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