Whose Serfdom?


You load sixteen tons, what do you get

Another day older and deeper in debt

Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store

It’s a funny old world. You really have to be careful what you read. As it was I picked up a book on the Dark Ages and medieval agriculture (‘Rural economy and Country Life in the Medieval West’ by Georges Duby).

His discusses the villeins, those workers tied to the soil and only semi-free. Often considered the real victims of feudalism they had to work up to three days a week unpaid for their lord.

Think about it, they had to work 156 days a year for somebody else.

But actually in the UK tax freedom day is the 13th of May so we work 134 days for our masters.

And at least if you were a villein the Lord you were working for had to feed you while you were working for him. And he provided you with land and a house so you could support yourself the rest of the year.

So that would be the same as the government giving you vouchers to eat at Pret or Costa every day up until tax freedom day (looking at the rations villeins got, the catering was definitely more Pret than McDonalds), as well as giving you a house to live in rent free and a paying job for the rest of the year.

When you stop and think about it, given the constraints of their society, villeins were probably better off than the traditional wage slave is now.

Oh yes, and ‘wage slave’; is it a bad description?

If you look at Greek Cities such as Athens in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, a citizen was expected to take part in the government of the city, if only to vote in the debates and act as a juror.

This wasn’t just some sort of vague obligation. Doing these things defined you as a citizen and a free man.

But of course you had to be able to take days off work to do this. This would tend to mean that democracy could become a hobby for the rich, but the Athenians got round this by providing a wage for those who attended. Not good money but the sort of money an ordinary working man would hope to earn in a day.

But of course if you had an employer, you had to go cap in hand to him for the day off.

So when we look at Greece of this era, it’s notable that very few free men had employers. Free men were almost entirely ‘self employed.’ Even if they didn’t have their own business or trade, they’d be day labourers. And for the day labourer, the chance to go and sit on a jury and earn much the same money was probably considered a pretty good option.

The only people who worked every day at the instruction of another were slaves, and a man who was so beholden to another that he couldn’t just give the day to democratic duties without asking permission from somebody else was, in Greek eyes, as near as dammit a slave anyway.

How much of a slave are you? Worth a thought as we head into 2022 with a fuel crisis and other pesky conflagrations flaming?

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.