It seems like technological advances like seed drills, the cotton gin, reapers (grain harvesters), John Deere tractors, nitrogen fixation, steam engines, the internal combustion engine, cars, aircraft, industrial farming, GMOs, and many other useful inventions coming after 1500 would have drastically reduced the amount of time the average person labored in the 1500's, but I found this article that argued the opposite: http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html

The biggest problem I have with this article is that it implies that any time not spent in service to the lord was leisure time. This article seems to only be talking about the number of hours and days the typical laborer spent in service for their lord. It doesn't mention the amount of labor the average person spent trying to obtain sustenance for themselves and their families. For example, it claims that laborers only spent 120 days in service to their Lord. Were they really able to take 245 days off every year and still have food for themselves and their family?

To make the point about leisure time, I only work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. But I don't get the rest of that time for leisure. I have a habit of sleeping about 8 hours a day. Also, I brush my teeth several times a day; I also shower, shave, wash my hair, brush my hair, etc. daily. So, I spend about an hour conducting personal hygiene. I also spend about 20 minutes in transit to and from work. I don't have to spend any time hunting my meat, picking my veggies, or even really preparing my food. Since I'm a single guy, most of my food is microwaveable. I spend about 15 minutes each day preparing my food. I also buy clothes via Amazon every other month for about an hour. So, that averages to about 1 minute a day. I pay someone to clean and rent, so I spend no time on maintenance. So, for those 5 days a week, I have about 6 hours and 24 minutes of free time to read, play video games, or do anything else, at my leisure.

Now, back in the 16th century, I doubt as much time was spent on hygiene, but I tend to believe more time would be spent on obtaining meat and veggies (wouldn't they have to constantly have fresh due to limitations in preservative methods), food preparation, housing maintenance, clothing maintenance, etc. Also, wouldn't mandatory religious ceremonies limit the amount of leisure time? I think of England as a very religious during this time.

  • You might like to look at the sources cited in that article. For example, the source for the hours worked for the Lord is Bennett's Life on the English Manor pp 104-106. Aside from the day, or half-day, per week worked for the lord of the manor (between 234-468 hours per year, based on their estimate of a 9 hour day, probably much less in most cases), the rest of the time was working for themselves and their families. Dec 12, 2018 at 0:07
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    The scope here is way too large. Try geographically limiting it to southern England. Dec 12, 2018 at 3:32
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    Hi JimmyG. I have reopened the question due to your good faith edits, which I believe shows you were not pushing for a particular answer. You might still wish to restrict this question to a particular locale as @SamuelRussell suggested, though - narrower scope is generally preferred. Compare with this similar question on work hours (but in the 19th century): "How many hours a week did the Tolpuddle Martyrs work? "
    – Semaphore
    Dec 12, 2018 at 5:51
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    For England, 16th century is too long a time-frame in a sense. In 1500 there was an estimated one-third of the peasantry who were tenant farmers of monastic lands, enclosure hadn't even begun, and the New World gold and silver hadn't arrived in the Old World. During the course of the 16th century this all changed, monasteries were dissolved, enclosure started and there was the huge inflation due to the influx of New World's gold and silver, all making the life of a "typical" English peasant very different. Dec 12, 2018 at 20:50
  • @Semaphore The reason I left it open was because I don't know how accurate information was from that time, and I assume it varied greatly with location. While hoping for an exact breakdown of labor practices by region as well as global population, I was really just hoping for the best users can offer, then edit the question as input comes in. Dec 13, 2018 at 2:09

1 Answer 1


The labouring man will take his rest long in the morning; a good piece of the day is spent afore he come at his work; then he must have his breakfast, though he have not earned it at his accustomed hour, or else there is grudging and murmuring; when the clock smiteth, he will cast down his burden in the midway, and whatsoever he is in hand with, he will leave it as it is, though many times it is marred afore he come again; he may not lose his meat, what danger soever the work is in. At noon he must have his sleeping time, then his bever in the afternoon, which spendeth a great part of the day; and when his hour cometh at night, at the first stroke of the clock he casteth down his tools, leaveth his work, in what need or case soever the work standeth. (James Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, ca. 1570, cited in Juliet B. Schorr The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure at http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html#hours )

While pre-capitalist England had waged labourers, these were not the predominant agricultural class until the enclosures reduced many tenant farmers, and all peasants, freeholders, leaseholders, copyholders, part share men, commoners, cottagers and crofters to agricultural labourers for wage. Prior to the wage manorial extraction was based on tithe and dues, often in commutable labour. This labour was resisted through “go slows” and traditional rates of labour output. Labour was leisurely, if not pleasurable. See here Hammond and Hammond’s first edition introduction to The village labourer.

To expand on the production process and extraction of social surplus. The Church and Manor extracted the following:

  • Tithes for the Church. These could be in money, goods or labour. These were paid for the right to continue existing.

  • Dues for the Lord. These could be in money, goods or labour. These were paid for the right of continuing to exist.

  • Rent for the Church or Lord. Paid in exchange for land access. Rents were long term, 20 years.

Common people held multiple statuses in relation to land. Land was held by the head of household, a man, as the embodiment of family. Almost all commoners were subject to working for the lord of the manor and the church on strips of land owned by the manor lord or church; OR to pay money OR to goods. This is because the church and lord had the right to demand this. What matters here is not the particular way that commoners were taxed and tithed but that they were. Whether they work a day on the lords strip as corvee, or work for wages on the lords strip that they pay back as tax, or that they work elsewhere and pay tax—those days they have to work for somebody else. Those are days they can’t enjoy leisure or work for pay or on land for themselves.

In the rest of their worked time they worked on arable land they owned, or rented, or on “common” land they had a right to, or on a cottage garden they had a right to, or on cottage garden they didn’t have a right to but seized, or worked for wages on somebody else’s land to pay for meat and bread.

The division is between days owned by the lord and church (as direct labour or as needing to generate money wage) and days owned by the worker for leisure work on own land or work for wages to feed themselves.

While Pilkington and the Hammonds are both writing in exaggerated genre the intensive nature of labour was low. Manorial lords, owners who leased and farmers all lacked the ability to greatly profit by sweat of another’s brow. The commoners access to self support through the commons gave them the ability to tell the grandees to go stuff themselves. In southern England this was increased by the effects of the plague on the labour market which resulted in a long term trend towards labour and against “feudal” owners.

Correspondingly the number of days worked was low for the same reason of peasant resistance. As Eight centuries of annual hours ( http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html#hours ) cites:

13th century - Adult male peasant, U.K.: 1620 hours

Calculated from Gregory Clark's estimate of 150 days per family, assumes 12 hours per day, 135 days per year for adult male ("Impatience, Poverty, and Open Field Agriculture", mimeo, 1986)

14th century - Casual laborer, U.K.: 1440 hours

Calculated from Nora Ritchie's estimate of 120 days per year. Assumes 12-hour day. ("Labour conditions in Essex in the reign of Richard II", in E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, vol. II, London: Edward Arnold, 1962).

Middle ages - English worker: 2309 hours

Juliet Schor's estime of average medieval laborer working two-thirds of the year at 9.5 hours per day

1400-1600 - Farmer-miner, adult male, U.K.: 1980 hours

Calculated from Ian Blanchard's estimate of 180 days per year. Assumes 11-hour day ("Labour productivity and work psychology in the English mining industry, 1400-1600", Economic History Review 31, 23 (1978).

1840 - Average worker, U.K.: 3105-3588 hours

Based on 69-hour week; hours from W.S. Woytinsky, "Hours of labor," in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. III (New York: Macmillan, 1935). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year

1850 - Average worker, U.S.: 3150-3650 hours

Based on 70-hour week; hours from Joseph Zeisel, "The workweek in American industry, 1850-1956", Monthly Labor Review 81, 23-29 (1958). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year

1987 - Average worker, U.S.: 1949 hours

From The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor, Table 2.4

1988 - Manufacturing workers, U.K.: 1856 hours

Calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Office of Productivity and Technology

Pre-capitalist peasantries were able to regulate how much work they did, both in time and intensity, through a moral economy which reflected the long term balance of power between those who could tax land and those who worked land. This was primarily about latent class war codified in stories about land tenures. However, depopulation or hyperpopulation could also transform the relationships of the moral economy.

In contrast capital as a social relationship is very good at concretely enforcing ownership by capital and reducing labour to abstract labour power (“profitable” and “productive” useful labours).

In the case of England this was done through the combination of enclosure, poor law and political economy (liberalism). Hammond and Hammond’s three part Labourer series is very good on this concrete process of emiseration. But the too long won’t read summary is: he that won’t work don’t eat.

  • Is that an average number of hours per day? Because in winter they didn't work the fields. Otherwise they would work all the hours of daylight. But not Sundays and holy days. It was tradition in my part of the world to plant the family potato patch for the year on Good Friday because this was the only day they had.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 12, 2018 at 12:34
  • The assumptions are explicitly listed in the quote. Dec 12, 2018 at 13:16
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    I may not understand something. So, the men would part-time work for the lord, correct? After working for the Lord, did he have his own fields to attend to, or was the work done by these men on behalf of the lord enough to provide for all of the people year-round? I was under the impression they had their own crops to harvest, livestock to care for. Dec 13, 2018 at 2:17
  • @JimmyG. Expanded at paras following “to expand on the production process...” Dec 13, 2018 at 3:52
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    Great answer. My +1 makes you cross the 10000 rep post. Congrats!
    – Evargalo
    Dec 13, 2018 at 22:30

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