1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Corvée

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CORVÉE, in feudal law, the term used to designate the unpaid labour due from tenants, whether free or unfree, to their lord; hence any forced labour, especially that exacted by the state, the word being applied both to each particular service and to the system generally. Though the corvée formed a characteristic feature of the feudal system, it was, as an institution, much older than feudalism, and was already developed in its main features under the Roman Empire. Thus, under the Roman system, personal services (operae) were due from certain classes of the population not only to the state but to private proprietors. Apart from the obligations (operae officiales) imposed on freedmen as a condition of their enfranchisement, which in the country usually took the form of unpaid work on the landlord’s domain, the semi-servile coloni were bound, besides paying rent in money or kind, to do a certain number of days’ unremunerated labour on that part of the estate reserved by the landed proprietor. The state also exacted personal labour (operae publicae), in lieu of taxes, from certain classes for such purposes as the upkeep of roads, bridges and dykes; while the inhabitants of the various regions were responsible for the maintenance of the posting system (cursus publicus), for which horses, carts or labour would be requisitioned.

Under the Frankish kings, who in their administration followed the Roman tradition, this system was preserved. Thus for the repair of roads, or other public works, within their jurisdiction the counts were empowered to requisition the labour of the inhabitants of the pagus, while the missi and other public functionaries on their travels were entitled to demand from the population en route entertainment and the means of transport for themselves and their belongings. It was, however, the economic revolution which between the 6th and 10th centuries converted the Gallo-Roman estates into the feudal model, and the political conditions under which the officials of the Frankish empire developed into hereditary feudal nobles, that evolved the system of the corvée as it existed throughout the middle ages and, in some countries, survived far into the 19th century. The Roman estate had been cultivated by free farmers, by coloni, and by slave labour. Under Frankish rule the farmers became coloni or hospites, the slaves, serfs. The estate was now habitually divided into the lord’s domain (terra indominicata, dominicum) and a series of allotments (mansi), parcels of land distributed by lot to the cultivators of the domain, who held them, partly by payment of rent in money or kind, partly by personal service and labour on the domain, these obligations both as to their nature and amount being very rigorously defined and permanently fixed in the case of each mansus and passing with the land to each new tenant. They varied, of course, very greatly according to the size of the holding and the needs of the particular estate, but they possessed certain common characteristics which are everywhere found. Luchaire (Manuel, p. 346) divides all corvées into two broad categories, (1) corvées properly so called, (2) military services. The second of these, so far as the obligation to serve in the host (Hostis et equitatus) is concerned, was common to all classes of feudal society; though the obligation of villeins to keep watch and ward (gueta, warda) and to labour at the building or strengthening of fortifications (muragium, munitio castri) are special corvées. We are, however, mainly concerned with the first category, which may again be subdivided into two main groups, (1) personal service of men and women (manoperae, manuum operae, Fr. manœuvres, manual labour), (2) carriage (carroperae, carragia, carrata, &c., Fr. charrois), i.e. service rendered by means of carts, barrows or draught animals. These again were divided into fixed services (operae rigae) and exceptional services, demanded when the others proved insufficient. To these latter was given in the 8th century the name of operae corrogatae (i.e. requisitioned works, from rogare, to request.) From this term (corrupted into corvatae, curvadae, corveiae, &c.) is derived the word corvée, which was gradually applied as a general term for all the various services.

As to the nature of these corvées it must be noted that in the middle ages the feudal lords had replaced the centralized state for all administrative purposes, and the services due to them by their tenants and serfs, were partly in the nature of rent in the form of labour, partly those which under the Roman and Frankish monarchs had been exacted in lieu of taxes, and which the feudal lords continued to impose as sovereigns of their domains. To the former class belonged the service of personal labour in the fields, of repairing buildings, felling trees, threshing corn, and the like, as well as the hauling of corn, wine or wood; to the latter belonged that of labouring on the roads, of building and repairing bridges, castles and churches, and of carrying letters and despatches. Corvées were further distinguished as real, i.e. attached to certain parcels of land, and personal, i.e. due from certain persons.

In spite of the fact that the corvées were usually strictly defined by local custom and by the contracts of tenancy, and that, in an age when currency was rare, payment in personal labour was a convenience to the poor, the system was open to obvious abuses. With the growth of communal life in the towns the townsmen early managed to rid themselves of these burdensome obligations either by purchase, or by exchanging the obligation of personal work for that of supplying carts, draught animals and the like. In the country, however, the system survived all but intact; and, so far as it was modified, was modified for the worse. Whatever safeguards the free cultivators may have possessed, the serfs were almost everywhere—especially in the 10th and 11th centuries—actually as well as nominally in this respect at the mercy of their lords (corvéables à merci), there being no limit to the amount of money or work that could be demanded of them. The system was oppressive even when the nobles to whom these services were paid gave something in return, namely, protection to the cultivator, his family and his land; they became intolerable when the development of the modern state deprived the land-owners of their duties, but not of their rights. In the case of France, in the 17th century the so-called corvée royale was added to the burden of the peasants, i.e. the obligation to do unpaid labour on the public roads, an obligation made general in 1738; and this, together with the natural resentment of men at the fact that the land which their ancestors had bought was still subject to burdensome personal obligations in favour of people whom they rarely saw and from whom they derived no benefit, was one of the most potent causes of the Revolution. By the Constituent Assembly personal corvées were abolished altogether, while owners of land were allowed the choice of continuing real corvées or commuting them for money. The corvée as an incident of land tenure has thus disappeared in France. The corvée royale of repairing the roads, however, abolished in 1789, was revived, under the name of prestation, under the Consulate, by the law of 4 Thermidor an X., modified by subsequent legislation in 1824, 1836 and 1871. Under these laws the duty of keeping the roads in repair is still vested in the local communities, and all able-bodied men are called upon either to give three days’ work or its equivalent in money to this purpose. It is precisely the same system as that in force under the Roman Empire, and if it differ from the corvée it is mainly in the fact that the burden is equitably distributed, and that the work done is of actual value to those who do it.

As regards other countries, the corvée was everywhere, sooner or later, abolished with the serfdom of which it was the principal incident (see Serfdom). Though so early as 1772 Maria Theresa had endeavoured to mitigate its hardships in her dominions (in Hungary unpaid labour was only to be demanded of the serfs on 52 days in the year!) it survived longest in the Austrian empire, being finally abolished by the revolution of 1848. The duty of personal labour on the public roads is, however, still maintained in other countries besides France. This was formerly the case in England also, where the occupiers of each parish who, by the common law, had access to the roads were responsible also for their upkeep. An act of 1555 imposed four days of forced labour for the repair of roads, and an act of Elizabeth (5 Eliz. c. 13) raised the number of days to six, or the payment of a composition instead. The system of turnpikes, dating from 1663, which gradually extended over the whole of England, lessened the burden of this system of taxation, so far as main roads were concerned, but the greater number of the local roads were subject to repair by statutory labour until the Highways Act 1835, by which highways were put under the direction of a parish surveyor, and the necessary expenses met by a rate levied on the occupiers of land. In Scotland, statutory labour on highways was created by an act of 1719, and abolished in 1883.

In Egypt, the corvée has been employed from time immemorial, more especially for the purpose of cleaning out the irrigation canals. In the days when only one harvest a year was reaped, this forced labour was not a very great burden, but the introduction of cotton and the sugar-cane under Mehemet Ali changed the conditions. These latter are crops which require watering at various seasons of the year, and very often the fellah was called away for work in the canals at times when his own crops required the utmost attention. Moreover, the inequality of the corvée added to the evil. In some districts it was possible to purchase exemption, and the more wealthy paid no more for the privilege than the humblest fellah, consequently the corvée fell with undue hardship on the poorer classes. Under the premiership of Riaz Pasha the corvée was gradually abolished in Egypt between the years 1888 and 1891, and a small rate on the land substituted to provide the labour necessary for cleaning the canals. The corvée is now employed only to a limited extent to guard the banks of the Nile during flood.

See Du Cange, Glossarium inf. et med. Lat. s.v. “Corvatae”; A Luchaire, Manuel des institutions françaises (Paris, 1892), pp. 346–349; La Grande Encyclopédie, s.v., with bibliography. For further works see the bibliography to the article Serfdom.