Working for Wages 1300-1800

CFP: ESSHC Labour History Network
Call for papers ESSHC Lisbon 2008
Network: Labour

'Working for wages 1300-1800: Conditions and forms of pre-industrial labour contracts'

Although the existence of wage labour dates back at least four millennia, 'free labour' regulated by employment contract has reached its peak coverage of about 90 percent of the working population in Western countries only in the last century. Yet, recent historical research suggests that forms of wage labour have been more prominent in the early economic development of North Western Europe than used to be recognized. The types of employment relations, however, are manifold and the ways in which they were regulated diverged strongly per region and trough time.

The proposed session intends to compare the contents of early, pre-industrial labour contracts in various European regions and to study the institutional factors, especially regulation of labour relations, which may explain the differences.

Comparative analysis of early forms of 'free labour contracts'
In the period between the 13th and 18th centuries the wage-earning population was, among others, employed as servants (in households, husbandry and work shops), apprentices and journeymen in crafts, mercenaries, migratory workers, and more or less proletarianised wage labourers. For the historian it is often not easy to distinguish wage labour from labour service based on feudal or domanial relations, from bonded ('indentured') labour or from self-employment. The 'freedom' of labour may sometimes have been restricted to the act of entry into an institutionally defined relationship, but may in other cases have resulted in real bargaining power in what, at a certain stage of development, might be called a 'labour market'. The restrictions on the market character of relations are, for instance, apparent in the curious 'stickiness' of wages during a large part of the indicated period.

We would like to depart from a number of sensitising concepts of pre-industrial labour contracts. Elements in contracts are, for instance, the attribution of command over labour at the level of the individual employer and employee, the duration of the agreement, the legal and voluntary transfer of the usufruct of the working power, and the remuneration of the performed labour. Some subjects in labour contracts show remarkable continuity (for instance the duty of an 'employer' to continue payment of wages while the 'employee' is not able to do his job, which dates back to Roman law, or regarding conditions of termination), while others have shown much more development in time (for instance regarding working hours).We have to discuss whether 'indentured labour' should be included in our concept of a labour contract, or whether a contract can be considered 'free' if the employer may enlist police power to call back workers who have untimely left their work, since in both cases termination of the relation is severely restricted.

For the explanation of differences found in these elements over time and place, we suggest that the papers especially address the legal system. The purport of the 'free labour contract' is related to social and economic developments and dependent upon a number of institutional conditions, unwritten norms and practices that create or constrict the freedom of action of the 'parties to the contract', however labour legislation has hardly been studied in a comparative way for this period and seems of central importance to a better understanding of the functioning of labour markets. We are particularly interested in the role of rulers, legally trained officers, legislators and innovative businessmen in the reception and development of Roman, canonic and local law, the invention of new normative models and the application of legal concepts and models on social relations.

We are aware of the severe restrictions which the available source material poses to historical research into this subject. Most labour agreements were never written down in Medieval and early-modern times, few written contracts have been preserved. We hope that contracting practices can nonetheless be derived from labour legislation, court rolls, ordinances of guilds, and perhaps judicial literature.

Our aim is to organize a session which comprises four contributions: one theoretical paper on conceptual and legal elements of the 'free labour contract' (Knegt) and three contributions on conditions and forms of pre-industrial labour contracts in three different areas, among which The Netherlands (Kuijpers).

Robert Knegt, Hugo Sinzheimer Institute, University of Amsterdam Rokin 84, NL - 1012 KX Amsterdam

Erika Kuijpers, Research Institute for History and Culture, Utrecht University Drift 10, NL - 3512 BS Utrecht

Please send in proposals for contributions as soon as possible, by April 28th at the latest.

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