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
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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