The pre-industrial transformation of child labour. From learning through apprenticeships to being employed as an unskilled, cheap workforce (1550 – 1800)
My PhD project will challenge and add to the knowledge of child labour by determining how the logics behind sending children to the labour market in the Southern Netherlands (more specifically Antwerp) changed between the 16th and late 18th century. In doing so, it will determine how mentalities and practises on children’s education and labour transformed in urban societies and will shed light on children of learning and working age as a social group.
It is generally assumed that the increasingly mechanised manufacturing of the 18th century introduced a new type of child labour that was characterised by an enormous increase in the number of children who were working as cheap, unskilled labourers without better prospects for the future. This type of pure child labour is often sketched in stark contrast to skilled child labour through apprenticeship, as was common in the pre-industrial period. I will analyse whether apprenticeships and pure child labour are not two separate phenomena but that the latter may have been the result of a long-term transformation of the apprenticeship. My project starts from the hypothesis that the moral economy of child labour, represented by the apprenticeship, transformed and eroded throughout the early modern period. It will be examined how, why and when the logic of learning was embodied in the apprenticeship system transformed into an economic logic of cheap child labour. My project will analyse the transitional period between both types of child labour in order to qualify the dominant assumption that the logics behind sending children to the labour market fundamentally changed in the 18th century, with the breakthrough of industrialisation as the main agent of change. However, my recent research suggests that fundamental changes in the objectives of apprenticeship already occurred in the 16th century. I will determine both how the mental framework surrounding this transition changed and how institutional, political, cultural or religious agents of change of the local urban context were influential in this transformation.