It’s true: history repeats itself. I noticed this particular connection while studying for a class on the Italian Renaissance.
It’s the middle of the 11th century in the countryside of England. Harvest time has come again, just like it always has, with long days of back-breaking work and thoughts of the coming winter. A day’s work is not measured by hours, but rather by how much is brought in between dawn and dusk. The laborers are a varied lot, ranging in age from the youngest of toddlers learning their work to oldest of the aged who work according to memory rather than trust their failing sight. No able-bodied person is left idle, whether they are working in the fields, preparing wool to be spun into yarn, or tending to typical farm chores. This is the life of serfs in the manorial society of medieval Europe. Everything is centered around the ruling lord’s interests, and the controlled land is made almost entirely self-sufficient by the work of resident serfs. They earn the right to work the land by paying taxes out of the year’s increase in crops and livestock. But though the work is hard and the days long, there is something beyond basic necessity motivating the workers: the feast to be hosted by the lord of the manor as soon as harvest taxes are collected. It is part of the Harvest Festival, one of several such celebrations that take place during the year. Festivals always center around one of two things – seasonal events such as this one, and religious Holy Days. If asked whether they are happy with their life situation, the likely answer would be slightly confused – life is life, the same as it always has been and always will be, so there’s no reason in wasting time talking about it.
Move forward 9 centuries and 5,500 miles to the west to a rural region of the southeastern United States. It’s almost Christmas, but celebrations are meager, with families using precious savings to make it as special as they can afford for the sake of the children yet innocent of the labor that is inevitably their lot in life. These are mill village families, who work 11-hour days in the booming textile industry of the early 19oos. They really can’t complain; the village offers steady employment, two churches to worship in, and a school educating through the 7th grade. True, the mill owner controls who gets promoted, hires ministers to preach on the value of hard work, and requires everyone over 12 to earn their keep at the mill, but he’s a good, generous man whose temper only gets away from him when workers slack off or product quality isn’t up to snuff. In fact, this village is better off than most: it even has its own lending library, created by a member of the mill’s establishing family a few years ago. Yes, there is time for recreation. Picnics and socials in the summer – along with the newly-formed baseball team, which will soon compete against other local mill teams – and communal meals put on by upper-management wives during the holiday season. If asked their about their hopes for the next generation, the average worker’s answer may be hesitantly optimistic: with opportunities for education growing and travel becoming easier, their children might just have a chance at earning themselves a better life, although the mill will always be an option for secure employment.
Evidence of manorial life still exists in Europe through manor houses that have stood the test of time – the titles of their original owners even go with the property in some cases! And here in the South, remnants of industrial textile society are everywhere, from the mills themselves (for the most part abandoned, or else in the process of conversion into modernized living space or commercial offices) to their surrounding villages (some well-kept, others in poor repair). Go to nearly any historical society in a textile area and you’ll find collections of Depression-era photographs chronicling all aspects of mill life, from specific work duties to the unique community culture. This post doesn’t even begin to cover these two fascinating eras of history, so watch for more in-depth posts in the future!