In April 1674, Richard Howell alias Taylor of Hopton in the Hole in Shropshire from carried from his home eight miles south to the parish of Brimfield in Herefordshire in a bed loaded upon a cart. He had fallen sick the previous Christmas while employed as a workman. By April, Richard had little use of his legs, yet he remained in his own home with the assistance of appointed paid carers. He was to spend the final month of his life being cared for by his sister and her husband in their home in Brimfield.
Scholarship on early modern medical care primarily focuses on the employment of medical practitioners by the elite and middling sorts and their engagement with the commercial medical marketplace. However, historians know comparatively little about the dynamics of care lower down the social scale for ordinary men and women like Richard Howell alias Taylor. In large part, this stems from a lack of obvious source base. However, the tendency of economic historians to distinguish between paid and unpaid work often leaves care work in a somewhat shadowy zone of the early modern economy. Uncertainty about whether to define care as ‘work’ when unremunerated or performed by a neighbour has led to it being swept up into a wider system of obligation, charity and mutual dependency.
While we know care work was frequently performed by women, we know much less about the relationship between carers and patients. What networks were mobilised by the sick in the months, weeks or days before an individual’s death? What was the geographical reach of these networks and how did they vary by social status, gender, age and region? Using depositional evidence from testamentary suits heard in the church courts between 1550 and 1700, this paper explores the social and economic networks of those employed in the care of the sick in the final stages of life. An untapped resource, depositions from these suits shine a light not only into the early modern sick chamber, but on the community surrounding it and the complex care economy of early modern England.
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