Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pre-industrial revolution England did not grow, but was rich

Some people have an idealized image of the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, an image fed by pictures of elegant aristocracy and chivalrous knights. Others are more realist and see these times as a period of utter misery, filth and stagnation. Research on the standard of living in this period does not have conclusive answers because the evidence is sketchy and ranges from complete stagnation and misery à la Malthus to sustained growth. Gregory Clark has recently issued a pair of exciting papers that should set a few records straight, at least for England.

In the first, with Joseph Cummins and Brock Smith, he shows that England was surprisingly rich before the Industrial Revolution. This assertion is based on the fact the a small share of the population was engaged in farming. The primary sector accounted for 52% in 1817, and even 60% in 1560. These measurements are based on the occupations listed in men's wills and indicate that a substantial fraction of people living in rural areas were in fact not engaged in farming. Thus measuring the urban population share can be misleading in this respect.

In the second, Gregory Clark shows that there has been relatively little growth over these centuries, which means that way back in 1381, England was much richer than we thought. At that date, only 55% of the population was engaged in farming, based on records of the Poll Tax. This is very close to the number quoted above for 1817. Thus standards of living were not that different four and a half centuries apart.

1 comment:

David Stern said...

I haven't read the paper yet but that doesn't surprise me. In the wake of the fall in population due to the Black Death England was wealthy. Things went downhill from there until the 16th century when slow growth started. So there might not be much growth over that entire period but that hides a decline and renewed rise in income. England did have high wages compared to most of the rest of the world at the start of the Industrial Revolution (see Allen, 2009).