Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans

Khalid Elhassan - October 21, 2021

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
An artistic reconstruction of the Assassins’ chief fortress, Alamout Castle. Grand Poobah

14. Medieval Killers Who Broke From Their Masters and Went Into the Murder Business on Their Own Hook

In 1090, with financial support from the Fatimids, Sheikh Hassan al Sabbah seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia. From that base, he expanded his sway and established a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria. That earned him the moniker of Old Man of the Mountain, a title that was passed on to his successors. From those holdfasts, he sent suicide squads of killers known as fida’is (“self sacrificers”) against prominent leaders throughout the Middle East.

Initially, the deadly campaign hewed to the goals of the Assassins’ Fatimid sponsors, and the targets were prominent Sunni opponents of the Fatimids. However, the Assassins soon asserted their independence. Although they retained a degree of Fatimid financial support, they began to kill on their own hook in order to further their own agenda and goals. The result was nearly two centuries of terror, during which the fear of Assassins was an ever-present concern for medieval Middle Eastern leaders and prominent figures of all faiths and denominations thereof.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Followers of Sheikh Hassan al Sabbah, killing themselves on his orders. Alchetron

13. From Hashish to Assassin

The Assassins were fanatically loyal to their leader, the Sheikh known as The Old Man of the Mountain. On one occasion, to impress a visitor with his followers’ dedication, he ordered some of them to jump to their deaths from a castle wall, and others to fatally stab themselves. They instantly obeyed. Such dedication was the end of result of one of history’s most innovative recruitment and indoctrination strategies, whose end result was Assassins convinced that their Sheikh held the keys to paradise. Potential recruits would be summoned to an Assassin fortress, where they would be housed in bare cells, and attend daily religious lectures and education. Gradually, it would be hinted that Sheikh Hassan al Sabah or his successors held the keys to paradise.

Then, one day the more promising of the young men would be drugged and plied with hashish, which earned the group the Arabic name “Hashashin” – which was rendered into “Assassins” by Europeans. When the recruit came to, high on hashish, he awoke to find himself amidst carefully landscaped orchard gardens, through which clear streams meandered between rows of vines heavy with grapes, and trees ripe with fruit. Cute animals such as lambs and tame deer frolicked about. Peacocks wandered around, and ruffled and spread their gorgeous tails. Brightly colored birds flitted through the branches above, and trilled and filled the air with their songs.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Seductresses. Kolybanov Live Journal

12. Innovative Medieval Recruitment Tactics

Amid the breathtaking surroundings of Assassin pleasure gardens were breathtakingly beautiful women, there to seduce the recruit, cater to his physical desires, and satisfy his… lusty whims. They plied the youth with wine, kept him high on hash, and fed him delicacies that most recruits never knew existed let alone tasted. The temptresses would convince the besotted young man that he was in paradise, and that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into heaven. Then, after days in which he wallowed in delights and indulged in heavenly pleasures, the young man would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the gardens.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
The medieval Order of Assassins got its recruits to wallow in drunken and intoxicated pleasures as part of their indoctrination. Return of Kings

He would awake to find himself back in his bare cell and austere surroundings, and informed that he had been in paradise, sent there by the grace of the Old Man of the Mountain, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to paradise, provided that he died while killing the Sheikh’s enemies. It proved highly effective: suicide squads of horny young fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing the cult’s enemies, descended from the Assassins’ mountain holdfasts to terrorize the Middle East.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
An Order of Assassins killer’s attempt to do in Edward I of England. Wikimedia

11. The Order of Assassins’ Killers Were Highly Trained

The Order of Assassins‘ first victim of note was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier who had held absolute power in the Seljuk Empire for two decades years before the Assassins got him in 1092. During their centuries of operations, the cult’s suicide squads killed many prominent Middle Eastern figures. Their numbers included numerous sultans, viziers, generals, Crusader higher ups such as a King of Jerusalem, and at least two Caliphs. In his youth, King Edward I of England was grievously wounded and barely survived an attack from an Assassin who snuck into the royal tent when Edward was on Crusade.

Modern suicide bombers are crude human instruments of terror who typically need little more by way of tactical skill other than the ability to press a detonator. By contrast, the medieval Order of Assassins’ suicide hitmen were carefully selected and well trained in combat and disguises. Aside from the requisite physical fitness, they had to be swift on the uptake, well read, intelligent, patient, calculating, and cold. They also needed to possess no small degree of charisma in order to infiltrate their opponents’ defenses, and to gain access to and come within striking distance of their target.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Assassination of Nizam al Mulk. Quora

10. When it Came to Violent Propaganda, the Medieval Assassins Were Quote Modern

The Assassins can be described as early believers in and practitioners of “propaganda of the deed”, a modern concept of direct action meant to serve as an example and serve as a catalyst for possible revolution. Whenever possible, they were not content to simply murder their victims. Instead, the Assassins sought to kill them in as dramatic and public a manner as possible. Especially when it came to targets who had enveloped themselves in the heaviest layers of protective security. By public killings in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, they aimed to advertise their cult’s reach. To strike fear into the hearts of important men, the Assassins fostered the perception that those whom they targeted were dead men walking, no matter the precautions taken.

Assassin killer squads usually studied the routines of a targeted leader, then lay in wait for him at a heavily attended public event, such as a festival or Friday prayers at the mosque. At a signal given at an opportune moment, they would leap into action to stab and slash their victim, while shouting the name of their cult’s leader and whatever offense the victim had given. Stories also abound of Assassin sleepers who diligently worked their way for years up the ranks and into the inner circle of a given court, where they would patiently await instructions that might take decades to arrive, if ever. In some instances, a victim would discover in the final moments of his life that one or more of his bodyguard were Assassin cultists.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Sultan Sanjar. Wikimedia

9. A Cult That Turned Intimidation Into an Art Form

Murder was not the Assassins’ only go-to tactic. It was always an option, but they often resorted to intimidation instead. One example is that of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar, who had rebuffed ambassadors from the cult. He changed his mind after he woke up one morning to find a note pinned to the ground near his bed by a dagger. It informed him that if the Assassins wished him ill, the dagger stuck into the hard ground could have easily been stuck into his soft breast instead. As a result, peace reigned between Seljuks and Assassins for decades. The Old Man of the Mountain was paid protection money, face-savingly described as a “pension”, and was permitted to collect tolls from travelers who passed near his fortresses.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Saladin, the most powerful man in the Middle East, was intimidated by the Assassins. Pinterest

Another whom the Assassins intimidated was the Sultan Saladin, leader of the revived Islamic resistance against the Crusades. After he recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, Saladin went after the Assassins, who had murdered his predecessor, and sought to end the cult once and for all. However, while encamped near their holdfasts in the mountains of northern Syria, he awoke in his tent one morning to discover that the Assassins had bypassed all his bodyguards and layers of protection. They left a menacing letter pinned to his pillow by a poisoned dagger, that advised the sultan that they could kill him whenever and wherever they wanted. Saladin turned his army around, abandoned the campaign, and sent officials to negotiate an understanding with the current Old Man of the Mountain. Via such means, grudging live-and-let-live relationships were developed between the Assassins and the region’s powers.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
The Mongols proved impervious to the Assassins. Hexapolis

8. The Perfect Assassins Killers

The Order of Assassins was finally broken by the Mongols under Hulagu, when they overran the region in the 1250s. Unlike the local powers whom the cult had intimidated for generations, the Mongols were largely immune from the murderous sect’s methods. The Steppe warriors were an alien people from far away, with no connections to the region. Mongol leaders were not surrounded by Middle Eastern courtiers, but by their own kind, and dwelled not at court in fixed palaces, but in armed and highly mobile camps in which strangers conspicuously stood out.

That negated the cult’s tactics of patient infiltration and blending in, which had worked so well in a region they knew and whose peoples they understood. Such methods were useless against the Mongols, whom the Assassins neither knew nor understood, and whose ranks they had neither the means nor time to infiltrate. The Mongols appeared too suddenly, acted too swiftly, and were too alien for the Assassins to get a handle on them or work out viable strategies and tactics to get to their leadership. The Mongols’ bloodthirstiness, savagery, speed of action and reaction, and lack of interest in negotiations, simply went beyond anything that the Assassins had ever experienced.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Hulagu leading a charge. Assassins Creed Wiki

7. The Bloody End of Frightful Murderers

In the runup to their invasion of the Middle East, the Mongols began to attack and seize Assassin fortresses in 1253. As a preliminary to his conquest of the region, Hulagu took a detour in 1256 to storm the cult’s strongholds in Persia. He captured the last Old Man of the Mountain, and forced him to order the other Assassin fortresses in Persia to surrender. Forty of them, including the cult’s main fortress of Alamout Castle, did so, and the Mongols razed them to the ground. Hulagu then sent the Old Man of the Mountain in chains to the Grand Khan in Mongolia, who had him executed. The Mongols then slaughtered all whom they could lay their hands on of the Nizari cult to which the Assassins belonged, along with their families.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
The ruins of the Assassins’ chief fortress, Alamout Castle, atop the summit at the center of the photo – note the rugged surrounding terrain. Wikimedia

It was a thorough genocide that broke the Assassins’ power once and for all, and reduced them, according to a contemporary historian, to “but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world”. Remnants of the Assassins survived in Syria, which lay outside the Mongols’ control, until the Egyptian Mamelukes first reduced them to vassalage in the 1260s, and finally forced them to surrender their last fortresses in 1273. They were suffered to live and kept on retainer as contract killers, but their independence was forever gone. In that final iteration of contract killers, the steadily dwindling cult existed for a few decades more, and survived into the following century before it vanished forever into the mists of history.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Hollywood depiction of drab medieval dress. Adoro Cinema

6. The Medieval World Was Not as Drab as It Is Depicted in Movies and TV

If we go by Hollywood’s and TV’s depiction of the medieval world, then we would have to conclude that life back then must have been pretty drab. Just about everybody is shown clad in dull brown clothes, occasionally broken by a bit of black thrown into the mix. Buildings are either plain brown wood for the lower classes’ dwellings, or unadorned stone grey for the castles of the aristocratic elites or the churches and cathedrals of the usually brown-clad clergy.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
In contrast to how they are often depicted in movies, medieval people liked colors. Quora

However, the reality is that people back in the Middle Ages did not restrict themselves to shades of brown and black. Instead, they tried to get as colorful as they could whenever possible. People in the medieval era liked to take a paint brush to anything that couldn’t move, and liked to pack as many colors into their wardrobe as possible. Those with means would decorate their walls with vibrant tapestries and frescoes, and their clothes would often have splashes of color by way of trim, or they might be brightly dyed.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Entrance of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens in France today, vs how it would looked in the medieval era. Church Pop

5. Churches in the Middle Ages Were Riots of Color

In movies, medieval castles and churches are typically depicted as structures made of unadorned plain stone. In reality, however, people in the Middle Ages went for vibrant – even garish – colors when it came to buildings. New cathedrals, for example, were riots of color when they were inaugurated. Walls, saints, and even gargoyles were coated in the brightest paints available. Over the years, however, the paint faded. Then, as tastes evolved – and budgets diminished – repainting in the original vibrant colors was done with less and less frequency.

Eventually, such repainting was abandoned all together. Because of that, what we see of medieval churches and cathedrals that have survived into the modern era is that they are usually plain and unadorned. We are mistaken, however, when we assume that how those buildings look today is how they looked back in the Middle Ages. For example, the left side of the above photo is of the entrance of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens in France as it looks today. The right is a laser projection of how it would have looked in the medieval era, based on paint residue in its pores.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Violence was orders of magnitude greater in the medieval era than today. Harvard Law Today

4. Vacation Time and Vibrant Colors Did Not Make the Medieval Era a Great Time to Be Alive

The fact that medieval peasants worked fewer hours than us and had more holidays, or that the medieval world was a vibrantly colorful one, does not mean that the Middle Ages were a great time to be alive. They were not, especially for commoners in feudal Europe. There, society was divided into de facto castes or layers, with the peasants, serfs, and other manual workers – the overwhelming majority of the population – at the bottom. They were ruthlessly exploited by those in higher layers up the medieval structure, who benefitted from the commoners’ labor, in exchange for “protection”. There was a twist, though: the protection offered by members of the upper castes was often from fellow upper caste members.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Medieval Europeans were fifty times more murderous than Europeans today. Aeon

Although those in the upper social layers were not as screwed as the commoners at the bottom, life was no bed roses for them either. Violence was rife across all classes. Even if we discount deaths in wars or dealt by knights in rampages against peasants, the homicide rate was 50 times greater in medieval Europe than in the modern EU. Put another way, Europeans were 50 times more murderous back then than they are today. However, as seen below, it was not violence, but diseases, that did the most to keep life expectancy low. High mortality rates, especially in childhood, kept the average life expectancy around 35, give or take a few years.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Fourteenth century manuscript illustration of clerics who have been disfigured by leprosy being instructed by a priest. Science Photo Library

3. Leprosy Was Common in the Middle Ages

The medieval world was rife with contagious diseases, and cities were especially vulnerable. Between poor sanitation, lack of adequate hygiene, and overcrowding, urban dwellers were most at risk from contagions than swept through with the speed of prairie grass fires. Such health risk factors made the medieval era one of history’s most dangerous periods, especially for city people. Add mediocre standards of medical care and knowledge, and it is no surprise that life expectancy back then was abysmally low. Among the worst diseases was leprosy, which devastated sufferers’ health as well as their social status. A little misunderstood disease even today, leprosy carried a huge stigma in the Middle Ages.

Lepers were shunned and cast not just out of cities, but from even the smallest hamlets. The stigma did not end with death, but carried through into the afterlife, as lepers were denied burial alongside non-lepers. Mostly thanks to Leviticus 13:44-46, which reads: “He is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Detail from a medieval painting depicting a victim of Saint Anthony’s Fire. Weird History

2. The Holy Fire Sickness

Holy Fire, also known as Saint Anthony’s Fire, was one of the more colorfully named medieval diseases. It was named after the monks of the Order of Saint Anthony, who were particularly successful in the treatment of those struck by the disease. Modern medicine, not given to colorful names, knows it as ergotism. Quaint name aside, it was a horrible illness whose victims suffered greatly. Caused by fungus that grows on moldy grains, especially rye, Saint Anthony’s Fire produced swelling, redness, and gangrene in the unfortunates afflicted with it.

A ninth century text described it as: “a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death”. Sufferers often hallucinated, and sometimes imagined that they were in a fight with the Devil. As the disease progressed, convulsions occurred, extremities began to rot, and ears, fingers, toes, and even arms and legs, began to fall off. In 944, about 40,000 died from an outbreak in France. As a contemporary put it: “The afflicted thronged to the churches and invoked the saints. The cries of those in pain and the shedding of burned-up limbs alike excited pity; the stench of rotten flesh was unbearable”.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Henry Brandon, 2nd Duke of Suffolk, died at age fifteen of the sweating sickness just a few hours before his brother Charles. Google Cultural Institute

1. The Sickness That Struck the Rich

In the late medieval era, a new disease known as the “sweating sickness” suddenly emerged, first in England, and from there, it spread to continental Europe. A mysterious illness, the sweating sickness struck in epidemic waves over a seven-decade period, then vanished just as suddenly as it had emerged. Little if anything is known about the incubation period, but when the symptoms cropped up, they and their consequences were sudden, and usually devastating: death frequently occurred within just a few hours.

Medieval Peasants Worked Fewer Hours Than Modern Americans
Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, was duke for only a few hours after the death of his brother Henry, the 2nd Duke of Suffolk, before he too died of the sweating sickness, age thirteen. Royal Gallery Collection

Initial symptoms included a sense of dread, followed by shivering, headaches, giddiness, exhaustion, nausea, and severe pains in the neck, back, shoulders, and limbs. Then came the symptom that gave the disease its name: copious sweat. That was often accompanied by abdominal pains and delirium. Severe symptoms typically lasted for 15 to 21 hours, and often culminated in a coma or death. Unusual among medieval illnesses – or illnesses of any age, for that matter – the sweating sickness disproportionately struck the upper classes. Today, various theories ascribe the mysterious disease to hantavirus, influenza, typhus, or botulism. However, there is no definitive answer yet as to just what the sweating sickness might have been.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

 

Big Think – Vikings Unwittingly Made Their Blades Stronger by Trying to Imbue Them With Spirits

Brown, Reginald Allen – English Castles (1976)

Business Insider, November 7th, 2016 – The Average American Worker Takes Less Vacation Time Than a Medieval Peasant

Buzzfeed – 16 Strange and Surprising Facts About Medieval England

Daftary, Farhad – The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis (1995)

DeVries, Kelly – Military Medieval Technology (1992)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Al Mutanabbi

Encyclopedia Britannica – Who Were the Assassins?

Fortweekly, The, April, 2018 – Curio #1: The Erfurt Latrinensturz

History Collection – These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today

History Extra – 10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Middle Ages

History Today – Americans Actually Work Way Harder Than Medieval Peasants

Hodgson, Marshall Goodwin Simms – The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Ismaílis Against the Islamic World (2005)

Inside Arabia – Al Mutanabbi and the Arrogance Within

Ivanov, Vladimir – Alamut and Lamasar – Two Medieval Ismaiíli Strongholds in Iran, an Archaeological Study (1960)

Lewis, Bernard – The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (2013)

Liddiard, Robert – Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism, and Landscape, 1066 to 1500 (2005)

Medieval Chronicles – Castle Murder Holes

MIT Project on Mathematics and Computation – Pre Industrial Workers Had a Shorter Workweek Than Today’s

New York Times, October 23rd, 1994 – Historical Study of Homicide and Cities Surprises the Experts

Pinker, Steven – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011)

Ranker – All the Afflictions You Might Have if You Lived in a Medieval City

Science Daily – Trebuchet

Setton, Kenneth M., et al (eds.) – A History of the Crusades, Volume I: The First Hundred Years: The Ismailites and the Assassins (1969)

Tradition in Action – A World of Brilliant Colors

Vintage News – Modern American Works Longer Hours With Less Vacation Than Medieval Peasant

Wikipedia – Sweating Sickness

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