Nostalgia for the past — either our own past or just general times past — is a powerful emotion, and it often manifests itself in an image of the past in which times were “simpler” and people lived a slower-paced, easier, more comfortable lifestyle.
Oh sure, people didn’t have the luxuries they had today, but they were satisfied with what they had, and used their large amounts of leisure time to build bonds with family, and pursue the simple things.
There was no “rat race,” and working hours were fewer thanks to the fact that there were few chores to be done in the wintertime by an agricultural society.
In some ways, this picture of total working hours is true — at least in agricultural settings. But you often have to go back a long way to see it.
That is, working hours in a city in, say, the 19th century were quite long But, if we go back to the 14th century, we find, at least in some places in Europe, that hours were less than what they were for a 20th-century western European. Holidays were frequent, and the cycle of seasons often meant long periods of idleness for farm workers.
According to research done by Julie B. Schor, many peasants were working 150 days per year. Day laboroers, Schor contends, didn’t work any more than they had to to maintain their basic needs.
In her work on the American textile industry, Barbara Tucker also shows that these views on working continued for many even into the 19th century. By the mid-19th century, American social critics were concerned that people accustomed to slow agricultural work were not developing “the habits of industry” and many families were committed to simply taking the winter off.
One aspect of this seeming utopia that is often forgotten, however, is that the standard of living “enjoyed” by these workers and families was often shockingly low.
A life of no modern healthcare, no travel for pleasure, no electronics, few books or reading material, and a very-low-quality education can be had by a great many people without the sorts of work schedules we now endure.
But even this picture of a simple life of sitting home with family all winter may not sound so bad to many.
When we start of get into some of the details of what it means to “take the winter off,” however, the picture becomes a bit more grim.
When There Is Little Food — We Must Sleep
One of the problems with idolizing the idea of “more leisure” is that this often involves conveniently forgetting that leisure does not bring with it its own entertainments.
For many, these “leisure” hours of the winter time in pre-industrial areas were marked by the need to do as little as possible to as to conserve scarce resources for the winter.
When the standard of living is low, and worker productivity is low, preserving resources by eating less and expending less energy, becomes at least as important as working more hours.
Historian Benjamin Reiss in his book on sleep notes that sleep was an important strategy in this regard:
…many people in cold climates stayed in bed longer in the winter out of necessity. With reduced food supplies and limited sources for heat other than animal skins or other coverings, they simply had to conserve energy….
As late as 1880, one observer said that residents of the Eastern Pyrenees were “as ideal [sic] as marmots” during the cold months.
Entire mountain regions would essentially shut down in late autumn, with some villages essentially “entombing” themselves through the early spring. One geographer wrote in 1909 that “the inhabitants re-emerge in spring, disheveled and anaemic.” Even some lower-lying regions, with more temperate weather, showed signs of prolonged torpor. An official report in 1844 described what happened to Burgundian day laborers after the harvest season had ended: “After making the necessary repairs to their tools, these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately.”
On the matter of French peasants, Reiss is drawing on the work of Graham Robb who has chronicled a wide variety of French regions were notably “sleepy” and which did essentially nothing for months on end as a means of preserving what little they had in the less-productive months.
But, as Robb notes, this wasn’t even limited to wintertime:
People trudged and dawdled, even in summer. They ate more slowly than modern people. Life expectancy at birth now seems depressingly low: in 1865, it was a few months over forty years in only twenty departments in Paris and Finistere, it was under thirty; the national average was thirty-seven years two months. Life expectancy at five was fifty-one. Despite this, complaints about the brevity of life are far less common than complaints about its inordinate length. Slowness was not an attempt to savor the moment. A ploughman who took hours to reach a field beyond the town was not necessarily admiring the effect of morning mist on the furrows and streaming cattle against the rising sun, he was trying to a make a small amount of strength last for the working day, like a carload of manure spread over a large field.
Moreover, in Flanders in the 19th century, which enjoyed a relatively temperate climate, many workers continued to prefer doing nothing and crammed numerous people into small rooms carved into hillsides, where they slept long hours:
In areas and other towns in Flanders, up to one-third of the population – artisans as well as labourers – lived in underground cities carved into medieval quarries. These ‘boves‘ (an old French word for ‘cavern’ were later used as sanctuaries, bomb-shelters, secret routes ot the front in the First World War and eventually as candle-lit restaurants and tourist attractions. Little is said or known today about their use as normal residential areas. People whose lives were not divided by the seasons found these living arrangements unproductive and lugubrious … “The vital air is constantly contaminated by the breath of eight to ten individuals who are piled up there in a tiny dwelling for twelve to fifteen hours a day with only one air-hole between them.”
Most felt safer cocooned in idleness. As the song of a Pyrenean peasant in the 1880s explained, “They had hardly any spirit of enterprise and were loath to make life more complicated when it was already hard enough to bear.”
Nor was this strategy of resource preservation unique to western Europe.
A 1900 report in the British Medical Journal mentioned that “a practice closely akin to hibernation,” known as lotska, “is said to be general among Russian peasans in the Pskov Government, where food is skanty to a degree almost equivalent to chronic famine.” Since there was not enough food to last the year, peasants spend “one half of it in sleep.” Ar first snowfall, the entire family would lie down by the stove, and everyone would wake up once a day to drink some water and eat a piece of hard bread, a six-month supply of which had been baked in the autumn. Afterward, everyone went to sleep again. Family members took turns on a vigil “to watch and keep the fire alight.” Six months later, they would all go out, like human groundhogs, to check and see whether the grass was growing.” The writer of the report found “economic advantages” to this kind of hibernation, but in general he speaks with a condescending faux-envy, betraying his sense of British superiority: “We doomed to dwell here where men sit and hear each other groan, can scarce imagine what it must be for six whole months out of the twelve to be in the state of Nirvana longed for by Eastern sages, free from the stress of life, from the need to labour, from the multitudinous burdens, anxieties, and vexations of existence.”
This British researcher, who apparently spoke sardonically, was prophesying what many later critics of modern work habits would non-ironically pine for in later decades. Not surprisingly, many traditional, tribal societies employed similar tactics in other areas:
….Such variations persisted in to the twentieth century in northern regions with relatively few economic and social ties to the more temperate (and more industrialized) regions to their south. Consider the case of native peoples in the northernmost regions of North America. In his 1948 account of his sojourn among the Ihalmuit of northern Saskatchewan, the Canadian writer Farley Mowat chronicled the lives of people facing a forbidding environment that brought plentiful supplies and protein and fat in late summer and autumn, but next to nothing in the Winter. In such conditions, they needed to adjust themselves to “the rhythm of the elements,” which included holding long sleepless vigils during the caribou-hunting season of the fall. During this time, “huge fires burned all day and all night and blocks of white deer fat began to mount up in the tents,” wrote Mowat. In the following season, when temperatures could dip to fifty below zero, came long periods of dormancy, when the only source of heat was the “fat…being burned — within their bodies.” People would “eat a little and then go to sleep.” But the few waking hours were not merely times of deprivation, for although “the almost continuous darkness and cold could well drive men mad,” the Ihalmiut people composed and sang songs for great “song-feasts” before retiring to their igloos. Periods of prolonged torpor in today’s world might be considered signs of depression fo seasonal affective disorder; but in their other times and places, they were simply part of the established order of things…
Note that these “song feasts” were exactly that. “Feasts” of songs when food was scarce and there was nothing else to do.
These sorts of close-knit communities and communal activities may seem attractive to some moderns, but if given the chance, it’s unlikely that many would jump at the chance to spend months on end eating nothing but deer fat and sleeping most of the day to conserve precious energy.
Boredom, Work, and Leisure
Given this ultra-slow pace of life he describes in France, Robb concludes that “[b]oredom was as powerful a force as economic need” in non-industrial areas.
By the 19th century, of course, many areas of Europe had abandoned these medieval modes of living. In cities, working hours were much longer, but those areas also had amenities and luxuries undreamed of by the peasants asleep in their caves.
While it’s true that city workers in England and northern Europe were certainly working more, even working-class workers also had the opportunity to partake in what we now consider to be modern luxuries. These included day-trips to the seaside, public entertainments like musical performances and vaudevilles, team sports competitions, and even a new pastime called “window shopping.”1
And while working hours were high for 19th-century workers, it’s worth noting that by the late 20th century, working hours had been reduced to levels far more recognizable to a 13th century peasant. And, needless to say, the difference in lifestyle between a 13th century peasant and a 20th century factory worker, is almost incalculably large.2
Modern workers enjoy healthcare, comfortable and safe transportation, climate controlled housing, and a nearly limitless menu of entertainments when they are not at work.
This is a far cry from the need to huddle next to the stove eating stale bread to last the winter. Yes, there was more “leisure” under those conditions, but we have to admit that “leisure” had an entirely different flavor.
In spite of all of this, modern critics might look at all this and still claim that the amenities and entertainments of modern society have somehow impoverished us spiritually or morally.
These anti-capitalists are free to speak for themselves — but note almost none of them adopt a pre-modern lifestyle. Nor is it acceptable for these modern-day medievalists to attempt to speak for others and employ coercive public policy to impose a more “simple” or less “consumerist” lifestyle on others.
Most modern workers and consumers are still free to spend less time working and more time staring at the wall and eating tiny, flavorless meals as their ancestors did. But few seem interested in taking advantage of the opportunity.