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.