‘Experience doesn’t pay the bills’: a lesson from medieval England

By Rhiannon Sandy (@RhiannonSandy)

A few weeks ago, in my daily perusal of Twitter, I came across a retweet which made me angry enough to write a blogpost. Questioned as to why interns should be paid if they’re ‘getting experience for their résumé’, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a short video answer – ‘experience doesn’t pay the bills’. This was retweeted by Piers Morgan, who called it ‘nonsense’ because ‘the free teaching is the salary’.[1] This is a very privileged stance. Unpaid internships are exploitative and exclusionary, limiting experience to those whose financial situation allows them to work for free. This limits diversity and prevents institutions from being enriched by new ideas and perspectives, because their interns are almost always going to come from a similar background.[2]

My PhD thesis explores apprenticeship in medieval England, including the ways in which it was exploitative and exclusionary – or not. Even if a medieval apprentice wasn’t paid, they could expect to be fed, housed and clothed at the master’s expense. In contrast, unpaid internships today are entirely exploitative.

The idea that training should be its own reward is a pretty recent one. Imagine you’re an adolescent in fifteenth-century England and you can’t afford to pay the high premium for an apprenticeship. As long as your parents have a certain level of wealth, you can still become an apprentice (an income of at least 20 shillings a year from land or rents –roughly equivalent to 50 days’ wages for a skilled craftsman in the early fifteenth century).[3] Not paying a premium is not necessarily a barrier.[4] You might have to bind yourself for a longer term, and you probably won’t enter the franchise once your training is complete, but you will have been trained. You might have to work for others rather than becoming a master craftsman with your own workshop and employees (enfranchisement sometimes being a prerequisite for setting up a shop), but you will have skills for life.[5] This made apprenticeship accessible to a wider section of society.

Apprenticeship was a reciprocal arrangement. In exchange for providing guaranteed fixed-term labour, an apprentice was trained, fed and housed. The apprentice would start off by doing the boring, repetitive jobs that contributed to the finished product, gradually gaining experience, skills and knowledge. Strong relationships might be forged between apprentice and master. There’s significant evidence of this in wills, where apprentices were left money, goods, property, or the remaining years of other apprentices’ terms (with the expectation that they would continue to train them). Apprentices were sometimes even appointed as guardian to the master’s children.[6] Loyalty was rewarded.

Paying today’s interns a proper wage would be beneficial in several ways. First, as medieval masters knew, treating workers well made them more loyal, dependable and hard-working. It’s difficult to take pride in a job you’re not being paid to do, for an ‘employer’ who is exploiting you as free labour. Medieval masters also offered more inducements to apprentices in periods where labour was harder to find. Similarly, paid internships could help counteract skills shortages in today’s labour market. Finally, paying interns also opens the field up to a more diverse pool of candidates. In exchange for skills, experience and reasonable wages, they can provide fresh ideas and draw on a wider range of life experiences to help reinvigorate businesses and institutions.

[1] Accessed 5 August 2019, <https://web.archive.org/web/20190802101458/https://twitter.com/piersmorgan/status/1154548488983568384>.

[2] F Yeah History (among others) has blogged on the effect this has on arts and culture, and how to solve it: F Yeah History, How unpaid work is killing off museums, 26 March 2018. Accessed 5 August 2019 <https://fyeahhistory.com/2018/03/26/how-demanding-unpaid-work-is-killing-off-museums/>.

[3] Statutes of the Realm, 7 Henry IV, c. 17 (1405), Statutes of the Realm, vol. 2 (1816) reprint (London: Dawsons, 1967), p. 157. Accessed 5 August 2019, <https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.engrep/realm0002&id=1&size=2&collection=statore&index=engrep/realm>.  Whether this legislation was rigorously enforced or not is questionable, so this might only have been a notional barrier to apprenticeship. Equivalent value calculated for 1410 and 1420 using National Archives Currency Convertor, accessed 23 August 2019 <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result>.

[4] Elspeth M. Veale, The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages, 2nd edn. (London: London Record Society, 2003), p. 100.

[5] In London, only citizens could open shops for retail trade – Gwyn A. Williams, Medieval London: From Commune to Capital (London: Athlone Press, 1963), p. 43.  In fourteenth-century York, however, the freedom was not a precondition of retail trade or taking on apprentices, and so remained a privilege purchased by more substantial craftsmen – Heather Swanson, Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 32 and 108.

[6] Some select examples: ‘Longe’, pp. 185-6; ‘Faukys’, p. 193; ‘de Kelseye’, p. 200; ‘Longeneye’, p. 233; ‘Offham’, p. 299 – all Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, A.D. 1258–A.D. 1688: Part II, A.D. 1358–A.D. 1688, ed. by Reginald R. Sharpe (London: by order of the Corporation of the City of London, 1890); ‘Corp’, p. 477, Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, A.D. 1258–A.D. 1688: Part I, A.D. 1258–A.D. 1358, ed. by Reginald R. Sharpe (London: by order of the Corporation of the City of London, 1889); The Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, London: A.D. 1387-1439; with a Priest’s of 1454, copied and edied from the original registers in Somerset House by Frederick J. Furnivall, reprint (London: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 1964), pp. 78-9.

Image credits: ‘A medieval baker and his apprentice’. Oxford, Bodleian Library. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1197015. Public domain. Scanned from Maggie Black’s Den medeltida kokboken, Swedish translation of The Medieval Cookbook (1993).

3 thoughts on “‘Experience doesn’t pay the bills’: a lesson from medieval England

  1. We are a family run dive centre in Cyprus, we love your content!

  2. One of the first formal company pension plans for industrial workers was introduced in 1882 by the Alfred Dolge Company, a builder of pianos and organs. Dolge withheld 1% of each workers’ pay and placed it into a pension fund, to which the company added 6% interest each year. Dolge viewed providing for older workers as being a business cost like any other, arguing that just as his company had to provide for the depreciation of its machinery, he should also provide for the depreciation of his employees. Despite Mr. Dolge’s progressive ideas and his best intentions, the plan proved largely unsuccessful since it required a worker to spend many years in continuous employment with the company, and labor mobility, then as now, meant that relatively few workers spend their whole working career with one company. Not only was the Dolge Plan one of the first formal company pension systems in industrial America, it was also one of the first to disappear when the company went out of business a few years later.

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