Living conditions in England during medieval times were far better than previously has been believed, with average incomes twice those of people in the world’s poorest nations today, our recent research shows.
Our work, which sheds new light on the British economic past, reveals 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 “respectable lifestyle,” with 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.
Our 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, our research was aided by a wide variety of records – among them manorial records, tithes, farming records, and probate records, all of which can be used in an economic framework. Our team used these records and compared them with modern national accounts to reconstruct the path of per capita income over most of the second millennium.
Living standards in medieval England were far above the “bare bones subsistence” experience of people in many of today’s poor countries.
In addition, 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. Our findings paint a picture of a Western Europe that was on a very different path of development from Asia long before the Great Divergence of the Industrial Revolution. By 1700, the structure of the Western European economy had shifted away from agriculture towards industry and services, and living standards were twice as high as in 1270.
How should we interpret the approximate doubling of per capita income between 1270 and 1700? Gains in food consumption per capita over this period were relatively modest, at least measured in terms of kilocalories. The gains in material living standards should thus be seen as arriving more through the consumption of industrial goods and services. This shows up in the path of average wealth at death and the growing urbanisation of the British economy.
It is instructive to consider Britain’s historical economic experience in an international perspective. The figure of $400 annually (as expressed in 1990 international dollars) commonly is used as a measure of “bare bones subsistence,” and is seen in many poor countries in the late 20th and early 21st century. As expressed in 1990 dollars, English per capita incomes in the late Middle Ages were on the order of $1,000. This is an amount well above the widely accepted per capita income estimate of $400 for English per capita incomes in the year 1000. Even on the eve of the Black Death, which first struck in 1348/49, we find per capita incomes in England of more than $800 using the same 1990 dollar measure. Estimates for other European countries also suggest late medieval living standards well above $400.
Although agriculture was the largest sector in 1381, it was not as dominant as has often been imagined. By 1700, industry already accounted for a larger share of the economy than agriculture. The British economy seems to have been stimulated by the growing population density in urban areas. This promoted infrastructure projects in urban areas and raised productivity by permitting the reorganisation of agriculture in the counties surrounding London.
Ultimately, we are interested in what happened to GDP per capita, the most widely accepted indicator of material living standards over the long run. English per capita GDP grew at an annual rate of 0.20 per cent between 1270 and 1700, which resulted in an approximate doubling of per capita incomes. However, growth was episodic. GDP per capita grew substantially during the Black Death crisis of the mid-fourteenth century, when almost half the population was wiped out by the plague. Per capita incomes then remained on a plateau between 1450 and 1650, before resuming growth during the second half of the seventeenth century.
England’s economic breakthrough, the Industrial Revolution, took root far earlier than commonly had been believed.
Our findings help us to understand why some parts of the world are far more developed than other parts. They show that the roots of this divergence lie much further in the past than people suppose.
This summary is based on a preliminary research paper, “British Economic Growth, 1270-1870.” The paper is part of an ongoing project looking at historical patterns of development and underdevelopment. It is among the first projects undertaken by Warwick University’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). The full paper is available at:
Stephen Broadberry, is a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. Bruce Campbell is a professor at Queen’s University Belfast. Alexander Klein is a research fellow at the University of Warwick. Mark Overton is a professor at the University of Exeter. Bas van Leeuwen is a senior research fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick.