Was the medieval European peasant wealthier than an African?

By Razib Khan | December 6, 2010 3:09 am

Medieval England Twice as Well Off as Today’s Poorest Nations:

The figure of $400 annually (as expressed in 1990 international dollars) is commonly is used as a measure of “bare bones subsistence” and was previously believed to be the average income in England in the middle ages.

However the University of Warwick led researchers found that English per capita incomes in the late Middle Ages were actually of the order of $1,000 (again as expressed in 1990 dollars). Even on the eve of the Black Death, which first struck in 1348/49, the researchers found per capita incomes in England of more than $800 using the same 1990 dollar measure. Their estimates for other European countries also suggest late medieval living standards well above $400.

This new figure of $1,000 is not only significantly higher than previous estimates for that period in England — it also indicates that on average medieval England was better off than some of the world’s poorest nations today including the following (again average annual income as expressed in 1990 dollars).

Here’s a chart of the wages of unskilled English workers:

The increase after 1300 is usually attributed to the population collapse induced by the Black Plague. England’s population remained stagnant until ~1500. At that point higher productivity started to get eaten up by population growth. An “iron law” of human history. Table 24 on page 61 of the working paper has estimates for various nations. I plotted them on a chart for 1300 to 1700:


I don’t have time to reading the working paper right now, but I think these results do suggest some limitations of GDP calculations. Even the poor in most nations have watched television, or known someone with access to a mobile phone. Affluence isn’t just a number. On the other hand, from what I have read the English peasant of 1450 was rather healthy and hearty because of the large surplus of land over labor. So in that way I do think the GDP measure is telling us something real. But then the translation of currency into food is more straightforward than currency into computational processing power. The latter category just didn’t exist in 1300.

MORE ABOUT: economic history

Comments (7)

  1. chris y

    It’s widely accepted that the English peasantry were richer than their French or German (sensu lato) bretheren through most of the later mediaeval and early modern period. Travelers remarked on it at the time. I’ve seen various explanations proposed, none of which looked very complete. But for a real wealth comparison involving meadiaeval Europeans, you don’t want to concentrate on England, which was an outlier.

  2. bioIgnoramus

    “I’ve seen various explanations proposed…”: the answer, if it really is singular, might lie in some arcane aspect of property law. That would not be easy to tease out. It’s no use, I suggest, saying something like “it’s because there was greater social mobility in England” because that could as well be a consequence as a cause.

  3. It isn’t at all obvious to me that modern per capita GDP figures are adequately reflecting the value of subsistance farming economies, and thus distort the standard of living at the low end.

    In the undeveloped world, calories per capita, number of days per year of inadequate food, malnutrition rates and food related illness rates may be better comparisons of food related wealth than cost of production. A prosperous subsistance farm may easily be providing food worth $3,000-$6,000 per year if bought by people in an American city. Similarly, a baby fed by breast milk may not add to GDP figures at all, despite being better off than a formula fed baby.

    GDP may also not be suitably comparing the quality of the housing arrangements from one place to another. For example, a well built 1000 square foot hut in the tropics with no HVAC and a shared village common and nearby running river may be a better home from a quality perspective than a 200 square foot inadequately HVAC served room with a water tap down the road next to a landfill in Peru that costs far more to build and serve with utilities. Subsistance farm homes may be comparable to housing that would cost $2,500-$6,000 in an American city.

    Thus, a subsistance farming community accounted for in GDP statistics as having a per capita GDP of $500 per year, may be closer to $8,500 to $12,000 for an average family of about six (i.e. about $1,500 per capita +/-), but appear much less well off due to problems with the measurement instrument in this context.

    My sense is that the bulk of the GDP in the undeveloped world used in official statistics comes from spawling third world megacities, often capital cities, and that while the standard of living is low, that if the GDP from those places is divided only by the population in hte places that are adding significantly to the GDP total that the per capita number is quite a bit higher.

    The GDP concept wasn’t designed for these kinds of economies, even though it does a reasonable good job in economies that are organized on a market basis with exchange primarily taking place in with money.

  4. Clark

    Like others I’m pretty skeptical of this sort of comparison independent of an analysis of buying power. After all even in America $4000 in New York City is worth a heck less than in suburban Boise, ID.

    I suspect an interesting question to go along with it all is nutrition that’s available. Health care’s not much of an issue since it was universally bad at the time. Other than setting broken limbs going to a doctor or healer probably decreased your chances for a healthy life! (With the occasional exception that prove the rule) The real issue would be purchasing power for things like clothing or the like. i.e. could the median farmer in England have a better standard of living than one in France.

    The other issue which someone alluded to was the difference between cities and rural areas. Of course as I recall just living in a city in the pre-modern era was a huge risk factor due to disease and the like. (I think Razib blogged about that either here or the classic site)

  5. justin giancola

    man they are big pimpin’ in holland…


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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