How many hours a day did farmers work in the middle ages?

How many hours a day did farmers work in the middle ages?

I need to know for a debate on Capitalism in Great Debates.

Any equivalent knowledge involving modern farmers with relatively primative technology (oxen) working relatively fertile land (i.e. not desert) would help.

Also, what was the general ratio of farmers to non-farmers?

I don’t know about hours-per-day, although I think hours of daylight would be the minimum. My medieval studies professor told us in the early middle ages He’s a merovingian specialist, so we are talking about right afte the fall of Rome)the average crop yeild was 2-3/1. In other words, for every seed planted 2 or 3 were harvested. With ratios like that, damn near everybody was a farmer. (modern rations are in the hundreds)

Just as note, crop yield does vary quite a bit by location–IIRC, crop yeilds in India were considerably higher in the same period with much the same technology, but rice cultivation is still more labor intensive that wheat cultivation

I believe Manda Jo is one the right track. Farmers of old did not necessarily work longer hours than their modern brethren, but they did much more manual labor for far slimmer yields. It is through better equipment, seeds, fertilizers, pest control, irrigation, techniques, transportation, etc. that the modern farmer can produce enough food that the majority of us have only to ride to the supermarket for our harvest.

I would believe that medieval farmers would work as much as they needed to. There wasn’t any way for them to keep track of time aside from checking to see when the sun rose, was directly overhead, and then set.

No one would have recorded such information because the concept of measuring time was rather rudimentary compared to later times, even the 18th Century.

:rolleyes: OK, wiseguy BobT, through how many cock-crows did they labor?

So, how long do their modern brethren work, Dr. J, if we can presume they worked about the same amount of time?

The few farmers I’ve encountered (mainly livestock, mind you) work about every daylight hour.

BobT said:

Sundial technology was very well developed before the Middle Ages even started. There is an Egyptian sundial still in existence that dates back to about 500 BC. The ancient Greeks built very good sundials some of which still exist.

The “Middle Ages” is a somewhat slippery term, but I think it starts about 500 AD. There would be no problem in measuring time to the hour with sundials in 500 AD.

      • It’s rather hard to farm in the dark.
  • And during certain times of the planting/harvest cycle, agricultural workers work daylight hours even now. The tractors work non-stop; it is normal to split driving the tractor into two 12-hour shifts per day (agricultural tractors have headlights because they do get used at night). And whoever’s off doesn’t even get to sleep through the twelve off-hours; normally twice during that time the tractor needs fuel (or off-loading) and since fuel is delivered and production is removed by truck, it’s easier to take the truck to the tractor than the other way around, so whoever’s sleeping has to get up to do that. It’s only for a few days though, twice a year (planting and harvest).
  • Sometimes in order to save fruit crops from impending frosts, workers do harvest at night, and since the workers get paid by the quantities they pick, 18+ hour shifts aren’t uncommon. - MC

You might have had a sundial around, but why would anyone bother with keeping track of how long someone worked during that era?
No one was getting paid by the hour. There weren’t any time-motion efficiency experts.

I think you got up, got dressed, and went to work.

BobT, there is evidence even from pre-medieval texts to show that this was indeed an important matter in some cases:

(Say, I wonder if the folks in the Dynamic Pricing thread over in GD have encountered this one yet!)

Interesting post there, Kimstu. Is this meant to be taken as a revelation about historical practices in agricultural economies or, perhaps, Matthew’s desire for how the kingdom of heaven might turn out to be? (It sounds vaguely like from each according to his ability and to each according to his need - with a one-man politburo.)

You should also consider that most people worked at home. ie on the farm. It has been my experience that most people, even today, work during most of their waking hours. We’ve just changed the definition of work to include only the work you do for a paycheck. If you include childrearing, cooking, cleaning etc… people work almost all the time.

There is some interesting related info, including estimated seed/yield ratios, at this site:

Medieval Farming Calendar

However, no info on the number of hours per day worked. :frowning:

beatle: Is this [the parable of the vineyard] meant to be taken as a revelation about historical practices in agricultural economies or, perhaps, Matthew’s desire for how the kingdom of heaven might turn out to be?

Well, the particular incident was probably invented for rhetorical purposes, but AFAIK the NT parables generally reflect basic situations that would have seemed realistic to hearers at the time. So we get a picture of an employer going to some kind of casual labor market at different times of day (the hours mentioned in the story would have been “unequal” or “seasonal” hours, that is, twelve equal divisions of the period of daylight from sunrise to sunset, which would be longer than, shorter than, or equal to one of our standard hours depending on the time of year) looking to hire more hands for the rest of the day. (IIRC, black maids used to be hired by the day by New York housewives in just that sort of casual labor market well up into this century.)

Some of the hands worked for only one hour, i.e., from five to six (sunset), and others for three or six or nine, but apparently the first bunch were working from “early in the morning” till the end of the day, i.e. pretty close to sunrise-to-sunset or the full twelve (seasonal) hours. And they were the ones who contracted for the “usual daily wage”, so it seems plausible to me that sunrise to sunset was considered the standard working day—and that yes, people were familiar with the ideas of shorter working hours and prorating wages according to time worked.

My New American Bible translates the times as “early morning”, “midmorning”, “noon”, “late afternoon” and “near sunset”.

The point I was trying to make was that in Medieval Europe (for illustrative purposes let’s try 100 years before the Reformation) that if you went to up Joe Peasant Farmer and told him that he could get off work in three hours, I doubt he was going to have a good idea what that meant.
You could have said the same thing to Friar Joe and he would have had a much better idea, because his life was so ordered by time.

The OP was about how many hours a farmer worked in the Middle Ages. I think that a farmer would have worked from sunrise to sunset, long hours in the summer and shorter in the winter.

The yeilds quoted are a little higher than the ones my professor gave me, but that makes sense–he is talking about the 13th century, and my professor was more concerned with the 6th and 7th. There were some signifigant changeas in agricultre in those 500 years (heavier plow was intoduced, irrrigation was improved in some areas), so one would expect increases in productivity.

So it would have been 12 hours a day in general, or only during harvest time? How many harvests per year?

What would they be doing all winter?

Boy, you gotta feel for those farmers in Iceland…

Keeping track of time was a medieval preoccupation for numerous reasons. It was essential to be able to calculate to calendar to an exacting degree because virtually every day was a Saint’s Day or other holy day. Furthermore, depending on time, region, and monastic order, monks were obligated to pray no less than six times per day, all at precisely regulated times.

The cycle of medieval farm life is well recounted in livres des tres riches heures, or Books of Hours. I am not an expert on this material myself, but it appeared to me that medieval farmers worked a great deal in planting and harvest seasons, and had less to do during the winter. Moreover, there were many feast days on which no labor would be performed.

Overall, my WAG is that on active days a medieval farmer would work longer hours, but he would work on fewer days throughout the year.


Most farming in Iceland is sheepfarming. There is comparatively little agriculture. The Icelandic farmers I know always talk about how great their lives are, so I would not be so quick to judge. :wink: