Medieval Britons were richer than modern poor people, study finds

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Medieval Britons were richer than modern poor people, study finds

Guardian UK

Jill Insley

December 6, 2010


People living in medieval England were more prosperous than modern day residents of the world's poorest nations, a study into Britain's economic history has found.

The research by economists at the University of Warwick found that per capita income in England during the middle ages was more than double that required for the "bare bones subsistence" of people living in many of today's poorest countries.

The paper, British Economic Growth 1270-1870, is published by the university's Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and estimates that per capita income in England in the late middle ages was about $1,000 or £634 a year when compared with currency values in 1990.

According to the World Bank , countries which had a per capita income of less than $1,000 last year included Ghana ($700), Cambodia ($650), Tanzania ($500), Ethiopia ($300) and Burundi ($150), while in India – one of the BRIC emerging economies – the gross income per capita stands only just above medieval levels at $1,180.

Professor Stephen Broadberry, who led the research, said England's income per head of population was even running at more than $800 or £507 on the eve of the Black Death, which first struck in the late 1340s.

The figures, far higher than previous estimates of around $400 or £253 per year, also suggest that the Industrial Revolution was the culmination of a lengthy period of economic development, rather than occurring "out of the blue" after centuries without any sustained growth.

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 added that the researchers, who have studied manorial documents and tithes, as well as farming and probate records, now aimed for a better understanding of the distribution of income in medieval England.