ESA Inventory

3.Attitudes Toward Work During the Medieval Period

Roger B. Hill, Ph.D.
© 1992, 1996

The fall of the Roman empire marked the beginning of a period generally known as the Middle Ages. During this time, from c400 AD until c1400 AD, Christian thought dominated the culture of Europe (Braude, 1975). Woven into the Christian conceptions about work, however, were Hebrew, Greek, and Roman themes. Work was still perceived as punishment by God for man's original sin, but to this purely negative view was added the positive aspect of earnings which prevented one from being reliant on the charity of others for the physical needs of life (Tilgher, 1930). Wealth was recognized as an opportunity to share with those who might be less fortunate and work which produced wealth therefore became acceptable.

Early Christian thought placed an emphasis on the shortness of time until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Any attachment to physical things of the world or striving to accumulate excessive wealth was frowned upon. As time passed and the world did not end, the Christian church began to turn its attention to social structure and the organization of the believers on earth. Monasteries were formed where monks performed the religious and intellectual work of the church (reading, copying manuscripts, etc.), but lay people tended to the manual labor needed to supply the needs of the community. People who were wealthy were expected to meet their own needs, but to give the excess of their riches to charity. Handicraft, farming, and small scale commerce were acceptable for people of moderate means, but receiving interest for money loaned, charging more than a "just" price, and big business were not acceptable (Tilgher, 1930).

As was the case for the Greeks and the Romans, social status within the medieval culture was related to the work a person did. Aristotelianism was also evident in the system of divine law taught by the Catholic church during this time (Anthony, 1977). A hierarchy of professions and trades was developed by St. Thomas Aquinas as part of his encyclopedic consideration of all things human and divine (Tilgher, 1930). Agriculture was ranked first, followed by the handicrafts and then commerce. These were considered to be the work of the world, however, and the work of the church was in a higher category (Rose, 1985). The ideal occupation was the monastic life of prayer and contemplation of God (Braude, 1975; Tilgher, 1930). Whether as a cleric or in some worldly occupation, each person embarked on a particular work course as a result of the calling of God, and it was the duty of a worker to remain in his class, passing on his family work from father to son.

In the culture of the medieval period, work still held no intrinsic value. The function of work was to meet the physical needs of one's family and community, and to avoid idleness which would lead to sin (Tilgher, 1930). Work was a part of the economic structure of human society which, like all other things, was ordered by God.  

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