Chayanov, Domesday and the Eight Ox Team

To which some might be tempted to respond: “What fresh hell is this?!” Well it is an attempt to backfill some of the argument behind my last post on consumption vs accumulation in relation to investment and marginal rates.

A.V. Chayanov was an early Soviet era agricultural economist of enormous influence during his time. Unfortunately his empiricism ran afoul of Stalinist magical thinking, ultimately to be a non-Marxist economist proved to be literally fatal, five years into a sentence in a labor camp in Kazakhstan Chayanov was re-arrested in 1937 and shot the same day. His most important works were finally made available in English in 1966 under the title The Theory of Peasant Economy. The material is quite dense and has enough data tables, graphs and equations to make both Kimel and Spencer weep with joy and I don’t intend to summarize it here. But it did smash the idea that the typical peasant labor unit, aka the family, operated as an instrument of accumulation and/or had its labor maximally exploited. Instead even the most oppressed serfs of Czarist Russia had astonishingly high amounts of leisure time at most points in their life cycles and ramped their labor up and down to maintain fairly predetermined consumption targets. This required the highest level of labor intensity during early child rearing years when small children were from an economic position pure friction, but mostly this intensity was not maintained afterwards even though it would have meant higher levels of accumulation. In short the peasant household was not a profit oriented operation at all, efforts in that direction generally being ends directed, particularly in the form of setting up children as their own economic unit. All in all the data collected and analysis made by Chayanov does not support the theory of peasant economy common to western liberal economics in either its neo-classical or Marxist formulations, with the mismatch with the latter being ultimately fatal.

But what does this have to do with oxen? Well it turns out that reading Chayanov illuminated my understanding of English agricultural economy in the middle ages. More below the fold.
In 1086 after 20 years of consolidating control after his conquest of England in 1066 William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday survey. In the course of this William’s commissioners accomplished something almost inconceivable for its time, a near total economic survey of the entirety of England that established down to the acreage the control, rent, and carrying capacity of every land holding as it was currently and in the time of his predecessor Edward the Confessor (William considering King Harold whom he defeated at Hastings to be an usurper). The information was compiled into two large books the Little and Great Domesday which rather miraculously survived down to our time and represent the oldest public record of England. The entire text is now available online as well as in translation in a Penguin addition. Lots of great stuff but I want to focus on one aspect, that of the typical peasant holding in relation to the plow team.

The great middle swatch of England between the County of Kent (which is a historical world unto itself) and Wales in the west and Yorkshire and Lancashire in the north was largely devoted to ‘open field’ farming in which ownership to various strips were scattered between three or less often two large fields. The nominal unit of land ownership was the hide which served both as the basis for taxation and as a measurement for a specific area of land. Unfortunately for us that measure varied from place to place. The historical literature on the hide is vast and in places astonishingly bitter but at risk of stirring ghosts of historians past I am going to define it as roughly 60 acres. While landlords might measure their holdings in terms of hides it was the very rare tenant that would hold so much, indeed a substantial peasant would be lucky to hold a virgate or 30 acres, while half virgates (~15 acres) or bovates (~7.5 acres) might be more common. Now the word ‘bovate’ derives from Latin ‘bos, bovis’ meaning ‘ox’ and was considered the minimum size needed for a peasant to maintain two oxen. But here is the key point. In traditional open field farming a plow team consisted of eight oxen drawing a single plow. The manpower needed to direct the plow consisted of two people, a plowman and a ox boy, one doing the heavy work of directing the plow itself, while the boy and mostly literally such just keeping the oxen moving along the furrow. Okay all this is just Medieval English History 1, but few people seem to have drawn the conclusion that a collision of Chayanov and Domesday points you to.

If a typical peasant tenant holds a bovate and owns two oxen while a middling peasant might hold a semi virgate with four oxen and yet it takes eight oxen to make up a full team then cooperation is essential. Except for the rare virgater putting together a plow team means a cooperative effort between 2-4 peasants or in some cases more (Domesday has holdings only large enough for ‘half an ox’ and in one case at least reports that there is half an ox there ‘ubi semi-bos’). But here is the kicker, since it only takes one adult plowman to operate the plow in any given day, this means the other 1-3 or more peasants are on any given day not working their own fields. Now some of this time is occupied by tilling the lords fields using the lord’s plows but as often as not such plowing services require the tenants to bring their own plows which of course is impossible if another tenant is using it at the time. All of which kind of blows to smithereens the long held construct of the peasant working at the plow from dawn to dusk. Not just because the typical plowing session lasted only half the day (the oxen needing the other half to graze) but because your typical peasant might only be faced with plowing duties every other day or four. Nor was plowing a round the year occupation, you plowed in preparation for planting or in some cases conditioning of the field, but for much of the year the fields were just growing their crops, at most needing some weeding or drainage maintenance.

Now obviously there were other tasks to keep peasants occupied but few if any so labor intensive as working a heavy plow. Which kind of up-ends our typical understanding of peasant life particularly as contrasted to that of the factory worker of 18th and 19th century England. Almost all economic literature I am aware of simply builds in the assumption that as onerous as the six day, 72 hour work week might have been, at least those workers were better off than the serfs of Czarist Russia, working as they did from dawn to dusk for merciless landlords. Well frankly neither the data painstakingly collected and analyzed by Chayanov from actual workers in Czarist times or the English evidence based on field sizes and plow teams from 11th century Domesday really fits that model very well. Moreover a look at the calender for rural England in the middle ages shows an astonishingly long list of ‘holidays’ ‘feast days’ and ‘Saint’s Days’ when no work was performed at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that daily life in England or certainly Czarist Russia was exactly like Hobbiton in the Shire. Just that our common understanding of mud stained serfs working under the cruel lash of their overseers may be just the mirror image of that same fantasy. Reality as almost always being more complicated.