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Pre-Industrial European Labour Market Essay

In this critical review I will compare the two texts by Peter Earle and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk. The articles are about woman’s work in the 17th and early 18th century respectively about women’s work in the Dutch textile industry and female labour marked in London. The article by Earle (in 1989) is released before Meerkerk’s article (2006) and there are in Meerkerk analysis some pointing to Earle’s article.

I will start with a short presentation of each of the two articles, how and from what time data is collected, some of the findings and conclusion. And then what contribution their papers have made to the historical debate about women’s role in the pre-industrial labour market.

Both Earle and Meerkerk refer to Alice Clarks pioneer study from 1919 about women’s work in production in pre-industrial time[1] [2]. Earle is more critical to her work than Meerkerk. Peter Earle is the first person after Alice Clark to look deep and critically into how women had it in the labour market in the 17th and 18th century. In his article Earle is saying “Indeed, it would be fair to say that we know virtually nothing about the female labour force in early modern London except in the most unstructured and superficial way[3]. An important note Earle makes in his introduction is that the arguments that Alice Clark put forward has more or less just became accepted and Peter Earle is the first one to test Alice Clark’s analyze[4]. A main thing Meerkerk and Earle are concentrating on is Clark statement that there where a ‘golden age’ for women in the 17th and 18th century.

What becomes clear in Meerkeerk article is that she is influenced by development in economic theory and social theory as well. The way Meerkeerk and Earle do their analyze is different. A major reason for that is that Meerkeerk is a social scientist while Earle is a ‘traditional empiricist historian’. What is easy to see is that Earle look at numbers much more than Meerkerk do, and while Meerkerk also look at numbers, she uses market theories as well such as the split market theory to analyze the findings. Katrina Honeyman and Jordan Goodman used this when they where looking at European women’s work between1500 – 1900[5].

Peter Earle is more or less guided by his sources. He goes thru his sources and construct figures [6] from his sources. He also takes other sources from other historians such as Wrigley and Schofield [7]. And this is what he is basing his conclusion on.

Meerkerk on the other hand developed a frame work, she had an idea before she starting on the research. The idea is that of how to analyze her data. Based upon works from many social scientists and historians and their findings, she found that ”we must therefore derive a new theoretical framework to explain the working of gender in the pre-industrial labour marked” [8]. On this background she analysed the data. Her work became a supplement to understand the segmentation of the labour market. Meerkerk wanted to know who got the core jobs, who got the peripheral jobs and why men tends to earn more than women even if they are doing the same work. Core jobs are higher paid and productivity while peripheral jobs is lower paid and lower productivity.

Peter Earle has data from witnesses and defendants in the time period of approximately 1660 – 1725. Earle have an impressive material from whole London divided by districts, occupations, full-time and part-time, women and men and their age. He also has data from which class the citizens are from, if they are upper class or lower class (low wealth to high wealthy), and also reading skills and illiterate[9]. Earle is self-stating that poor people are under represented because they weren’t literate enough to be called as witnesses[10]

Meerkerk’s material – not less impressive than Earle’s, is from last quarter of the sixteenth century, first half of seventeenth century and 1810. Other than showing women in the textile industry in Holland, she are showing the percentage of married women who are in work, men and women in different industries, different jobs, heads of family per industrial sector and heads of family in textile industry. She also looks at women and men’s income. Meerkerk also has an analyse of guilds in the textile industry[11]. What is worth mentioning is that Tilburg and Leiden who are the main places in Holland she is looking at was wealthy places economically mainly because of the textile industry.


Even though they goes with their work in a different way, they both come up with similar conclusions. None of them believes it was a ‘golden-age’ for women. Meerkerk said women where restricted to peripheral and low paid jobs but it was changeable, depending upon industry and it as is peak when women occasionally gets better paid jobs, but as soon the industry starts to decline women where the first to loose their job. The fine jobs women’s ones had, where then given to men. It’s easy to see there where gender discrimination.

As mentioned, Earle has a kind of similar conclusion; He means that women where expected to work at that time to support their family. Women got low-paid and low skilled jobs while men got the higher paid jobs (core jobs). Meerkerk and Earle’s works compliments each other as to real knowledge about women’s situation on the labour marked in pre-industrial times. What Meerkerk’s work gives us more than Clark is supplement to the theories about segmented labour marked and the labour marked segregated by gender, and she are valuable to understand the labour marked in preindustrial time and today’s labour marked as well.

Earle, Peter: The female labour market in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, 1989 Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XLII, 3(1989), pp. 328-353

Meerkerk, Elise Van Nederveen; Segmentation in the Pre-Industrial Labour Market: Women’s Work in the Dutch Textile Industry, 1581 – 1810 page 189 – 216, 2006 Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis

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