Was Medieval England more Merrie than thought?

LONDON Mon Dec 6, 2010 12:29pm EST

Two medieval knights dressed in body armour are seen fighting with swords during a photocall for the 'Call to Arms' exhibition in the National War Museum at Edinburgh castle in Scotland on May 22, 2008. REUTERS/David Moir

Two medieval knights dressed in body armour are seen fighting with swords during a photocall for the 'Call to Arms' exhibition in the National War Museum at Edinburgh castle in Scotland on May 22, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/David Moir

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LONDON (Reuters) - Maybe being a serf or a villein in the Middle Ages was not such a grim existence as it seems.

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 says.

"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," said University of Warwick economist Professor Stephen Broadberry, who led the research.

"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.

He said a figure of $400 annually (as expressed in 1990 international dollars) is commonly is used as a measure of bare bones subsistence and was previously believed to be the average income in England in the Middle Ages.

But the researchers found that English per capita incomes in the late Middle Ages were actually of the order of $1,000.

Even on the eve of the Black Death plague, which first struck in 1348/49, the researchers found per capita incomes in England of more than $800.

That compares with today's estimates of for example Zaire at $249, Burundi $479 and Niger $514.

The research also showed that the path to the Industrial Revolution began far earlier than usually thought.

"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," said Broadberry in a statement.

"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 is published in "British Economic Growth, 1270-1870" which is available on Warwick University's website.

(Reporting by Stephen Addison; Editing by Michael Holden)

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