Medieval peasants got more vacation than Americans

Life back then certainly was worse, but when it comes to time off, serfs had it way better than today's workers.

By Aimee Picchi Sep 5, 2013 2:34PM

Image: Man with tropical drink (© Stockbyte/Getty Images)Modern American workers have something to envy in the work life of medieval peasants.  

Serfs living in the medieval period had far more vacation and leisure time than American workers today, according to a study from economist Juliet Schor.

A 13th-century adult male peasant in the U.K. worked an average of 1,620 hours per year, which translates into working 12 hours per day for 135 days a year. Such laborers worked long days during the peak periods (harvesting, planting and so on), but they also enjoyed mandated breaks for meals, unlike today's habit of bolting down lunch at your desk. (Translated into eight-hour days, serfs would have worked the equivalent of about 203 days per year.)

Americans, on the other hand, receive only eight days of vacation annually, and the country remains the only developed nation with no federally mandated vacation policy, Reuters notes.

For medieval serfs, "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 midafternoon refreshment breaks. These rest periods were the traditional rights of laborers, which they enjoyed even during peak harvest times," Schor writes. 

On top of that, peasants enjoyed slack periods, as well as frequent holidays. The church calendar mandated breaks not only at Christmas and Easter, but at midsummer and many saints' and rest days. 

The study points out that the assumption that capitalism has reduced our workload isn't necessarily true. "This myth is typically defended by a comparison of the modern forty-hour week with its seventy- or eighty-hour counterpart in the nineteenth century," Schor writes. 

The overworked Victorian, toiling away for 70 to 80 hours a week, was actually an aberration in the history of human work patterns, she notes. The average U.S. worker in 1850 labored as much as 3,650 hours per year, or as much as 52 weeks of 14-hour days. 

Comparing today's labor habits to the extreme demands of the 19th century, when industrialization swept across Western countries, helps cement what Schor calls one of the "durable myths" of capitalism. 

And even when Americans take vacations today, they might not be truly kicking back. Almost two-thirds of employed workers said they planned to work on their summer vacations this year, up from 52% of workers last year. 

To be sure, no one would want to swap places with a medieval peasant. Getting medically treated by leeches isn't all too appealing. And capitalism, while perhaps not ensuring the vacation days that past generations enjoyed, has absolutely improved the quality of life. 

Without capitalism, after all, there would be no Apple (APPL) laptops or Samsung smartphones. And without those devices, working while on vacation wouldn't be half as easy.

Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.

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Sep 5, 2013 3:46PM
Most people in the U.S. would be shocked to know that in England all employees are automatically given a minimum of four weeks "holiday" upon hire in most cases.
Sep 5, 2013 2:59PM
There are plenty of "full time" employees nowadays that really only actually work about 25 hours a week.  The rest of the time is spent playing solitaire, surfing the web, playing with their phones, gossiping, playing fantasy football or setting up the office March Madness pool, making grocery lists, online shopping, planning office parties, etc... 

And the people who are working longer hours than peasant farmers did, are certainly enjoying the fruits of their labor, with a much higher standard of living than that of a lowly peasant.

And by the way, Aimee, apparently you've never spent much time doing hard, physical labor.  Because if you had, you'd know that bailing hay or mending fences or plowing or planting or harvesting is hard work and can't be done without a bunch of breaks and a whole lot of nourishment and hydration. 
Sep 5, 2013 3:28PM

The serfs only had to give 1/3d of their production to the " man " .

If only our taxes collectively were that low .


Sep 5, 2013 3:24PM

Your "owners" are all wondering how to get their lesser human counterparts to do more of their work for them so they can have a much better life without hardly any effort on their parts.

Humans are the smartest beasts of burden, but one needs to give them incentive to do your bidding.

Threatening them works, but only as long as you are there to keep them in line because once you leave, they stop working.  Giving them a piece of the action works much better. 

However, once you give them too little a piece, they get smart and decide not to work for you very hard, or not at all. 


Minimum wage as an incentive, anyone?

Sep 5, 2013 4:26PM
Why even write this article. All it does is make people pissed off at the corporations they work for.
Sep 5, 2013 3:37PM

The serfs only worked until they were 25 to 35 years old after that they were replaced by younger workers as they had died. A short life expectancy and no healthcare insurance.

Sep 5, 2013 3:59PM
Should get an extra 2-3 weeks holiday for the "deflowering" rights alone...
Sep 5, 2013 3:50PM

i say we pay employees today, what serfs got back in the middle ages, as well as no insurance since serfs didnt have insurance.  also have them work 12 hr days.


at the same time give them the same amount of time off that serfs got back then.


seems like a fair trade right workers of america?


serfs were farmers.  they werent farming in the winter.  i guess thats what aimee describes as "Vacation"


lol nice try aimee.  another article failed!!!!

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