Update 7/26/2022: Another incredibly fun and historically-informed resource on this subject is “The Road to Serfdom is Paved with B.S.” by Jonah Goldberg, who critiques a book arguing for a return to the medieval socioeconomic model. Goldberg’s astute reminders of the plight of the medieval peasant are detailed, sober, and eye-opening.
A few days ago, a headline popped up on my phone stating that the average American works more hours per year than medieval peasants did. As an avid reader of medieval history, I was intrigued enough to take a closer look. The result was a minor case study in what happens when we are drawn in by accurate but incomplete information.
The article, which was written by the Daily Wire (and which seems to have been prompted by articles at The Ladders and Fool.com), is based on a 2015 Pew analysis report showing that the average American works just over 1,800 hours per year. The article then compares this data to some research on medieval and modern economics. Specifically, it refers to an excerpt from a book called The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor, in turn, reports on data published in the mid to late 1990s.
The long and short of it is that (according to one estimate, at least) medieval peasants only worked around 1,600 hours a year, a discrepancy which seems to undermine our common perception of the miserable conditions in which medieval peasants lived. The cause of the difference is twofold: peasants could only work while there was light, and there were far more religious feast days and holidays than we have today due to the widespread authority of the Catholic church.
This information does agree with the several books on medieval history I have read over the past year, including Barbara Tuchman’s award-winning A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. I would be lying if I said that I did not wish for a few more holidays.
But of course this glimpse into the culture of medieval peasantry is far from complete, and it would be foolish to conclude that the olden days were so much better, or that our working days are so much worse. Despite all the breaks, peasants of yore experienced enormous disadvantages: a dearth of rights, exorbitant taxes, a short life expectancy, a hideous reputation, and an egregious lack of protection from the very ones who were capable of doing so. Below are excerpts from Tuchman on each of these scores.
“Like every other group, peasants were diverse, ranging in economic level from half-savage pauper to the proprietor of fields and featherbeds who could hoard money to send his son to the university. The general term for peasant was villein or vilain, which had acquired a pejorative tone, though harmlessly derived from the Latin villa. Neither exactly slave nor entirely free, the villein belonged to the estate of his lord, under obligation to pay rent or work services for use of the land, and in turn to enjoy the right of protection and justice. A serf was someone in personal bondage who belonged by birth to a particular lord, and, so that his children should follow him, was forbidden under a rule called formariage from marrying outside the domain. If he died childless, his house, tools, and any possessions reverted to the lord under the right of morte-main, on the theory that they had only been lent to the serf for his labor in life. Originally he owed, in addition to agriculture, every kind of labor service needed on an estate—repair of roads, bridges, and moats, supply of firewood, care of stables and kennels, blacksmithing, laundering, spinning, weaving, and other crafts for the castle.”
Taxes and Fees
“Besides paying the hearth tax and clerical tithe and aids for the lord’s ransom and knighting of his son and marriage of his daughter, the peasant owed fees for everything he used: for grinding his grain in the lord’s mill, baking his bread in the lord’s oven, pressing apples in the lord’s cider press, settlement of disputes in the lord’s court. At death he owed the heriot, or forfeit of his best possession to the lord.
His agricultural labor was supplied under rules that favored the seigneur, whose fields were plowed and seed sowed and hay cut and crops harvested and, in case of storm or pests, his harvest saved before the peasant could attend to his own. He had to drive his beasts to pasture and bring them home across the lord’s fields rather than his own so that the lord should have the benefit of the manure. By these fees and arrangements, economic surplus was produced for the proprietors.
The system was aided by the Church, whose natural interests allied it more to the great than to the meek. The Church taught that failure to do the seigneur’s work and obey his laws would be punished by eternity in Hell, and that non-payment of tithes would imperil the soul. The priest exerted constant pressure for tithes in kind—grain, eggs, a hen or a pig—and told the peasant these were a tax “owed to God.” Everyday life was administered by the lord’s bailiff, whose abuses and extortions were a constant source of complaint. The bailiff could levy an augmented tax, keeping a percentage for himself, or accuse a peasant of theft and accept a fee for letting him off.”
“Life expectancy was short owing to overwork, overexposure, and the afflictions of dysentery, tuberculosis, pneumonia, asthma, tooth decay, and the terrible rash called St. Anthony’s Fire, which by constriction of the blood vessels (not then understood) could consume a limb as by ‘some hidden fire’ and sever it from the body.”
“A deep grievance of the peasant was the contempt in which he was held by the other classes. Aside from the rare note of compassion, most tales and ballads depict him as aggressive, insolent, greedy, sullen, suspicious, tricky, unshaved, unwashed, ugly, stupid and credulous or sometimes shrewd and witty, incessantly discontented, usually cuckolded. In satiric tales it was said the villein’s soul would find no place in Paradise or anywhere else because the demons refused to carry it owing to the foul smell. In the chansons de geste he is scorned as inept in combat and poorly armed, mocked for his manners, his morals, even his misery. The name Jacques or Jacques Bonhomme to designate a peasant was used by nobles as a term of derision derived from the padded surplice called “jacque” which the peasant wore for protective armor in war. The knights saw him as a person of ignoble instincts who could have no understanding of “honor” and was therefore capable of every kind of deceit and incapable of trust. Ideally he should be treated decently, yet the accepted proverb ran, ‘Smite a villein and he will bless you; bless a villein and he will smite you.'”
“In theory, the tiller of the soil and his livestock were immune from pillage and the sword. No reality of medieval life more harshly mocked the theory. Chivalry did not apply outside the knights’ own class. The records tell of peasants crucified, roasted, dragged behind horses by the brigands to extort money. There were preachers who pointed out that the peasant worked unceasingly for all, often overwhelmed by his tasks, and who pleaded for more kindness, but all they could advise the victim was patience, obedience, and resignation.”
So is the Daily Wire story fake news? No, but it certainly isn’t the whole picture. It is entirely possible that Juliet Schor (whose book I have not read) makes a strong case for the decline of leisure in our lives, and I would probably be in favor of proposals to recover more leisure for today’s average worker. But we should take a step back before we sigh with jealousy over the medieval peasant’s day-to-day existence.