England was wealthy long before the Empire and the Slave Trade

Researchers at Warwick University led by  economist Professor Stephen Broadberry have concluded that Mediaeval England,  far from being a land of poverty-stricken peasants oppressed by a small aristocratic  elite,  was a prosperous land with a higher average per capita income more than double that of the poorest nations in the world today*  The results are published by the University of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE)in  a paper entitled British Economic Growth 1270-1870. www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/academic/broadberry/wp/britishgdplongrun8a.pdf

The researchers  took as a benchmark an annual income of  $400 annually (as expressed in 1990 international dollars) , a measure often  used as a measure of “bare bones subsistence”.  They estimated  English per capita incomes in the late Middle Ages were around  $1,000 (again as expressed in 1990 dollars) and that even just before the Black Death, which first struck in 1348/49, they were  more than $800 using the same 1990 dollar measure.  This is significant because incomes rose significantly after the Black Death because of a dire shortage of labour.

In an interview with Science Daily  Professor  Broadberry,  said:

“Our work sheds new light on England’s economic past, revealing that per capita incomes in medieval England were substantially higher than the “bare bones subsistence” levels experienced by people living in poor countries in our modern world. The majority of the British population in medieval times could afford to consume what we call a “respectability basket” of consumer goods that allowed for occasional luxuries. By the late Middle Ages, the English people were in a position to afford a varied diet including meat, dairy produce and ale, as well as the less highly processed grain products that comprised the bulk of the “bare bones subsistence” diet.”

He also said: “Of course this paper focuses only on average per capita incomes. We also need to have a better understanding of the distribution of income in medieval England, as there will have been some people living at bare bones subsistence, and at times this proportion could have been quite substantial. We are now beginning research to construct social tables which will also reveal the distribution of income for some key benchmark years in that period”

“The research provides the first annual estimates of GDP for England between 1270 and 1700 and for Great Britain between 1700 and 1870. Far more data are available for the pre-1870 period than is widely realised. Britain after the Norman conquest was a literate and numerate society that generated substantial written records, many of which have survived. As a result, the research was aided by a wide variety of records — among them manorial records, tithes, farming records, and probate records.”

Professor Broadberry further said that: “Our research shows that the path to the Industrial Revolution began far earlier than commonly has been understood. A widely held view of economic history suggests that the Industrial Revolution of 1800 suddenly took off, in the wake of centuries without sustained economic growth or appreciable improvements in living standards in England from the days of the hunter-gatherer. By contrast, we find that the Industrial Revolution did not come out of the blue. Rather, it was the culmination of a long period of economic development stretching back as far as the late medieval period.”  (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101205234308.htm)

Broadly, there is nothing tremendously new here, although the research  includes interesting work on the quantification of wealth in England before the Industrial Revolution with for the first time annual estimates of English GDP between 1270-1700.  From the advent of printing,   it was common for travellers in England who wrote and published  their experiences there to comment on the wealth of England generally  and the good condition of the poorer classes in particular.  Middle English literary works such as the Canterbury Tales and Piers Ploughman  (both 14th Century) also paint a picture of an England far from poor. To those literary sources can be added the evidence of the many magnificent mediaeval cathedrals and the plentiful supply of mediaeval castles  which both speak of considerable national wealth.

As for the notion that the Industrial Revolution suddenly sprang into the world  newly minted around 1760, this has always been treated by serious historians as a nonsense. It was clearly the culmination of a long period of economic accretion and social, legal and political  evolution.  (see  https://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/england-and-the-only-bootstrapped-industrial-revolution-2/)

The estimates of mediaeval per capita income may even produce a false comparison between that time and place and the poorest countries today. Most would have had land to work on their own account, whether that be as a freeman or serf, and with that land would have come a place to live in. The same does not apply to the poorest countries today.

If there is nothing startlingly novel, the research is immensely valuable as an antidote to the idea constantly promoted in the mainstream media  that England only became rich because of the empire and slave trade and before those events was a poor and insignificant country.

*Poorest nations today per  capita income at 1990 dollar values – Zaire $249, Burundi $479, Niger $514, Central African Republic $536, Comoro Islands $549, Togo $606, Guinea Bissau $617, Guinea $628, Sierra Leone $686, Haiti at $686, Chad $706, Zimbabwe $779,  Afghanistan $869 

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4 Responses to England was wealthy long before the Empire and the Slave Trade

  1. From the 15th Century through the 19th Century, it is estimated that 15 million Africans were Enslaved by Portugal (which started enslaving Africans in 1442), Spain (in 1515 Queen Isabella issued Licenses to Spanish Noblemen to import Africans into the New World), England, Holland, France, the Arabs (who started enslaving Africans 1000 years earlier), and their African Collaborators.

    It is Time that, the New World and the Purveyors of the African Slave Trade PAY REPARATIONS OF $15 TRILLION. The Money must be Used to Develop Areas where Africans were Enslaved.

    Please See: http://www.enslavedafricans.blogspot.com

    Gadema K. Quoquoi
    President & CEO

    • The simple answer to this claim is that moral responsibility can only rest with the perpetrators of acts not their descendants or , as is the case here, those who simply happen to be in the same national or ethnic group; and reparation can only be made to those who suffered an immoral act not to people who have no meaningful connection with the act. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, or ten generations ago at 20 years to a generation, and abolished black slavery within British possessions in 1834, all but four years short of nine generations.
      As for handing out money to black Africa, you might care to reflect on the sorry story of the continent since the ending of colonial rule, whereby most African states have seen their per capita income drop despite the many billions of Aid given over the past 50 years. All that has done is produce kleptocracies, vicious dictatorship and civil war.

  2. Junius says:

    “It is Time that, the New World and the Purveyors of the African Slave Trade PAY REPARATIONS OF $15 TRILLION. The Money must be Used to Develop Areas where Africans were Enslaved.”

    Let’s take it right back to the perpetrators – Those that instigated the slave trade, operated it and benefited from it should be the ones to pay the reparations – but Gadema you aint gonna like it.

    Africans tribes were the ones engaged in procuring fellow Africans and selling them into slavery – and Arabs were the ones running the trade for centuries before the Europeans even came on the scene in the Middle Ages. Slavery was an accepted part of Greek and Roman life and many African slaves were brought in through the Arabian trade. If you want confirmation go look it up, actually do some work to get a good grasp of the subject before mouthing off with complete disregard of the facts.

    Arabs started the slave trade, the British ended it for a short while – but hey it’s back again in post-colonial Africa and have a guess who is funding and benefitting from it.

    Bet you can’t guess!!!!

  3. OB1 says:

    This idea that the English exploited foreign lands and therefore became rich has to be extinguished once and for all.
    The fact is that we got rich because of our culture, our hard work and our scientific and technological prowess.
    And not only that, the foreign lands with which we traded also became richer. If the British had not established telecommunications, railways, government systems, factories and other things, where would countries like India and Pakistan be today?
    A bloody sight worse off!
    I’ve had a gutsful of the PC idiots who try to put our country down at every opportunity.

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