Serfing holidays

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Would you rather be a medieval European peasant or a modern American worker? Well, it depends on how much you value your free time:

Life for the medieval peasant was certainly no picnic. His life was shadowed by fear of famine, disease and bursts of warfare. His diet and personal hygiene left much to be desired.

But despite his reputation as a miserable wretch, you might envy him one thing: his vacations.

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. As for the modern American worker? After a year on the job, she gets an average of eight vacation days annually.

It actually looks quite attractive, doesn’t it?

Go back 200, 300, or 400 years and you find that most people did not work very long hours at all. In addition to relaxing during long holidays, the medieval peasant took his sweet time eating meals, and the day often included time for an afternoon snooze.

“The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” notes Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”

Let us put aside the big question whether the American workers are working too hard and whether they have enough holidays compared with, say, the other developed nations. There are certainly other models out there, like the more leisurely France. But it’s all about trade-offs – generally the less you work the less you earn. Some might be happy to take this deal for the sake of a better work/life balance; others might want or need to earn more (the average monthly after tax salary is over 40 per cent higher in the United States than in France, and purchasing power over 30 per cent higher). As a great believer in the liberal value of choice I would like to see people given more options (including work and lifestyle options) not just between different countries, which historically have their own models of society and the economy, but also within countries.

Instead, let’s just focus on the attraction of the working life as a medieval (and post-medieval) European peasant. Shor’s thesis strikes me as another example of the modern idealisation of the long-lost pastoral Golden Age, from the fields of Flanders to the beaches of Fiji, destroyed forever by the brutal forces of capitalism, industry, imperialism and modernity. Again, remember the trade-offs. The peasant’s life was largely dictated by the seasons, the level of economic and technological development, the Church with its calendar, and the temporal lords with their demands.

There is no denying that even by virtue of celebrating religious holy days, peasants enjoyed more time off work than we do today (even if we consider that the concept of the weekend is a modern invention and in the time past Sunday was the only day of the week regularly set aside as a day of rest). But the main reason for the low work output was low productivity. Everyday existence was barely above the subsistence level, with a minor surplus passed on to the lords in taxes. Often, due to vagaries of weather (or war or disease) there would be no surplus and not even subsistence, which meant frequent deprivation and starvation. The life on the land was incredibly poor, monotonous, unhygienic and, at various times of the agricultural calendar, backbreaking.

You have to ask yourself why, if all that life of half-work and half-holiday that Shor posits was so much fun, throughout the past millennium so many peasants kept moving to the cities, their numbers only restricted by laws and the availability of urban employment – both factors largely made irrelevant by the time of the industrial revolution, which drained the rural areas of their workers by the millions. Now remember how horrendous the factory work has been until last century, and consider that veritable floods of peasants still nevertheless chose it over the life of their supposed rural idyll.

Common sense would suggest that for most people and in most regards modern life is better than life in the past. Sometimes academics might try to make you think otherwise. Choose common sense.

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