For more than 500 years, the law of master and servant fixed the boundaries of “free labor” in Britain and throughout the British Empire. Compounded of statutory enactments, judicial doctrines, and social practice, it defined and controlled employment relations for almost a quarter of the world's population in more than 100 colonial and postcolonial jurisdictions.
The “law of master and servant” to which Douglas Hay and Paul Craven refer was enacted a year before Shakespeare's birth. The Statute of Artificers of 1562/3 consolidated and replaced all previous forms of legislation in England that had sought to regulate labour relations by fixing maximum wages, determining the conditions of employment as essentially a set of reciprocal, if unequal, relations between masters and servants, and laying down forms of legal censure and punishment for those who broke contracts or transgressed the bonds of the Statute.
From the perspective of modern assumptions regarding freedom of contract, Hay and Craven's qualification of the phrase “free labor” with scare quotes is apposite. The servants covered by the Statute of Artificers were no slaves or bondsmen. However, nor could their choice regarding the place, time, and conditions of employment or, in many cases, the person of their masters, be regarded as entirely or even largely unconstrained: “Freedom to choose one's employer did not imply freedom to remain unemployed: if the master and servant acts did not themselves compel engagement and the whip of hunger did not suffice, then … the law about vagrancy took up the burden” (33).