Tag Archives: pregnancy

Two sorts of labour: maternity and employment, medieval style

Officially not ‘work’: this is a contribution to solidarity with workers everywhere, and everywhen…

[This one seems an interesting case to note today, somehow, as my union, the UCU, is striking once more to try and do something about deteriorating working conditions, and the pitiful progress on gender and other equalities issues which appears to satisfy university management.]

The plea rolls of the fifteenth century Court of Common Pleas have a lot of ‘labour law’ cases, based on the post-Black Death labourers legislation. Although each concerns a dispute which mattered massively to the individuals involved, the records are mostly fairly repetitive: parties argue as to whether there had been an agreement to serve, or a leaving without permission, or a removal or enticing away of a servant by another employer. Occasionally, though, there is one which stands out and lets slip something which goes a small way to illustrating the world of employment relations. Such a case is that of Nicholas Welkys and Geoffrey Molde, cleric, of Royston, Hertfordshire, at CP 40/645 m.39, from Easter term 1422.

Nicholas alleged that Geoffrey had stolen away his servant, Alice Valentyne. Nicholas said that she had been employed by him, at Royston, on a one year contract, as a domestic servant (ancilla). Geoffrey’s action, on the feast of St Stephen, in the king’s eighth year,[i.e. 26th December 1420] had caused him to lose her services for ‘a long time’ (in fact 6 days) which had damaged him to the tune of ten pounds. There were the required allegations of force and arms and the whole thing being against the king’s peace, though whether or not there was likely to have been any sort of force depends on whether one believes the story of Nicholas or that of Geoffrey.

Geoffrey’s story was that he had done nothing wrong because he had actually retained Alice, from the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist in year 8 [i.e. 24th June, 1420?], for a year, as an ancilla. According to his version, on the feast of [the translation of ] St Edward, King and Confessor [13th October, 1420], Alice had left Geoffrey’s service without licence or just cause, had gone to work for Nicholas until [26th December], then, of her own free will, returned to Geoffrey, who had the better right to be her employer, and had, consequently done Nicholas no damage.

Nicholas agreed that Alice had been hired by Geoffrey earlier on, but claimed that, on the feast of St Edw Conf yr 8, because Alice was heavily pregnant, near to giving birth and unable to serve Geoffrey as envisaged, Geoffrey had given her permission to leave his service, and Nicholas had hired her from that day, for the following year. She had served him in Royston, so he said, until Geoffrey had abducted her with force and arms.

Geoffrey said he had not allowed Alice to leave his service. A jury was ordered to be summoned to decide whether there had, or had not been such permission, and so whether Geoffrey could be guilty of the abduction offence alleged.

I have not yet tracked down the outcome, but, as is often the case, the pleading itself discloses some interesting nuggets about medieval employment and attitudes to women, and pregnancy. Whatever the truth as to whether Geoffrey gave Alice permission to leave, it is very clear that being heavily pregnant was seen as a reason to end the employment relationship. We would not expect a medieval employer to have much of a maternity leave policy, perhaps, but it does raise questions about how working women coped with late pregnancy and birth. If Nicholas’s story is true (and it was presumably seen as at least plausible) the implication seems to be that Alice had to, and was able to, find a new place while at an advanced stage of pregnancy. That struck me as both sad (in terms of the apparent desperation on her part) and also interesting (in the sense that Nicholas seems to have been willing to take her on whilst pregnant and unable to do much, if any, work).

There are, of course, all sorts of other questions – such as who was the father, and what happened to the baby. Inevitably we will wonder whether Alice had been subjected to abuse, or whether she might have had some sort of approximately consensual relationship with Geoffrey. Might her surname, ‘Valentine’, even indicate some involvement in sex work/concubinage? No answers to those, but intriguing all the same.

25/11/2019