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Corvée 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 as there is no actual obligation to pay cash, nor is it technically a tribute 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 Egyptmarker, ancient Romemarker, Chinamarker and Japanmarker, Francemarker in the 1600s and 1700s, Incan civilization, Haitimarker under Henri Christophe and Portugalmarker's African colonies until the mid 1960s.


The actual word "corvée" has its origins in Rome, and reached the English via France. In the Late Roman Empire the citizens performed operae publicae in 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 or villeins 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 (Latin corrogare, "to requisition"). This term evolved into coroatae, then corveiae, 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 1789, shortly after the beginning of the French Revolution, 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 Seigneurial system in what had been New France, in British North America.It remains a daily practice in the French Foreign Legion, and focuses on the cleaning of the living quarters.

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 Day.

Haiti under Henri Christophe

The independent Kingdom of Haiti based at Cap Haitienmarker 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 Princemarker in the South under Petion which had a system of agrarian reform distributing land to the laborers.

Imperial China

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 and his mausoleum. However, as the imposition was exorbitant and punishment for failure draconian, Qin Shi Huang was criticised by many historians of China. Corvée-style labour called was also found in pre-modern Japan.

United States

After the American Civil War, some Southern states taxed their inhabitants in the form of labour for public works. The system proved unsuccessful because of the poor quality of work; in the 1910s Alabamamarker became the last state to abolish it.

Portugal, African colonies

In Portugal's African colonies (Mozambiquemarker), 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 South Africa. 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.


Francemarker annexed Madagascarmarker as a colony in the late 19th century. Governor-General Gallieni then implemented a hybrid corvée and poll tax, partly for revenue, partly for labour resources (the Frenchmarker 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, and contemporary thinking behind it, are described in a 1938 work:-

"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 Frenchmarker 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 develop.

"The corvée 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 which taxation 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 francs 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 from taxation and labour were soldiers, militia, Government clerks, and any Hova who knew French, 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


From the Egyptian Old 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 pyramidsmarker, temples, quarries, canals, roads, and other works.

In later Egyptian times, during the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy V, in his Rosetta Stone Decree 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 Megiddomarker, entitled: "Furnishing corvée workers". See: city Nuribta.

Nile barrage

The Nile barrage above Cairo was built from 1841-67 using corvée labour.

Modern Instances

The government of Myanmarmarker reportedly imposes unpaid mandatory labour on its citizens.

Today most countries have restricted corvée labour to military conscription and prison labour. Jury service is arguably a modern remnant of forced corvée labour.


File:Marlik clay bowl REM.JPG|~1000 BC clay bowl, one day corvee ration(?)
Marlik, Iran

See also


    • 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.

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