What was the economy like in Medieval Britain? And how did it turn into the economy we have today? In this blog, I want to look at how the economy has built up since the middle ages, and to highlight some of the things we take for granted that have improved our lives since the middle ages.
I don’t know much about the medieval economy. Partly because I’m an amateur economic historian, and partly because medieval society didn’t measure its economy. There was no monthly GDP release in the middle ages, no unemployment figures, no stock market; none of the things we now think of if you mention the economy. But there was very definitely an economy — a system in which everybody made a living, or didn’t. And if anything, it was more important to people’s lives than it is today.
We’ll pick things up in 1270 AD. Not because there’s anything special about that year, but because what economic data we do have begins there. Modern economic historians have pieced together an amazing set of numbers describing the British economy since 1270. Almost everything in this blog will be based on those numbers and the insight they give us.
By 1270 we’re right in the thick of the middle ages. It’s just five years since the demise of Simon de Montfort’s brief parliamentary revolution, and in a couple of years Edward Longshanks — Hammer of the Scots and builder of magnificent castles in Wales — will take the English throne.
In 1270 we’re also near the peak of a long, steady economic boom. The population of England has grown from around 1.7 million in 1086 (year of the Domesday Book) to 4.4 million, while the economy has grown and become more sophisticated. But even amidst a long period of growth, life in the medieval economy is impoverished and precarious.
In 1270, the English economy is worth around £800 per person each year. That’s £800 in today’s money (2013 prices), adjusted for seven and a half centuries of inflation*. It’s not the case that things were cheaper — people in 1270 are very poor by today’s standards. £800 per year is about £15 a week.
Of course, that £800 per person was not distributed equally between everybody. A large chunk of the nation’s wealth would have gone to the King, and plenty more to the various nobles. I don’t have any information on wealth inequality in the Middle Ages, but I think it’s safe to assume that there were a few very wealthy people at the top end of the feudal hierarchy and that the vast majority of people were living on far less than £15 per week.
If you lived on £800 a year, what would you spend it on? Well, the average person in 2013** spent about £1,500 on food, and another £600 on cigarettes and alcohol (not including the extra £1,300 in pubs and restaurants). So you’ll need to cut back on food and drink. We spend £700 on clothes and £70 on glass and pottery. But at least you don’t need to worry much about housing costs (£4,000), pensions and insurance (£1,000) or petrol (£600); not really a thing in 1270. £800 is not very much at all, but it is probably enough to do more than eat.
The medieval economy of Britain wasn’t a subsistence economy. Most people would have had some ambition beyond feeding themselves — they had pottery, clothes, tools and plenty of other things you couldn’t make out of food. The wealthy few at the top of society poured their resources into some of the finest castles and cathedrals ever built. They didn’t build them with their own hands — they employed all manner of craftsmen, architects and artists. Those aren’t the kind of skills you learn in an environment where putting food on your plate is a daily struggle.
But it was, in many ways, a survival economy. When things went wrong in the medieval economy, people died. And because the economy was based on the land, things could go wrong often. The years around 1270 were relatively smooth, but the 1300s was a very different story.
First, the Great Famine of 1315–1317 reduced the nation’s agricultural production by about 25% for 3 years; there was a similar problem in the early 1320s. By 1325, a decade after the Great Famine started, the population had fallen by 13% — over half a million people. In today’s terms, a 13% population drop would be about 8.5 million people. The excess deaths from this year’s novel coronavirus are so far under 100,000 (though the economy briefly dropped by more than 25%).
Of course, much worse was to come later that century. The Black Death arrived in Britain in the summer of 1348, and recurred several times over the following decades. 10 years after the Black Death first arrived, there were 2.3 million fewer people alive in England. The country lost almost half of its population in 10 years. And the population kept falling for another hundred years. By 1450, England*** had under 2 million people — it was only just above the level recorded after the Norman invasion. You can get some idea of what that looks like (in data terms, not human ones) in this graphic.
The Black Death wasn’t caused by an economic crisis per se, but it tells us a story about what can happen in poor, undeveloped economies. The Black Death would not have happened today. Bubonic Plague, as the illness is known to modern medicine, is treatable today. In an economy that spends at least 10% of its income on healthcare, and invests heavily in medical sciences, sanitation and public health, we have little to fear from most plagues. The economy of 1348 did not have a healthcare system of any description. It lacked the scientific knowledge to tackle diseases, but even if it did it would have had few resources to put into medical treatment. It was a survival economy that was poorly equipped to help people survive.
The Black Death had a profound impact on medieval Britain, as it did across Europe. The population did not recover to its pre-1348 level until the 1620s, and the overall size of the economy was far smaller with fewer people to work it.
It did, however, make the people who survived better off. The £800 per person economy of 1270, with its 4.4 million people, became by the year 1400 a £1,200 per person economy, with only 2 million people. This may seem surprising, but I’ll explain it in a bit more detail next time. The chart below gives a little taste of how this looks.
But what the 1300s tell us most of all is that the medieval economy — as in every country for almost all of human history — was a matter of life and death. Whatever gains were made in the good years, a crisis was always just around the corner, and a crisis could mean devastation on a scale we can barely comprehend today.
*It was about £1 per year in 1270 prices — the 1270 pound has now been inflated around 800 times.
**Sorry, I’m being lazy and using 2013 consumption rather than converting 2013 prices into 2020 prices.
***I’m trying to look at Britain wherever possible in this blog, but Britain didn’t really exist in the 14th century and the data for England is more complete at this point.