Working in the Middle Ages: Was there really so much toil back then?

Working time in the course of time
Working in the Middle Ages: Was there really so much toil back then?

Peasants in the Middle Ages (Vintler book painting, Upper Germany, 2nd half of the 15th century)

© akg-images / Picture Alliance

In the Middle Ages people were exploited and much more work was done. Or is it not? At that time there was no statutory minimum vacation. But there are a lot of public holidays.

Hardly any epoch struggles with prejudice as much as the Middle Ages. Dark dungeons in which supposed witches waited for their judgment. God-fearing people who still believed in the world as a disc. And of course hard-working people who did a lot of physical work without the achievements of technology – and of course had to work much longer than an employee today.

But is that true? If you take all part-time and full-time employees in Germany together, everyone works an average of 35 hours per week. At least on paper. Because overtime is part of many professions. 2.1 billion hours: That is how much more German employees worked in 2017. In the end, this results in a working week of 38.6 hours.

And how was that in the Middle Ages? On the one hand, work was not completely detached from leisure time, but phases of creation alternated several times a day with rest and leisure time. This was also possible because work and life were not spatially separated. The blacksmith, the baker, the miller – they had their businesses in their homes. The journeymen lived in the master’s house (or in the immediate vicinity). On farms too, the servants lived in the community on the farm.

An average working day usually started with sunrise and ended with the sun set. So there were 16 hours in summer and 8 hours in winter Production time. But it was not worked through. There were plenty of breaks. Breakfast, lunch and an afternoon nap caused interruptions. However, the term leisure time is to be interpreted differently for medieval society – and a separation from working hours is almost impossible. Because there was not a wide range of leisure activities.

Historians calculated for a typical English farmer in the 13th century a week of 30 hours’ work (1600 hours per year). Thomas Ertl, Professor of Economic and Social History at the Free University of Berlin, puts the annual number of hours at 2000.

Most of the people in the Middle Ages were independent craftsmen and farmers. They were “unfree” and thus committed to their liege lords. Nevertheless, they were able to operate for themselves. And that meant then as now: a lot of work. But Ertl also states that the 2000 hours roughly correspond to today’s load.

No vacation entitlement in the Middle Ages

However, there were no statutory vacation days. Today an employee who has a 5-day week has at least 20 vacation days. With a 6-day week it is 24 days. That is the minimum. In many companies, 28 to 30 days are common.

In the Middle Ages, a large number of – mostly church – holidays provided relief, then no or little work was done. Holidays dedicated to saints, martyrs or apostles were celebrated. There were also a large number of Marian feasts. The information on the number of public holidays fluctuates, in some regions it was 70, in others more than 100 days per year. However, this also included Sundays. Nevertheless: at the wedding of the Christian festivals almost every third day was a public holiday. If you subtract the number of Sundays (around 52 a year), there were at least 20 days off per year.

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