For over two centuries the organization of work and labour has occupied a central place in narratives of social and economic change in the past. Agricultural labour in the eighteenth century was of particular interest to historians as the period provided spectacular examples of enduring and structural socio-economic changes. In Flanders agricultural production increased and diversified, the population rose by some 60 per cent and small holdings were increasingly subdivided. This project views these changes through the lens of the labour market for agricultural labourers. It aims to identify and explain spatial variations and temporal changes in the operation of agricultural labour markets in the Southern Low Countries at a household level in response to the structural transformations that characterized these rural communities during the eighteenth century. The analysis will focus primarily on the rural labour market for day labourers. Our limited knowledge on this topic is disproportionate to the central place they occupied in the social fabric of rural societies.
To understand and explain the dynamics of the eighteenth-century rural labour market, this project has formulated three main objectives. The first consists of a reconstruction of the labour demand of large farms, in order to determine how changes in agricultural production affected the opportunities of rural households to work as day labourers. However, new labour market constellations were not only shaped by macro-economic forces, but also by the individual responses of farmers to these new realities. The second objective therefore aims to reconstruct how labour hiring practices on large farmers varied. The final step is to connect the observed changes to the household economies of the labourers. The nature of the cottage economy will reveal to what extent the previously discussed changes sorted effects on the survival portfolio of the labourers and their market dependence for food.
To fulfil these objectives the project builds on a rich collection of farm accounts and accounts books. The key mechanism to uncover the changing realities of the agricultural labour market is to cross-link individual data from farm accounts and account books with information on the demographic, social and economic background of the labourers from other sources such as parish registers, fiscal documents and probate inventories. Because the sources for all the different Flemish regions are similar and the data will be collected, processed and analysed through a common methodology, this project will succeed in building comparative research from the ground up.