University of Cambridge > > Early Modern Economic and Social History Seminars > Wage labour and living standards in early modern England: evidence from Lancashire, 1580-1620

Wage labour and living standards in early modern England: evidence from Lancashire, 1580-1620

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Based on the Shuttleworth accounts, 1582-1621, probate inventories and other supporting documents, this paper discusses life-cycle changes of Lancashire wage workers’ living standards during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The discussion is divided into three sections: cost of living, annual wage income and levels of wealth. The accounts record the cost of ‘tabling’ workers, which involved providing food and drink. Using this evidence, it is argued that instead of following a stable basket of consumables, the costs of feeding wage workers ranged widely and were influenced by diverse factors, such as the prices of food, the demand for labour strength and the skills applied in tasks. Low annual wage incomes and high turnover rates of workers do not suggest a high-pressure labour market where workers were desperate for employment, but rather an economy where waged work was a supplement to other activities. This is further supported by the comparison between monetary wages recorded in the Shuttleworth accounts and the material wealth recorded in the Shuttleworth employees’ probate inventories. The findings show that monetary wages could only be used to measure the purchasing power of wage workers during a specific period of their life cycle and did not have a positive correlation with wage workers’ living standards measured using inventories. In conclusion, it is argued that current research on living standards of early modern period presents an incomplete picture of the real lives of wage workers.

This talk is part of the Early Modern Economic and Social History Seminars series.

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