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.


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