Medieval Britons twice as rich as today's Third World poor?

Tony Gosling tony at
Mon Dec 6 19:38:27 GMT 2010

Maybe being a serf wasn't so bad after all! 
Medieval Britons were twice as rich as the poor in the Third World today

By Daily Mail Reporter - 6th December 2010

Maybe being a peasant or a villein in the Middle 
Ages was not such a grim existence after all.

Medieval England was not only far more prosperous 
than previously believed, it also actually 
boasted an average income that would be more than 
double the average per capita income of the 
world's poorest nations today, according to new research.

Living standards in medieval England were far 
above the 'bare bones subsistence' experience of 
people in many of today's poor countries, a study claims.

Research led by economists at the University of 
Warwick shows that the average income per head 
was £638 - double the average income of today's poorest nations.

In the paper, entitled British Economic Growth 
1270-1870 and published by the Warwick's Centre 
on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).

The researchers found that living standards in 
medieval England were far above the 'bare bones 
subsistence' - a diet of grain products - of 
people in modern struggling countries such as the 
Democratic Republic of Congo (with an income of 
£159) and Burundi in Africa (£306).


On the eve of the Black Death in 1348/49 the per 
capital income in England was today's equivalent of £510

The average income per head of some of the poorest countries today are
Niger (£328),
Central African Republic (£342),
Comoro Islands (£350),
Togo (£387),
Guinea Bissau (£394),
Guinea (£401),
Sierra Leone (£438),
Haiti (£438)
Chad (£451)

The figure of £255 per person annually was 
previously believed to be the average income in England in the Middle Ages.

Even on the eve of the Black Death, which first 
struck in 1348/49, the team found per capita 
incomes in England of more than £510.

Their estimates for other European countries also 
suggest that late medieval living standards were 
well above the original estimate.

University of Warwick economist Professor Stephen 
Broadberry, who led the research, pointed out 
that this would mean people would be in a 
position to afford a varied diet, rather than one 
based largely on grains and oatmeal.

He said: 'What is unusual about England is that, 
going back a long way, you wouldn't see people 
getting all their calories and energy from a basic diet of grains.

'Instead, it was more varied with things that are 
expensive to produce. The grains were processed; 
some were brewed into ale and some were fed to 
animals which in turn would produce dairy products or meat.

'It was early experience with the kinds of thing 
that would eventually bear fruit in the industrial revolution.

'It was a system that was capital intensive and 
there was a more sophisticated economic 
superstructure built on top of agriculture.'

He continued: '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.'

Around 60 per cent of people in medieval England 
were employed in agriculture and the rest in industry and services.

Professor Broadberry 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 was aided by a wide variety of 
records that have survived since the Norman 
conquest, which produced a literature and numerate society.

Professor Broadberry added: '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.'

The research provides the first annual estimates 
of GDP for England between 1270 and 1700 and for 
Great Britain between 1700 and 1870.

The average income per head of some of the 
poorest countries are Niger (£328), Central 
African Republic (£342), Comoro Islands (£350), 
Togo (£387), Guinea Bissau (£394), Guinea (£401), 
Sierra Leone (£438), Haiti (£438) and Chad (£451).

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