Are you overworked?

If one reads history like Mel does, then it did surprise him that despite the improvement of labour rights over the last 150 years, we are all working harder than the serfs of the middle ages ever did!

Really you ask?

Well if you believe this report, you’d think that these poor serfs had it much better than the average office stiff/drone today! To think these near slaves have 150 days off in a year? And some of us work weekends these days? Because the article cited sources, it was the ever inquisitive Mel that did some researching into the history of the supposedly dreary lives of peasants 5-600 years ago. In the western European context (his favorite).

The findings:

  • Farming, as it still is today is intense, but usually only at field rotating, planting and harvesting. In between its like watching grass grow (literally). Yes this is simplifying it, but like herders the serfs watch their farms – to keep away pests etc. It is not back breaking planting throughout the whole year. Many a time it was spent drinking ale…Statistics are hard to get, but Mel found out that some monastery in England was giving their serfs a gallon of ale per day in the late 1300s according to historical records.Ok, shortage of clean drinking water was another reason…but still, ale?
  • Serfs probably spent more time on other things such as maintaining their tools, homes etc. Which is actually not so far off from what farmers do today. And for the womenfolk, working on fabrics, housework etc while minding children. We know of some folks in the US (ladies) who quilt in the fallow months today (not medieval times).
  • Sundays were definitely a day off – as serfs file off to church. If you look up the feast days of medieval England you will find 45 of them. Not sure if each and every one of those are days of revelry or rest. But they are days off the farm.
  • Serfs had to work for their lords as part of the feudal contract (yep there’s one) and this could be 2-3 days in a week. But at the same time they also participated in the manorial lord’s activities such as feastings, joustings, hunting etc. Yes it would be callous to compare that to work vacations, but hey that’s a comparison!
  • And serfs did also have rights – such as help from the lords during crop failures, a medieval sort of social security. Just like unemployment benefits. Who foots the bill? The manorial lord of course!

It is not a totally fair comparison, because today we have mostly 5-day work week. Which means 104 days of weekends + the paid vacations and public holidays.

medieval-feasts
45 days of this every year? Wow.

Conclusions

With many now working long hours in the weekdays (12+ in many cases that we know of) and some hours over the weekend, we can safely say we might not have it that much better. Ignoring the threat of plagues and wars, materially yes but socially and leisurely perhaps not.

Would this convince  you to be teleported back to medieval times as a serf?

Author: Mel & Suan

Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!

58 thoughts on “Are you overworked?”

  1. Such an interesting comment on society. And the bloggers commenting made for a revealing post! I suppose after reading them all, I would say that we often think modern society is better off, and indeed medically and in other ways it is. Perhaps our basic needs are better met, and we might have more security in developed nations, yet our life still seems undesirable in many ways. And I totally agree that we seem to be losing worker’s right and heading backwards to serdom. Corporate slave… how true!! One major difference is that we have so much more knowledge about the world and others. I hope that this will mean that the decline in life satisfaction levels halts at some point. It is important for our mental health to have a work/life balance. Enlightened corporations understand and embrace this. Would I like to live in medieval times? Certainly not. Women in particular had little respite from drudgery and hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We are very happy to have started off a hot topic without delving into the current political and social circumstances. We seemed to have replaced one master for another, noble lords vs corporate titans. They both extract seignorage from us. Can we really have work life balance? Hmmm…we are thinking of the next post to elicit a conversation on that!
      Suan: I would like to add. Women in history has mostly (if not entirely) not had an equal relationship with men. We stand at the crossroad of making progress and cannot let it slip back.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can see we agree on this. One yoke has been replaced by another. Can the worker ever really be free? I feel I have a good work life balance, but for many years I did not. However, I am lucky enough to work part time, even though I have enough work to fill full time hours. So I sometimes do a little at home, but not often. And Suan I do think females are not yet equal to males in so many ways, but because I have lived in this unequal society for many years, I have in recent times, inadvertently and ironically been able to achieve a work life balance. My wage was never as high as my husband so when it came time to start having children, I dropped to part time work and part time child caring. Now the kids are grown and almost completely independent, my time is more my own on days off from work.
        I do think we have to protect the rights of woman to choose their own lifestyle and equal pay for the same work tasks.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Human beings are adaptable. You bring out a very good point. We tend to think that modern is better, and that we live longer. Statistics are confusing. Childbirth was more difficult and loss of young lives lowered the stats for longevity. But if people made it past birth, they often lived very long lives, and you point out fairly full lives. I love how you took statistics and made sense of them. 🙂 Good reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heheh, Mel did a little sleuthing because he could not believe what the studies cited. But when he showed me the research into how much ale was issued and consumed by the serfs of a particularly large monastery (with written records dating back), it convinced me that perhaps life back then may not have been as bleak as history was written! Its like modern journalism. Sensationalism seems to sell!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. How true is that. It’s something to consider. When we teach history, it’s like we always teach with the modern slant of things are better now. In many cases they were. I would not want to have worked on a whaling ship. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

          1. That is true, though even the beaten down try to scratch out their stories as well. I’m thinking of the Jews, Asian immigrants to the United States, Native Americans. Their stories are not hidden forever.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. When we were visiting Ellis island we saw how the histories of the migrants to the States were represented. And the candidness about how certain ethnicities were excluded, restricted, discriminated against etc. Its a good time to heal.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. It was just as bad, if not worse, on the west coast coming in to Angel Island. The Chinese left poetry graffiti on the walls describing their treatment and life while waiting days, weeks and months to enter the US.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. And it was interesting to note that it was Chinese indentured labor that help built the railways! But then you see, humans have always squabbled over resources and one of them was territory. We seem to be still doing the same today.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Yes, we never would have the railroads built without the Chinese. Interestingly, their tireless work scared people to death. Americans could never compete with that kind of worker. 🙂 And they couldn’t have. Not only that, there were so many more Chinese than Americans, so it would not have taken much time for the demographics to change. Had the Native Americans been as effective at warding off the Northern Europeans, as the Americans were at excluding the Chinese, there would not have been any Chinese building railroads. Had the Chinese not been excluded, there would have been no need for braceros in the 1930s. There might not have been a Dust Bowl because they might have done a better job conserving the soil. 🙂 It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

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  3. I think working hard isn’t always bad thing or the problem. If you can find job that makes you happy even if you have to work a lot there is no reason to return to middle ages and work as serf. This was interesting post. I don’t think we can ever talk enough about current work conditions and the world where we are excepted to give our whole life for working.

    I really like your blog and you have always interesting fresh point of views to different subject. That’s why I nominated you for Blogger Recognition Award. I would love to hear how you started this blog. 🙂
    https://lostviivi.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/one-year-blogging-award/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, from a material standpoint we probably not want to the teleported back to those days. This post fulfilled our intent – ie to get people to think and appreciate our current circumstances. The grass always appear greener on the other side. Not sure if its really true!

      And, thank you for the nomination! But we are an award free blog, so we are truly appreciative of it.
      What we will do however would be to write a short piece on how this all began for us. How does that sound?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well you definitely made people think what is always a good thing. And I can totally understand you being award free blog because even I don’t publish awards in my main blog. However I would love to read how your blog began because I think hearing the story behind bloggers I like is always interesting. 🙂

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  4. I most definitely would not want to be a medieval serf. They worked hard on their lord’s behalf for (usually) three days a week, but then had to go and work on their own land. Their lord did not look after them if there was some kind of disaster. There was no safety net and if there was a famine or a virulent disease doing the rounds, people died. Physical injury was always a risk and a simple cut could kill in the days before antibiotics. Even on feast days there was still work to be done. The serf couldn’t even leave the lord’s land without his permission.

    They drank ale because they would have died if they drank most of the water that was available. Ale was very weak, so you could drink a lot and not get drunk, unless a strong batch was made for a particular celebration.

    We might live more stressful lives, although I doubt it, but very few people in the fourteenth century (my particular area of interest) lived into their forties.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s right! Glad this got your attention! The conditions for life back then were definitely less conducive for a longer and more fruitful life. And indeed the serf contract was nothing more than a formality in most cases. As you might have read in our other posts and in this one as well – we made reference to how the people (serfs in this case) had been treated as “property” for the longest time by the novile classes. Not a typo. Yes Novile – vile as in cruel.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Serfs weren’t just treated as property, they were property. There wasn’t a contract between them and the lord of the manor. You might be confusing them with freemen, who were tenants of the lord of the manor. There was a contract between the lord of the manor and his tenants and it was very much not a formality. They were properly recorded and referred to in any dispute between the lord and his tenants.

        A serf owned nothing in his own right. Technically, because a serf was the property of his lord, everything he had was also the property of the lord.

        You’re touching on subjects dear to my heart and I’ve blogged recently about lords of the manor and peasants, so these sorts of things are still in my head.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Serfs did have contracts. One entered into it voluntarily or by force. And their children continue to be serfs. Their status became hereditary largely because many were born into it. Freemen came about largely after the 1400s mostly but not exclusively due to the plagues about a century before decimating populations across Europe.
          The forebears of the serfs were freemen tenants from the times of the Romans. Serfdom predominantly came about because of the loss of law and order post Charlemagne’s death and the division of his realms into 3, squabbling that ensued amongst his sons & descendents (900s-1100s amongst East Francia, West Francia and Lotharingia). That was the reference to the robber knights and barons.
          While it is true in practice the “contracts” and obligations were to be fulfilled between serfs and the manorial lords, it was usually not. We noted that even the large monasteries and religious orders had serfs. The information of how much ale was issued to the serfs came from records at these institutions. Mel delights in Medieval history too. Perhaps we can exchange some views!

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          1. I think I can see where we’re talking at cross purposes. I’m talking about England and you’re talking about France, plus the other bits of Europe that were included in Charlemagne’s empire. I hadn’t realised that things were so different on the Continent, although it makes sense, since they had neither the Anglo-Saxons nor the Norman Conquest.

            I have only got a couple of books that give an overview of what was happening in the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages, so I’d love it if you have any recommendations to fill in the gaps. I read French and German, if that helps. If you’re aware of any French or German bloggers about the Middle Ages, that would also be great. I follow this one http://www.him-mag.com/frequence_medievale_crieur_public_nicolas_offenstadt/, which occasionally has some gems.

            I find the fourteenth century the most interesting, but I can be persuaded to visit other centuries.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Mel: England had a unique situation inheriting the Nordic traditions of freemenship. As you probably might agree, modern English folks probably came from a melange of Scandinavians and north “Germans”. The Angles came from southern Jutland. In the nordics serfdom did not take root at all. So serfdom was relatively unknown in England though I qualify as saying there were occurences of it. Serfdom as a subject is widely studied and debated. There are many sources published on the internet. I read this subject as a republican (not the US ones) and to understand how we as freemen came under tyranny.
              I will have to revisit my little “library” references (which I collect and they are in English) and some web links and share that with you that you might have the opportunity to look them up.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Thank you. Most of the books I have are fairly clear and united about serfdom being what I’ve expressed to you. In the beginning of the fourteenth century more than half the population was a serf. That situation changed by the end of the century, with more men becoming freemen. The Vikings might not have entertained having serfs (and I have no idea, because the Vikings are before the time in which I’m really interested), but the Normans were. The Anglo-Saxons had slaves, but the Normans preferred serfs, since the lord had no responsibility for them, but the serfs had to work for the lords.

                I’m very aware of my mixed heritage. The redheads in my family indicate that we have Viking blood, so I probably ought to be a bit more interested in them than I am. A blood disorder in the other side of the family says that we have Mediterranean forebears. I’m sure we also have antecedents from other parts of Europe, not just from Scandinavia and Germany.

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                1. The impetus for the change from serfdom to freemen in the 1300s were multifolded. It made economic sense for the feudal lords to rent out their lands rather then to have serfs tied to it and be “obligated” to ‘care’ for them in accordance with the feudal contract though in reality they don’t. They could do more with it flexibly. Second, there were the ravages of disease who decimated populations. So labor became scarcer. Competition for serfs heated up and some lords began to offer better contracts which morphed into modern day employment or tenancy agreements. Serfdom is not my focus and certainly not a specifc reference to the 1300s, so I might want to re-look into my references and sources. Let’s keep this debate raging!

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            2. Mel: One more thing about Serfdom. It came from the original concept of being tied to the land and was a Roman concept. In that time farmers were tenanted by the State and they pay taxes to Rome. Such was the basis of Roman economic power. In the ages of the “barbarian” invasions (400-500s), farmers tried to run from their tenancy because of rising taxes. There was a forced policy of arresting “errant” farmers and returning them to the land. This gave rise to the concept of a legal bondage which one cannot leave the land. In medieval times the ravages of war made control over the lands hard (the roman roads had decayed by then). This was the beginings of feudalism where the state or sovereign granted fiefs in return for allegiance and homage. Serfs formed the bottom of this feudal hierachy of fied grants.

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              1. I think you might be confusing serfs with freemen. Serfs were certainly at the bottom of the heap, but they had no rights to the land they held. Freemen rented land from the lord of the manor, so they had rights to the land, although it’s wrong to say that anyone held rights in the land other than the king. I’m only talking about the fourteenth century. It might have been different before and after.

                I’m afraid I know nothing about England under Roman rule. I’m not sure what you mean by the ‘ravages of war’ making control difficult. The only wars fought on English soil after the Conquest were civil wars and there weren’t many of those before the fifteenth century and they were generally fairly short, apart from the Anarchy.

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                1. Try reading these:
                  http://www.historyteacher.net/GlobalHistory-1/Readings/FeudalContract.html
                  http://www.schurzhs.org/ourpages/…/Feudal%20Contract%20of%20Jon%20Cayworth.docx

                  Semantics is the issue here. Free tenants that were truly liberated were rare. Becasue by the 1300s, most farming folks had been in generations of serfdom. Villeins as they are called, are the “tenants” but in reality they tool are in bondage to the lord with slightly more defined rights.

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                  1. Hi Mel, neither of those sites bothers to attribute their source so I found this http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Manor.html, which puts John of Cayworth in context.
                    The document is not a contract, although I can see why it could be taken as one. It’s actually a record in the manorial court rolls of what is owed by the lord’s tenants and serfs to him. The freemen only have to pay rent, but the serfs give money and services. The freemen were completely free. They even had the right to be tried in the king’s courts, while the serfs could only appeal to the manorial court. The serfs had to pay fees to the lord when they got married or when the holding passed from someone who died to his or her heir. They also had to pay fines if they transgressed against the lord. The freemen did not.
                    There were different classes of medieval peasantry and it’s really complicated, which is why I haven’t written a post about it yet. I’ve written a couple which have touched on it, but I’d need to do a lot more reading before I tackle the subject as a whole.
                    My favourite part of that webpage, incidentally, is the final entry, where a serf is released by his lord and made a freeman.

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                    1. Absolutely! First, historical records are scant and not reliable enough to make an overall assessment over the whole of England let alone continental Europe. There is no single book or authority that can say with certainty if freemen were truly free because it varied. This intermittently went on from the 1300s to the 1500s. You will recall that Norman sovereigns were busy fighting the hundred years’ war in France and high taxation was rife. The king does not tax the peasants directly but exact dues from the barons. There are interesting stories about how the peasantry tried to get around manorial courts etc…so overall the 1300s was a period of transition. I am reaching out to folks who have done more in-depth research into the topic. Perhaps they might be able to point out where else to read!

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                    2. These are the books I’ve read on the subject, but I’m sure there are others that are just as useful:
                      England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh
                      Medieval Lives – Terry Jones
                      Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies
                      Making a Living in the Middle Ages – Christopher Dyer
                      The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer
                      England, Arise – Juliet Barker

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  5. I think I would love to be teleported to a future generation where work is on a discretionary, do-as-you-please basis (with greater safety nets provided of course). Where money is truly a currency for intellect not labour (I mean labouring for your bosses). It’s funny that you should post about this, because I’ve been saying lately that slavery is definitely well and alive in today’s society. I would be the first to put my hand up for being a corporate slave (and not even a glorified one at that)!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Corporate slaves! LOL. Great term to described us modern “serfs”.
      They say something about AI replacing us in many areas of work. Hmmm…some even said that when robots and AI beings do all the work for us, Humans should focus on creativity, philosophy etc…sigh. When will they happen? We can’t wait!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. Human intellect is totally underrated and unharnessed. For 90% of my day I have my brains switched off, and yet I’m meant to be in banking!! If that’s not a slave I don’t know what is.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hmmm…that’s interesting…did not think about banking that way. Perhaps because we are in manufacturing and there are always problems to be solved. AI or robots cannot easily compromise or negotiate…

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  6. Still not. 🙂 We choose to work this hard and we can make another choice to work less… except, of course, that means change of lifestyle in that the luxuries might decrease. 🙂

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  7. I for one would like to be transported back to Medieval ages, minus the diseases, violence, injustices, etc… (like that’s possible). But, only for a couple of days perhaps weeks, I’m really a curious person and would like to see what it’s like to live in a different generation.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Let me see, threat of the black plague, small pox, starvation in the winter, leprosy, and no right if the nobility wanted to beat me to death. High mortality rate for giving birth…

    But I’m tempted by all that free time and no cell phone zombies! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Hmm, I guess comparative levels of education, healthcare, violence (since nations in those days had less qualms about marching into each other for conquest) etc. even things out in terms of whether lives were better then or now, I suppose. We have what we call ‘first-world problems’ today, including those caused by technology which was meant to be an asset, and they had problems on a whole different scale back then. Maybe we should ask ourselves if what some call the progress of modernity has really been achieved?

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    1. Indeed! While serfs were tied to the land, we seemto be tied to technology! That’s why we also believe that despite ‘progress’, is that really the case? Perhaps for a small group of people. Not for all!

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  10. I don’t think so. I mean I don’t think their life was easy. They had to work physically very hard. We have to go to the gym to sweat. My dad was a farmer and he only took part of Sunday off ( couldn’t be completely off because he has to milk our cows). I think most people work hard now because they want to ( make more money/spend more money)… but I also know we want to do more fun things in life than my parents’ generation who were mostly happy with less adventures than we try to have . My comment make sense to you ? :-))

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    1. Of course. This post was half in jest. Mel does not take breakfast. Some day – its the most important meal of the day. Yeah right – for a farmer who wakes up at 4am to plant or milk the cows so as you say…yes it is. Not for an office worker who sits there 8-10 hours…
      However, what we do have perhaps are mental stress. Not just because we want to make more money but also because we have to. Cost of living has risen while standard of living stagnated or even declined. So do we really have it better?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point. The most important thing is that we like what we do and that we only try to live with what we can afford. Mental stress, I think what most people have and then burnt out. always fun to read your comment. BTW, I think my dad got up more around 5:30 but he couldn’t travel because he was slave to his animals and his work but still he had chose this work. The freedom of your own business without a boss is something that can make a difference in a life.

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        1. We have friends who run their own business. And they tell us its actually harder then being in corporate. You become worker, manager, counseller, finance, payroll/HR to the employees…unless one is a freelance contractor…

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