icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


Medieval Peasants Had More Vacation Time Than You


We think of the Middle Ages as a time of bone crushing drudgery but recently I’ve discovered new research that suggests that the medieval peasant didn’t work even as many hours as we do!

“Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.”

Modern PTO

“Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the U.S. is the only advanced country with no national vacation policy whatsoever. Many American workers must keep on working through public holidays, and vacation days often go unused. Even when we finally carve out a holiday, many of us answer emails and “check in” whether we’re camping with the kids or trying to kick back on the beach.” The totals for the peasant in many calculations include all the work that she put in for the maintenance of her family, so if we calculate work for modern folks-- Monday- Saturday-- the total for the modern worker is 312 days a year. As for vacations, in Silicon Valley, where I worked, we called it PTO, not “paid time off” but “pretend time off.” And the ‘follow the sun’ structure of most tech companies (where someone, somewhere, is working at every hour of the day) meant you’re expected to willingly join a meeting at any hour, even the middle of the night.

Medieval Nap and Ale Time

Not so for our medieval sisters. Prof. Thomas F.X. Noble, University of Notre Dame suggests that “the lot of those who worked in medieval Europe…was, on the whole, not bad... There was a lot of free time: time for celebration, time for community celebration, time for people to come together – to worship, to hold market, to hold court.”

Shore tells us that “holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbors. The ancien règime in France is reported to have guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays. In Spain, travelers noted that holidays totaled five months per year,” Shor says.

Medieval peasants “worked only as many days as were necessary to earn their customary income -- which in this case amounted to about 120 days a year, for a probable total of only 1,440 hours annually (this estimate assumes a 12-hour day because the days worked were probably during spring, summer and fall). A thirteenth-century estimate finds that whole peasant families did not put in more than 150 days per year on their land. Manorial records from fourteenth-century England indicate an extremely short working year -- 175 days -- for servile laborers. Later evidence for farmer-miners, a group with control over their worktime, indicates they worked only 180 days a year.”

Medieval workers took time off for breakfast, a morning break, lunch, a lunchtime nap, and a substantial part of the day was spent on ale time. The following may sound like the complaining of any employer, but here’s the characterization by James Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, ca. 1570:

"The labouring man will take his rest long in the morning; a good piece of the day is spent afore he come at his work; then he must have his breakfast, though he have not earned it at his accustomed hour, or else there is grudging and murmuring; when the clock smiteth, he will cast down his burden in the midway, and whatsoever he is in hand with, he will leave it as it is, though many times it is marred afore he come again; he may not lose his meat, what danger soever the work is in. At noon he must have his sleeping time, then his bever in the afternoon, which spendeth a great part of the day; and when his hour cometh at night, at the first stroke of the clock he casteth down his tools, leaveth his work, in what need or case soever the work standeth."
-James Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, ca. 1570

The Anomaly of the 19th Century

It’s being suggested that this modern mythology of the hard-working peasant developed because we projected the heavy workload of the 19th century into the past, when, in fact, the 19th century was arguably the “the most prodigious work effort in the entire history of humankind.” Take a look at the calculations below:

Eight centuries of annual hours:
13th century - Adult male peasant, U.K.: 1620 hours. Calculated from Gregory Clark's estimate of 150 days per family, assumes 12 hours per day, 135 days per year for adult male ("Impatience, Poverty, and Open Field Agriculture", mimeo, 1986)
14th century - Casual laborer, U.K.: 1440 hours. Calculated from Nora Ritchie's estimate of 120 days per year. Assumes 12-hour day. ("Labour conditions in Essex in the reign of Richard II", in E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, vol. II, London: Edward Arnold, 1962).
Middle ages - English worker: 2309 hours. Juliet Schor's estimate of average medieval laborer working two-thirds of the year at 9.5 hours per day
1400-1600 - Farmer-miner, adult male, U.K.: 1980 hours Calculated from Ian Blanchard's estimate of 180 days per year. Assumes 11-hour day ("Labour productivity and work psychology in the English mining industry, 1400-1600", Economic History Review 31, 23 (1978).
1840 - Average worker, U.K.: 3105-3588 hours.Based on 69-hour week; hours from W.S. Woytinsky, "Hours of labor," in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. III (New York: Macmillan, 1935). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year
1850 - Average worker, U.S.: 3150-3650 hours. Based on 70-hour week; hours from Joseph Zeisel, "The workweek in American industry, 1850-1956", Monthly Labor Review 81, 23-29 (1958). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year
1987 - Average worker, U.S.: 1949 hours. From The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor, Table 2.4
1988 - Manufacturing workers, U.K.: 1856 hours. Calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Office of Productivity and Technology

As Shor says, “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure."

Sources: [Again, apologies that these are not linked within the blog post but this editing platform is klunky]

-- Reuters, August 2013, at http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/08/29/why-a-medieval-peasant-got-more-vacation-time-than-you/
-- Prof. Thomas F.X. Noble, University of Notre Dame. “The Foundations of Western Civilization”, in The Great Courses lecture 35.
-- Economist Juliet Shor in her article for MIT, at http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html, quoting Edith Rodgers, Discussion of Holidays in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), 10-11. See also C.R. Cheney, "Rules for the observance of feast-days in medieval England", Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 34, 90, 117-29 (1961).
-- I think that’s an adorable word: ‘bever’. Care to meet for a bever?

Be the first to comment