Unreal Wages: Long-Run Living Standards and the ‘Golden Age’ of the Fifteenth Century

  • John HatcherEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Economic History book series (PEHS)


This chapter demonstrates that the renowned ‘Golden Age’ of the fifteenth century has been exaggerated. The surge in the prosperity of the lower orders resulting from high wages, low food prices and easier access to cheap land was undoubtedly extraordinary. But not as prodigious as has customarily been assumed. Furthermore, contrary to the common belief that the economic fortunes of the labouring classes can be taken as a proxy for the living standards of the population as a whole, the scale of improvement in their good fortune was not widely shared by the rest of society who did not derive their incomes solely from wages or their subsistence solely from the market. Argument and evidence are also provided that the criticisms made in this chapter of the compilation, interpretation and application of real wage indices have implications that stretch far beyond the fifteenth century.


  1. Allen, R.C. 2001. The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War. Explorations in Economic History 38: 411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. ———. 2007. How Prosperous were the Romans? Evidence from Diocletian’s Price Edict (301 AD). Oxford: Department of Economics Discussion Papers.Google Scholar
  3. ———. 2008. Real Wage Rates (Historical Trends). In The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, ed. S.N. Durlauf and L.E. Blume. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  4. ———. Annual Series of Nominal Wages, Consumer Price Indices and Welfare Ratios.
  5. Allen, R.C., and J.L. Weisdorf. 2010. Was there an ‘Industrious Revolution’ Before the Industrial Revolution? An Empirical Exercise for England, c. 1300–1830. University of Copenhagen Department of Economics, Working Papers no, 10–14.Google Scholar
  6. Beveridge, W.H. 1939. Prices and wages in England, Vol 1: The Mercantilist Era. London: Longman Green.Google Scholar
  7. Bridbury, A.R. 1962. Economic Growth: England in the Later Middle Ages. London: George Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  8. Britnell, R. 1997. The Closing of the Middle Ages? England 1471–1519. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  9. ———. 1998. Daily Life in the Late Middle Ages. Stroud: Sutton.Google Scholar
  10. ———. 2004. Britain and Ireland 1050–1530: Economy and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Broadberry, S., and B. Gupta. 2006. The Early Modern Great Divergence: Wages, Prices and Economic Development in Europe and Asia, 1500–1800. Economic History Review 59: 2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Broadberry, S., B.M.S. Campbell, A. Klein, M. Overton, and B. van Leeuven. 2015. British Economic Growth, 1270–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. ———. 2018. Clark’s Malthus Delusion: Response to ‘Farming in England, 1200–1800’. The Economic History Review 71 (2): 639–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Broadberry, S.N., B.M.S. Campbell, B. van Leuwen, and M. Overton. 2010. British Economic Growth, 1300–1850: Some Preliminary Estimates. Working Paper, University of Warwick.Google Scholar
  15. Campbell, B.M.S. 2007. Three Centuries of English Crops Yields, 1211–1491, WWW document. URL
  16. Carpenter, C. 1992. Locality and Polity: A Study of Warwickshire Landed Society, 1401–1499. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Clark, G. 2004. The Price History of English Agriculture, 1200–1914. Research in Economic History 22: 41–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. ———. 2007a. The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population, and Economic Growth, England 1209–1869. Economic History Review 60, 2nd ser.Google Scholar
  19. ———. 2007b. A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Clark, G., and Y. van der Werf. 1998. Work in Progress? The Industrious Revolution. Journal of Economic History 58: 830–843.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. de Moor, T., and J.L. van Zanden. 2010. Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period. Economic History Review 63: 1–33 2nd ser.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. de Vries, J. 2008. The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behaviour and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. DeLong, J.B. 2000. Cornucopia: Increasing Wealth in the Twentieth Century. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers, 7602.Google Scholar
  24. Dyer, C. 1988. Changes in Diet in the Late Middle Ages: The Case of Harvest Workers. Agricultural History Review 36: 21–37.Google Scholar
  25. Dyer, C. 2015. A Golden Age Rediscovered: Labourers’ Wages in the Fifteenth Century. In Money, Prices and Wages: Essays in Honour of Professor Nicholas Mayhew, ed. M. Allen and D. Coffman. London: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  26. Dymond, D., ed. 1996. The Register of Thetford Priory, 1482–1540. 2 vols. Oxford/Norwich: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Engels, F. 1958. The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). Trans. and eds. W.O. Henderson and W.H. Chaloner. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Farmer, D.L. 1983. Crop Yields, Prices and Wages in Medieval England. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History ns. vi.Google Scholar
  29. ———. 1988. Prices and Wages 1042–1350. In Agrarian History of England and Wales, ii 1042–1350, ed. H.E. Hallam, 716–817. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. ———. 1991. Prices and Wages, 1350–1500. In Agrarian History of England Wales, iii, 1348–1500, ed. E. Miller, 431–525. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. ———. 1996. The Famuli in the Later Middle Ages. In Progress and Problems in Medieval History, ed. Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, 207–236. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Fox, H. 1966. Exploitation of the Landless by Lords and Tenants in Early Medieval England. In Medieval Society and the Manor Court, ed. Z. Razi and R.M. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Hallam, H. 1855. View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages. Vol. iii. London: J. Murray.Google Scholar
  34. Harrison, W. 1968. The Description of England, ed. G. Edelen. New York: Dover Publications.Google Scholar
  35. Hatcher, J. 1970. Rural Economy and Society in the Duchy of Cornwall, 1300–1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  36. ———. 1996. The Great Slump of the Mid-Fifteenth Century. In Progress and Problems in Medieval History, ed. Richard Britnell and John Hatcher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  37. ———. 1998. Labour, Leisure and Economic Thought Before the Nineteenth Century. Past and Present 160: 64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hatcher, J., and M. Bailey. 2001. Modelling the Middle Ages; the History and Theory of England’s Economic Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hindle, S. 2004. On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, 1550–1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Humphries, J., and Weisdorf, J. 2017. Unreal Wages? Real Income and Economic Growth in England. Centre for Economic Policy and Research. Discussion Paper Series, DP111999.Google Scholar
  41. Jacobsen, J., and G. Skillman. 2004. Labour Markets and Employment Relationships: A Comprehensive Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Karakacili, E. 2004. English Agrarian Labor Productivity Rates Before the Black Death: A Case Study. Journal of Economic History 64: 24–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kitsikopoulos, H. 2000. Standards of Living and Capital Formation in Pre-plague England: A Peasant Budget Model. Economic History Review 53: 237–261 2nd ser.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Malthus, T.R. 1836. Principles of Political Economy. 2nd ed. London: Pickering.Google Scholar
  45. Mate, M. 2006. Work and Leisure. In A Social History of England, 1200–1500, ed. R. Horrox and W.M. Ormrod. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Munro, J. Prices and Wages. In The Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank, ed. Rudolph M. Bell and Martha Howell,
  47. Newman, C. 2001. Work and Wages at Durham Priory and Its Estates, 1494–1519. Continuity and Change 16.Google Scholar
  48. Özmucur, S., and S. Pamuk. 2002. Real Wages and Standards of Living in the Ottoman Empire, 1489–1914. Journal of Economic History 62: 293–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Persson, K. G. 1984. Consumption, Labour and Leisure in the Late Middle Ages. In Manger et Boire au Moyen Aegs, 1 edn. 27, Les Belles Letters: Nice.Google Scholar
  50. Phelps Brown, E.H., and S.V. Hopkins. 1981. A Perspective of Wages and Prices. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  51. Pomeranz, K. 2000. The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Poos, L.R. 1991. A Rural Society After the Black Death: Essex 1350–1525. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Postan, M.M. 1939. The Fifteenth Century. Economic History Review 9: 160–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. ———. 1950. Some Economic Evidence of Declining Population in the Later Middle Ages. Economic History Review 2: 221–246 2nd ser.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Rigby, S.H. 2010. Urban Population in Late Medieval England: The Evidence of the Lay Subsidies. Economic History Review 63: 390–417 2nd ser.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rogers, J.E.T. 1866–1902. The History of Agriculture and Prices, vii vols. Oxford.Google Scholar
  57. ———. 1949. Six Centuries of Work and Wages: The History of English Labour. London: T.F. Unwin.Google Scholar
  58. Scheidel, W. 2010. Real Wages in Early Economies: Evidence for Living Standards from 2000 BCE to 1300 CE. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53: 425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Shaw-Taylor, L., and E.A. Wrigley. The Occupational Structure of Britain, 1379–1911.
  60. Thornton, C. 1991. The Determinants of Land Productivity on the Bishop of Winchester’s Demesne at Rimpton. In Land, Labour and Livestock: Historical Studies in European Agricultural Productivity, ed. B.M.S. Campbell and M. Overton. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Woodward, D. 1981. Wage Rates and Living Standards in Pre-Industrial England. Past and Present 91: 28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. ———. 1995. Men at Work: Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns of Northern England, 1450–1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Young, D. 1999. Servants and Labourers on a Late Medieval Demesne: The Case of Newton, Cheshire, 1498–1520. Agricultural History Review 47: 145–160.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations