Do You Work Longer Hours Than a Medieval Peasant?

May 16, 2022 1 Min Read
a Medieval village where peasants work
Source:Photo by Joran Quinten on Unsplash
Studying 13th-century work habits reveals a surprising contrast with American workers of today

Incredible as it may sound, the average modern American puts in longer hours at his or her work than the average medieval peasant.

While many people feel pressure to work long hours, even the hardest-hit victims of the “gigs economy” might assume that at least they don’t work as hard as a medieval peasant.

But that assumption would be wrong.

Juliet Schor, a Professor of Sociology at Boston College, explained in her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, that the average American in 1987 was working about 1,949 hours annually, while an adult male peasant in 13th-century England racked up approximately 1,620 hours yearly.

The average number of hours worked has gone down a little since the late 1980s. According to the latest figures, on average, a full-time employee in the United States works 1,801 hours per year, or 37.5 hours per week. But that’s still more than their medieval counterparts.

Economists of the last century have turned out to be quite wrong about the direction work was taking.

According to Business Insider, “John Maynard Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, made a famous prediction that by 2030, advanced societies would be wealthy enough that leisure time, rather than work, would characterise national lifestyles. So far, that forecast is not looking good.”

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic made people work more. They might not have been putting in their hours at an office but they were trapped by their jobs nonetheless.

The Economist reported on research showing that in April and May of 2020 the average working day was 30 minutes longer than in January and February, which was before the lockdown.

In recent articles, the work culture at online startup Oxy Media has drawn widespread disapproval. One 24-year-old producer ended up in the hospital after two weeks’ worth of 18 hour days that she felt pressured to perform. She told CNN she feared letting her boss down.

The producer eventually left her job for a six-week outpatient program created for “extremely depressed people to get better.”

The United States is the only advanced country with no national vacation policy. “Many American workers must keep on working through public holidays, and vacation days often go unused,” said Business Insider.

But how could things have possibly been better in medieval times?

“Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all,” wrote Schor in her book. “Consider a typical working day in the medieval period. It stretched from dawn to dusk (sixteen hours in summer and eight in winter), but, as Bishop Pilkington has noted, work was intermittent — called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap, and dinner.”

Depending on time and place, there were also midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. These rest periods were the traditional rights of laborers, which they enjoyed even during peak harvest times.

And even during slack periods, which accounted for a large part of the year, adherence to regular working hours was not usual. According to Oxford Professor James E. Thorold Rogers, the medieval worker did not labour for more than eight hours in a single day.

Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, no doubt, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off.

The Catholic Church, mindful of keeping a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. One of the priorities of Thomas Cromwell, architect of the Protestant Reformation, was getting rid of some of England’s feast days and other customary days away from labour.

In England, before Cromwell, weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off to celebrate, “and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment,” according to Business Insider. “There were labour-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too.”

In fact, Schor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year. “All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year,” she wrote in her book.

“And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbors. The ancien règime in France is reported to have guaranteed 52 Sundays and 90 rest days as well as 38 holidays. In Spain, travellers noted that holidays totaled five months per year.”

The modern American, after a year on the job, gets an average of eight vacation days annually.

But could this be changing?

It looks like the pandemic has created new thoughts about work. Labour experts say that people who worked grindingly long hours, whether for low pay or not, are reluctant to return to that existence after lockdown.

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More people are quitting their jobs than during any time in the last 20 years, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One woman who quit her job told Fortune, “Something just kind of broke when I thought about how hard I had been working for $32,000 a year.”

Maybe we’re finally going to reach parity with our 14th-century ancestors.

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Nancy Bilyeau is an experienced editor and award-winning novelist. She has contributed stories to Town & Country, The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Mystery Scene. She is passionate about history, pop culture and the perfect bagel. Her latest book is entitled ‘Dreamland’.

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