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New Worlds: Corvée

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon! www.patreon.com/swan_tower

For our final essay of the month, we’re going to step a bit sideways from the previous topic and look at a very different kind of organized, collective labor: the sort that may not be voluntary at all.

Rewind to before the Industrial Revolution — or rewind even further, to before the invention of devices like cranes or the wheel itself — and the only way to do large-scale building and engineering projects was with muscle power. Lots and lots of muscle power. Some of which could come from animals, depending on where you lived . . . but that was mostly useful for dragging things like stone blocks around. The placing of those blocks, the digging of foundation holes or canals, all the rest of the labor? That had to come from humans. And because it was needed in enormous quantities, quite often that labor was conscripted.

We touched on this briefly in Year Six, at the end of our discussion of slavery. Corvée is the broad term for forced, often unpaid labor extracted from free individuals — but that last adjective is key, differentiating it from slavery per se. Instead of being a permanent status inflicted on a person, it’s a temporary state of affairs, intermittent and of limited duration (often seasonal).

In fact, often corvée can best be understood as a form of non-monetary taxation. Tenant farmers might pay part of the rent on their lands by working in their landlord’s fields instead of their own. Or this can operate on a still larger scale, with the state demanding a certain period of triennial labor from every adult male or a certain number of men each year from each administrative area — a form referred to as statute labor. The tax-like nature of this requirement can be seen in the fact that people can often buy their way out of their corvée obligations; if you have enough money to throw at your landlord or government, they’ll take that in lieu of the sweat of your brow.

Dread of sweat isn’t the only reason to buy your way out of corvée. While this type of labor isn’t slavery, it also isn’t pleasant; conscripted workers rarely get much in the way of great food or comfortable lodgings, and they might be abused by their overseers nearly as badly as slaves. And being hauled off to work on someone else’s fields or construction project means you aren’t at home working on your own — potentially a significant problem, depending on the timing of your absence. Tenant farmers were frequently required to harvest their landlord’s crops first, thereby delaying their own and risking losing them to storms or pests; conscripts building roads in a far province could be gone for months, right when their own families need them for planting or other critical tasks.

(At the same time, there can be a small, hidden upside: for a peasant who might otherwise never travel more than twenty miles from their own village, corvée could be a way to see other parts of the land they live in. Like joining the army, but without quite so much risk of being killed in the process. Sounds like a protagonist’s inciting incident to me . . .)

As I’ve been indicating in passing, there are certain uses to which corvée commonly gets applied. Locally, the harvest is very probable, or other agriculture-adjacent work like clearing woodland or digging ditches to drain a marshy area to create arable land. On a state scale, it’s often construction: roads, forts, walls, monumental tombs for the current ruler. Some of these serve a clear public good, others less so — though it’s worth bearing in mind that a tomb was often more than the pure vanity project it seems like today. When a community believes in the divine nature of its ruler, or that the ruler will be able to bless them from beyond the grave, the labor that goes into building an elaborate structure (often with an associated temple) serves more than merely decorative purpose.

But you don’t even have to bring the supernatural into the picture to find other benefits in corvée. If you temporarily conscript a third of the able-bodied adult men from a certain province, it becomes a lot harder for the lord of that province to pull together an army to threaten you, making this a tactic for political control. And the communal construction of great works burnishes the aura of a ruler, adding to their majesty and legitimacy — so long as they don’t bankrupt the state in the process, which is where far too many of them went wrong.

It’s even possible for corvée to create a sense of community among the laborers, beyond their parochial origins. I doubt this worked all the time, and it almost certainly failed the larger and more abusive a project became . . . but on the smaller and more genuinely communal end of things, there’s real potential for bonding through creating something together, helping your populace feel like they belong to something bigger than their local community.

We really don’t know how many ancient megalithic sites were made, e.g. places like Stonehenge: were the builders forced to work by some powerful chieftain or priest, or did they volunteer? There are no records to tell us. One of the most perplexing in this regard is the Anatolian Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe, the oldest known megalithic site in the world. Archaeologists are still arguing over whether that was a settlement where people lived or only a cultic site visited at certain times of year, and — chicken-or-egg style — whether the ritual structure was constructed to help act as a kind of social glue for a society that was beginning to clump together into larger, proto-urban communities, or whether people coming together to build such a structure acted as a driver for the formation of such communities.

There’s no such question about later instances of corvée, though, and like I said, working conditions could get quite brutal. We have no hard figures for how many soldiers, conscripted peasants, and convicts died building the Great Wall of China during the Ming Dynasty, but we know the number was high. The same is probably true of many other sites, like the Great Pyramid of Giza. These works endure for centuries or millennia and awe modern visitors who gaze upon them . . . but the cost for that achievement is high.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Corvée”

  1. In 1215, the Magna Carta, Clause #23:
    No village or individual shall be compelled to make bridges at riverbanks except those who, of old, were legally bound to do so.

    So, I believe this to mean that building bridges may not be made into Corvee unless part of the original tenancy agreement ( a holdover from serfdom where a serf belonged to the land, not the landlord,) would be expected to maintain the land and access to the land via bridges.

    BUT the charter says “compelled to make bridges”. Repairing said bridges seems to be another issue. This is one vagueness that a smart lawyer could argue either way.

    1. Yep, it’s often hard to eliminate these things entirely — the grandfathered situations and loopholes in the clauses leave a fair bit of wiggle room.

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