The Labour of Care in England, 1550-1700

Charmian Mansell, University of Cambridge

Care work, today and in the past, occupies a shadowy zone of the economy. Uncertainty about whether to define care as ‘work’ when unremunerated or carried out by neighbours, friends and family has rooted it within histories of obligation, charity and mutual dependency. Evidence of care work in the past is overlooked as economic historians adopt a narrow definition of work, privileging paid over unpaid work. Unremunerated care work cannot easily be quantified, tabulated or computed and is regularly omitted from economic analyses. Care work (including tending the sick and childcare) is therefore rarely accounted for in studies of pre-industrial economies. Beyond acknowledging that care work was predominantly carried out by women, we know little about early modern England’s complex care economy and how it operated, particularly among the lower levels of society. What constituted care? How was care labour distributed across society and between genders? Who was paid and who wasn’t? What were the social relationships and obligations of care? This paper casts its gaze to the labour of care of the terminally sick, recorded in testamentary disputes heard in English ecclesiastical courts between 1550 and 1700. These disputes are ostensibly about probate, inheritance and the validity of wills made by the deceased. But the labour of care is often at their heart. Taking evidence from these cases both the physical and emotional labour of care that took place in the sickchamber and around the sickbed, the paper argues that sick care was widely acknowledged by plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses in these disputes as labour that held economic value. It explores the types of labour performed, who carried it out, and ways in which it was remunerated or economically recognised. Testamentary disputes offer a new and unique window into looking at care work in the final stages of life.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 77. Carework, Health, and Labor