Alex Shepard, ‘Childcare, family and economy in early modern Britain’

In November Alex Shepard, Professor of Gender History at the University of Glasgow, came to Sheffield to share her thoughts on her new project, on childcare, family and economy in early modern Britain. This project is in its infancy, but builds on Alex’s previous work on the relationship between gender and work, and on the way in which early modern individuals categorised social and occupational status. As yet historians know very little about a very everyday experience for people in the past: the practice of physical care for infant and older children, the elderly, the ill or disabled. We also know very little about the subsidiary services surrounding care, such as laundry. Alex’s starting point was a set of questions; whether and what kind of care can be classified as work, how the social and economic value of care can be measured, and what this can tell us about the relationship between the carer and the cared for. She directly related this to contemporary debates about care, with one of her aims being to ‘myth bust’ the idea that care in the past was private and familial.

Some aspects of this project are engaged with long-term debates about the development of the European economy since the medieval period. Alex employed graphs and statistics to demonstrate that models of wage and GDP growth could be radically reimagined if the true value of the caring economy was included, particularly in the revaluing of work by women. We know for example that married women were economically productive, but she suggests that the value of this work has been consistently undervalued by economists focusing primarily on a normative model of male waged labour. She combined this macro approach with qualitative evidence from conduct literature and incidental glimpses of everyday caring practice in court records. A focus on individual experience in these records can enable us to dig down into labour relations, particularly the potential for exploitation in the care economy, and the choices available to individuals acting as or employing carers. These questions have direct implications for how historians can approach the already well-established histories of family and gender, such as the way that we or early modern individuals conceptualised the role and identity of ‘mother’ or ‘father’, within a system where physical care for a child was often delegated to others.

These questions were further explored in masterclass the following morning. Alex provided the group with three trial accounts from the Old Bailey online database. These cases, of theft and murder, provided incidental details of a system of wet nursing and childcare in early eighteenth-century London. These rich and fascinating cases provoked much discussion, demonstrating the wide-ranging connections that Alex’s project makes between many aspects of early modern life. We discussed the complex living arrangements of lodgers and co-resident family, the dynamics of extra-marital sexual and reproductive relationships and the defence strategies used by those accused at the Old Bailey. We also returned to many of the methodological questions that came up during Alex’s lecture. How do we find out who was performing these caring tasks, and how do we categorise complex relationships between carer and cared for, in a way that can be quantified? This was a useful reminder that as researchers we should interrogate the terminology we use, and try as closely as possible to follow that used in the sources. If an individual says their child was cared for by a ‘neighbour’, a ‘friend’ or a ‘nurse’, then what could this tell us about how contemporaries defined paid work, or is this payment inseparable from wider systems of obligation, reciprocity and, fundamentally, inequality, that existed within early modern and present day communities? The masterclass was an insight into a burgeoning area of historical research. Many of us found links with our own work, and left inspired with questions and new ideas.

Kate L. Gibson