Long term and distance comparisons of premodern living standards

Mar 2015
865
Europe
In England, there are long term data for prices and wages since early 13th century.

There have been several analyses. The results differ somewhat, and I cannot precisely quote everything I remember. Maybe I conflate several contradictory ones.

Key points of my impression:
In 13th century, England´s population grew, and wages and living standards fell. Population peaked around 1314, before the famine of 1315-1317
The population dropped a lot with plague. Despite Statutes of Labourers, wages and living standards rose. The bottom of population, and peak of living standards, was reached in the period of 1450...1480.
By several clear standards. An English labourer under York sun ate more meat, bought more craft goods and partied more than an English labourer under Edward II.
The data from 11th and 12th century are less detailed. It is still clear that England of War of Roses was more populous than England of Domesday... yet had higher accumulated investments and living standards of commoners.
With recovery of population in 16th century, living standards of commoners dropped like they had done in 13th century. Yet the real income never got quite as low in 17th century as it had been in early 14th century.
In 18th and early 19th century, England had rapid increase of population and GDP - this time with a slow rise of per capita GDP, staying at a low level. It was only in 1870s that an average Englishmen became as well off as in Merry Old England of 1470s.

Now comparing other countries...
Was a Chinese peasant in 1839, on the eve of Opium War, better or worse off than an English peasant in 1314?
Who was better remunerated - an unqualified labourer hauling stones for Carnarvon Castle of Edward I, or an unqualified labourer hauling stones for Great Pyramid of Cheops?

Where could such kind of serious comparisons be found?
 

dreamregent

Ad Honorem
Feb 2013
4,342
Coastal Florida
Who was better remunerated - an unqualified labourer hauling stones for Carnarvon Castle of Edward I, or an unqualified labourer hauling stones for Great Pyramid of Cheops?

Where could such kind of serious comparisons be found?
I think it would be difficult to frame such a wide-ranging comparison. For example, money was unknown in Ancient Egypt (as well as the rest of the world) when the pyramids were built. Practically speaking, for most of Ancient Egyptian history, the economy was based on a single commodity, grain, and wages were expressed in terms of either that or bread and beer. For example, see an extant fragment of the Abusir papyri from ~2360BC:

Inscription Translation
1st month of Shemu, last day: Giving the [...] gallons of grain issued to Tjesemy and Nefernemtet: this is what is MEASURED EVERY DAY.

2nd month of Shemu, day 2: Giving the [...] gallons of grain issued to Tjesemy; day 6: Giving the 5/4 gallons of grain issued toTjesemy this is [WHAT IS MEASURED EVERY DAY].
While various metals had value and metals began to be used for conversion purposes at some point, metal generally didn't change hands and it wasn't used to mint coins until very late so it wasn't the basis for the wider economy. Perhaps you could create some sort of relative comparison but it's hard to see how you could do anything else.
 
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Oct 2010
289
Paomia, Corsica
There are a few such comparisons but the only really reliable ones are for France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain/Portugal. If you want I can post the links. Any other area/time lacks the archival density necessary for this research with one exception: Babylon in the 2nd millenium BC iirc. Stuff for the Middle East and China are rare and for India almost inexistant. Look at Pamuk and Shatzmiller’s work to get an idea of how thin that whole thing is. For China check out Debin Ma and if you have the stomach Kenneth Pomeranz’s book The Great Divergence.

The pope of these types of comparisons is Robert C Allen. He’s been criticized recently by Judy Stephenson and Jane Humphreys.
 
Mar 2015
865
Europe
I think it would be difficult to frame such a wide-ranging comparison. For example, money was unknown in Ancient Egypt (as well as the rest of the world) when the pyramids were built. Practically speaking, for most of Ancient Egyptian history, the economy was based on a single commodity, grain, and wages were expressed in terms of either that or bread and beer. For example, see an extant fragment of the Abusir papyri from ~2360BC:



While various metals had value and metals began to be used for conversion purposes at some point, metal generally didn't change hands and it wasn't used to mint coins until very late so it wasn't the basis for the wider economy. Perhaps you could create some sort of relative comparison but it's hard to see how you could do anything else.
While grain may have been used as a standard of value, it could not have been the only commodity in economy. Meat was certainly consumed:
https://www.livescience.com/28961-ancient-giza-pyramid-builders-camp-unearthed.html

And the existence of Old Kingdom Corral suggests that at least some phases of meat supply were centrally organized, in terms of the supply of beef, mutton and chevon to pyramid town, as opposed to the supply of pork to the eastern town.

If "money" did not exist, what did the accounts of the distribution of the meat slaughtered at the shambles of Old Kingdom Corral actually say?

In the same society, same time, an unqualified worker moving heavy stone blocks would need a lot of calories. A skilled mason knocking those blocks into shape would actually need fewer calories. And the scribe sitting down with his brush and giving orders would need even fewer. Yet the scribe would get the choice cuts of beef, while the unqualified worker would get his calories from a lot of grain, with little morsels of beef and poor quality cuts at that, some pork, fish etc.

In that case, you could identify the preferred foods by identifying the bones that concentrate in elite waste... and then track the living standards of the same society over time by tracking the proportion of elite waste in middle-class context. How much, if any, beef was slaughtered and eaten by the villagers themselves who raised the cattle for the pyramid builders?
 

dreamregent

Ad Honorem
Feb 2013
4,342
Coastal Florida
While grain may have been used as a standard of value, it could not have been the only commodity in economy. Meat was certainly consumed:
https://www.livescience.com/28961-ancient-giza-pyramid-builders-camp-unearthed.html

And the existence of Old Kingdom Corral suggests that at least some phases of meat supply were centrally organized, in terms of the supply of beef, mutton and chevon to pyramid town, as opposed to the supply of pork to the eastern town.

If "money" did not exist, what did the accounts of the distribution of the meat slaughtered at the shambles of Old Kingdom Corral actually say?

In the same society, same time, an unqualified worker moving heavy stone blocks would need a lot of calories. A skilled mason knocking those blocks into shape would actually need fewer calories. And the scribe sitting down with his brush and giving orders would need even fewer. Yet the scribe would get the choice cuts of beef, while the unqualified worker would get his calories from a lot of grain, with little morsels of beef and poor quality cuts at that, some pork, fish etc.
Note the use of the phrase "Practically speaking". I was generalizing. There were a number of other commodities but they were less important than grain for the populace as a whole. Most people were poor and, as you noted, probably received little in the way of something like meat, the domesticated variety anyway. Although, out of practical necessity, I'd suggest laborers working on large state projects may very well have gotten more. Also, as maharbbal noted, the extant records don't completely illuminate every single facet of how the society functioned so some degree of speculation and reasoning is unavoidable. For instance, we know cattle belonged to the state and were centrally organized but we don't have a full accounting of how the meat was distributed. Tomb paintings sometimes show people eating rich meals but only the wealthy could afford to hire someone to paint sumptuous feasts in their tombs. We also don't know that such paintings necessarily reflected reality.

For instance, the scenes depicted at Amarna show an abundance of food but the remains of the population indicate they were very unhealthy and malnourished. Overall, the archaeology shows that a high degree of focus was placed on food at this site. Aside from the scenes depicting a time of plenty, a large state bakery for the production of bread was constructed adjacent to the Great Aten Temple and a lot of cattle remains were found. A primary feature of the temple was actually a slaughter yard for cattle. While the scenes show offering tables piled with food, I doubt priests were simply accepting offerings. Considering the number of offering tables erected in the temple, I'd suggest these were less "offering" tables and more like "dining" tables. It seems to me the state was trying to feed the populace but the state's efforts were simply insufficient to the task.

In that case, you could identify the preferred foods by identifying the bones that concentrate in elite waste... and then track the living standards of the same society over time by tracking the proportion of elite waste in middle-class context. How much, if any, beef was slaughtered and eaten by the villagers themselves who raised the cattle for the pyramid builders?
Archaeologists do this. Faunal remains are routinely analyzed and quantified during archaeological digs. The problem comes in drawing conclusions from the data on a micro scale because you're pretty much left with making assumptions to some degree. While such remains may be present for a site as a whole, how was this commodity distributed within the site? Consider the case of Amarna. On the surface, it seems like a time of plenty but the cemeteries tell a different story. How does one make a comparison of individual wealth in that case?
 
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Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
I am not sure I share your suppositions entirely. De Vries for example makes the case in "The Industrious Revolution" that living standards did indeed rise in early modern Europe (including Britain) before the latter half of the 1800s.

Anyway (now that I've got the pedantry out of the way), the question is very interesting: if you are looking for sources, one book that touches a little on these issues in regards to Classical Greece is Josh Obers "The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece" that came out a couple of years ago. He more or less makes the case that classical Greece was wealthier and had higher average living standards than Greece until the 1900s (comparable to the Netherlands and Britain in the 1600s).