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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2014

Labor division in an upland economy: workforce in a seventeenth-century transhumance system

Larsson, Jesper


The aim of this article is to analyze strategies families used to maintain a transhumance system in early modern Europe. The study examines an animal husbandry system in upland Sweden where women worked as herders and took care of the animals during the summer. By examining a late-seventeenth-century herder register of 1340 herders and combining it with demographic data from a defined area, it is possible to reveal the strategic choices that households had to make to create a workforce able to harness the vast forests with a transhumance system (summer farms). The work at the summer farms was performed as a collective action, and this study demonstrates that a prerequisite for this agricultural system to function properly was a labor market for herders. Most herders were household members or relatives, but maids represented 27% of the workforce and worked together with household members. Maids were usually young or older widows and unmarried women, many from poor households. These maids came to play an important role in knowledge transfer to new adolescent herders and were necessary to maintain the agricultural system. Compared with daughters and wives, the maids worked with other households' assets. The results indicate that specialization and labor division were strategies for subsistence peasants to expand animal husbandry.


labor division; demography; households; transhumance; commons; early modern Sweden; gender

Published in

History of the Family
2014, Volume: 19, number: 3, pages: 393-410

    Sustainable Development Goals

    SDG5 Gender equality

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    Economic History

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