Were Premodern Peasants Starving and Overworked?

A little while, and the wicked will be no more; 
though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy peace and prosperity

Psalm 37:10-11

Many claim that capitalism has saved us from frequent famines and the “back-breaking” labor of peasant farming. “For example, Rutger Bregman tells us that ‘in the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick and ugly…’” (ASFF, page 78). Stephen Pinker, the “Our World in Data” website, Acton Institute and many other capitalist propagandists consistently use the trope of the “starving peasant” to promote the myth of modern progress.

These “cheerful prophets” of Progress claim to be empirical, but their descriptions of technology, competition, and human nature reveal that they are also making a theological claim. They reject the claim that God’s Providence, through Creation, is sufficient to sustain humanity and stir up fear of the Malthusian doctrine of scarcity.

Furthermore, the historical data is more complicated than liberals like to admit. In the words of Chris Smaje: 

“The starting point is a degree of uncertainty about premodern hunger and famines—how widespread were they, who suffered from them, and why? Solid data are hard to come by, but there are plausible grounds to think they were less widespread than we migh think—and that their victims were often poor people caught in the arable corners of their day, people who struggled mostly because the powerful didn’t much care about their fate. Modern famines are similar. When we see a man up to his neck in water, it’s worth checking if someone is pressing down on his head. Evidence from various times and places suggests that independent smallholders with secure access to enough land haven’t usually suffered from catastrophic hunger.” (A Small Farm Future, Chapter 10: “Dearth,” page 146)

Many famines occurred during early capitalism due to the enclosure of the commons, the tyranny of nation-states, and the intrusion of the usurious world market into local economies. Twentieth-century modernization in rapidly industrializing countries or colonies, whether capitalist or socialist, resulted in “the most dreadful period of famine in world history”, according to famine expert Alex de Waal (Mass Starvation, page 77). Today, estimates of those who “suffer chronic hunger vary from about 800 million to 2.5 billion—possibly more than 30% of the entire world’s population” (ASFF, page 148). 

A century ago, Father John A. Ryan argued that starvation was rare in the Middle Ages. Contemporary secular economists, such as Juliet B. Schor, have highlighted that medieval peasants enjoyed more leisure time than we do, in part due to the weekly Sabbath and numerous feast days of the liturgical calendar. “A thirteenth-century estimate finds that whole peasant families did not put in more than 150 days per year on their land.” (Excerpt from The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure).

The Middle Ages were not a utopia, but neither were they a dystopia of starvation and overwork. And agrarian life offers many blessings, such as the rich community of the premodern village and an ecologically sustainable economy, both of which modern civilization has abandoned. When Catholic distributists argue for a return to the land, we envision a future which is better fed and more leisurely, filled with the earthly joys of family and community and the heavenly happiness of virtue and the common good.

Better is a little with justice, than great revenues with iniquity.

Proverbs 16:8

Featured Image: “Interior of a Farm with Still-Life” by Jacob Savery

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