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Time and Work in Rural England, 1500-1700

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
JournalPast and Present
DateAccepted/In press - 21 May 2019

Abstract

‘Free of haste, careless of exactitude, unconcerned by productivity.’ This is how Jacques Le Goff characterised the temporality of pre-industrial rural life. In E.P. Thompson’s famous argument, it was only with the arrival of the factory and the industrial age that the erratic rhythms of English working people were abruptly swept away by a new imperative for long and regular working hours controlled by the clock. It is a thesis that has been much debated in relation to the temporalities of pre- and non-industrial cities, and with regard to the impact of industrialisation when it arrived. There has, however, been very little scrutiny of its account of temporality in rural England before industrialisation.

This article therefore offers the first extensive empirical study of both time consciousness and work-related time-use in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rural England. It does so by drawing on the testimony that ordinary women and men gave before the courts, testimony that often divulged both how those people told the time of day, and how they used it. What emerges is that English rural society in this period had a relatively high degree of clock time awareness, and that everyday patterns of work followed more consistent and regular rhythms than Thompson’s thesis allows. As a consequence, the article argues that we need to question the assumption that the long hours and work discipline of ‘modernity’ had no roots in ‘traditional’ English rural life.

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