The world of work saw marked developments over the course of antiquity. These were driven by social and economic changes, especially growth in market trade and related phenomena like urbanization and specialization. Although the self-sufficient agrarian household continued to prevail, economic realities everywhere intervened. Corresponding changes include the emergence of archaeologically distinct workplaces and even, in certain times and places, preindustrial factories. A diversity of workplace cultures often defied dominant gender and other social norms. Across an increasingly connected Mediterranean world, work contributed to and was in turn structured by mobility. Other striking developments included the emergence of state-sponsored leisure activities that offered respite from toil for all social classes. Through an exploration of these and other themes this volume offers a reappraisal of ancient work and its relationship to Greek and Roman culture.
Work was central to medieval life. Religious and secular authorities generally expected almost everyone to work. Artistic and literary depictions underlined work’s cultural value. The vast majority of medieval people engaged in agriculture because it was the only way they could obtain food. Yet their work led to innovations in technology and production and allowed others to engage in specialized labor, helping to drive the growth of cities. Many workers moved to seek employment and to improve their living conditions. For those who could not work, charity was often available, and many individuals and institutions provided forms of social welfare. Guilds protected their members and created means for the transmission of skills. When they were not at work, medieval Christians were to meet their religious obligations yet many also enjoyed various pastimes. A consideration of medieval work is therefore one of medieval society in all its creativity and complexity.
In the early modern age technological innovations were unimportant relative to political and social transformations. The size of the workforce and the number of wage dependent people increased, due in large part to population growth, but also as a result of changes in the organization of work. The diversity of workplaces in many significant economic sectors was on the rise in the 16th-century: family farming, urban crafts and trades, and large enterprises in mining, printing and shipbuilding. Moreover, the increasing influence of global commerce, as accompanied by local and regional specialization, prompted an increased reliance on forms of under-compensated and non-compensated work which were integral to economic growth. Economic volatility swelled the ranks of the mobile poor, who moved along Europe’s roads seeking sustenance, and the endemic warfare of the period prompted young men to sign on as soldiers and sailors. Colonists migrated to Europe’s territories in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, while others were forced overseas as servants, convicts or slaves. The early modern age proved to be a “renaissance” in the political, social and cultural contexts of work which set the stage for the technological developments to come.
The Enlightenment led to revised ideas about work together with new social attitudes toward work and workers. Coupled with dynamism in the economy, and the rise of the middling orders, work was more frequently perceived positively, as a commodity and as a source of social respectability. This volume explores the cultural implications of the transition from older systems based on privilege, control and embedded practices to a more open society increasingly based on merit and ability. It examines how guild controls broke down and political and commercial systems loosened. It also considers the theoretical justifications that brought new binding ideas, such as the strengthening of ideology on home, domesticity for the female, and work and politics for the male. North America embodied the extremes of these transitions with free workers able to make their way in a society based on ability and initiative while solidifying the ravages of the slavery system.
The period 1800–1920 was one in which work processes were dramatically transformed by mechanization, factory system, the abolition of the guilds, the integration of national markets and expansion into overseas colonies. While some continued to work in trades that were similar to those of their parents and grandparents, increasing numbers of workers found their workplace and work processes changed, often in ways that were beyond their control. Workers employed a variety of means to protest these changes, from machine-breaking to strikes to migration. This period saw the rise of the labor union and the working-class political party. It was also a time during which ideas about work changed dramatically. Work came to be seen as a source of pride, progress and even liberation, and workers garnered increased interest from writers and artists. This volume explores the multi-faceted experience of workers during the Age of Empire.
Changes in production and consumption fundamentally transformed the culture of work in the industrial world during the century after World War I. In the aftermath of the war, the drive to create new markets and rationalize work management engaged new strategies of advertising and scientific management, deploying new workforces increasingly tied to consumption rather than production. These changes affected both the culture of the workplace and the home, as the gendered family economy of the modern worker struggled with the vagaries of a changing gendered labour market and the inequalities that accompanied them. This volume draws on illustrative cases to highlight the uneven development of the modern culture of work over the course of the long twentieth century.