...many people in cold climates stayed in bed longer in the winter out of necessity. With reduced food supplies and limited sources for heat other than animal skins or other coverings, they simply had to conserve energy....
As late as 1880, one observer said that residents of the Eastern Pyrenees were "as idel [sic] as marmots" during the cold months.
Entire mountain regions would essentially shut down in late autumn, with some villages essentially "entombing" themselves through the early spring. One georgrapher wrote in 1909 that "the inhabitants re-emerge in spring, disheveled and anaemic." Even some lower lying regions, with more temperate weather, showed signs of prolonged torpor. An official report in 1844 described what happened to Burgundian day laborers after the harvest season had ended: "After making the necessary repairs to their tools, these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately."
People trudged and dawdled, even in summer. They ate more slowly than modern people. Life expectancy at birth now seems depressingly low: in 1865, it was a few months over forty years in only twenty departments in Paris and Finistere, it was under thirty; the national average was thirty-seven years two months. Life expectancy at five was fifty-one. Despite this, complaints about the brevity of life are far less common than complaints about its inordinate length. Slowness was not an attempt to savour the moment. A ploughman who took hours to reach a field beyond the town was not necessarily admiring the effect of morning mist on the furrows and streaming cattle against the rising sun, he was trying to a make a small amount of strength last for the working day, like a carload of manure spread over a large field.
In areas and other towns in Flanders, up to one-third of the population - artisans as well as labourers - lived in underground cities carved into medieval quarries. These 'boves' (an old French word for 'cavern' were later used as sanctuaries, bomb-shelters, secret routes ot the front in the First World War and eventually as candle-lit restaurants and tourist attractions. Little is said or known today about their use as normal residential areas. People whose lives were not divided by the seasons found these living arrangements unproductive and lugubrious ... "The vital air is constantly contaminated by the breath of eight to ten individuals who are piled up there in a tiny dwelling for twelve to fifteen hours a day with only one air-hole between them."
Most felt safer cocooned in idleness. As the song of a Pyrenean peasant in the 1880s explained, "They had hardly any spirit of enterprise and were loath to make life more complicated when it was already hard enough to bear."
A 1900 report in the British Medical Journal mentioned that "a practice closely akin to hibernation," known as lotska, "is said to be general among Russian peasans in the Pskov Government, where food is skanty to a degree almost equivalent to chronic famine." Since there was not enough food to last the year, peasants spend "one half of it in sleep." Ar first snowfall, the entire family would lie down by the stove, and everyone would wake up once a day to drink some water and eat a piece of hard bread, a six-month supply of which had been baked in the autumn. Afterward, everyone went to sleep again. Family members took turns on a vigil "to watch and keep the fire alight." Six months later, they would all go out, like human groundhogs, to check and see whether the grass was growing." The writer of the report found "economic advantages" to this kind of hibernation, but in general he speaks with a condescending faux-envy, betraying his sense of British superiority: "We doomed to dwell here where men sit and hear each other groan, can scarce imagine what it must be for six whole months out of the twelve to be in the state of Nirvana longed for by Eastern sages, free from the stress of life, from the need to labour, from the multitudinous burdens, anxieties, and vexations of existence."
....Such variations persisted in to the twentieth century in northern regions with relatively few economic and social ties to the more temperate (and more industrialized) regions to their south. Consider the case of native peoples in the northernmost regions of North America. In his 1948 account of his sojourn among the Ihalmuit of northern Saskatchewan, the Canadian writer Farley Mowat chronicled the lives of people facing a forbidding environment that brought plentiful supplies and protein and fat in late summer and autumn, but next to nothing in the Winter. In such conditions, they needed to adjust themselves to "the rhythm of the elements," which included holding long sleepless vigils during the caribou-hunting season of the fall. During this time, "huge fires burned all day and all night and blocks of white deer fat began to mount up in the tents," wrote Mowat. In the following season, when temperatures could dip to fifty below zero, came long periods of dormancy, when the only source of heat was the "fat...being burned — within their bodies." People would "eat a little and then go to sleep." But the few waking hours were not merely times of deprivation, for although "the almost continuous darkness and cold could well drive men mad," the Ihalmiut people composed and sang songs for great "song-feasts" before retiring to their igloos. Periods of prolonged torpor in today's world might be considered signs of depression fo seasonal affective disorder; but in their other times and places, they were simply part of the established order of things...
- Calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Office of Productivity and Technology)
to Adult male peasant, U.K.: 1620 hours
(Calculated from Gregory Clark's estimate of 150 days per family, assumes 12 hours per day, 135 days per year for adult male, from "Impatience, Poverty, and Open Field Agriculture", mimeo, 1986. See: http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html