Understanding the medieval workday
We are taught to believe that our current 40 hours workday is much better than the 19th century 80 hour weeks which, according to capitalism, was the case for hundreds of years. In truth the work day before the industrial revolution was a really different affair. The medieval workday was hard but in many ways closer to the human nature.
First and foremost, and that is a very important point that people tend to disregard. For literally, thousands of years the work day was no longer than the hours of daylight in a day, sole exception, and not in all cases, to this rule was the mining industry. Keeping a room or a location lit during the hours of the night was an expensive affair and only the richest were able to extend the hours of light in a day. Medieval Halls in some occasions allowed people to stay up longer in communal places but these kind of structures are only found in places where winters are long and heavy (see northern Europe). That said even in those cases work was rarely carried out during the small hours. To conclude this meant that during summer months the longest medieval workday was no longer than 16 hours and during winter that fell under 8 hours (Central Europe).
Work and rest
But our medieval workday labourers almost never reached this amount of work. Medieval life was hard, and perilous, but it was a life that was enjoyed. Consider a typical working day in the medieval period. It stretched from dawn to dusk (sixteen hours in summer and eight in winter), but, as the Bishop Pilkington has noted, work was intermittent – called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap, and dinner. Depending on time and place, there were also midmorning and mid afternoon refreshment breaks. These rest periods were the traditional rights of laborers, which they enjoyed even during peak harvest times. During slack periods, which accounted for a large part of the year, adherence to regular working hours was not usual. According to Oxford Professor James E. Thorold Rogers, the medieval workday was not more than eight hours. The worker participating in the eight-hour movements of the late nineteenth century was “simply striving to recover what his ancestor worked by four or five centuries ago.”
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
Feudal servitude dues versus Artisans
As we’ve discussed in our article about the medieval farming, on the life of villagers article and on the first medieval social stratification article most of the people under the feudal system had to pay some dues, part of these dues was the day-a-week (One’s day work) of forced labour for the Lord of the Manor that the serf belonged to.
According to Life on the English Manor One day’s work was considered to be the period from morning to lunch. This averaged about 6.5 hours of work during the peak of summer. Artisans (Skilled Freemen) who worked for themselves averaged about 9 hours per day across the year (Brown, Colwin and Taylor’s figures for masons suggest an average workday of 8.6 hours)
So yes. People who were working for themselves worked and average of 9 hours a day, and that was the case for farmers tending their crops. When it comes to working for someone else though this number fell to less than 7 hours.
Fares and medieval holidays
The medieval workday calendar was filled with holidays. Official — that is, church — holidays included not only long “vacations” at Christmas, Easter, and midsummer but also numerous saints’ andrest days. These were spent both in sober churchgoing and in feasting, drinking and merrymaking. In addition to official celebrations, there were often weeks’ worth of ales — to mark important life events (bride ales or wake ales) as well as less momentous occasions (scot ale, lamb ale, and hock ale). All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbors. According to Discussion of Holidays in the Later Middle Ages The ancien règime in France is reported to have guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays. In Spain, travelers noted that holidays totaled five months per year.[
The medieval workday was, especially during high season long and tiring back breaking work in both the fields and the workshops but that was countered by a multiple holidays through the year. People would work through the hours that light was available but during this time would also enjoy
- The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor
- James E. Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages (London: Allen and Unwin, 1949), 542-43.
- H.S. Bennett, Life on the English Manor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 104-6.
- Edith Rodgers, Discussion of Holidays in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940)
- Douglas Knoop and G.P. Jones, The Medieval Mason (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), 105.