The verb-oriented method

The notion of the “verb-oriented method” emphasizes the kind of data that is of interest when posing research questions regarding gender and work in the past. While other research has collected information about how people were labeled (job titles) and what they had for resources (property), within Gender and Work we focus on descriptions of what people did. In other words: rather than looking at nouns, we look at verbs.

A page from a handwritten court record with drawings of people working.

A page in a court record may contain a number of activities. Photo: Lars Köhler and Nordiska Museet. Design: Ulf Carlén

Verbs instead of nouns

There are a number of drawbacks in taking job titles as a starting point when studying gender and work in early modern Sweden:

  • Few people had job titles. This applies especially to women and children.
  • Many of the job titles that did exist are vague and have little to say about what the designated person actually did (for example, “arbetare” {worker} or “piga” {female servant}).
  • Many job titles that might appear to describe a person’s primary sustenance activity were in fact social descriptors (for example, “bonde” {peasant} or “löjtnant” {lieutenant}).

Information concerning property—found, for example, in tax registers, probate inventories, and records of archaeological excavations—has much to tell about a person’s means of support, but seldom says anything regarding who did what.

The information about work that we have instead chosen to collect is exemplified by phrases such as “Anna mowed hay”, “Bertil fished for herring”, and “Cecilia sold herring”. That is to say, our focus is on concrete descriptions—in the form of verb phrases—of activities. These phrases are clear descriptions of what activity was performed and who performed it.

Scattered evidence of sustenance activity is to be found in many types of source material, including

  • Court records
  • Account books
  • Diaries and journals
  • Letters and petitions

Another way to explain our work is to say that we study the ways that people used the time they devoted to support and sustenance. Early modern sources obviously do not allow us to study people’s use of time over an entire 24-hour period (which, of course, would be ideal), but the verb-oriented method gives us snapshots of the tangible daily activities of women and men, young and old, poor and rich.

The verb-oriented method is inspired by Sheilagh Ogilvie’s study A Bitter Living: Women, Markets, and Social Capital in Early-modern Germany.

The verb-oriented method emphasizes the idea that traces of the past often take linguistic form. As such, these traces are never neutral representations of actual activities, but are instead dependent upon linguistic conventions, cultural concepts, the writers’ aims and intentions, and so forth. The verb-oriented method affords the researcher, then, the opportunity to analyze not only what different people did, but also how these activities were described in various contexts.

Three men scything. UUB 3439.