Saturday, January 5, 2019

Compared to you and me, the feudal serfs had it easy

Back at work yet, or still enjoying your summer break? Either way, you probably wish you had more annual leave. I could tell you to count your blessings, that today’s full-time workers get much longer holidays than workers have ever had.

But maybe that isn't true. It’s certainly true that we get longer holidays and work fewer hours than workers did in the 19th century but, according to the sociologist Juliet Schor, the 19th century – not long after the end of the Industrial Revolution – was an aberration in the history of human labour.

Indeed, if we’re to believe Dr Lynn Parramore, senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, we’re working a lot harder than medieval peasants did. “Ploughing and harvesting were backbreaking toil,” she says, “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 holy-days. 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, she says.

There was no work on Sundays, and when ploughing and harvesting seasons were over, peasants got time to rest, too. In fact, according to Schor, during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

I’m not sure every scholar would agree with this assessment, and the 14th century was the tail end of England’s feudal system, which began after the French Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

So if you’re not sure you’d have been happier as a serf – good thinking.

Feudalism was the system of political and economic organisation that preceded England’s Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution, before we got to a capitalist or market economy approximating what we have today.

According to the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, feudalism was a social and economic system defined by inherited social ranks, each of which possessed social and economic privileges and obligations. Wealth derived from agriculture, which was arranged not according to market forces but on the basis of customary labour service owed by serfs to landowning nobles.

The king owned all the country’s land, but leased much of it to nobles, often called barons. The barons ran the decentralised, feudal system. These “lords of the manor” were in complete control of their manor, meting out justice, minting their own money and setting their own taxes.

The barons divided some of their land between their knights. The knights, in turn, distributed some of their land to the serfs, also known as villeins or peasants.

That covers people’s privileges, now their obligations. In return for their land, the barons paid rent to the king and provided him with knights to fight his battles when required. In return for their land, the knights provided their baron with personal protection and military service to the king.

In return for their land, the serfs paid their master with maybe a third of the food they grew, as well as being compelled to work on his own land. They couldn’t leave the manor and needed their lord’s permission to marry. They were often charged a fee for use of any of the improvements on the manor – roads, bridges, mills and bakehouses. And sometimes they had to fight in the baron’s battles.

Serfs lived with their animals in one-room homes they built themselves with wattle-and-daub (woven twigs daubed with mud). Their clothes were self-made, mainly of wool and very scratchy. They grew rye, wheat and other grains, grazed sheep on the common, had a kitchen garden and a few apple and pear trees.

Most of what they ate they grew themselves: little meat, but lots of rye bread and a stew of peas, beans and onions, called pottage. Berries, nuts and honey were gathered from the woods.

The feudal system fell into decline for many reasons. One was that the military became full-time professionals. Another was the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348, which killed many of the serfs. Landowners desperate for workers to harvest their crops had to do the unthinkable: pay actual wages to anyone who’d work their land – and the wages were high. Thus did the lords lose their hold over the serfs.

But Professor Richard Grabowski, of Southern Illinois University, has advanced a more economic theory. Manorial agriculture wasn’t very efficient, even though productivity could have been improved by such measures as removing stones from fields, adding mineral fertilisers and making greater use of fodder crops.

But the system of forced labour precluded use of these techniques because they required more care and skill than the serfs had any incentive to apply when working in the lord’s fields rather than their own.

Creating this incentive would have required shifting to paid labour, but this would cost the lord the ability to order his serfs to help fight a rival lord trying to grab his land. The first lord to free his serfs would lose his land to the others.

So the lack of national enforcement of property rights was another barrier to greater productivity. As the feudal system gradually broke down, the basis for power shifted from how many serfs you controlled to how good you were at using your land to generate more income.

England’s long Agricultural Revolution involved moving to market relationships between land owners and labourers, and almost all rural production being sold in markets, as well as huge improvements in agricultural productivity, making the nation much more prosperous.

People may have worked more hours on more days in the year, but they were much better paid to do it.