Medieval England More Prosperous Than Today’s Poorest Nations

When you consider the vast technological, social, cultural, and economic changes that have occurred over the past 650 years or so, this is pretty astounding:

In a paper entitled British Economic Growth 1270-1870 published by the University of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) the researchers find that living standards in medieval England were far above the “bare bones subsistence” experience of people in many of today’s poor countries.

The 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.

However the University of Warwick led researchers found that English per capita incomes in the late Middle Ages were actually of the order of $1,000 (again as expressed in 1990 dollars). Even on the eve of the Black Death, which first struck in 1348/49, the researchers found per capita incomes in England of more than $800 using the same 1990 dollar measure. Their estimates for other European countries also suggest late medieval living standards well above $400.

Now, let’s look at comparable  per capita income figures for a few modern nations:

  • Zaire $249
  • Burundi $479
  • Niger $514
  • Central African Republic $536
  • Comoro Islands $549
  • Togo $606
  • Guinea Bissau $617
  • Guinea $628
  • Sierra Leone $686
  • Haiti at $686
  • Chad $706
  • Zimbabwe $779
  • Afghanistan $869

And I think it’s fair to say that many people in these nations don’t have a quality of life that’s all that different from the people of 1300’s England. I’m not sure whether these figures say more about the unexpected prosperity of an era we typically think of being nasty and brutish, or about the nation’s that don’t compare favorable to a society that existed six centuries ago.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The more interesting part of that same article is that the findings cast some doubt over a prevailing narrative about national wealth and modernity. England’s wealth didn’t suddenly start in the 18th century with the Industrial Revolution. Rather England’s Industrial Revolution was a product of its wealth which was evident half a millennium before.

  2. john personna says:

    I think it would be unsurprising to anyone who had read Guns, Germs, and Steel.

    The humans in the fertile band from Europe through Asia enjoyed many benefits. Lots of useful crops, no tsetse file

  3. john personna says:

    (We could probably add Mayans and Egyptian pyramid builders to “better than the worst-off today.”)

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I object on the grounds that this study contradicts Monty Python’s entire body of work on the middle ages.

  5. Brett says:

    England’s wealth didn’t suddenly start in the 18th century with the Industrial Revolution. Rather England’s Industrial Revolution was a product of its wealth which was evident half a millennium before.

    That’s been known for a while, although this just shows how far back it goes. Even before the Industrial Revolution, per capita income in 17th and 18th century England (and particularly London) was pretty high for that time period. Same goes for the Netherlands.

  6. sam says:

    The effect of climate on this should be noted:

    10th – 14th century: The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) or Medieval Climate Optimum

    During the High Middle Ages in Europe experienced a climate slightly warmer than in the period preceding and the period following it. The summer temperatures were between 1 and 1.4 degrees higher than the average temperature of the 20th century. The winters were even warmer with an average temperature in England of 6 degrees, which is slightly warmer than for most of the 20th century. The warmer conditions were caused by the fact that the air circulation above the Atlantic changed position, as did the warm sea currents, transporting warmer water to the arctic.

    In Europe the warm conditions had positive effects. Summer after summer the harvests were good and the population increased rapidly. As a result thousands of hectares were cleared of woodland and farmers expanded their fields high into the hills and on mountain slopes. It was even possible to grow successfully grapes as far north as Yorkshire.

    Under these conditions, art, literature and even science were developing apace and we see the height of medieval civilisation. The most visible achievements of this period are undoubtedly the construction of the many cathedrals all over Europe. The good harvests had made Europe rich and the good weather freed people from the burden of the struggle against the elements. It created the wealth and labour force to build cathedrals. It was a golden period for European Architecture and art.

    Environmental History Resources: Middle Ages, 500 – 1500 CE