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.


5 Must-Reads: Piracy in the Early Modern Atlantic

Old_book_bindingsIn the first installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), Rebecca Simon, PhD Candidate (KCL), chooses 5 books that sparked her interest in the topic of early modern Atlantic Piracy.

I research how the public executions of pirates impacted British Atlantic maritime polices and Atlantic polite society between 1670 – 1830. This area of research involves close study of legal history, print culture, polite society and religious history throughout British America. The books I’ve chosen are ones that either sparked my interest in the subject and/or had the most impact on my research.

 * * *

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004).

This is the first book I ever read about the history of piracy, so of course it has to be first on the list. I began studying early modern piracy and the Atlantic world during my MA because I always had a fascination with both early modern British and Colonial American history. Luckily, the history department at California State University Northridge had just started a new area of focus in Atlantic history around the time I started my MA, which allowed me to study the wider impact of early modern exploration. I chose to focus on piracy after reading Villains of All Nations because this book showed me how pirates were a common problem between the Americas and Britain. Piracy was the perfect subject for me to simultaneously research early modern British and Colonial American society. This book is a social history of pirates and examines how British authorities used a dialectic of terror to crack down on piracy in the early modern Atlantic. This book is highly readable and I’d definitely recommend it to both academic and popular audiences.

Bloody pirates

Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986).

This book has to be, in my opinion, the best book written about the history of piracy. Ritchie takes the history of Captain William Kidd as a case study to examine how the explosion of Atlantic piracy at the turn of the eighteenth century changed British Admiralty administration and responses toward piracy. By tracing Kidd’s activities in the East and West Indies, Ritchie explores how laws directed at piracy changed to allow the Admiralty Court (the British maritime ruling body) full jurisdiction to prosecute piracy throughout the British Atlantic in any manner they saw fit. This book is a must if someone wants both a biography of a notorious pirate and a detailed history of how British authorities came to stamp out Atlantic piracy.


Alison Games, Migrations and Origins of the English Atlantic World (Cambridge, 2001).

This is the book that introduced me to the history of the Atlantic World. Games examined the 1635 London port register and traced over 7000 English migrants to the American colonies and how people settled in the Chesapeake, New England, the West Indies and Bermuda. This is a fascinating history of the colonial development of the Americas as Games argues that one of the major struggles English settlers had was recreating English society in the colonies. This is an argument that has influenced much of my own research when I look at the legal developments throughout the colonies as colonists had to try and execute pirates with the laws of England as if they were in England. Like recreating society, this was not always possible because of the vast differences in settlements, geography and new hazards of life.

Bartholomew_RobertsLauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400 – 1900 (Cambridge, 2009).

Benton argues that Europeans imagined imperial spaces as networks of corridors and enclaves and that they constructed their ideas of sovereignty in ways that merged ideas about geography and the law. She examines the struggles European imperialists encountered – treason, convict transportation, piracy – and how they created irregular spaces of law. What makes this book particularly interesting is the way Benton examines physical spaces – mountains, rivers, oceans – to illustrate the challenges of how different European powers attempted to establish their sovereignty. The land had physical challenges in unfamiliar terrain while oceans had no physical borders to control. This book has been very influential to my research when I discuss how the British authorities established their sovereignty in the Americas through the eradication of piracy because pirates lived outside the law and were, as a result, extremely difficult to control.


Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice (Oxford, 1979).

I read this book while working on a research project about crime in Colonial North America during my MA.  Walker’s survey on the history of the American justice system changed the way I saw criminal and legal history. Before reading this book, I had a very narrow view of legal history and assumed it meant close examinations and memorisations of torts and Acts, which bored me in school. However, Walker traces the Quaker, Puritan and Anglican settlements in North America and how these different communities shaped their laws around their religious beliefs and home cultures. He also examines how early Americans experimented with different European laws as they figured out how to justify their prosecution of crime. This book showed me that legal history is much more nuanced and interesting than I had previously thought because it demonstrated just how much impact early modern British and European societies had on the early American criminal justice system. Walker’s examinations helped shaped the foundation of my own research.