline, with prosecutions for witchcraft virtually vanishing by 1700.

What happened in the middle of the seventeenth century to bring the witch craze to a halt? The Peace of Westphalia, a treaty entered in 1648, which ended decades of European religious warfare and much of the confessional competition that motivated it by creating permanent territorial monopolies for Catholics and Protestants – regions of exclusive control, in which one confession was protected from the competition of the other.

The new analysis suggests that the witch craze should also have been focused geographically, located where Catholic-Protestant rivalry was strongest and vice versa. And indeed it was: Germany alone, which was ground zero for the Reformation, laid claim to nearly 40% of all witchcraft prosecutions in Europe.

In contrast, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland – each of which remained a Catholic stronghold after the Reformation and never saw serious competition from Protestantism – collectively accounted for just 6% of Europeans tried for witchcraft.

Religion, it is often said, works in unexpected ways. The new study suggests that the same can be said of competition between religions.


To contact the authors:  Peter Leeson (

Medieval origins of Spain’s economic geography

The frontier of medieval warfare between Christian and Muslim armies in southern Spain provides a surprisingly powerful explanation of current low-density settlement patterns in those regions. This is the central finding of research by Daniel Oto-Peralías (University of Saint-Andrews), recently presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in March 2018.

 His study notes that Southern Spain is one of the most deserted areas in Europe in terms of population density, only surpassed by parts of Iceland and the northern part of Scandinavia. It turns out that this outcome has roots going back to medieval times when Spain’s southern plateau was a battlefield between Christian and Muslim armies.

The study documents that Spain stands out in Europe with an anomalous settlement pattern characterised by a very low density in its southern half. Among the ten European regions with the lowest settlement density, six are from southern Spain (while the other four are from Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland).


On average only 29.8% of 10km2 grid cells are inhabited in southern Spain, which is a much lower percentage than in the rest of Europe (with an average of 74.4%). Extreme geographical and climatic conditions do not seem to be the reason for this low settlement density, which the author refers to as ‘Spanish anomaly’.

After ruling out geography as the main explanatory factor for the ‘Spanish anomaly’, the research investigates its historical roots by focusing on the Middle Ages, when the territory was retaken by the Christian kingdoms from Muslim rule.

The hypothesis is that the region’s character as a militarily insecure frontier conditioned the colonisation of the territory, which is tested by taking advantage of the geographical discontinuity in military insecurity created by the Tagus River in central Spain. Historical ‘accidents’ made the colonisation of the area south of the Tagus River very different from colonisation north of it.

The invasions of North Africa’s Almoravid and Almohad empires converted the territory south of the Tagus into a battlefield for a century and a half, this river being a natural defensive border. Continuous warfare and insecurity heavily conditioned the nature of the colonisation process in this frontier region, which was characterised by the leading role of the military orders as agents of colonisation, scarcity of population and a livestock-oriented economy. It resulted in the prominence of castles and the absence of villages, and consequently, a spatial distribution of the population characterised by a very low density of settlements.

The empirical analysis reveals a large difference in settlement density across the River Tagus, whereas there are no differences in geographical and climatic variables across it. In addition, it is shown that the discontinuity in settlement density already existed in the 16th and 18th centuries, and is not therefore the result of migration movements and urban developments taking place recently. Preliminary evidence also indicates that the territory exposed to the medieval ranching frontier is relatively poorer today.

Thus, the study shows that historical frontiers can decisively shape the economic geography of countries. Using Medieval Spain as a case study, it illustrates how the exposure to warfare and insecurity – typical in medieval frontiers– creates incentives for a militarised colonisation based on a few fortified settlements and a livestock-oriented economy, conditioning the occupation of a territory to such an extent to convert it into one of the most deserted areas in Europe. Given the ubiquity of frontiers in history, the mechanisms underlined in the analysis are of general interest and may operate in other contexts.

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.

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

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.