(Real) Wages in the middle ages

The systematic analysis and quantification of wage levels for the medieval period has been frustrated by the relative lack of records, or, even where records might be plentiful, by the inconsistency or obscurity in the ways in which wage levels are framed. As a result, current discussions of wages and labour before 1500 lack the bite of more systematic analyses grounded in precise evidence and leads to the divergence in results that we currently see in the literature. This project attempts to break through this impasse by adopting a new method for determining the wage profile of workers on medieval English demesnes (the home farms of lords as against those of their tenants). It uses uniquely detailed agricultural accounts from these demesnes, which survive in tens of thousands for the period of this study (c. AD 1250 – AD 1450). The method depends on connecting precise data on wages paid both in cash and 'in kind' in a manner that allows wages to be calculated without the distorting effect of proxy measurements. This approach promises to facilitate the creation of an accurate wage series for medieval England, based entirely on historical data both over region and over time and to allow surveys of the degree of both female and male labour evident in medieval demesne agriculture.

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The trade of agricultural horses in late medieval England

My work on the medieval horse trade, exemplified by a recent article in Agricultural History Review as well as a monograph in preparation, explores how the English economy was supplied with working horses – its most vital source of kinetic energy – during a particularly important period of England’s (and indeed Europe’s) economic and demographic growth from 1250 to 1350. My book challenges the predominant idea that large institutional landlords produced these animals, and instead illustrates that working horses were supplied by an extensive network of small-scale peasant breeders.  This builds upon established narratives of commercialization in medieval England, but argues that this small-scale but widely diffused commercial economy was not characterized by the kinds of capital accumulation typically associated with economic growth.

In medieval England, the breeding of horses was not a major specialism of particular regions nor of certain groups of peasants, but a more generalized activity by individuals who balanced their own needs for animal power with opportunities for breeding and marketing them. The story runs counter to traditional models of economic growth that emphasize capital investment, specialization and aggressive marketing strategies. While the introduction of horses allowed a diversification in activities that expanded peasants’ opportunities for more productive agriculture and increased interaction with markets, a chronic lack of investment meant that there was little progress in terms of stock improvement, technology or marketing which increasingly placed a ceiling on productivity and eventually acted as a drag on levels of commercialization. This is a cautionary tale of unintended consequences that has relevance not only for societies of the preindustrial past but also for many developing economies today.


Managing Milk, Making a Living: The Entrepreneurialization of the Dairy Industry in Late Medieval England

My examination of the dairy industry looks specifically at how environmental shocks such as the Great Famine of 1315-17 and the Black Death of 1349 as well as new institutional conditions, brought on by the decline of serfdom, led to the shift of a central agricultural industry from the seigniorial sector (landlords and their properties) to the domain of emerging peasant entrepreneurialism. The has significant implications for trends in women’s work and economic agency. By examining the changing composition of labour in the industry, this research informs the debate concerning the English economy after the Black Death and whether it offered women greater economic opportunities than earlier periods; was the so-called ‘golden age of the peasantry’ as beneficial for women as it was for men?