Going to a conference remains one of the highlights of academic life. As the Covid pandemic revealed, while getting together online has an important part to play in facilitating discussion when travel to a venue is not possible, there is no real substitute for sitting face to face with colleagues to hammer out differences about the role of theory, evidence, and language in our interpretation of the past. Thus increasingly since the pandemic, we have come to realise just how good it is to be able to meet up to air ideas, challenge accepted orthodoxies, and gain new understandings about our shared history.
Such was my experience recently at the WoRCK (Worlds of Related Coercions in Work) Conference in Prague. The conference, entitled ‘Historicising Coercive Work Processes’ took place from 5-7 September in the very grand Philosophical Faculty of Charles University, situated in the heart of the old town, close to the famous Charles Bridge. The conference was the last of a series organised through the WoRCK project, a four year research initiative funded by the Horizon Europe programme of the European Union (European Cooperation in Science and Technology [COST] Action 18205). The aim of the project, as described on the webpage, was to create a conceptual space that would cut across standard research fields and enable exchanges between scholars working on topics from ancient construction work, indentured labour and sharecropping in rural societies, to chattel slavery, ‘coolie’ work and debt bondage, to convict labour, military impressment and a range of coercive mechanisms in household work and waged labour.
Research began in 2019, organised around four work packages, each of which focussed on one area of coercion: ‘Grammars of Dependency’; ‘Sites and Fields of Coercion’; ‘(Im)Mobilisations of the Workforce’; and ‘Intersecting Marginalities’. Under the generous, inclusive and supportive approach of the project leads – Chair Juliane Schiel of the University of Vienna, and Vice Chair, Johan Heinsen at Aalborg University, Denmark - the project has demonstrated just what can be done when a group of scholars are prepared to share both the strengths and weaknesses of their own research for the greater understanding of everyone.
My particular area of interest was in the ‘Grammars of Dependency’ work package, as I was keen to investigate the uses of the language of slavery in early modern England. I learned an awful lot from this group. Over the four years of the project they have helped me think much more critically about the role of language and its semantics in the process of historical change. I had already established that the term ‘slavery’ had emerged only in the early sixteenth century, at which point it did not carry the meaning we attribute to it today - as an institution that reduced people against their will to the status of property. This not only set me thinking about when ‘slavery’ did come to have this modern meaning, but raised an equally radical red flag - that slavery as we know it had not existed before the early modern period.
The 1547 Act is notorious for reducing convicted vagabonds to ‘slaves’. The problem of vagabondage had been growing from the early part of the century, so that even the possibility of execution had failed to stem the tide. An Acte for punysshement of sturdy vacabundes and beggers in 1535-6 had introduced ear mutilation and capital punishment for recidivists. Reducing vagabonds to 'slaves' therefore looks like a last resort, a final attempt to curb their growth by imposing a punishment that some might consider worse than death. But it too failed, being repealed after only two years, despite there being no reduction in vagabondage. According to historians, it was too extreme – the freedom-loving English simply would not tolerate it. But here’s the problem. Those same historians have assumed that the bodies of ‘slaves’ under this legislation fell into the ownership of their masters.
Yet the Act is quite clear. Masters were permitted to ‘lett sett furthe sell bequethe or give the service and labour of such Slaves’ during the time of their binding, but not their bodies. And vagabonds were only ‘slaves’ while they were without financial support. Those coming into money or an estate by which they could live were to be released immediately.
I gave my paper, entitled ‘Slaverie’ before slavery: An Acte for the Punishment of Vagabondes, 1547’, after lunch on the Wednesday of the conference. It was a relaxed session, as people had settled back into their chairs having enjoyed some local cuisine, and the day was unusually warm for September. My paper was well-received and a couple of those present, who saw parallels in their own work, were prepared to consider the idea that ‘slavery’ could have referred to a system of forced labour before it was understood as an institution of property. I got some useful comments and a number of compliments, and little of the pushback I had expected, given the enormity of what I was suggesting. Yet I did not escape unscathed. Joel Quirk, former member of the Wilberforce Institute, and onetime sparring partner, who I have not seen in person for several years, did not let me off lightly. Now Professor at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, Joel continued to grill me over aspects of my argument into the early evening as we enjoyed the lovely September sun.
But this is all part of what conferences are about – the opportunity to test ideas and theories with the best in the business. My argument needs to be challenged if I am to weed out as many errors, weaknesses and irrelevancies as possible, and to do that I need the help of other people. Even so, I fully expect others to challenge my work when I finally get it published. I will after all be making a significant new intervention into the historiography of slavery.