5 Must-Reads: History of Labour

In the third installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), James Fisher, a second year PhD candidate (KCL) researching the relationship between agricultural books, knowledge and labour in early modern England, chooses 5 books that help to delineate and complicate our understanding of historical labour.

Thinking about labour can be a labour in itself. It is one of those things (concept/practice/experience/relation) that feels immediately clear, familiar and recognisable, and yet resists any attempt at simple definition (as does it’s near synonym, “work”). This makes it an especially rich topic to explore historically. The best response to its apparent naturalness and its tendency to exceed any description is to tell its various stories.

The following five books are those that I found useful in thinking about labour historically. The list is unashamedly orientated toward cultural history and the question of the meaning of labour, but limited to a largely British and European focus. I chose them for their ability to disturb our existing understandings of labour history as much as to inform them.


Carolyn Steedman, Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (Cambridge, 2009)

Steedman’s book is an exemplary effort to think as big and as small as possible about labour: to combine philosophical meditation with the minutiae of historical circumstance. The theories of John Locke are placed side by side with the way the cook chops carrots. The immediate historical value is in studying an aspect of labour largely obscured or erased from political and economic theories and histories of labour: women’s domestic service. Steedman weaves together all kinds of thinking by and about servants, in an idiosyncratic style that prods the reader to stop, question, flick back a few pages, and try to piece the puzzle together.

Women Working

Catharina Lis & Hugo Soly, Worthy Efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe (Boston, 2012)

This is the best single volume for a broad overview of historical attitudes to work in Europe and an excellent synthesis of recent research. While it weighs in at over 600 pages, the breakdown of chapters allows it to be consumed in discrete chunks, whether you’re interested in ancient Greece or early Christianity, medieval peasantries or early modern wage labour. The book circles around the question of how different societies have defined and valued work over different periods. Although it does not contribute any original primary research, the breadth of the topic and sharp analysis delivers a wealth of insights. The style is accessible, with minimal footnoting, without compromising the complexity of the matter under discussion.

Working land 

The Historical Meanings of Work, ed. Patrick Joyce (Cambridge, 1987)

This collection is mainly worth it for the introduction by Patrick Joyce, but includes essays by excellent historians such as Joan Scott. The volume captures an important moment in the historiography of labour, inspired by the cultural and linguistic turns. While it may already feel a product of its time with its enthusiasm for “discourse”, I think Joyce’s call for ‘an historical anthropology or an anthropological history of work’ has continuing relevance. His introduction sets out the theoretical issues with clarity and purpose, critiquing the predominant materialist approach (still) found in most economic and social histories.


Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (2012) [re-release of Nights of Labor (1981)]

 This is perhaps the most challenging, but potentially rewarding, book on the list. It is the product of a philosopher rather than a historian, sure to delight some and offend many. Rancière takes seriously the dreams and desires of a few locksmiths, tailors and shoemakers in mid-nineteenth-century France, dismantling the abstractions of the ‘proletariat’ and ‘class consciousness’ through a sustained attention to the material and imagined lives of individuals. Based on a study of the words of workers themselves – from newspapers, journals, letters, and poems – we are presented with the dreams and nightmares that arose from ‘the nights wrested from the normal sequence of work and sleep’. The core of the book is a forceful challenge to glib celebrations of labour and an affirmation of the full intellectual life of all workers.


The Oxford Book of Work, ed. Keith Thomas (Oxford, 1999)

My final recommendation is an anthology of literature on work: a vast collection of excerpts from Western poets, philosophers, novelists, diarists and social commentators. It was curated by Keith Thomas, perhaps the historian best suited for the task of joyfully harvesting fragments on a theme across time and space. The result is a treasure chest full of all kinds of words about work: hundreds of diverse thoughts and feelings about labour recorded over thousands of years. Obviously these quotations must be treated with care, having been violently ripped from their contexts. But each one is the end of a string to be grasped and traced home, revealing worlds of work eerily familiar yet distant from our own.


5 Must-Reads: Words and Concepts in History


In the second installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), Tom Colville, PhD Candidate (KCL), chooses 5 books that helped him get into the complex world of concepts and words in history.


In my work on early modern conceptions of mental capacity (essentially the notion that some people have stronger, better, superior minds to other people) I try to engage as closely as possible with the historiography of words and concepts in history.  This, however, is a complex and difficult field.  So, for anyone else out there working on a concepts and words in past societies, I hope that this list of 5 books I’ve found helpful will point you in useful and challenging directions.


 Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (London: Croon Helm, 1976).

Any list of key works in relation to words in history would be incomplete without Raymond Williams’ iconic work.  Keywords is far from problem free (it is heavily focussed upon political and social keywords at the expense of a great deal that cultural historians would consider key), however, it puts forward the truly valuable proposition that by looking at a certain set of significant and contested words we can gain an insight into the ideas and concepts which motivated historical actors and propelled past events.  Every historian now has their own list of keywords; as a prompt to debate Raymond Williams’ work is unparalleled in the field.


Iain Hampsher-Monk, Karin Tilmans, and Frank van Vree (eds.), History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998).

The history of words and concepts is one of those tricky fields of study (for English speaking historians) in which many vital contributions have stemmed from non-Anglophone countries.  This edited volume is a particularly useful way in to everything from Begriffsgeschichte to Sattelzeit and parole to taligheid.  There won’t be a methodological or theoretical question about concepts and words that isn’t at least considered in these 12 chapters by leading historians in the field.  If Williams’ Keywords is the light entré to the topic then History of Concepts offers the full three-courses alongside a good stein of German beer.


Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

Peter de Bolla’s exploration of the concept of ‘Universal Human Rights’ takes the opportunities of digital archives seriously, and uses keyword and proximity searches in order to make a real argument about how a concept is made and articulated.  The nature of this field of research is that within 3 or 4 years de Bolla’s methods will feel outdated, but this work will remain valuable because of its close engagement with relationship between words and concepts.  The notion of a concept having an ‘architecture’ is particularly insightful and will provide food-for-thought for anyone wanting to think critically about the fact that concepts are vague constructs, but with some fairly strict constraints.


Barbara Cassin (ed.), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

It would seem that nothing could make the relationship between words and concepts seem more brazenly complex and important, until, that is, you introduce the idea of translation.  In a sense, of course, translation is what historians of concepts do every day – they translate conceptions and meanings from a previous time period into a modern analytical framework.  However, the methodological problems are highlighted and compounded by translating between different languages.  The brain child of Barbara Cassin is surely one of the most ambitious academic projects ever attempted.  By considering the vast range of terms that remain untranslated in translations (e.g. polis and “matter of fact”), and those terms which cause the most problems to translators, Cassin’s Dictionary engages with the relationship between words and their meaning in such a way that redefines the significance of concepts.


Richard Scholar, The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: encounters with a certain something, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

This book is not a general or theoretical work on words and concepts but it has found a spot in this list because I think it intelligently encapsulates the grey area between words and concepts in history, and the value that comes from exploring that lacuna.  Scholar’s work demonstrates that historical concepts need not be clearly articulated in order to be significant.  Moreover, his interest in the ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ provides a clear example that historical actors were often acutely aware of the limitations of language when it came to expressing significant concepts.  If, therefore, we limit our analysis to keywords then, as historians, we can artificially impose clarity or definition where the unarticulated, or inexplicable, was just as important.