is labor, often but not always unpaid, that
people in power have authority to compel their subjects to perform,
unless commuted in some way, such as by a cash payment; sometimes
this was an option of the payer, sometimes of the payee, and
sometimes not an option. It differs from chattel slavery
in that the worker is not
owned outright--–being free in various respects other than in the
dispensation of his or her labour--and the work is usually
intermittent; typically only a certain number of days' or months'
work is required each year. It is a form of unfree labour
when the worker is not
compensated. It is not technically a tax
there is no actual obligation to pay cash, nor is it technically a
as there is no actual obligation to
pay a physical good such as wheat, but – particularly with a
commutation option – it operates very much like a tax
for all intents and purposes.
The term is most typically used in reference to Medieval
or early modern Europe, where work
might be demanded by a feudal lord of his vassal or by a monarch of
his subject; however the application of the term is not strictly
limited to that time or place: the practice is widespread, of great
antiquity, and not extinct. Corvée has existed in modern and ancient
Egypt, ancient Rome, China and Japan, France in the 1600s
and 1700s, Incan civilization, Haiti under
Henri Christophe and Portugal's African
colonies until the mid 1960s.
The actual word "corvée" has its origins in Rome, and reached the
via France. In the Late
Roman Empire the citizens performed operae publicae
lieu of paying taxes; often it consisted of road and bridge work.
Roman landlords could also demand a number of days' labour from
their tenants, and also from the freedmen
in the latter case the work was called operae officiales
In Medieval Europe, the tasks that serfs
were required to perform on a
yearly basis for their lords were called operae rigae
Plowing and harvesting were principal activities to which this work
was applied. In times of need, the lord could demand additional
work called opera corrogatae
"to requisition"). This term evolved into coroatae
, and finally corvée
, and the meaning
broadened to encompass both the regular and exceptional tasks. This
Medieval agricultural corvée was not entirely unpaid: by custom the
workers could expect small payments, often in the form of food and
drink consumed on the spot. Corvée sometimes included military
conscription, and the term is also occasionally used in a slightly
divergent sense to mean forced requisition of military supplies;
this most often took the form of cartage
, a lord's right
to demand wagons for military transport.
Because corvée labour for agriculture tended to be demanded by the
lord at exactly the same times that the peasants needed to attend
to their own plots -- eg. planting and harvest -- the corvée was an
object of serious resentment. By the 1500s the use of corvée in the
agricultural setting was on the wane; it became increasingly
replaced by money payments for labour.
In France the corvée existed until August 4
, shortly after the beginning of the
, when it was
abolished along with a number of other feudal privileges of the
French landlords. In these later times it was directed mainly
towards improving the roads. It was, again, greatly resented, and
is considered an important cause of the Revolution.
Counterrevolution revived the corvée in France, in 1824, 1836, and
1871, under the name prestation
; every able bodied man had
to give three days' labour or its money equivalent towards upkeep
of his local roads. The corvée also continued to exist under the
in what had been New France
, in British North America
.It remains a
daily practice in the French
, and focuses on the cleaning of the living
On June 30, 2004, a law from Jean-Pierre Raffarin's Government
established the first working and not paid holiday, officially
known as Journée de solidarité envers les personnes âgées
but commonly refered as Corvée
Haiti under Henri Christophe
independent Kingdom of Haiti based at Cap Haitien under Henri
Christophe imposed a corvée system of labor upon the common
citizenry which was used for massive fortifications to protect
against a French invasion.
Plantation owners could pay the
government and have laborers work for them instead. This enabled the
Kingdom of Haiti to maintain a stronger economic structure than the
Republic of Haiti based in Port au Prince in the South under Petion
which had a system of agrarian reform distributing land to the
Imperial China had a system of conscripting labour from the public,
equated to the western corvée by many historians. Qin Shi Huang
, the first emperor, imposed it
for public works like the Great Wall
. However, as the imposition
was exorbitant and punishment for failure draconian, Qin Shi Huang
was criticised by many historians of China. Corvée-style labour
was also found in pre-modern Japan.
After the American Civil War
their inhabitants in the form of labour for public works.
proved unsuccessful because of the poor quality of work; in the
1910s Alabama became the
last state to abolish it.
Portugal, African colonies
Portugal's African colonies (Mozambique), the Native
Labour Regulations of 1899 stated that all able bodied men must
work for six months of every year, and that "They have full liberty
to choose the means through which to comply with this regulation,
but if they do not comply in some way, the public authorities will
force them to comply."
Africans engaged in subsistence agriculture on their own small
plots were considered unemployed. The labour was sometimes paid,
but in cases of rule violations it was sometimes not -- as
punishment. The state benefited from the use of the labour for
farming and infrastructure, by high income taxes on those who found
work with private employers, and by selling corvée labour to
. This system of corvée
labour, called chibalo
, was not
abolished in Mozambique until 1962, and continued in some forms
until the Marxist
revolution in 1974.
Madagascar as a colony in the late 19th
Gallieni then implemented a hybrid corvée and poll tax,
partly for revenue, partly for labour resources (the French had just
abolished slavery there), and partly to move
away from a subsistence economy;
the last feature involved paying small amounts for the forced labour.
This solution to
problems typical of colonialism
contemporary thinking behind it, are described in a 1938
"There was the introduction of equitable taxation
, so vital from the financial point of
view; but also of such great political, moral and economic
importance. It was the tangible proof of French authority
having come to stay; it was the stimulus required to make an
inherently lazy people work.
Once they had learned to earn
they would begin to spend, whereby commerce and industry would
in its old form could not be
continued, yet workmen were required both by the colonists, and by
the Government for its vast schemes of public works. The General
therefore passed a temporary law, in
and labour were combined, to
be modified according to country, the people, and their mentality.
Thus, for instance, every male among the Hovas
from the age of sixteen to sixty, had either to pay twenty-five
a year, or give fifty days of labour
of nine hours a day, for which he was to be paid twenty centimes
, a sum sufficient to feed him. Exempted
and labour were soldiers,
militia, Government clerks, and any Hova
, also all who had
entered into a contract of labour with a colonist. Unfortunately,
this latter clause lent itself to tremendous abuses. By paying a
small sum to some European, who nominally engaged them, thousands
bought their freedom from work and taxation
by these fictitious contracts, to be free to continue their lazy,
unprofitable existence. To this abuse an end had to be made.
"The urgency of a sound fiscal system was of tremendous importance
to carry out all the schemes for the welfare and development of the
island, and this demanded a local budget. The goal to be kept in
view was to make the colony, as soon as possible, self-supporting.
This end the Governor-General
succeeded in achieving within a few years."
Egyptian corvée history
Kingdom (ca 2613 BC) onward, (the 4th Dynasty), corvée labour helped
in 'government' projects; during the times of the Nile River floods, labour was used for
construction projects such as pyramids, temples, quarries, canals, roads, and other
In later Egyptian times, during the Ptolemaic dynasty
, Ptolemy V
, in his Rosetta
of 196 BC, listed 22 reasons for being honored.
They include abolishing corvée labour in the navy.
- "men shall no longer be seized by force [for service] in the
Navy" (Greek text on the Rosetta Stone).
"Corvée" Amarna letter: Nuribta
The 1350 BC Amarna letters correspondence
, (mostly addressed to the
Ancient Egyptian pharaoh
), has one short letter, with the topic of
corvée labour. Of the 382–Amarna letters, it is an example
of an undamaged letter, from Biridiya of
Megiddo, entitled: "Furnishing corvée
See: city Nuribta
barrage above Cairo was built from
1841-67 using corvée labour.
government of Myanmar reportedly imposes unpaid mandatory labour on its
Today most countries have restricted corvée labour to military
and prison labour
is arguably a modern remnant of forced corvée
File:Marlik clay bowl REM.JPG|~1000 BC clay bowl, one day corvee
- See the chapter on "Corvées: valeur symbolique et poids
économique" (5 articles on France, Germany, Italy, Spain and
England), in: Bourin (Monique) ed., Pour une anthropologie du
prélèvement seigneurial dans les campagnes médiévales (XIe-XIVe
siècles): réalités et représentations paysannes, Publications
de la Sorbonne, 2004, p. 271-381.
- Budge. The Rosetta Stone, E.A.Wallis Budge, (Dover Publications), c
1929, Dover edition (unabridged), c 1989.