Work, labour, and debt: medieval to modern

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A 14th century drawing of peasants breaking bread and drinking together, seemingly in a forest or some other natural scene.
Look how happy they are, all that free time, outside with fresh air, in the sun… via Wikimedia Commons

How have the facets of work changed over time?

Have you heard the statement “you probably work more than a medieval peasant” muttered recently? Or perhaps the claim that medieval peasants worked only about 150 days in a year? 

Well, in 1991, the book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure was published by economist Juliet Schor and attempted to explore similar statements. The book explores and provides an overview of the changing labour standards from peasantry to modern day America.  

Within Schor’s text it is suggested that the average 13th-century English peasant worked approximately 1,620 hours per year, or 67.5 days. The estimates on medieval work hours range based on position and time period. The lowest is estimated to be 1,440 hours for the equivalency of a 14th-century “casual labourer” to a high of 2,309 hours for an “English worker, Medieval period.” 

Medieval labour and life largely revolved around agrarianism and the agrarian calendar, one that follows the sun. This means work activity in their main ‘jobs,’ as we would understand it in modern day terms, is suggested to have slowed during the winter months though it’s claimed that peasants weren’t simply sitting around doing nothing during the off season.  

In fact, contemporary artwork depicts peasants performing a variety of tasks during the winter. Moreover, the presence of ‘folk arts’ suggests that the average person or household might have spent a significant amount of time invested in creative practices. 

Now, most of us might naturally assume that the average medieval person living under kingship and feudalism were financially worse off than the average North American today. However, evidence might suggest that the average medieval peasant lived with significantly less debt and expenses than we do today. 

In modern day times the largest expense that any of us incur is likely to be related to housing. Recent data shows that the average Canadian is spending up to 45.9 per cent of their income to meet housing costs. This number, of course, fluctuates depending on locality.  

In city centers such as Vancouver or the Greater Toronto Area, this number might be anywhere between 72-79.7 per cent of household income. Similar data from 2022 shows that the average American household spends one third of their income on housing. However, this number increased for younger generations, like millennials and Gen Z. 

Unlike the modern-day citizen most medieval workers were provided with housing, though the option for home ownership was rendered impossible. To be fair, medieval life was short and well-documented in its difficulties.  

Around 85 per cent of medieval people belonged to the peasant class which included serfs (those legally tied to land they worked) and freemen. However, because of the medieval system there is evidence to suggest that the average medieval citizen was less likely to experience or be at risk of experiencing houselessness. This, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt. 

Moreover, debt was also handled differently. In his book The First 5,000 Years of Debt, Anthropologist David Graeber seeks to explore the ways in which the idea of debt has taken over people’s imagination and morality in such a way that morality itself becomes a matter of “paying one’s debts.” Wherein a stand-up person “always pays their debts.” 

The concept of debt is age-old. In fact, the oldest known legal text that mentions debt is cited in the Code of Hammurabi. The Code was engraved almost 4,000 years ago and is now located in the Louvre Museum. It states, “the creditor may not take barley from the debtors house without his consent.” 

Within Graeber’s work he details how debt has become a staple and underpinning truth to our modern-day society. In that, debt exists, and it serves in the continuation of daily life. However, debt didn’t always function this way.  

In fact, there are many cases in which debt did not exist. Famously quoted Benjamin Franklin states, “there is nothing certain in life but death and taxes,” which Graeber believes is not true.  

According to Graeber, it’s only death that’s certain since not all societies taxed themselves or accrued social debt. Rather, in some cases where debt was accrued, kings could and would wipe clean the debt of society in certain instances. 

According to Graeber, debt has held a prominent position in our morality because of its usefulness as a concept to control social relations. “Debt is the most effective way to take a relation of violent subordination and make the victims feel that it’s their fault.” 

The example of medieval peasant revolts was used and rather than the revolts being concerned with issues that you might have guessed – serfdom, etc. – Graeber claims that they were always about debt.  

Moses Finley, a classist, explains that there was basically one revolutionary program throughout antiquity: dissolve debt and redistribute land. A truth that Graeber claims remains true throughout history. 

Today debt is a normalized facet of life. It is almost a naturalized assumption that you will, at some point, accrue some measure of debt. There are ‘good debts,’ like a mortgage or student loans, while some debts are ‘bad,’ like credit card debt.  

The good and bad debt in itself is a type of moralizing. While bad debt might indicate someone reckless and immoral in their spending, good debt signifies a level of success. Ultimately, it is the goal to achieve ‘good debt,’ but the expectation remains the same – in one way or another you will have debt. 

In 2023, Canada made international news when its debt load became the highest of all G7 countries. In fact, the average Canadian at the end of 2020 owed approximately $72,950 in debt – a number that excluded mortgages. This number surpasses the average income of full-time salaried Canadians, who make approximately $54,630 per year. Moreover, the average student loan debt is estimated to be $28,000. 

Today we work more and we owe more. To reflect on this, I suggest we return to the words of Graeber, who claims: “If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.” 

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