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The following meme arrived in my inbox.

Medieval Peasants

Peasants in the medieval era worked just 150 days a year on average. The church believed it was crucial to keep them content by making frequent required holidays. Compared to a medieval peasant, you take fewer holidays.

I'm aware that "Medieval" is loosely defined and covers the best part of a thousand years and at the very least an entire continent, but is there any time and place in Medieval Europe where this might have been true? Was it generally true?

I'm also aware of the very large number of saint's days recognized by the church, but my understanding is that they were not all "holidays" in the sense of people not working on them.

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    It could well depend on what you define as 'work'. Given that almost everything that had to be done, was done manually (growing crops, raising livestock, construction and maintenance of homes/farms/workshops, cutting/chopping/hauling firewood, etc., etc.) I would guess that people were kept busy pretty much the whole year round.
    – Steve Bird
    Jan 23 at 20:35
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    First result on Google attributes the 150 hour estimate to economist Gregory Clark, and specifies it's for male peasants in 13th century UK, with further details including citation: groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/…
    – Brian Z
    Jan 23 at 20:51
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    Meme is not accurate? I'm shocked, shocked I say. After as, as Abraham Lincoln once said, 75% of the statistics on the internet are made up..... <NOT poking fun at OP, poking fun at myself and every other internet user>
    – MCW
    Jan 24 at 12:34
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    What does it even mean? Medieval peasants were largely doing extensive subsistence agriculture. How can the church grant a holiday to a peasant that isn't on their payroll? Or is this claim limited to serfs who were subject to the church and not working for themselves?
    – gerrit
    Jan 24 at 17:18
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    If you have dairy cows, you have to milk them every day, twice a day. No holidays, except if you find someone else to milk your cows for you Jan 24 at 17:31

4 Answers 4

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Probably not. The one economist this number can be traced to now says its a huge underestimate.

In 1986 economist Gregory Clark wrote a working paper that (according to citers) contained this estimate. It doesn't appear he published it, but it got cited. He actually did for real publish a new paper in 2018 raising that number up to an estimate of 250-300 days. That's quite a revision!

However, in the meantime a popular book was published by a sociologist that used that earlier lower number of 150. "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure". Since then this number went wild on the internet (likely because its a shocking number, or perhaps because people like that number and want it to be true).

Whatever the reason, it seems I see this on Twitter (largely because someone I follow is debunking it) at least once a week, often with a variant of that picture. Its happened enough that since April there's been a Twitter community note for it:

enter image description here

User u/LordEiru on r/badhistory did a deep dive on this. The whole story is worth reading (although a bit aggressive for my tastes). They did include several links to the sources involved.

The Clark citation is by comparison more fair and accurate. That is not to say it is without issues, however. First, the citation is to a working paper that does not appear to have ever been published fully – Clark himself does not list it anywhere on his publications, and other attempts to find it only make reference to it having been cited in Schor’s work. Nonetheless, it would be reasonable to ask if work from 1986 is still an authoritative source on the subject or should be used as evidence. The answer is very hilariously no: Gregory Clark doesn’t believe that Clark 1986 is correct. The Atlantic published an article on the debate over the working hours subject on May 6th, 2022, in which Clark is quoted as rejecting the prior conclusion and noting his current work on the subject instead estimates nearly 300 days of labor per year – quite in line with the 308 days estimate by Keynon.

Here's a link to the Atlantic Article where Clark's work is mentioned. Sadly, being an overworked peasant myself, I'm stuck soundly on the wrong side of its paywall.

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    Since the article you link to is behind a paywall, could you include some relevant quotes? Jan 23 at 21:15
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    I believe one must also qualify "day" in this context, certainly for the peasantry. During harvest a "day" might have been 16 hours long, though only for a week or three; while in the depths of winter a "day" might have only been 3 or 4 hours. Secondly, there is a longstanding English tradition of "half-days" on Wednesday and Saturday (only the mornings being worked) that has faded only very recently. (In1962-65 that still applied to my local Woolworth's Five and Dime.) It might behoove to verify if this extended back into the Medieval period. Jan 24 at 1:03
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    Peasants often had obligations to work for their lords, maybe three days per week. But this was without pay. They also had to work for themselves, tending crops on their own piece of land or caring for animals etc., or for money, so time not working for the lord was not free time in the modern sense.
    – davidlol
    Jan 24 at 4:28
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    @davidlol Three days per week seems incredibly high. Numbers I have come across in literature range from a low of one day per year, to 12 days per year as kind of average case, to 50 days per year at the high end, this latter level of obligation for manual labor and draft animal service leading to active resistance among the peasantry. As a child I grew up in a village in a European country, and farmers with animals had to put in some amount of work every single day: cows needed to be milked daily and all animals needed to have food supplied at least during the winter (e.g. from the hay loft).
    – njuffa
    Jan 24 at 5:51
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    @BrianZ - I loved the end paragraph: "If you’re looking for a vision of history where people were generally peaceful and contented, though, you might want to check in with societies outside of the Middle Ages. Perhaps look for a group of people not perpetually engaged in siege warfare. “Medieval peasants are a weird one to go to, because, you know, they were rebelling constantly,” Janega noted. “Why are they storming London and burning down the Savoy Palace, if this is a group of happy-go-lucky, simple folk who really love the way things are?”"
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 24 at 14:29
3

What does "Work" mean? Quite likely you worked 150days for the land owner, for which you earned the right to work "your" land for your own benefit. Then you still had to spend other many days on your own land to raise your own food etc as well as take part of your own time to fix or build your house, create resources to pay for various other things you need.

So converted to today's economics, the 150 days of work were effectively paying your land rent/mortgage and taxes. You'd have to work another 150 days to get the other things a modern job provides: resources for food, house (other than the land), etc.

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    – Community Bot
    Jan 25 at 23:51
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The answer is, as usual when a meme is involved, a bit more complicated.

For starters (and as it was pointed out here numerous time in comments) it depend on what "day" is.

Meme says something like "you now work more than medieval peasant". Standard workday is 8 hours. Peasant worked - depending on time of year, and it was mentioned elsewhere in the topic - between 6-8 (in winter) and 16 (in summer, especially in harvest) hours a day, so it is important to define "day".

Even today, with mechanization and automation available, farming is one of the most labor intensive activities, so it's not a surprise that it have been much more so several centuries back - it could be as much as 200-250 days a year.

On the other hand, families back then also have been substantially bigger - not only there were usually three generations living in the same household, everyone worked until one literally couldn't; be it "not yet" or "not anymore". This means that same amount of work, split between 12-15 people instead of 5-6, could be done faster. This is very important, because traditionally farm land was rented from the landlord in exchange for any kind of payment: money, fraction of the harvest, work on landlord's fields, work for landlord directly or all combined. However, the payment due was from household, and not per person, thus more children meant more hands for fixed "amount" of work required by landlord (Serfdom and slavery in the European economy, 11th-18th centuries, ed. S. Cavaciocchi, Firenze University Press 2014.)

In addition, those were the times where religion and faith played far greater role in life than today, so any and all religious holidays were usually free from work - bear in mind though, that there is no such thing as a truly work-free day on medieval farm - which can be a fair number of days in a year.

Best yet, in some part the meme is correct - peasants on average didn't work more than the mentioned 150 days (or even less).

But basically until the end of the 16th century, mostly because later came climate change and yields decreased drastically, forcing farmers to increase the area of ​​cultivation, in effect often doubling their workload just to grow food. But wait, there's more. The duties of a peasant were multitude: from standing night guard in the landlord's manor, to transporting landlord's goods, make repairs to his household or to roads and bridges...

So this meme is a case of one having at least some truth in it - sadly, the rest of it is of the "in the good, old days of the golden age" of grandfathers' tales category, because in 18th century, for example, the number of days was usually more than 150. As usual, the poorest had the worst (yes, even then there were wealthy and poor peasant - difference usually was in having draft animals), who had to work sometimes even 600-700 days in a year... Not a good number, that. (Serfdom. The real history of Polish slavery, Kamil Janicki, 2021)

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    This means that same amount of work, split between 12-15 people instead of 5-6, could be done faster. This depends if the amount of work was limited by the workforce or some other factor. If the amount of work a family could do was limited (they could only grow crops in a given terrain) then having more hands meant less work on average. But if there were other profitable work opportunities (expanding the cultivated area, collecting wood/wild fuits, hunting, working for others) then having more people would not necessarily mean less work per people.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 25 at 10:56
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    Remember that if you family had lots of people, you had to feed and provide clothes for them. And with medieval technology, that was not as easy as today.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 25 at 10:57
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    @MCW - meme says sth like "you now work more than medieval peasant". Standard workday is 8 hours. Peasant worked - depending on time of year, and it was mentioned elsewhere in the topic - between 6-8 (in winter) and 16 (in summer, especially in harvest) hours a day, so it is important to define "day". Family size - joking, right? If there are 8 children in the family, then man can concentrate on heavy-duty tasks, woman can take better care of home and kids do light chores, gather food in forest (for example) and assist with light work... Climate change is huge factor... Really have to explain?
    – AcePL
    Jan 25 at 14:10
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    @MCW - Well, added sources, so have at it. As for specific climate change - ever heard of crop reduction due to unusually long winter or late spring freezing weather? Little Ice Age did exactly that, semi-permanently and world-wide (with Europe being well documented).
    – AcePL
    Jan 25 at 14:48
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    This answer bears no resemblance to the actual state of affairs for a medieval farming family. Please read acoup.blog/2020/07/24/…
    – SPavel
    Jan 25 at 15:12
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Probably. Other subsistence cultures (Philippines, Indonesia) even in the 20th century only worked at planting and harvest: the other half of the year wasn't worked.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Jan 26 at 8:28

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