The majority of the stuff that needs to get done in an agrarian society is basic manual labor: primarily farm work, but also things like construction, building and road maintenance, mining, carrying, housework, etc. Any functioning pre-industrial society needs lots of workers to do all that work, but there are many different kinds of workers, some of which are not so familiar to us today. Some of these kinds of workers had it much better than others.
Here’s a list of possibilities, by no means exhaustive, arranged roughly in order from worst to best conditions.
Slavery is a near universal of human history. It has existed in almost every society. Before the past few centuries, cultures which rejected the use of slaves were rare, but some did exist, such as the Persian empire.
Slaves are property and can be owned, sold, traded, and used in whatever way the owner sees fit. In some societies, such as the Roman empire, a few slaves with education were used for skilled labor as secretaries, crafters, merchants, and so on. Even in those societies, most slaves were still used for basic manual labor.
Few cultures have maintained a large enough pool of slaves to be able to meet their demands from the reproduction of a domestic slave population. The supply of slaves usually depends upon prisoners captured in war or seized by raiders.
In some societies it was customary to free slaves after a certain period of time or when they reached a certain age, and some also allowed slaves to save money and buy themselves free. Either possibility, however, generally depended upon the good will of the owner. It was rarely something that a slave could count on.
There are many different terms for this class of workers. We might call them indentured servants (common in the European colonies in the Americas, also many Asian laborers in Africa during the colonial period), debt slaves (found in ancient Greece and Rome before the practice was abolished), or peons (in European colonies in parts of South America, Africa, and Asia). What they had in common is that they owed service to a particular person either for a fixed period of time or until an obligation was met. In the meantime, they were effectively slaves to be put to whatever work their master wished. Since it was in the interests of their masters to make it as difficult as possible for these bound laborers to reclaim their freedom, they often found themselves trapped much longer than they should have been.
In some societies, those obligations that bound workers were personal and could not be alienated. Such was the case in Greece and Rome. Other societies allowed such obligations to be sold or traded, effectively making the people bound by them merchandise, as happened to many laborers in the Caribbean in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.
Serfs are workers bound to a particular piece of land and required to work that land for the benefit of its owner. We most typically think of serfs in connection with medieval Europe, but substantially similar labor arrangements existed in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as some periods of Chinese and Japanese history. Spartan helots were also a kind of serf.
Although not free to leave their land and seek other opportunities, serfs did enjoy some protections and guarantees of stability. They were not slaves and could not be personally bought and sold (although the land they worked sometimes could be). They could not be turned off of their land or have their families and households broken up. The landowner they worked for was in most cases legally obliged to look after their safety and health. When landowners didn’t uphold their obligations, though, serfs were usually not in a position to do much about it except rebel.
Clientage is a relationship of mutual obligation between a patron and a client. Patron-client relationships of some kind exist in nearly all societies, but some cultures have formalized the relationship and given it social and legal importance. These societies include much of the ancient Mediterranean world and parts of medieval Europe that did not embrace manorialism and serfdom. What patrons and clients owed each other depended on the circumstances, but at the lower end of the social scale were clients who provided occasional labor for their patrons.
Patrons and clients were bound together by social bonds. Those bonds could make it hard for a client to get away from a demanding patron, but they also bound the patron to uphold certain standards of good behavior. In a society held together by such social bonds, squeezing some extra work out of your clients was rarely worth the risk of getting a reputation as a bad patron.
Paid labor was remarkably rare in the pre-modern world, at least at the level of basic labor. Skilled workers like smiths, joiners, musicians, and the like usually expected to be paid for their work, but farmhands and scullions not necessarily. When people were paid for basic labor in the pre-industrial world it was usually on a short-term basis, like seasonal farm labor or individual building projects. The work life we are used to today, where you work a steady job and get money in return, is a historical anomaly.
The use of paid labor on a large scale is mostly to be found in societies that made little or no use of slaves. The workers who built the Egyptian pyramids, for example, or the Persian ceremonial capital Persepolis were paid for their efforts.
Even in societies that had money, pay for unskilled labor was often given in kind: food, clothing, housing, etc.
Tenants and sharecroppers
Tenants and sharecroppers are like serfs in that they work on land that they do not own, but unlike serfs they are not bound to it. Tenants rent land from the owner for a fixed payment while sharecroppers pay a portion of what they produce, but both are voluntary parties in a contract that gives them certain legal rights. In some times and places, notably the American South and European colonies in Africa, landowners have found ways of preventing tenants and sharecroppers from exercising their rights and reducing them to a condition not much different from serfdom or slavery; in other societies, such as the Roman empire and early modern Japan, tenants and sharecroppers were more successful in asserting and protecting their rights.
In general, when there is a plentiful supply of cheap labor, tenants and sharecroppers do poorly because landowners can easily replace anyone who walks away. When labor is harder to come by, tenants and sharecroppers are in a better position to demand their rights, because landowners have an economic interest in finding and keeping good tenants and sharecroppers to make their land productive.
Free peasants own and work their own land either in independent family farms or small community collectives. They owe no service to anyone else. Small-hold farmers exist in just about any society, but in most they are a small minority. Farming is a precarious livelihood and a few bad years can wipe out a peasant farmer who doesn’t have anyone else to rely on. Over time, a lot of free peasants end up selling their land to wealthier neighbors and becoming serfs, tenants, or hired hands themselves.
Places where free peasants thrived in large numbers tended to be isolated and mountainous, which kept farm sizes small and made it difficult for a few wealthy landowners to consolidate their holdings. In places like Switzerland, Greece, and the Appalachian Mountains, small-holding farmers made up the predominant class of workers for long periods. Farming collectives, which provide a bit more stability than independent family farms, worked in places like Russia and some native societies in North America.
Thoughts for writers
There are, I think, two takeaways from this list (which, as noted, is very incomplete).
First: History is full of variety, everything from plantations full of slaves to small family farms. Whether you’re writing a secondary-world fantasy or a near-future dystopia, there is no reason why it should work like the modern west (or thirteenth-century France). One size does not fit all.
Second: There are reasons for all this variety. Ancient Egypt had very few slaves because it was an isolationist society that fought few wars. Roman landowners used slaves in large numbers because Rome’s wars of conquest and frontier enforcement sent plenty of prisoners to the market. Ancient Greece was full of small family farms because the rugged landscape made it hard for a small elite to monopolize the available farmland. Lots of free peasants accepted serfdom as the western Roman empire was collapsing as a way of ensuring their safety in an increasingly unstable world. The ways in which a society organizes basic labor tells us a lot about how it works.
There’s always work to be done and there are lots of ways of organizing the people who do it. Let the diversity of history inform how you write about it.
Edited for clarity.
Image: Farmer driving an oxcart, detail from floor mosaic via Wikimedia (Orbe, Switzerlan;, c. 170 CE; stone tile mosaic)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.