What we can learn by looking at prices and wages in Medieval England

Data-driven approach to history


Aggregating data from various sources about prices and wages in Late Medieval England (1264 — 1499) gives great insights about the historical period in addition to what’s already known from medieval literature, art, and archaeology.

Even though available data is limited and incomplete, with some mining, formatting, and visualization it is possible to extract some solid historical knowledge about events and lives of Late Medieval Englishmen.

Data was originally extracted from accounts of civic treasurers, merchants, town markets, and early bankers. Raw data sources are listed at the end of the article. This article summarizes and visualizes some interesting facts inferred from analyzing the data.

Some definitions

  • All amounts are converted to pence (plural of penny) for consistency.
    £1 (pound/librae) = 20s (shilling/solidi) = 240d (penny/denarii)
  • Consumer basket — fixed list of products used to track price changes over time. Amounts consumed by typical person in one year are used.
  • Consumer Price Index (CPI) = 100 * (this year consumer basket price) / (base year consumer basket price). Main metric to measure inflation. CPI of 110 means stuff is 10% more expensive than it was in base year.

Select findings inferred from raw data

Each finding is summarized in chart with brief description.

People were far from starving. And liked beer.

Consumer basket contents show that the average Englishmen was getting a complete nutrition, and definitely ate healthier than we do today. Also, by far the largest expense was malt which was used to make alcohol.

Average inflation for entire period was near zero.

Although prices fluctuated a lot, on average things stayed of relatively the same price for centuries. You could sell a house, bury the money, dig it out in 40 years, and buy the same house back.

Alcohol accounted for quarter of consumer basket spending.

Medieval passion for drinking is well described in numerous Medieval literature that lived to this day. Having a “beer break” was a Medieval version of contemporary lunch.

Consumption patterns were similar across Western Europe.

Similar consumption patterns in different locations show that markets were fairly efficient — far from a random mess that we imagine based on the movies. Merchants and bankers made sure that prices were fairly similar across Western Europe.

Crops prices were most volatile.

Unusual crops price spike c. 1320 possibly indicates an external disaster such as drought. Prices fluctuated a lot since there was no technology to protect harvest from unpredictable weather events. Such volatility was the main reason for emergence of insurance industry.

Textile industry was on the rise.

Textile prices were going up in contrast to the rest of goods. Possibly new, more expensive types of textile and cloths were being invented. People were also buying more cloths on average. In any case, if you time travel to c. 1335 investing into textile industry would be a good idea.

Wages were growing faster than prices.

More leftover money from purchasing basic consumer basket products means people were consuming larger variety of goods and services and in larger amounts. In other words, everyone was becoming wealthier. This fact agrees with common notion of economic growth in Late Middle Ages.

Interestingly, chart shows that wages dropped when Black Death started, indicating immediate economic crisis. Then later wages went up sharply after Black Death ended because of low labor supply.

Average folk had disposable income, but wouldn’t be able to save enough to go up a social class.

From previous chart it might seem like a mason would have a ton of extra cash. This isn’t the case for several reasons.

  • Housing was expensive, especially houses where one lived and worked.
  • While there wasn’t a consistent tax rate, English government was so aggressive with taxation that a major uprising called Peasants’ Revolt took place in 1381.
  • Consumer basket only included basic essential goods. However, there was plenty of goods and services that one would want to buy.

Even though the prices in two tables above are very rough estimates, they give a general idea of what an average fella could and couldn’t afford. After subtracting cost of basic consumer products, housing, and taxes, typical mason would probably have some disposable income to treat himself to some good wine once in a while, buy an old horse, and pay guild fees. He wouldn’t be able to afford a more significant purchase, such as university education, armorer’s toolset, or knight’s equipment. Therefore, moving up a social class by simply working hard was not an option. Most of leftover money was probably saved for exceptional events, such as wedding and funerals.

Income inequality was extreme.

Mason wage was fairly representative of other “middle class” citizens (merchants, clerks, craftsmen, etc). However due to centuries of feudalism incomes of noble elite were not even comparable. Similarly, thousands were probably in complete poverty and misery.

Summary

For the lazy, here’s a summary of findings about Englishmen in Late Middle Ages inferred purely from raw price and wage data.

  1. Consumer basket based on typical consumption indicate that people probably had better diet than we do today.
  2. Although prices were fluctuating a lot year-over-year, average prices (CPI) remained relatively stable from 1264 to 1499, with little inflation over entire period.
  3. People spent a disproportionately large (by modern standards) amount on alcohol.
  4. Crop price spike circa 1320 indicates possible drought.
  5. Spending patterns are similar across different locations in Western Europe, meaning markets were fairly efficient.
  6. Textile prices were growing much faster than other commodities, which also drove prices of sheep. Good times to be a textile merchant.
  7. Wages were growing faster than CPI, meaning people’s wealth was increasing.
  8. Wages rose sharply after Black Death due to low labor supply.
  9. Mason wage was fairly representative of other “middle class” citizens (merchants, clerks, craftsmen, etc). However incomes of noble elite were not even comparable, nor were those of the most unfortunate, indicating severe income inequality.
  10. After subtracting cost of basic consumer products, housing, and taxes, typical mason would probably have some disposable income to treat himself to some good wine once in a while, buy an old horse, and pay guild fees. He wouldn’t be able to afford a more significant purchase, such as university education, armorer’s toolset, or knight’s equipment. Therefore, moving up a social class by simply working hard was not an option. Most of leftover money was probably saved for exceptional events, such as wedding and funerals.

Sources

  1. Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank
    http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/memdb/
  2. Medieval Price Collection
    http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html