The Anglo-Saxon Hide, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and the 35 Hour Work Week

Yves here. Yet another reminded that pre-moden peasants were subject to all sorts of hardships, like disease, war, and the lack of heating, plumbing, and Neflix, but long working hours appear not to have been one of them.

By Bruce Webb. Originally published at Angry Bear

Too wide a scope for a blog post? You betcha. But this was going to be the core of my PhD Dissertation back when I was in such a program and had delusions of adequacy. So those who wonder “WTF does any of this have to do with labor hours?” Well bear with me. Or scroll away. Because much tedium and obscurity is found under the fold. A pure dose of ‘tl/dr’ which doesn’t even get to either Smith or Marx. Yet.

In 1086 and twenty years after his crowning as King of England in 1066 (and all that) William the Conqueror directed that inquiries be made and recorded on what today would be a combination population and economic census which results were recorded in a couple of books now known collectively as Domesday. And whether you see Domesday as being some sort of national agricultural rent book or as a tax assessment it is clear from beginning to end and top to bottom that the fundamental unit of assessment was the ‘hide’. Now what is the exact definition and origin of the ‘hide’. Well huge parts of early medieval British economic historiography revolve around that but by 1086 it was clear that the working definition was the amount of land that in midland England could be plowed by a standard heavy plow drawn by an eight oxen team in a year under a three field system. Now I will be happy to discuss any of those terms in comments but what it amounts to is 120 acres of arable ‘cornfield’ (corn in England meaning ‘grain’).

Now the definition of ‘acre’ is a little more firm than that of hide. The standard acre is 43,560 square feet or in terms more familiar to you all ‘one chain (four rods) by 1 furlong. Ha,ha! I jest. A rod is nominally 16.5′ making a chain 66′. While a furlong is either 600 or 660′ with the latter give us a standard 43560 acres (66 x 660). Now a ‘furlong’ is in origin a ‘furough long’ and is the nominal length that an 8 ox team can pull a plow in a single go. Now you will have to trust me on this one, but it turns out that in normal conditions a plow team could plow an acre a day in furlong long pulls. And over the course of a year could keep 120 total acres in cultivation which is why this area was also called variously a ‘carucate’ from ‘caruca’ Latin for heavy plow, or ‘ploughland’ whose derivation should be pretty damn obvious. So this sets up a schematic but more realistic than not identification of ‘hide’ ‘carucate’ ‘ploughland’ and ‘area plowable by eight oxen in the course of a year’.

Now while the equation of ‘hide’ and ‘land plowable by an 8 ox team’ is clear enough in Domesday, even more clear is that in early Medieval England no actual cultivator of the ground could expect to own a full team or the land to plow it. Instead you had landlords who ‘owned’ multiple hides, often grouped in fives (600 acres) and peasants of varying economic, legal and social status who ‘held’ specific fractions of hides, for the more prosperous a ‘virgate’ or ‘oxgang’ or 30 acres or 1/4th of a hide or a ‘semi-virgate’ or ‘bovate’ or 15 acres or 1/8th of a hide.

Now here is where arithmetic and labor economy comes in. You can plow 120 acres in a year with an 8 ox team. Yet this ‘ploughland’ or ‘carucate’ was split between typical 4 holders of ‘oxgangs’ (which comes from a word meaning ‘two oxen in a yoke) or 8 holders of ‘bovates’ (from Latin bos, bovis ‘ox). And those names indicate that in order to make up the plough-team each holder of a ‘bovate’ was obligated to supply one ox and each holder of an ‘oxgang’ two oxen to match their proportional holding of the ploughland.

Now all of this has been well-known for decades now and relatively uncontroversial but the question that has never really been addressed in the literature as it was when I left the Berkeley PhD program is what does this imply for labor time. Because it turns out that the standard labor requirement to run an 8 ox plough team is two people, a man to ‘man’ the plow and an ‘oxboy’ to guide the team. Which has the result that on any given day of plowing the land of four to eight English peasants can be done by a single man and boy which assuming a rotation of labor means that your typical peasant only needed to work his land one day a week during the heaviest work weeks in a year. Leaving him five full work days to fulfill all his other obligations including often enough plow work for his landlord. But even at that the landlord needed only a single ploughman a day for each 120 acres of demesne land and normally though not always supplied the physical plows and oxen on his own account.

What is more, though many people have the idea that medieval plowmen worked from dawn to dusk (often derived from the literary work ‘Piers Plowman’) in real life plowing knocked off at noon. Not because of any idea about medieval labor law but because the oxen needed half a day to browse and be watered so as to be able to be yoked up the next morning.

So my provocative question is how exploitative of labor time can a medieval economy firmly rooted on cultivation of grain really be if the most labor intensive part of that labor required the work or only one of four or eight participants for one half of the day on their own plots? Did landlords actually have enough land under their direct control to keep the other three or seven peasants fully occupied in plowing duties? That would suggest a ratio of landlord to tenant holdings of somewhere of 3 or 7 to 1. And exactly nothing in the records supports that. Instead landlords were more likely to take their slice in in kind and cash rents than in direct labor.

Now of course plowing isn’t everything. On the other hand there were only 120 typical plowing days in a year. Which were half days. Which begins to raise the question of what the actual work week of your standard serf/peasant in the Year of Our Lord 1000 given an agricultural system whose basic units were ploughlands and ploughteams whose operations only required a fraction of the standard household members supported. Or to jump forward 700 years or so was the 60-80 hour week in a early 19th century factory or mine really an advance over the workweek in William the Conqueror’s days?

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29 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    Oddly enough, I was thinking of such matters a few days ago…. I was reading a 13th Century account of a meal eaten by the Abbot of a monastery in Dublin with a guest – the menu was recorded and included such imported delicacies as rice in almond milk (a hipster monk!). The account noted that the cost of the meal to the monastery was approximately 3 months pay for the head ploughman for the monastery. So in modern terms, this means a moderately wealthy man could have a meal that roughly translated into modern money would cost several thousand euro.

    Anyway, it did get me thinking as to whether this was a sign of gross inequality, or a reflection that a paid post like ploughman actually didn’t involve very much work, and his ‘annual pay’ was really just what in Ireland used to be called ‘milk money’, i.e. a little extra cash for luxuries over and above a subsistence existence involving growing your own food, making your own clothes, etc. I suspected the latter rather than the former (not that there wasn’t gross inequality in feudal times of course).

    In reality, it does indicate what many development economists point out, which is that the rapid growth apparent in newly industrialising countries is something of a chimera, caused by people living fairly comfortable if austere subsistence lifestyles into not very much more comfortable salaried lifestyle. In GDP terms, there has been a huge increase in wealth as everything is monetised, but the quality of life is not necessarily that much better.

    While many economists note that people seem very eager in nearly every country to move from country farming to city labouring, its not all the ‘pull’ of wealth – historically there have been many ‘push’ factors too as capitalists promote policies designed to create a large urban workforce.

    On another point, it wasn’t only in medieval times that people could have very short working hours. I was reading an historical account of 19th Century labourers working to build bridges and harbours. The groundwork was exceptionally strenuous – being sealed inside a steel compressed air chamber sunk into the sea or river, digging away at the exposed sea/river floor. But in many cases, workers were only expected to work perhaps 2 hours a day doing this, for a normal wage. It was pointed out to me by someone working in construction than in a similar job nowadays, someone would be expected to sit in an office after doing that in order to ‘make up’ a ‘full’ working day. Back in dread Victorian Times, the employers were happy just to let them go home.

    1. makedoandmend

      If I may be so bold, I think you’ve made some very astute observations. As a student of natural philosophy/science, I like the “push and pull” way of looking how social relations can be influenced – somewhat physicisty.

      Now a the cheeky bit. Can you tell us what book your reading and did it cost much to purchase? (I find so little to tell me about ordinary people’s lives in Ireland pre-industrial, and what is about tends toward the very expensive).

      go raith ma agat

      1. PlutoniumKun

        The book I read the account of the Abbot is called ‘Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome: Life in Medieval Ireland’ by Finbar Dwyer. Its on sale at the moment in Chapters of Parnell Street at 9.99 euro. Its not a heavy academic book, quite a light and fun read.

    2. Disturbed Voter

      I think you are right, that monetization extended into the economy very gradually, starting with the upper class and working its way down. That is why gold is the money of kings, silver the money of the townsmen and copper the money of the farmers … the order in which coinage is monetized.

      Only non-factory jobs could have pragmatic hours. Victorians working in factories worked longer hours than their country cousins. Workers in caissons were limited … to avoid the bends. They may have wanted to work longer hours. Farm work is seasonal and limited to natural light.

    3. James Levy

      In his terrific book Food, Energy, and the Creation of industriousness Craig Muldrew shows pretty convincingly that the cost to land owners and “farmers” (in the English sense of men who rented large parcels from the landed class and worked it with their families and hired labor) for upping the amount of work they got from their hired help from 1500-1780 was supplying them more and better food as part of the remuneration for that work. Wages rose overall, especially in the early to mid 1700s, but the amounts of beer, cheese, meat, bread, and fruit workers could expect to get on a daily basis seems to have risen even faster. It was obvious to them back then that if you wanted people to work more, they needed more calories to do it. So a large part of rural worker compensation was in the form of food. This trend was reversed in the 1780s as the population grew and labor-saving devices and enclosures changed the dynamic. By 1810 the condition of agricultural laborers had fallen dramatically, and the surplus was siphoned off to the expanding industrial sector. But except in Scotland, where the lairds activity pushed their peasant farmers out to replace them with sheep, this does not seemed to have been planned (enclosures and agricultural “improvements” having been sponsored by the landowners for their own benefit, not that of the nascent industrialists whom they looked down on and undermined with the Corn Laws).

    4. jabawocky

      The increase in wealth is due to productivity increases, no? The wealth here comes from the fact that 2 people can plough 120 acres per season using oxen, rather than doing it themselves.

      In an equal world the minimum wage would buy you what one person could on average produce in any economy.

      1. Steve H.

        Gently suggesting that human labor alone can lead to wealth, and that a minimum linked to an average consigns about half to being paid more than they produce?

  2. Unorthodoxmarxist

    Marx and Polanyi discussed in detail how first generation peasants being trained to work in factories had to be harshly repressed to keep to the 12-hour workday. If this author’s research is true, we can see why even beyond the monotony of the work. Capitalism not only extends the work day and fills it with rote, repeatable tasks, but it does so in a way no other socio-economic system seems to have required.

    1. Myron Perlman

      Capital volume one is all over this country versus city labor. Marx used British archives to show health differentials. Michael Perelman has great book showing how followers of Adam Smith such as Stuart argued in print and in Parliament for restrictions on land use by peasants in order to force them into the new factories. Even went so far as to debate size of peasant land plots that could be shrunk to size that would push them into the towns and cities. So much for “free market” of labor.

      1. Jim in SC

        Sven Beckert’s ‘Empire of Cotton’ delves deeply into how capitalists tried to force peasants worldwide into monocropping cotton. The capitalists achieved this only slowly, and in diverse ways, including by getting the peasantry into debt. The Germans perceived themselves as failing to produce as much cotton as they could in Togo, West Africa, because the peasants refused to monocrop, and refused to go into debt to the capitalists. The peasants could live for long periods on little because of the gentleness of the climate. Ironically, four experts from Tuskegee Institute directed cotton production in Togo for the first ten years. They were opposed to mono-cropping, but the Germans wouldn’t listen to them.

        The British only succeeding in their promotion of private land ownership and monocropping of cotton in India after the Sepoy mutiny of 1858, which defeat enabled the Brits to actually rule India, and finally displace the cotton trading relationships that they’d been trying to control for two hundred years. This turned out to be a disaster for the Indians in more ways than one: 29 million Indians starved to death in the 1870s and 1890s thanks to monocropping cotton.

        The second phase of Colonialism worldwide was activated by the American Civil War. The ‘cotton famine’ of 1861-1865 caused most European countries as well as Japan to think of creating overseas colonies specifically for the purpose securing a dedicated supply of cotton for their internal industry that would be immune to foreign political travails.

        Cotton Colonialism would likely have proceeded more quickly but for the US’s quick return to supplying the global marketplace. The US was back to pre-war production levels in only ten years. The unlikely savior was the practice of sharecropping, not previously thought viable, which brought a lot of white producers, previously subsistence farmers on marginal lands, into the system. Somehow, the margins shrank on cotton growing immediately post-Civil War, but they grew on the industrial side.

  3. Merf56

    I don’t mean this the smart alec way it sounds but….. Who didn’t know this?? Pretty common knowledge for anyone who bothered to pay attention in history 101.
    Life was lived at a more leisurely pace in the pre industrial world. Of course the author leaves out the rest of the tasks( aka work!) that took up the peasantry’s ‘non-working’ hours – especially for females. Spinning, animal tending, childcare, food processing such as grinding grain, firewood gathering, repair of just about everything ad infinitum….
    Still, we ought to be remembering it so the article served its purpose!!

    1. WorldBLee

      Yes, plowing is but a small part of farming. I can attest to this as someone who grew up on a farm. However, also not mentioned in the article is the number of feast days celebrated in Medieval times. Even in England, apparently the least relaxed of European countries, about 1/3 of the days of the year were holidays of one sort or another (in Spain they took off 5/12 of the year if this article is accurate: http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html). It’s also worth mentioning that once winter rolls in, there’s a limit to how much work you can do–assuming you’ve put away enough food for the winter there’s plenty of time for stories and games.

    1. WorldBLee

      Whoops, I should have read farther in the comments before posting about holidays. Thank you, Thure, for raising the point before I did.

  4. washunate

    If we’re talking work weeks, it seems appropriate to bring Keynes into the conversation. One of the great benefits of market-based economics is that through the cumulative effects of peace time productivity growth, we have the potential to spend a much greater amount of time not working in the formal economy if we desire to allocate resources in society in such a manner. And Keynes remarked upon this general possibility before experiencing the particular effects of advancements in computing and related fields that lay ahead.

    Today, a remarkably broad array of academic economists across the political spectrum exert little effort opposing war and quite a bit of effort advocating for the value of work in the formal economy over the value of free time away from work. This is the fundamental critique of quantity-based monetary theory, from Milton Friedman to MMT: establishment economics tends both to undervalue time and ignore/berate alternative perspectives which do value time more highly.

    The vast majority of people don’t want to work in a formal job for 50 hours a week. Or 40 hours a week. Or even 30 hours a week. Yet those advocating for JG/ELR and significant budget deficits and GDP growth and similar quantity-based policies (groaf) continue to refrain from engaging that basic preference, instead simply asserting by decree that work is valuable and people love doing it.

  5. susan the other

    I love this information but I don’t feel optimistic trying to plug it into the future. Except that capitalism and industrialization might have been good at commodifying everything and exploiting labor once but not any more. Because much de-industrialization going on. We have such enormous industrial capacity and no scarcity except leisure time, etc. and our imperative now is not a loaf of bread and a pint of beer but fixing the mess we have left in our wake. The mess roughly equals all of the profits ever extracted. And here’s the question: How do you keep the capitalist system going, create profit to reinvest, when you cannot sell environmental cleanup to anyone for anything so-far accepted as money?

    1. washunate

      How do you keep the capitalist system going…

      That’s why our leadership class has mostly transitioned to fascism. Maintaining concentration of wealth and power requires a great deal more authoritarianism and looting than a roughly capitalist economic system allows.

  6. shargash

    I think it is pretty clear that, even in an agricultural society, you don’t have to work all that hard to meet your basic needs (q.v. the Amish). However, the essence of both feudalism and capitalism is that you can’t be allowed to just work for your own needs. You have to work for the needs of the 1%. And the less they pay you, the more you have to work for them to get by. And if they can get the government to give you some assistance, they can even pay you less than you need to keep yourself alive.

  7. TheCatSaid

    The impact of the Black Death on all of Europe had devastating impact on both rural and city life. Overall, at least 40% of the Europe’s population died. In some locations, 20% of the population died. In other places, more than 80% died.

    The loss of life impacted all classes. It had significant lasting impact on the peasantry in England, ending with them having more mobility, status, better pay, and a greater say in working conditions because they were in such short supply.

    In Ireland, it took 200 years for the population to recover to pre-Black Death levels.

    Thus keep in mind whether the original sources regarding pay, status and working conditions of medieval farm laborers date from before or after the Black Death.

    1. makerowner

      The period under discussion in the article is several hundred years before the Black Death hit Europe.

      1. TheCatSaid

        A number of the comments, however, refer to time periods after the Black Death.

        It was a major disruption to all aspects of medieval life; some places never returned to status quo conditions. When comparing different parts of the medieval period, or when contrasting with later periods, it may be relevant in some cases to understand and acknowledge the impact of the disruption.

  8. TheCatSaid

    Masanobu Fukuoka and other subsistence-level farmers working mixed small holdings confirm that leisure and an acceptable degree of comfort is easily attainable working many fewer hours than current conventional work hours. Enhanced well-being and satisfaction also seems high.

    Fukuoka showed that all that ploughing was unnecessary–which puts a whole nuther spin on how much labor is necessary.

  9. James Miller

    “While many economists note that people seem very eager in nearly every country to move from country farming to city labouring, its not all the ‘pull’ of wealth – historically there have been many ‘push’ factors too as capitalists promote policies designed to create a large urban workforce.”
    “Many economists” are at odds with the history reported in many books such as ” The Many Headed Hydra” by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker and numerous other histories of the issue.
    The battle to enclose, fence and sell to crony buddies the commons that made life possible for the commoner of the day were bitter and protracted. Forcing bitterly resistant workers into the budding textile economy was the objective, and these “push” factors won the day, thus laying the foundation of what many would call industrial slavery. I suspect the notion of “pull”, or active desire to enter a poorly paid life of 80 hour work weeks working in abominable conditions and dying at 35 of black lung or the results of inhaling cotton fibers–is severely overrated.

  10. Mary Wehrheim

    The 1300s is the X-Files of history. It is the century when it all went to shit. First there was a big famine, then the Black Death, Hundred Years War, peasant uprisings as elites tried to stick them with onerous poll taxes (to finance the wars). “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” Even the Catholic church came a cropper for a while when it split into two and even three rival papacies, each hurtling maledicta at each other.

  11. evodevo

    Side note on medieval plowing – the two people involved were the ploughman who guided the plow, and the “ox caller”, who sang to/encouraged the oxen to stay in line and pull steadily. See: Wendell Berry – The Unsettling of America and, where I first read of it, in one of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries A Morbid Taste for Bones.

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