THR Blog   /   May 20, 2021

The Serf’s Story

The Lord of the Manor may not have the final word.

Alan Jacobs

Parked on a Highway (via Wikimedia Commons).

In The English and Their History, an exceptionally vivid narrative, Robert Tombs explains how serfdom effectively came to an end in England — largely as a consequence of the Black Death.

After the great famine, and even more after the plague, labour was scarce and valuable. Serfs purchased their freedom (“manumission”), or simply refused to perform services, if necessary leaving to take land as free tenants elsewhere. Tenants of the Bishop of Worcester stated plainly in the 1430s that if he insisted on his legal rights “they would leave the lands, holdings and tenures … vacant to the great prejudice of the lord … and the final destruction of the … manors.” Lords gave way, or their land remained untilled. Some landlords paid tenants’ building costs in order to keep them. By about 1450, servile tenures were largely extinct, replaced by “copyhold” tenure and money rents — “until the world is restored,” hoped the Earl of Warwick’s officials, vainly.

A temporary expedient, the lords thought. But they were wrong.

It’s interesting to read about this momentous event as the decline in COVID-19 cases, here in the USA anyway, is leading to calls for workers to return to their workplaces, putting an end to their year-plus of remote work.

Employers have several reasons for calling their employees back to the office: Some of them seem truly to believe that their business functions better, that employees are more productive, when they are together in one place; others, though they will generally not admit this, think that they they will be able to spot and deter slackers if they have their workers under their beady watchful eye; and of course, perhaps the most common though not especially widely discussed factor of them all, it’s hard for employers to bear the payment of rent for largely or wholly unoccupied offices.

The levels of anxiety emanating from the executive suites might be assessed by reflecting on the extraordinary tone-deafness of this op-ed by the CEO of Washingtonian magazine, who basically threatens employees who want to keep working from home with the sack:

While remote working is certainly industry- and job-dependent, and the future employment scene will probably be some type of hybrid, the CEOs I have spoken with fear erosion of collaboration, creativity and culture. So although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security. Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.

Nice little job you got there. Shame if somethin’ happened to it. Her employees immediately staged a work stoppage in response. Like the tenants of the Bishop of Worcester, they know that in a tightening job market they have leverage.

Luke O’Neil, in his oddball newsletter, recently argued that “Commuting is Psychological Torture” and solicited feedback from his readers. A clear majority agreed with the thesis embedded in the title of his post, but a few readers expressed affection for their commute. All of the latter group, without exception, commute by public transportation. The one universal point of agreement is that commuting by automobile constitutes unadulterated misery — misery straight, no chaser.

I read all this with some bemusement. As a college teacher, I have one of those jobs that can be done remotely, via Zoom, but cannot be done well. I greatly prefer my 20-minute-each-way commute-by-car to teaching via Zoom — but now that I’ve read the lamentations of all of O’Neil’s readers, I am rather more resentful of my commute than I had been. When I moved to Waco, eight years ago, I realized that I would no longer be able to walk to work — something I had done for the previous twenty-five years — but managed to bear the deprivation stoically. Now my stoicism is compromised. Listening to a festival of complaints can do that to you.

But I’ll get over it, largely because I love where I live and, also, love sitting in a room with young people to talk about books and ideas. That said, I have undertaken a serious rethinking of office hours. For decades now, I have made my way to my campus office just to meet with students face-to-face. Starting this fall, though, I am going to hold office hours on Zoom. There’s a limit to what the Lord of the Manor can ask of a serf like me.