Yves here. Yet another reminded that pre-moden peasants were subject to all sorts of hardships, like disease, war, and the lack of heating, plumbing, and Neflix, but long working hours appear not to have been one of them.
By Bruce Webb. Originally published at
Too wide a scope for a blog post? You betcha. But this was going to be the core of my PhD Dissertation back when I was in such a program and had delusions of adequacy. So those who wonder “WTF does any of this have to do with labor hours?” Well bear with me. Or scroll away. Because much tedium and obscurity is found under the fold. A pure dose of ‘tl/dr’ which doesn’t even get to either Smith or Marx. Yet.
In 1086 and twenty years after his crowning as King of England in 1066 (and all that) William the Conqueror directed that inquiries be made and recorded on what today would be a combination population and economic census which results were recorded in a couple of books now known collectively as Domesday. And whether you see Domesday as being some sort of national agricultural rent book or as a tax assessment it is clear from beginning to end and top to bottom that the fundamental unit of assessment was the ‘hide’. Now what is the exact definition and origin of the ‘hide’. Well huge parts of early medieval British economic historiography revolve around that but by 1086 it was clear that the working definition was the amount of land that in midland England could be plowed by a standard heavy plow drawn by an eight oxen team in a year under a three field system. Now I will be happy to discuss any of those terms in comments but what it amounts to is 120 acres of arable ‘cornfield’ (corn in England meaning ‘grain’).
Now the definition of ‘acre’ is a little more firm than that of hide. The standard acre is 43,560 square feet or in terms more familiar to you all ‘one chain (four rods) by 1 furlong. Ha,ha! I jest. A rod is nominally 16.5′ making a chain 66′. While a furlong is either 600 or 660′ with the latter give us a standard 43560 acres (66 x 660). Now a ‘furlong’ is in origin a ‘furough long’ and is the nominal length that an 8 ox team can pull a plow in a single go. Now you will have to trust me on this one, but it turns out that in normal conditions a plow team could plow an acre a day in furlong long pulls. And over the course of a year could keep 120 total acres in cultivation which is why this area was also called variously a ‘carucate’ from ‘caruca’ Latin for heavy plow, or ‘ploughland’ whose derivation should be pretty damn obvious. So this sets up a schematic but more realistic than not identification of ‘hide’ ‘carucate’ ‘ploughland’ and ‘area plowable by eight oxen in the course of a year’.
Now while the equation of ‘hide’ and ‘land plowable by an 8 ox team’ is clear enough in Domesday, even more clear is that in early Medieval England no actual cultivator of the ground could expect to own a full team or the land to plow it. Instead you had landlords who ‘owned’ multiple hides, often grouped in fives (600 acres) and peasants of varying economic, legal and social status who ‘held’ specific fractions of hides, for the more prosperous a ‘virgate’ or ‘oxgang’ or 30 acres or 1/4th of a hide or a ‘semi-virgate’ or ‘bovate’ or 15 acres or 1/8th of a hide.
Now here is where arithmetic and labor economy comes in. You can plow 120 acres in a year with an 8 ox team. Yet this ‘ploughland’ or ‘carucate’ was split between typical 4 holders of ‘oxgangs’ (which comes from a word meaning ‘two oxen in a yoke) or 8 holders of ‘bovates’ (from Latin bos, bovis ‘ox). And those names indicate that in order to make up the plough-team each holder of a ‘bovate’ was obligated to supply one ox and each holder of an ‘oxgang’ two oxen to match their proportional holding of the ploughland.
Now all of this has been well-known for decades now and relatively uncontroversial but the question that has never really been addressed in the literature as it was when I left the Berkeley PhD program is what does this imply for labor time. Because it turns out that the standard labor requirement to run an 8 ox plough team is two people, a man to ‘man’ the plow and an ‘oxboy’ to guide the team. Which has the result that on any given day of plowing the land of four to eight English peasants can be done by a single man and boy which assuming a rotation of labor means that your typical peasant only needed to work his land one day a week during the heaviest work weeks in a year. Leaving him five full work days to fulfill all his other obligations including often enough plow work for his landlord. But even at that the landlord needed only a single ploughman a day for each 120 acres of demesne land and normally though not always supplied the physical plows and oxen on his own account.
What is more, though many people have the idea that medieval plowmen worked from dawn to dusk (often derived from the literary work ‘Piers Plowman’) in real life plowing knocked off at noon. Not because of any idea about medieval labor law but because the oxen needed half a day to browse and be watered so as to be able to be yoked up the next morning.
So my provocative question is how exploitative of labor time can a medieval economy firmly rooted on cultivation of grain really be if the most labor intensive part of that labor required the work or only one of four or eight participants for one half of the day on their own plots? Did landlords actually have enough land under their direct control to keep the other three or seven peasants fully occupied in plowing duties? That would suggest a ratio of landlord to tenant holdings of somewhere of 3 or 7 to 1. And exactly nothing in the records supports that. Instead landlords were more likely to take their slice in in kind and cash rents than in direct labor.
Now of course plowing isn’t everything. On the other hand there were only 120 typical plowing days in a year. Which were half days. Which begins to raise the question of what the actual work week of your standard serf/peasant in the Year of Our Lord 1000 given an agricultural system whose basic units were ploughlands and ploughteams whose operations only required a fraction of the standard household members supported. Or to jump forward 700 years or so was the 60-80 hour week in a early 19th century factory or mine really an advance over the workweek in William the Conqueror’s days?