French corvée.

Corvée is labor, often unpaid, that is required of people of lower social standing and imposed on them by their superiors (often an aristocrat or noble). 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 where the worker is not compensated. It is not 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 main advantage to corvée over taxation is that it does not require the population to have ready cash and thus it tends to be favored in economies where money is in short supply. Corvée is thus most often found in economies where barter is the usual method of trade.

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 17th and 18th centuries, Incan civilization, Haiti under Henri Christophe and under American occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), and Portugal's African colonies until the mid-1960s.



The actual word "corvée" has its origins in Rome, and reached the English language via France. In the Late Roman Empire the citizens performed opera publica 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 opera officiales. In Medieval Europe, the tasks that serfs or villeins were required to perform on a yearly basis for their lords were called opera riga. Plowing and harvesting were principal activities to which this work was applied. In times of need, the lord could demand additional work called opera corrogata (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 – e.g. planting and harvest – the corvée was an object of serious resentment. By the 16th century the use of corvée in the agricultural setting was on the wane; it became increasingly replaced by money payments for labour.


Ancient Egypt

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 pyramids, temples, quarries, canals, roads, and other works.

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 workers". See: city Nuribta.

In later Egyptian times, during the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy V, in his Rosetta Stone Decree of 196 BC, listed 22 accomplishments for being honored and the ten rewards granted to him for his accomplishments. The last reward listed is his making of the Rosetta Stone, (the Decree of Memphis (Ptolemy V)), in three scripts, to be displayed to the public in the temples-(two near complete copies).

One of the shorter accomplishments listed near the middle of the list,

"He (pharaoh) decreed:—Behold, not is permitted to be pressed men of the sailors."[1]

The statement implies it was a common practice.

During the 19th century, many of the Egyptian Public Works until the Suez Canal [2] were built using corvée 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 (Day of solidarity with the elderly).


The independent Kingdom of Haiti based at Cap-Haïtien 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 laborers.

After deploying to Haiti in 1915 as an expression of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the United States military enforced a corvée system of labor in the interest of making improvements to infrastructure.[3] By official estimates, more than 3,000 Haitians were killed during this period.

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 found in pre-modern Japan.


France annexed Madagascar 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 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, 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 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 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.[4]

The Philippines

The system of forced labor otherwise known as polo y servicios evolved within the framework of the encomienda system, introduced into the South American colonies by the Conquistadores and Catholic priests who accompanied them. Polo y servicios is the forced labor for 40 days of men ranging from 16 to 60 years of age who were obligated to give personal services to community projects. One could be exempted from polo by paying the falla (corruption of the Spanish Falta, meaning "absence"), a daily fine of one and a half real. In 1884, labor was reduced to 15 days. The polo system was patterned after the Mexican repartimento, selection for forced labor.[5]

Portugal, African colonies

In Portugal's African colonies (e.g. 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." [6] 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.


In Russia, the term used for corvée is barshchina (барщина) or boyarshchina (боярщина), and refers to the obligatory work that the serfs performed for the landowner on his portion of the land (the other part of the land, usually of a poorer quality, the peasants could use for themselves). While no official government regulation to the extent of barshchina existed, a 1797 ukase by Paul I of Russia described a barshchina of three days a week as normal and sufficient for the landowner's needs. In the black earth region 70-77% of the serfs performed barshchina, the rest paid rent (obrok) Owing to the high fertility, 70% of Russian cereal production in the 1850s was here.[12] In the 7 central provinces, 1860, 67.7% of the serfs were on obrok.[7]

United States

Corvée was used in some of the English colonies of North America especially for road maintenance, as was also common in England at the time, and this practice persisted to some degree in the United States. Its popularity with local governments gradually waned after the American Revolution with the increasing development of the monetary economy. After the American Civil War, some Southern states, with money in short supply, reverted to taxing their inhabitants in the form of labour for public works. The system proved unsuccessful because of the poor quality of work; in 1894, the Virginia state supreme court ruled that corvée violated the state constitution, and in the 1910s Alabama became the last state to abolish it.

Modern instances

According to the American Anti-Slavery Group, the government of Myanmar imposes unpaid mandatory labour on its citizens.[8]

In Bhutan, the driglam namzha calls for citizens do work, such as dzong construction, as part of their tax obligation to the state.

In Rwanda, the centuries-old tradition of umuganda, or community labor, still continues, usually in the form of one Saturday a month when citizens are required to perform this work.

Today most countries have restricted corvée labour to military conscription and prison labour. Jury service and so called volunteer obligation widely practiced in USA are arguably a modern remnant of forced corvée labour.


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.


  1. ^ Budge. The Rosetta Stone, p. 138-139.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti (Common Courage Press: 1994)
  4. ^ The Drama of Madagascar, Sonia E. Howe, pp. 331–2. Methuen & Co. ltd. London, 1938.
  5. ^ Agoncillo 1990, p. 83
  6. ^ Native Labour Regulations, section 1, 1899, Lisbon; in Gordon White, Robin Murray, and Christina White, Eds., Revolutionary Socialist Development in the Third World. 1983; Sussex, U.K.; Wheatsheaf Books. p.77.
  7. ^ Richard Pipes, Russia under the old regime, pages 147-8
  8. ^
  • Budge. The Rosetta Stone, E. A. Wallis Budge, (Dover Publications), c 1929, Dover edition (unabridged), c 1989.

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  • corvée — [ kɔrve ] n. f. • 1160; lat. pop. corrogata (opera), de corrogare « convoquer ensemble » 1 ♦ Dr. anc. Travail gratuit que les serfs, les roturiers devaient au seigneur. Astreint à la corvée. ⇒ corvéable. 2 ♦ (v. 1460) Fig. Obligation ou travail… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • CORVÉE — CORVÉE, forced labor imposed by a conqueror on the conquered, or by a government on the citizens under its jurisdiction. Corvée labor is one of the most obvious features of the centralism in ancient Near Eastern states; it manifests itself in… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Corvée — seigneuriale La corvée (du latin corrogare, « demander ») est un travail non rémunéré imposé par un seigneur/maître à ses dépendants, qu ils soient de statut libre ou non. Elle est un rouage essentiel du système politico économique… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • corvée — CORVÉE. sub. fém. Certain travail et service dû par le Paysan ou Tenancier à son Seigneur, soit en journées de corps, soit en journées de chevaux, de boeufs et de harnois. Corvée ordinaire. Grande corvée. Fâcheuse coryée. Il doit tant de corvées… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française 1798

  • corvée — CORVÉE. s. f. Il y en a qui prononcent Courvée. Certain travail & service, que le sujet ou tenancier doit à son Seigneur, soit en journée de corps, soit en journée de chevaux, de boeufs & de harnois. Corvée ordinaire. grande corvée. fascheuse… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie française

  • corvée — mid 14c., day s unpaid labor due to a lord by vassals under French feudal system (abolished 1776), from O.Fr. corvee (12c.), from L.L. corrogata (opera) requested work, from fem. pp. of L. corrogare, from com with (see COM (Cf. com )) + rogare to …   Etymology dictionary

  • corvee — corvée mid 14c., day s unpaid labor due to a lord by vassals under French feudal system (abolished 1776), from O.Fr. corvee (12c.), from L.L. corrogata (opera) requested work, from fem. pp. of L. corrogare, from com with (see COM (Cf. com )) +… …   Etymology dictionary

  • corvée — /fr. kɔʀˈve/ [vc. fr., corvée «(opera) richiesta»] s. f. inv. 1. servizio 2. (fig.) fatica, ufficio, commissione, sfacchinata, faticata, strapazzo, sgobbata, tour de force (fr.) CONTR. riposo …   Sinonimi e Contrari. Terza edizione

  • Corvee — Cor vee (k?r v or v? ), n. [F. corv[ e]e, fr. LL. corvada, corrogata, fr. L. corrogare to entreat together; cor + rogare to ask.] (Feudal Law) An obligation to perform certain services, as the repair of roads, for the lord or sovereign. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Corvee — (fr., spr. Korweh), 1) Frohndienst; 2) Last, Beschwerde …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Corvée — (franz.), Frondienst; daher Corvéedienst in Österreich der Pikettdienst (gewisse Dienstverrichtungen, die der Wachtoffizier nicht übernehmen kann) an Bord …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

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