While infection of any kind could be a death wish dooming you and your family to starvation there’s one thing that people of the Middle Ages did have an incredible amount of and that’s down time. While you’re burning the candle at both ends trying to meet rent, power, water, phone, and still have a bit left over for food and at least one craft beer Friday night your ancestors were killing it three out of seven days of the week and drinking craft beer every day.
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.
Hate your life yet? This is a bizarre concept to me. I can just hear a Priest now, “What’s that? Everyone’s fed up with working all week to get the harvest in? Message received, break out the party hats and cider. We’re not working again until we feel better about things!”
In all seriousness though, Western civilization works more now as a people than at any time since the British slave factories of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, it never happened because work was largely about completing physical tasks that would allow people to eat and generally stay alive. That meant less busy work “pretending to work” and more time getting things done quickly and well so you could go do something else like sing songs in the tavern with your friends by the fireside, a mug of ale in your hand. Frankly, I think that’s worth having a few less teeth.
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.
Well, we’re more productive than those lazy serfs were, right, with their closeness to family and ability to spend their time the way they wanted? Um, no, we aren’t. It’s a waste of time.
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.
I haven’t had a vacation since 2005 because it was always too stressful for me to plan anything really enjoyable in a week’s worth of time including travel. Besides, life just seems to eat up the odd vacation day.
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.
Oh, right, that’s why I’m working so hard, so I can get rich and not have to work so hard. Meanwhile, my ancestors didn’t worry about things like “having it all” because they didn’t have to choose. But I’m sure my work here at TC will result in a massive paycheck any day now so that I can finally have that cabin in the Outer Banks….aaaany day now.
Note: I know some many say that life expectancy was a huge issue in medieval Europe but it wasn’t. Infant mortality, however, was. If you lived beyond your 21st birthday then you could reasonably expect to live until your mid-60s. Current world life expectancy is only 67 years…
When it comes to matters of opinion, discover some of the most intriguing, informed points of view you’ll find anywhere — at The Opinionator, from The New York Times