Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Medieval Work Life

The Protestant Reformation and Work, Ryan Reeves (video)

Reeves offers a view on the medieval life of the peasant (beginning here).  His comments add to my earlier understanding that relative to our time and place – and, of course, discounting for the technological advances – peasants and serfs didn’t have it so bad.

First, I will review some of my previous work on this.  As is often pointed out, the serf was tied to the land; yet, he was no more tied to the land than his lord.  Society, by and large, was agricultural and rural.  Being tied to the land meant food.

The serf owed allegiance to his lord, but only to the extent that the lord kept up his end of the bargain; their oath was mutual, binding two ways.  The lord was obliged to offer protection and to offer charity in times of difficulty.  The serf had the right to the produce of certain fields of the lord’s lands; the lord could not remove the serf on a whim, and the serf had access to a court in case of grievance.

The serf owed labor to his lord, the amount varying over the centuries and in different geographic regions.  This could range from a few days per year to a few days per week – the latter, per household, meaning that a family of six could meet the obligation in one day or less.  This, compared to our taxes, is miniscule.  Serfs were not obligated to fight the lord’s battles, but could do so with the possibility of gaining freedom thereafter. 

Serfs owed allegiance, but they most certainly were not slaves (slavery having been virtually eliminated in much of medieval Europe).  The slave was property, the serf was still a man.  The lord did not have the right over the serf’s life and death; the serf could marry and establish a family; he was able to acquire property and pass it on to his children.

With this as background, I now return to Reeves.  Like Reeves, on this point it is not my intent to get into the various Protestant / Catholic angles of this story; it is merely to describe the medieval life of the peasant – and it was a life that was, in many ways, quite different than the stereotypes offered to us.

Reeves first offers many of these stereotypes, Monty Python being the expert that many rely on.  The farmer bathed once a year, died before the age of thirty, life was pain and misery.  The work day was 16 – 18 hours.  The peasants worked themselves into the grave, lived in houses with dirt floors and barely a roof.  Everyone was angry, and fathers spent their free time beating their wives and children.

Instead, the average person in the Middle Ages was not overworked: in Spain and France, the peasant worked about five months a year; in England, seven to eight months.  The Catholic Church mandated significant time off for the average worker: in France, for example, every Sunday was off, there were ninety additional rest days, and almost forty additional holidays tied to the Church calendar.

There were festivals and church events, one of the most interesting was the “ale,” a seven-day party.  One of the most common was for a wedding – a bride-ale, today’s bridal.  A seven-day ale would be held for a funeral as well.

What of the workdays – was it eighteen hours?  No.  it was more like seven or eight hours.  Yes, they worked from dawn to dusk, but with many breaks in-between.  He might start work at dawn, then return to have a leisurely breakfast; after returning to work for a time, he would take a long break; after more work, lunch and a nap.  The afternoon proceeded in the same manner.  Given the minimal workdays owed to the lord (taxes for us), how much work was necessary in order to provide for the family?  Apparently not much.

One can see here where the idea of Protestant work ethic comes from; one can also see remnants of this in places that still reflect the Catholic influence, like France and Spain; this when compared to the more Protestant Germanic countries today.


Of course, the connection can be made that the increased amount of work today has brought us the technological advances.  At the same time, it seems fair to consider that modern life is far too focused on the pace and amount of work as opposed to a focus on family, friends, and health.  Much of this could be dealt with merely by a return of owing the lord (the state) only a few days of work per year!

In any case, my point isn’t to make any sweeping comparison of work ethic, technology, etc.  Just to paint the picture of the work life of the medieval peasant or serf.  It most certainly did not fit the stereotypes of today, and while the serf did not benefit from our technology, he also did not suffer from our frantic lifestyle or bondage by the state.


  1. What timing. I just finished reading a chapter on the Middle Ages within a book I am going through. Work was highly valued during that time.


    1. I started reading this earlier today. Thank you for sharing it here.

  2. I really like Ryan Reeves. I will have to go back and watch this video. He is really good on Tolkien and Lewis history too.

    About serfs, I think their work schedule was limited by growing season too. The fact that they only worked 5-8 months a year may not have been a good thing. I read a while back that serfs in many areas had to do a kind of hibernation to make it through winter. They would conserve as much energy as possible: eat little, lay in bed many hours, make fires just to eat, etc. Of course this would apply to any pre-modern society.

    But it is obvious that stereotypes of this period are way off. The little I have learned makes me want to learn much more. As BM has highlighted in this blog, the political landscape was very interesting and there are lessons for all of us to learn if we want a more free society in our day.