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 vast building projects requiring the labor of large forces of manpower over lengthy periods. The type of labor differed from place to place and from period to period. Various terms indicative of this function are also to be found in the context of landownership, occupations, conditions of tenancy, etc. Women as well as men could be drafted for forced labor, and even animals were requisitioned for some purposes. On the other hand, certain individuals, members of certain crafts, and various social strata and settlements might be exempted from the corvée, as a personal or collective privilege.
The diversity in the forms, terminology, and origins of the corvée is likewise reflected in the biblical text. Three separate terms are used, but they are sometimes juxtaposed, a sign that the original distinctions have become blurred (see Ex. 1:11–12): (1) mas oved (Gen. 49:10; Josh 16:10, etc.; "compulsory labor"), and sometimes mas alone (e.g., i Kings 4:6; 5:27). This expression is derived from Canaanite massu, "corvée worker," attested at *El-Amarna and *Alalakh. A Hebrew seal dating from the seventh century b.c.e. reads "belonging to Pelaiah who is in charge of the mas." (2) sevel (= Akk. sablum), a term found in the Mari documents (18th century b.c.e.). Its particularized meaning is a labor unit for emergency use. It appears three times in the Bible, i Kings 11:28; Psalms 81:7; and Nehemiah 4:11. Cognate nouns from the same stem are also found in scripture: sivlot ("burdens": Ex. 1:11; 2:11; 5:4–5; 6:6–7); sabbal ("burden-bearer": i Kings 5:29; ii Chron. 2:1, 17; 34:13); subbolo ("his burden": Isa. 9:3; 10:27; 14:25). (3) perekh, sometimes said to be a term, Mesopotamian by origin, for forced labor; but its general meaning in the Bible seems to be "harshness" or "ruthlessness" (Ex. 1:11–12; Lev. 25:43, 46; Ezek. 34:4). The children of Israel became familiar with corvée labor (Ex. 1:11, et al.) in the course of their wanderings, inasmuch as the slavery in Egypt was a prolonged period of compulsory labor. During the Israelite conquest corvée labor was one of the indications of the nature of relations between the Canaanite population. According to the biblical account, sometimes the Israelites were tributaries of the Canaanites and sometimes the position was reversed (Gen. 49:15; Judg. 1:33, et al.). There are those who think that by compelling the Gibeonites to become "hewers of wood and drawers of water" (Josh. 9:21) Joshua was in fact imposing on them corvée labor. Corvée labor became a permanent institution only in the period of the monarchy. According to ii Samuel 20:24, the minister who was "over the levy" was one of the highest officials in David's regime. It seems that he was a foreigner, attached to the royal staff for his expertise. The same official served Solomon and Rehoboam (i Kings 4:6; 12:18; ii Chron. 10:18). Possibly, at first, only foreign elements in the country were obliged to submit to corvée labor (i Kings 9:20–22; ii Chron. 8:7–9); only later was Solomon forced to demand compulsory labor from the population to carry out the vast building projects he had undertaken. Some scholars have supposed that mas oved was the term applied when foreign manpower was used and that sevel was indicative of an Israelite labor force. Yet such a distinction is not sufficiently evident, even if the corvée imposed by Solomon upon the tribes of the House of Joseph was called sevel (i Kings 11:28). Mendelsohn suggested that mas (or sevel) was the corvée exacted for short periods from freemen. According to his view, the term mas oved means "state slavery." The Bible states that Solomon sent thirty thousand men to hew cedars in Lebanon for the building of the Temple, in monthly shifts of ten thousand (i Kings 5:26–28). Similarly, he had at his disposal some seventy thousand "corvée workers" and eighty thousand "hewers in the mountains" (i Kings 5:29ff.). There is a hint of the continuation of the corvée tradition in the reign of Asa (i Kings 15:22). Asa built Geba Benjamin with stones taken by his subjects from Ramah: "Then King Asa made a proclamation unto all Judah; none was exempted.…" (i.e., none could refuse the corvée). According to ii Chronicles 34:13, King Josiah repaired the Temple with the labor of sabbalim ("corvée workers"). There was also corvée labor during the period of the return to Zion. The wall around Jerusalem was built by corvée laborers (Neh. 4:11).
Artzi, in: bies, 18 (1954), 66–70; Biram, in: Tarbiz, 23 (1951/52), 127–42; Maisler (Mazar), in: bjpes, 13 (1947), 105–14; Evans, in: Revue d'Assyriologie, 57 (1963), 65–78; Mendelsohn, in: basor, 167 (1962), 31ff.; J. Nougayrol, Le palais royal d'Ugarit, 3 (1955), index; Oppenheim, in: jqr, 36 (1945/46), 171 ff.; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 126–7, 138–40, 218–20; Held, in: jaos, 88 (1968), 90–96. add. bibliography: M. Powell (ed.), Labor in the Ancient Near East (1987); cad m/i i: 327; S. Ahituv, Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions (1992), 126; S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 54–56.
corvée (kôrvā´), under the feudal system, compulsory, unpaid labor demanded by a lord or king and the system of such labor in general. There were national and local variations, but in broad terms the corvée proper included work on the lord's portion of the manorial property and many attendant duties. Military service also came under the general terms of the corvée. The corvée included both regular and exceptional demands. "Real" corvée referred to the duties attached to the ownership or tillage of certain lands; "personal" corvée referred to the duties of specific individuals. During the feudalization of the late Roman Empire, the corvée system was part of the social and economic system, but towns and all individuals were able to liberate themselves by money payment instead of services. In France the royal corvée, compulsory work on public roads, was introduced in the 18th cent. Both the royal and the seignorial corvée bore heavily and almost exclusively upon the peasants and helped cause the French Revolution. In the 19th cent. the corvée was used to build public works, particularly the Suez Canal (1869).