Who works harder: medieval peasants or modern American workers?

              peasant at work

This piece at the Reuters blog got my attention this morning:

Life for the medieval peasant was certainly no picnic. His life was shadowed by fear of famine, disease and bursts of warfare. His diet and personal hygiene left much to be desired. But despite his reputation as a miserable wretch, you might envy him one thing: his vacations.

Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

As for the modern American worker? After a year on the job, she gets an average of eight vacation days annually.

Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you by Lynn Parramore

 

Not saying I’m looking to trade antibiotics for week-long wedding celebrations, but this should make us think about what we accept as progress.

When workers fought for the eight-hour workday, they weren’t trying to get something radical and new, but rather to restore what their ancestors had enjoyed before industrial capitalists and the electric lightbulb came on the scene.

American society is guided by a strong commitment to capitalism and a Puritan work ethic that places moral value on physical work. Leisure is still seen as practically (or literally) sinful. (Just look at all the arguments put forth about “the welfare state” and its effect on “work ethic”.) But because we view the present as a natural consequence of continuous social improvements, it’s difficult to convince people that toiling away is actually harming us, both personally and as a nation, setting us backwards, not forwards.

Job stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in
absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal and insurance costs
(Rosch, 2001).

More than half of adults report that family responsibilities are a significant source of stress and
55% of employees say that job demands have interfered with responsibilities at home in the
past three months. (American Psychological Association, 2009).

APA Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program Factsheet

There is a lot of evidence that this stress is killing us, too.

Here’s a taste of some of the protections that workers around the world enjoy and Americans do not:

  • 163 countries around the world offer guaranteed paid leave to women in connection with childbirth. The U.S. does not.
  • 45 countries ensure that fathers either receive paid paternity leave or have a right to paid parental leave. The United States guarantees fathers neither paid paternity nor paid parental leave.
  • At least 96 countries around the world in all geographic regions and at all economic levels mandate paid annual leave. The U.S. does not require employers to provide paid annual leave.
  • 139 countries provide paid leave for short- or long- term illnesses,with 117 providing a week or more annually. The U.S. provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the FMLA, which does not cover all workers.
  • 40 countries have government-mandated evening and night wage premiums. The U.S. does not.
  • At least 98 countries require employers to provide a mandatory day of rest: a period of at least 24 hours off each week. The U.S. does not guarantee workers this weekly break.

Family Friendly Policy: Lessons from Europe

There’s no denying that many of us (as Westerners) take a lot of things for granted (though access is still *far* from universal); things that would have been miraculous not long ago. When we’re sick, we go to a doctor who can probably prescribe something to make it better, or buy over-the-counter remedies for headaches and fevers at the local drug store. We have access to a variety of healthful foods and vitamins so we no longer have to worry about rickets or scurvy. Our public buildings and most of our homes have air conditioning in the summer and artificial heat in the winter. We are fighting to guarantee equal access to public education, something that was not even a possibility for nearly all of human history. But that doesn’t mean we do everything better. Maybe there is still something to be learned from the serf lifestyle.

Medieval_peasant_meal

ETA: It has been brought to my attention that the point I was trying to make has been lost on a few people. I was definitely not saying I’d rather be a medieval serf, but just that our modern workday is not necessarily as progressive as we think, i.e. how much time we spend working or how much time off we get. While some people enjoy cushy benefits, keep in mind many people still work in physically laborious jobs, at minimum wage or below, all year long, for many hours per day, with no paid sick or vacation time or even medical coverage.

Lit lover, history aficionado, baked goods enthusiast, INTP, writer of many things, mom to three.

2 thoughts on “Who works harder: medieval peasants or modern American workers?

  1. “Maybe there is still something to be learned from the serf lifestyle” is fantasy, When the serf was finally released from the shackles of this mortal life his most valued possessions left behind, as evidence of his escape from Dante’s Inferno, may have been his worn and tattered cape or outer garment and a cooking pot. Pray tell, where is the lesson to be learned?

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