By Greg Clark
Paper given at Towards a Global History of Prices and Wages (2004)
Abstract: This paper reports work in progress towards an attempt to measure the cost of living in England for those with consumption patterns similar to modern European consumers from 1209 to 1869. Until the pioneering work of Hoffman et al. (2002) measures of real wages in pre-industrial Europe have typically been for the poorer and middling sectors of society: laborers and craftsmen. The poorest workers show remarkably little gain in real wages from 1280 to 1800, despite the narrative evidence of huge changes in these societies. Combined with population evidence, the implication seems to be that there was remarkably little technological advance in England from 1200 to 1800. In this paper I show that the perspective of people with consumption patterns like our own the pre-industrial world was a period of substantial economic change. Measured relative to the laboring wages the prices of these goods consumed by the rich were falling almost as quickly in the years 1300- 1730 as in the Industrial Revolution years 1730-1869.
Introduction: The price history of pre-industrial England is uniquely well documented. England achieved substantial political stability by 1066. There was little of the internal strife that proved so destructive of documentary history in other countries. Also England’s island position and relative military success protected it from foreign invasion, except for the depredations of the Scots in the border counties. England further witnessed the early development of markets and monetary exchange. In particular when reports of private purchases begin in 1208-9 the markets for goods were clearly well established. A large number of documents with such prices survive in the records of churches, monasteries, colleges, charities, and government.
These documents have been the basis of many studies of pre-industrial wages and prices. But the cost of living indexes constructed have mainly been for comparatively poor workers such as building laborers and craftsmen. Until the recent work of Hoffman et al. (2002) there has been little attention to the comparative movement in the costs of living of the rich, people like us in their living standards, versus the poor. Oddly, as far as living standards go much more is know about those of the poor in the pre-industrial era than is know about the rich! Yet there is every indication that the cost of living of the poorer workers moved in a different way from that of the rich, particularly in the years after 1500. In particular Hoffman et a. (2002) find that the cost of living of the richest consumers in Europe increased much less than that of the poorest in the years 1500 to 1650.