1: Doing business at home with teenagers
As we, like the rest of the world, settle into the climate of pandemic lockdown, we thought we’d put together a short series on past experiences of “Working from Home”—something to which most non-key workers (us among them) are presently adjusting. Early Modern England hardly provides an exact parallel (and it wouldn’t be so interesting if it did!) but it promises a fascinating chance to consider the historical and cultural contingencies of home working environments.
Combing through archival materials from early modern England offers an excellent window onto what we might now call people’s home-working lives, as households combined domestic arrangements and consumption with business, education or training, childcare, and production. Here, keeping children occupied and having a work meeting about debts sat alongside the overlapping layers of household labour, from cooking to shopping to manufacture to an array of roles occupied by servants, often living in the household itself. A number of artisanal households also included their “shops,” with both production and selling run from home.
Each of these posts will feature an incident, glimpse, or insight into working-from-home practices among ordinary men and women of the Tudor and Stuart periods.
This opening post looks to Ipswich in the 1570s, where some court testimony gives us a brief insight into the working arrangements of a merchant household in the town.
Mary de Clarke was the daughter of a “merchant stranger”—a tradesperson born outside the town and, in this instance, hailing from Europe. Her father Cornelius had passed away and it seems that her mother, Katheryn (who had also recently passed away), had remarried: confusingly, to another Cornelius, this time of the surname de Hoghe. Katheryn was clearly actively involved in the household finances and was keeping charge of debts owed to her new husband.
Mary comes to court to testify about a sum of money owed to her father-in-law via her late mother of the not insubstantial sum of £70 (you can plug this figure into the wonderful currency converter available through The National Archives to get a sense of its scale at the time and today):
Marye de Clarke the daughter of Cornelius de Clarke, merchant, deceased, of the age of 15 years or thereabouts, sworn and examined before Robert Cutler one of the bailiffs of the Town of Ipswich in the 15 day of February In the 16 year of the Reign of this sovereign lady Elizabeth, by the grace of god of England, France, and Ireland, queen defender of the faith &c, upon her oath sayth that:Suffolk Archives, Petty Court Depositions, 1573 (C/2/3/8/1, p. 37)
about Shrovetide last past, one Michael Seyes, merchant stranger, borrowed of Katheryn (the wife of Cornelius de Hoghe), deceased mother of the said Mary, threescore and ten pounds at her father-in-law’s house in Ipswich, which sum of money was her said father-in-law’s money, whereof she the said Katheryn had the keeping & upon the receipt thereof of the said Katheryn, the said Michael promised her to pay it again at A shorter time after.
And this examinant [Mary] knoweth to be true, for that she saw the money told out to him upon her chamber, where he did use to lie, and the same was all white money, and saith she: Katheryn after wrote the sum of money for her remembrance in a book of remembrances she kept, as it appeareth by the hand of the said Katheryn, which the said Mary hath seen.
And further saith she heard her said mother demand the same money again of the said Michael, because he had not kept his day of payment, & then he answered he had it not to pay. Whereupon her mother sorrowed much, and Complained much, to this examinant thereof. And [she] further saith that her mother afterward rode to London thinking to have received the said money of the said Michael Seys there, but when she came home again she told this examinant she would have her husband, being father-in-law of the said Mary, to know thereof, she willed this said examinant to tell him thereof if she died.
This short deposition indicates the rich and widespread culture of administration and account-keeping in the sixteenth century among certain groups, professions, and households—with Katheryn meticulously keeping a book of remembrances (in part, a loose early modern balance sheet).
Adam Smyth’s work has taught us how such acts constitute a form of “autobiography” or self-writing, in which individuals note facts and figures but often also jot down discursive details and asides that constitute a means of remarking on, marking up, or diarising their day-to-day relationships. Unfortunately, Katheryn’s book does not appear to survive, but we might look to other contemporary examples (even those from much more elite members) to indicate the range of approaches to such “remembering.” Here, for instance, is Sir William More’s account book (with details about expenses relating to his property in the Blackfriars in London):
And Elizabeth of Hardwick’s account book kept by her steward, Edward Whalley:
For the purposes of this account in court, Katheryn’s book of remembrances centres on money matters, and the details here point to the imbrication of financial work with domestic space: 15-year-old Mary is witness to this transaction and her “chamber” is used by the visiting merchant as a place to sleep overnight.
Children and young women like Mary (of apprentice-able age) were therefore not only privy to these business interactions (which occurred at the heart of the home and overlapped with or seemingly reshaped domestic routine), but also understood the significance of them. In many ways, for Mary, simply being part of the household and talking with her mother about money acted as an informal apprenticeship in bookkeeping. Indeed, instead of following BBC Bitesize or video-cast lessons and talks from home, some Tudor teenagers were both key eyewitnesses to dealings and business confidantes: Mary tells the court, for instance, that her mother “complained” to her of the debt. Working and living in this international household therefore inculcated in Mary a degree of business literacy or at the very least a broad comprehension of how to keep track of monies owed.
Kathryn working from home with her teenage daughter not only helped manage the spreadsheets, so to speak, it also put Mary in a good position (some time later at the date of this court hearing) to explore these issues of credit and credibility in court.
Lastly, this little entry reminds us that even within our own homes we are deeply connected with the world beyond the four walls—and beyond national borders. This family moved frequently between Ipswich and Europe and interacted with a huge range of immigrant traders and travellers, and here they sit at the heart of a cosmopolitan (if occasionally tense) Ipswich community. In part because of—not in spite of—working from home, early modern individuals, like us today, remained plugged into the world’s broader networks of trust and exchange.