by Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford Published on 8 April 2014
The plague known as the Black Death which tore through 14th century Europe is traditionally held to have had at least one upside. Women, the theory runs, were able to exploit the labour shortages of post-plague England to find themselves in a richer and more stable position than before. However the idea that women of the era were forerunners of the post World War I generation doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, as new research shows.
Medievalists have long debated the extent to which women shared in the “golden age” of the English peasantry that followed the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death. The plague killed between 30% and 45% of the population in its first wave 1348-59. Recurrences meant that by the 1370s England’s population had been halved.
The silver lining, for the peasantry at least, was the dramatic increase in workers’ remuneration as landowners struggled to recruit and retain labourers. The results are apparent in a rapid increase in male casual (nominal and real) wages from about 1349.
Some historians have argued that women’s gains were even more marked as they could find employment in hitherto male-dominated jobs, or migrate to towns to work in the growing textile industries and commercial services and so enjoy “economic independence”.
Others however have suggested that whatever the implications of the Black Death for male workers, the sexual division of labour prevented women from seizing the opportunities created by the labour shortage. As one account puts it: “Women tended to work in low-skilled, low-paid jobs … This was true in 1300 and it remained true in 1700”.
The debate has significant implications as optimists have gone further in arguing that women’s improved wages changed demographic behaviour by delaying marriage, promoting celibacy and reducing fertility, with the resulting so-called north-west European Marriage Pattern raising incomes and promoting further growth.
Since Phelps Brown Hopkins published ‘Seven centuries’ in the mid 1950s economic historians and cliometricians have used ‘day wages’ – day rates for masons, carpenters and bricklayers taken from building accounts – to estimate the earnings of workers of the past. Whilst recent work has shown that these rates were not what the masons, carpenters and bricklayers actually received  many historians have been working on the means of earnings of other groups. A wage formation conference at the Institute of Historical Research on 16 September aimed to bring the notion that wages are more multifarious than day rates to the fore. The programme brought research on lead and coal miners, hostmen, keelmen, laundresses, sailors, bankers, spinners, agricultural labourers and clergy to debate, and the features that all these groups had in common in their pay before 1900 was an observation that all who attended shared.
Kicking off the day in opening remarks, Leigh Shaw-Taylor put the conclusions that authors such as Greg Clark, and Robert Allen and others have drawn from long run compilations of builder’s day rates within a theoretical context of structural change, pointing out that the role of real wages and average wages has been confused by cliometricians, and reminding us that Malthus predicted shifts in the wages of the poor, not of the average worker.
In the first presented case of the day Jane Humphries and Ben Schneider (Oxford) overturned the notion, common in recent historiography, that spinners were well paid and part of a high wage economy in England in the 18th century; rather they showed only the most productive spinners in England earned what Arthur Young described, moreover many spinners were employed by parishes at low piece rates under the poor laws. Amy Ridgway (Exeter) presented the only data from agriculture at the conference. Using the records of Kingston Lacy in Dorset she showed that the number of day labourers hired on a casual basis increased throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century, contrary to the established literature. Kathryn Gary (Lund) presented a new wage series for unskilled men in Sweden in the long run. She showed definitively that the wages unskilled men were not enough to support a family.
Four papers presented at the workshop dealt with the earnings of miners or those engaged in the coal industry. Andy Burn (Durham) showed that the keelmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne in the late 17th and early 18th century had pay that consisted of variable elements. Part was for hauling, another part for loading, and the rates varied according to location and season. Although the men were relatively well-paid when they were at work, the seasonality of the trade challenged living standards, and created a public order problem for the authorities. Tim Barmby (Newcastle) has been researching the Allendale lead miners. There men and mine owners bargained a price per fathom to be mined. To bargain effectively they needed to be able to predict, or have better information about the seams and geology that they were mining. Barmby shows that wage bargains were a means by which the mine owners extracted information from the more knowledgable miners. Unsurprisingly, the system produced unequal gains, with the best teams repeatedly winning the bargains. Guy Solomon (Exeter), who has fully quantitatively analysed Peter Kirby’s 2010 data shows that piece rates in coal mining in Northumberland brought about large variations in wage amongst workers doing the same job. Matthew Pawelski (Lancaster) showed how a Derbyshire free miner of the mid 18th century, John Naylor, used his own rights to common mining land to earn a large amount to take him out of a period of significant indebtedness. The case shows that as well as having his own resources, Naylor took local work with other employers when he could, and highlights the multifarious nature of earning for men of this class, and the role of book credit in such small enterprise.
Richard Blakemore (Reading) has spent the last three years looking at how sailors were paid. He debunked the common myth that sailors were an early modern global proletariat paid poorly wages. Instead he shows that Sailors earnings were, again, highly variable – many mariners made money from trading goods between ports. The form in which sailors were paid varied according to risk. Blakemore showed that the bargaining systems between shipowners and mariners benefited both parties at different times. Laundresses – a vital group never properly examined before – are the subject of Kathryne Crossley’s (Oxford) research. Drawing on the records of Oxford Colleges she shows that their status, and the means by which they were paid shifted over the 17th and 18th centuries. In the earlier period they operated as enterprising sole traders, in the 19th century they were integrated into the discipline of college staff. Anne Murphy (Hertfordshire) brought some badly needed research into white collar workers. Bank of England clerks had much in common with sailors – and laundresses – it turns out. The basic salary that the clerks received was at the very lowest end of white-collar earnings in in London. Variation and extra income were earned by the clerks through gratuities, frequently for favours for clients, and trading illegitimately as brokers. Judy Stephenson (Oxford) gave a review approach, centred around the question of trying to work out how representative day wages used in macroeconomics series really are of earners in London across the long eighteenth century. Early research, funded by Cambridge Humanities Grant, indicates that few London workers were paid by the day before 1800. Wouter Marchand (Utrecht) demonstrated that the pay of clergy in early modern Friesland was dependent on the quality of land that church lands produced income from. The clergy are one of those groups that economists love to refer to as sacrificing wages for status. Marchand shows that their wages were not determined by custom. The best paid clergy were in merged or combined parishes on fertile soil.
The commonalities between the cases presented at the workshop was remarkable. These kept coffee breaks and lunch and dinner abuzz with debate, conversation and connections. The most marked was the observation of varying levels of income due to the effects of piece rates, bargaining and variable pay structures. Variation in earnings of people doing the same jobs was a consistent theme throughout the cases presented. Moreover, nearly all the cases showed only small part of income came from basic pay, and auxiliary rates, gratuities, alternate employment and bargains, were used to meet the problems of information asymmetry, seasonality or uncertainty. This was directly related to the materiality of some of the occupations. It was also noted that the agency or bargaining power of workers in a number of sectors was a determinant of their income. A final comment was that that ‘custom’, which dominates a great deal of historical literature, was not mentioned all day as as a determining variable in any of the cases presented.
The conference reinforced the idea held by many participants that wages in the early modern period and nineteenth century were a more complex issue than the use of real wages in long run studies have suggested, but it also showed that the topic of wage formation is ripe for further research. The full proceedings and papers will be published at a later date.