Worthy Efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe

Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe


In Worthy Efforts Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly offer an innovative approach to the history of perceptions and representations of work in Europe throughout Classical Antiquity and the medieval and early modern periods. Covering the broadest possible range of historical writings to elucidate the subject, and using visual representations as sources of information as well, they address the significance of work for different groups and its impact on their sense of self-esteem and their social identity. The authors reject the standard historical account of perceptions of work. They question the clear distinction generally drawn between Classical Antiquity and subsequent periods, the revolutionary role attributed to Christianity, and the part played by monasticism, Humanism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.
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Biographical Note

Catharina Lis (1945) is Emeritus Professor of History at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and currently Guest Professor at the University of Antwerp. She has authored and co-authored many books, and has recently co-edited The Idea of Work (Ashgate, 2009).

Hugo Soly (1945) is Emeritus Professor of History at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and currently Guest Professor at the University of Antwerp. He has authored and co-authored many books and articles on the social history of pre-industial Europe.

Review Quotes

“Without a doubt [...] a seminal study and a milestone in the historiography of work and workers. Not only does it range impressively over a period of two and a half milennia, from ancient Greece to the onset of modern industrial societies around 1800, but the authors also convincingly bring together social and cultural historical approaches to ask how and why certain conceptions of and attitudes towards work and workers in pre-industrial Europe were developed and how these were altered under diverse historical constellations [...]. Lis and Soly’s book is an impressive scholarly achievement. It not only provides plentiful insights but also raises many questions and offers manifold inspirations for future research.”
Philip Hoffmann-Rehnitz (University of Münster) in Economic History Review, vol. 68, 2015, no. 4, pp. 1464-6.

“[...] a masterpiece that henceforth will have to be taken into consideration by anyone dealing with the history of work.”
Josef Ehmer (University of Vienna) in International Review of Social History, vol. 59, 2014, no. 1, pp. 99-117 (on p. 117).

“Perceptions of work and workers from antiquity to industrialization are the twin subjects of Lis and Soly’s monumental new study […] ranging extraordinarily widely across time, space and material to give a survey of several millenia of thinking on the value of work and the status and identity of workers. […] It is far more than a worthy effort.”
Patrick Wallis (London School of Economics) in Social History, vol. 39, 2014, no. 1, pp. 111-12.

Worthy Efforts offers us a highly orginal and thought-provoking analysis of a research topic which is generally seen as one of the main focal points of economic history, but which is here approached through a combination of the history of ideas and social history, or, one might say, through a cultural history in its broadest sense. Even though one of the strenghts of Lis and Soly’s work resides in their longue durée-perspective, Worthy Efforts is certainly also a must-read for scholars focusing on distinct historical periods. This is particularly the case for medievalists, for many of whom this book is likely to become the standard work par excellence on this topic.”
Jeroen Deploige (University of Ghent) in The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, vol. 11, 2014, no. 1, pp. 89-104 (on p. 93).

“This book is a masterpiece. Only once in several years a book is published on labour history that is so original, so new and so rich that one wishes to recommend it to everybody interested in this field. Worthy Efforts is such a book.”
Jan Lucassen (Free University, Amsterdam, and International Institute of Social History) in The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, vol. 11, 2014, no. 1, pp. 117-25 (on p. 117).

Worthy Efforts is a masterpiece. […] It will definitely become a classic in its field. But it is also extremely valuable for those who study the Great Divergence. […] It provides lots of relevant information for scholars who seriously doubt that the Great Divergence can be reduced to the rise of the market, free labour and inclusive institutions, and to the succession of one mode of production and exchange by another one.”
Peer Vries (University of Vienna) in The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, vol. 11, 2014, no. 1, pp. 127-40 (on pp. 127 and 136).

Table of contents

General Editor’s Preface

Part I: Antiquity and Christianity: A Polyphonic Heritage

1. Attitudes to Work and Workers in Ancient Greece
Productive Virtue
Specialization and Politics
Freedom and Independence
Non-agrarian Activities: Morality and Meaning
Craftsmanship and Honour
Occupation and Identity
Competing Discourses

2. The Roman Empire: Continuity and Change
The Economy and Elite Values
Freedmen: Wealth and Status
Collegia: Occupation, Status, and Power
Skilled Labour as the Core of Social Identity
Work Ethic
A Provisional Balance

3. Christian Ideologies of Work
‘Great Are these Achievements, and Dinstinctively Human’
‘If Anyone Will Not Work, Then Let Him Not Eat’
Ora et Labora
Naked to Follow the Naked Christ
Slaves of Christ, the Indigent, and Sinners
Workers at the Crossroads of Order and Chaos
Labour in a ‘Calling’

Part II: Workers in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Images and Self-Images

4. Imagined Peasantries
Contrasting Images
The Place of the Laboratores
Interdependence and Reciprocity
Hierarchy and Inequality
‘When Adam Delved and Eve Span’
Town and Country
The Patriarchical Household and Rural Work
Rural Idyll

5. Commerce: Useful and Honourable Work
The Christian Church: Commerce as Work
Honour versus Profit?
Humanists and the Pursuit of Private Wealth
Urban Middle Groups and Big Business
Self-Images and Self-Representations
Short-Lived Communities of Commerce
The Ideal of a Commercial Society
New Dissonances

6. Artisans: Practice and Theory
Mechanical Arts
Craft Guilds
Urban Corporatism: A World of Distinctions
The ‘Backbone’ of the Corporative World
Idealized Artisans and Imagined Workshops
Self-Conscious Master Artisans
Masters of Design and Original Creators
Theoreticians and Technicians
Fecit et Invenit
‘Intellectual Artists’ and ‘Craftsmen-Artists’
Women Artists: Amateurs or Professionals?
Light Bearing Versus Fruit Bearing
Theory Does Not Labour
The Middling Sort and the Value of Human Labour

7. The Many Faces of Wage-Labour
Labour Laws
‘Living at Their Own Hand’
Undeserving, Masterless Men and Idle Rogues
Employment and the Active Society
The Labouring Poor
What Freedom?
Work and Happiness
Autonomous, Independent, and Self-Sufficient
Collective Action

Concluding Reflections


All those interested in pre-industrial European social, economic and cultural history in a global context, and especially students dealing with labour in ancient, medieval and early modern Europe.


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