Home > Uncategorized > The Modern Work Day

The Modern Work Day

As much as I like being antagonistic to my liberal friends, my true love is history (and bacon). I’m particularly fond of the period of western history between the fall of Rome and the onset of industrialization. We are fond of thinking that we work less now than at other points in human history, but is that true? There are many ways to figure this out, but I’ll compare the average American today and the average Briton from the Early Medieval Period to try and get a hopefully thought provoking answer.

The average American, taking two weeks of vacation and working an average week of 40 hours (assume this is true, it’s certainly the ideal people are thinking of when they imagine a full time job) works about 2000 hours a year to provide for all their needs (hopefully). They don’t make their clothes, they don’t carry their water home, they don’t tend their crops, etc. So practically everything they have comes from that work.

On the other hand, our average medieval serf has very little in the way of personal wealth, a home he owns, land he works, things like that. But how much does he work on his lords land and does he gain all the necessities?

Work would begin for our landless serf at sun up and end at sun down in the summer, say a lengthy 16 hours. He doesn’t work all of that though. Custom would dictate a break for breakfast, and one for the afternoon meal as well as a rest period after that. Our laborer would tend to work 8-10 hours on the average summer day. Longer during harvest, but less at other times. They didn’t toil at all hours of the night by candle light, candle were expensive. He also gets far more than 2 weeks off a year. Major feasts (saints days) and Sundays are not worked at all, not even by choice, by church and civil law.

These “feast days” would become a hot topic later on when England broke with Rome under Henry VIII. Our serf, if he was in the north of England likely would have been part of a rebellion that could have toppled the monarchy had Henry’s trusted man Thomas Cromwell not been a slippery eel and had his “generals” not been sly as well. Wiki doesn’t mention it, but the abolishing of saints days, while promising to increase national productivity, were a major grievance since they meant many more days of work.If you want a feel for how many days we are talking about, try roughly 120. That is one hundred and twenty days vacation a year, for our serf.

A landless laborer, around 1200 or so, would earn a penny a day working his lords fields during the growing season. Manorial records (didn’t scan well) from 13th century England, brought the average servile laborer in ca. 175 days of work a year and the average serfs family in at about 150.

Lets tally it up, that brings us to only 1575 hours a year, assuming a high average of 9 hours per work work day for the laborer (8.6 most likely). A serf would be near 1290 hours worked.

It’s important to remember that the standard of living was far lower, but all basic needs are met, something very difficult these days if one had a part time job affording you the same working hours. It’s equally important to keep in mind that there was still some work to be done, water to haul, fires to build, but the amount of pure leisure time available to the average person was staggering.

I think I’ll stay in the modern day, but I don’t think life was all as bad work-wise as people sometimes think. Certainly we are at a level far below the mid/late 19th century of 80-90 hours per week with no vacation days, but the time spent working today is far above what it once was.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. 2011/11/22 at 18:50

    Nice analysis. I like that you mentioned that the living standard was a lot lower. (Too often these analyses ignore the difference in living standards between the medieval era and the present to give a more rose-tinted impression.)

    I think it might be helpful to mention, however, that you and I are more likely to experience long retirements than peasants would have. Likewise, you and I weren’t put to work as soon as we could walk. (Well, I wasn’t at least.)

  2. 2011/11/22 at 19:17

    I think it’s amusing that people do now for leisure, what they used to do for work. I can’t imagine many serfs tended their gardens on holy days.

  3. 2011/11/22 at 20:18

    I just thought of another thing. You mentioned not being put to work as soon as you could walk, well many children, if conceived at the right time of year, were born in the fields they would be working in in 4 or 5 years. Women worked right alongside men for the same wage and right up until they gave birth.

  4. 2011/11/22 at 21:22

    Eeep.

  5. 2011/11/23 at 12:48

    Interesting bit of history – there are always trade-offs it seems. One obvious difference is the average serf was unlikely to look forward to retirement, given they lived to be about 40 years of age on average.

    Of course, given the current state of our economy most of us will be working through our eighties, so maybe it’s not so much easier now after all.

    By the way, you need to do more history posts, it definitely seems to be your niche, and there aren’t nearly enough bloggers writing about it out there.

  6. 2011/11/23 at 13:48

    Not so! Thomas Hobbes oft used quotation is that life was “nasty, brutish and short” But is that really true? The problem with the question of life expectancy is that it takes into account infant and childhood mortality, which were high. I have to question if that is an adequate measure of how long people lived. Indeed if you look at life expectancy for individuals that live past age 21 in the period around 1300, you’ll find that it wasn’t unusual for people to live into their late 50’s and early 60’s.

    Clearly we have come a long ways from that, but age 40 was a typical milestone for those surviving childhood. Another birthday on the way to 60.

  7. 2011/11/23 at 13:51

    I think that quote is from “Leviathan” if I’m not mistaken.

  8. 2011/11/24 at 11:06

    Yes, but could you realistically stop working and take a retirement at any point, as a peasant? There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch – and at the time, no retirement schemes.

  9. 2011/11/24 at 17:43

    Haha, you are correct. You do have to consider, at least in England, that monasteries and trade guilds used to provide pensions and other support to widows and the infirm, depending on the circumstance, and savings were not invented in the 20th century either.

    Few people in need went hungry or cold if they were within walking distance of a monastic house.

    Still, there was no such thing as retirement as we know it, for the average laborer. Family structure was also very different.

    For the sake of curiosity —> http://www.osb.org/rb/text/rbeaad1.html#53

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