Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you

By Lynn Stuart Parramore
August 29, 2013

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.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way: John Maynard Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, made a famous prediction that by 2030, advanced societies would be wealthy enough that leisure time, rather than work, would characterize national lifestyles. So far, that forecast is not looking good.

What happened? Some cite the victory of the modern eight-hour a day, 40-hour workweek over the punishing 70 or 80 hours a 19th century worker spent toiling as proof that we’re moving in the right direction. But Americans have long since kissed the 40-hour workweek goodbye, and Shor’s examination of work patterns reveals that the 19th century was an aberration in the history of human labor. 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. Go back 200, 300 or 400 years and you find that most people did not work very long hours at all. In addition to relaxing during long holidays, the medieval peasant took his sweet time eating meals, and the day often included time for an afternoon snooze. “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” notes Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the U.S. is the only advanced country with no national vacation policy whatsoever. Many American workers must keep on working through public holidays, and vacation days often go unused. Even when we finally carve out a holiday, many of us answer emails and “check in” whether we’re camping with the kids or trying to kick back on the beach.

Some blame the American worker for not taking what is her due. But in a period of consistently high unemployment, job insecurity and weak labor unions, employees may feel no choice but to accept the conditions set by the culture and the individual employer. In a world of “at will” employment, where the work contract can be terminated at any time, it’s not easy to raise objections.

It’s true that the New Deal brought back some of the conditions that farm workers and artisans from the Middle Ages took for granted, but since the 1980s things have gone steadily downhill. With secure long-term employment slipping away, people jump from job to job, so seniority no longer offers the benefits of additional days off. The rising trend of hourly and part-time work, stoked by the Great Recession, means that for many, the idea of a guaranteed vacation is a dim memory.

Ironically, this cult of endless toil doesn’t really help the bottom line. Study after study shows that overworking reduces productivity. On the other hand, performance increases after a vacation, and workers come back with restored energy and focus. The longer the vacation, the more relaxed and energized people feel upon returning to the office.

Economic crises give austerity-minded politicians excuses to talk of decreasing time off, increasing the retirement age and cutting into social insurance programs and safety nets that were supposed to allow us a fate better than working until we drop. In Europe, where workers average 25 to 30 days off per year, politicians like French President Francois Hollande and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras are sending signals that the culture of longer vacations is coming to an end. But the belief that shorter vacations bring economic gains doesn’t appear to add up. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the Greeks, who face a horrible economy, work more hours than any other Europeans. In Germany, an economic powerhouse, workers rank second to last in number of hours worked. Despite more time off, German workers are the eighth most productive in Europe, while the long-toiling Greeks rank 24 out of 25 in productivity.

Beyond burnout, vanishing vacations make our relationships with families and friends suffer. Our health is deteriorating: depression and higher risk of death are among the outcomes for our no-vacation nation. Some forward-thinking people have tried to reverse this trend, like progressive economist Robert Reich, who has argued in favor of a mandatory three weeks off for all American workers. Congressman Alan Grayson proposed the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, but alas, the bill didn’t even make it to the floor of Congress.

Speaking of Congress, its members seem to be the only people in America getting as much down time as the medieval peasant. They get 239 days off this year.

PHOTO: Caitlin, an Australian tourist, enjoys the sun on a beach of the Croisette during a hot summer day in Cannes July 31, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

36 comments

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8 days a year? You’ve got to be joking! I knew things were bad in the US, but I didn’t realise they were that bad. Here in Australia we can expect a minimum of 20 days paid leave a year, plus public holidays. And I’m pretty sure you’d find the same situation everywhere in Europe too. Why do people in the US put up with it?

Posted by WillKemp | Report as abusive

Notice that the author does not actually answer the question put forward in the title of this article… For the answer, study David Ricardo’s “the law of rent”, then consider the “enclosures” of the commons, and investigate the silver bullet: Land Value Taxation.

It is a little known fact that feudalism was *economically* superior to what we have now. Some of the land was left open (“the commons”), and privately held land (owned by land*lords*) was subject to “land value taxation”. Politically, on the other hand, feudalism relied on aristocracy and a caste system, which was of course a disaster.

Posted by wmyl | Report as abusive

What the writer has done is make a fundamental error of translation. “Holidays” is a modern word derived from the expression Holy Days. These were not days where the faithful did no work. They were days they owed duties to the church. Maybe attending a mass or other function.This would be in addition to the usual work of the rural community.
And a common mistake is to assume Holy Days were universal. Medieval Europe was extremely regional. A saint that was celebrated in Northern France might be almost unknown a couple hundred miles south, as they were often connected to local industries or local history.

Posted by perduenfrance | Report as abusive

” the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off”

on what planet ? so, cattle and pigs fed themselves half a year ?

what a load of ….

Posted by emilper | Report as abusive

Holy Days were indeed holidays. What is different is not that medieval holidays were not fun, but that modern holidays are no longer sacred.

Posted by averym | Report as abusive

The 6 to 10 months a peasant was “working” doesn’t mean he spent the remaining 6 to 2 months not working. The peasant spent that part of the year in the employ of someone else. The time this article says he was “not working” was spent entirely on subsistence. It takes a lot of work creating or procuring enough resources on your own for survival.

Think about how much time you take keeping a simple vegetable garden alive. It’s a regular chore and one that certainly won’t sustain you on its own. Now imagine that it needs to be large enough to provide food for an entire family, that you don’t have modern agricultural equipment like sprinklers or a hose and are therefore at the mercy of the weather, that crops hadn’t yet been bred to be as productive as they are now, and that you don’t have the benefit of modern pesticides and herbicides, and that if you failed to produce enough food it meant going hungry.

Posted by Machariel | Report as abusive

It seems like the people that do work, work too much and then there are tons of unemployed people.

How does that make sense? Why does it seem like most people work more then they want to or less then they want to? Why won’t businesses hire more people to spread the work load out?

It makes sense because it is often cheaper to pay someone overtime then it is to hire someone else. There are layers of burdensome regulations and taxes making it more then just a matter of wage for each employee.

Posted by celticelement | Report as abusive

Oh come on. Anyone with half a brain knows that working conditions in the West have drastically declined over the last few decades because of the mafiosas posing as politicians and their corporate/banking masters.

Ever since the Federal Reserve Bank (which is neither Federal nor has any reserves) was instated in the U.S. in 1913, the Western global mafia, which originally and still does consist of the corporate and banking Robber Barons along with the royal families of Britain and Europe (and some nouveau riche thrown in like Buffet, Gates, etc., are the reason why the rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to get poorer in this country.

From the Opium Wars to Iran/Contra, the same stinking, putrid powers still rule today. Some call them the Illuminati, the New World Order, etc. I simply call them the scum of the Earth (who are going to start WWlll if they are not stopped).

Posted by Barishka | Report as abusive

Missinginaction – I’d say that we haven’t flown off the consumerist track; we’re right on it. It’s just that the stokers of the engine (government and mega corporations) just keep throwing coals on the fire to keep the damned thing running and going full throttle even while they’re stomping on the brakes and wondering why they’re not working…

Posted by LifeUniverse | Report as abusive

I wonder how much of the peasants labor was required by the various governing bodies as taxes. Were I not to pay Federal Income, Social Security, Medicare, State Income, State/Local Sales & property taxes, I could take 5-6 months of vacation per year too. Maybe the problem is that we have so much more government than the peasant did.

Posted by Kingfeanor | Report as abusive

We must never romanticize the life of feudal society. It was a terribly exploitive economic model that stifled innovation and progress at every turn…The very innovation that could have made peasant life more bearable by lifting them out of poverty. They didn’t call it the “Dark Ages” for nothing. The lack of technology put a limit on the number of hours people could work. Had there been electricity back then, I’m sure the 19th century sweatshops would have abounded.

The result was that people were able to get adequate SLEEP. We are now living in a 24/7 society where sleep deprivation is a very serious problem. Stagnating wages have created a terrible problem for the underemployed and employed alike. Instead of reasonable pay for reasonable work 1 person is doing the job of 2or 3 people without additional compensation.

If you are part of the rentier class – this is wonderful! You hardly have to lift a finger or do ANYTHING truly productive for society and the money keeps rolling in. Something like what we have in a feudal society. So with modern technology this has the potential to become a feudal society on steroids unless the power base is shared by all. The concentration of WEALTH is creating a concentration of POWER and that is what is truly dangerous about our present situation.

Posted by Ruthmarie | Report as abusive

Shocking how ignorant people are about the Middle Ages. That’s old news. Known that for ages. By the way, if you check the author’s link to the MIT you’ll see the sources are from more than 50 years ago.

Someone above asked about the condition of women back then. Check out Regine Pernoud’s “Women in the days of the cathedrals”. Her “Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths” is also a must-read.

Posted by caiorossi | Report as abusive

The Federal Government should have no hand in whether or not people get “mandatory vacations”. What a load of drivel.

I agree overworking people can be more harmful than beneficial for a company, but this idea that government should step in the middle of whatever contracts workers and employers share amongst themselves is insane.

The reason people worked shorter hours in the Middle Ages – if that’s even really true, for what is the definition of “work” if not the expenditure of energy, the burning of calories – then it’s because in an agricultural society, there isn’t much to be done between planting season and harvest. Then after harvest, there isn’t much to be done through the winter months.

If we are defining “work” in the scientific sense where Work=Force * distance, and if we measure that amount of work done over an average year, I doubt the modern man expends any more watts of energy toward his “work” than a man from the Middle Ages or even up to the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Most modern jobs involve sitting down in air conditioned spaces, talking on telephones, driving vehicles from point A to point B, not harvesting wheat or barley under the baking Autumn sun with a handheld scythe, carting bushels of product manually. Today, even the agricultural jobs are nothing like they were then.

This notion that FDR “saved” the people from a fate without vacations is revisionist and frankly a little contradictory. In the same way manual laborers in the Middle Ages worked harder on average during the time they were technically “at work”, 19th Century workers chose to work harder in an effort to accumulate capital, which in turn could allow them to work less hard as wealth accumulated and life wore on.

People through the 19th Century didn’t necessarily work longer hours against their will. The age of industry was an exciting time for people. It saw the creation of a middle class and a means out of poverty for people willing to work hard and put in, in some cases, longer hours on the job. In fact, the New Deal may have done more harm than good in those cases where people would rather work longer hours in their youth, while their bodies could handle the stress, to save capital for earlier retirement or as a means of starting their own businesses where they directly control their hours.

All in all, this article seems to be pushing more labor (wage) controls that will only signal less freedom for the individual.

Posted by electrictooth | Report as abusive

You want a solution to too much (useless) work? You need to get some income that comes from some other source than your work. You need to get paid not for your labor or your capital (your savings / investments). You need an income from your land, or, more precisely, from all the land in your region — sort of like Singapore’s dividend to citizens from its high land values, sort of like Aspen’s assistance to residents for housing from a tiny partial land tax, and sort of like Alaska’s oil dividend to residents. With that extra income, then you could negotiate not just more time off but also higher wages, better conditions, and more say in management. And you’d become more productive too, so then you could take even more time off! Help win it at progress.org.

Posted by geonomist | Report as abusive

Everyone agrees to work and how much vacation time is known before accepting the job. If you want more, then negotiate for more. The only reason you would have trouble is if somebody else has similar skill sets and is willing to do the same job for less vacation.

Posted by libertysurvival | Report as abusive

Didn’t really take a vacation last year. Took one day off to see Billy Bragg. Took another to walk a beach to save sea turtles. I cannot afford to live anymore.

Posted by StevenLindsey | Report as abusive