Saturday, 11 November 2017


Merrie England

We are accustomed to think of our present and recent centuries as the biggest and the brightest and the best of human civilization.  It behoves the dominant evolutionary world view so to assume and delve for corroboration at every turn.

Robert Tombs, however, produces a picture which would be at substantial variance to this established modern narrative. He writes that in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (post Black Plague) was a time of substantial economic growth.  The picture he paints is intriguing, if for no other reason than indirectly to recast our own times as somewhat less singular or exceptional.

Here is the general picture of economic and social progress in England, post Plague, painted by Tombs:

Wages rose and prices fell, increasing real incomes by 250 percent between 1300 and 1450, and reaching a level by 1500 that would not be permanently exceeded until the 1880's.  GDP reached the equivalent of over $1,000 per capital (similar to China and India in the 1990's), and although for some time to come England would remain less wealthy than Flanders and Italy, unlike in most of Europe English wages stayed high even when population numbers slowly recovered.

The purchasing power of working people rose more steeply than at any time before the twentieth century.  This meant more and better food and drink--white bread, beef, mutton and fish.  The Corpus Christi Guild at Bishops Lynn, for example, sponsored feasts in 1444 featuring mackerel, herring, whelks, crabs, chickens, capons, doves, geese, marrowbones, pork, beef, lamb and veal.

More ale was drunk, and beer (with hops) was introduced from the Low Countries.  Brewing became more commercialized, with taverns and alehouses for drinking and playing games--the English pub was born.  Consumption of all kinds increased: furniture, pottery, pewter (England's second most valuable export manufacture), clothes and fashion, ignoring the legal restrictions on dress.  The booming trades in London were tailoring and brewing.

People increasingly shopped for pleasure, as shops grew bigger and were better stocked, and streets such as London's Cheapside became famous for their variety.  Industries began to recover from the post-plague slump, including metalworking, pottery, and mining.  Wollaton in Nottinghamshire was producing thousands of tons of coal a year and continued to do so until 1965.  Miners reached productivity levels not surpassed until the nineteenth century.  Yet people were also working less, and there were complaints about workers arriving late, spending too much time over meals, and taking siestas.  Apprentices annoyed their elders by playing games. Morris dancing emerged around 1450.  People took more leisure than at any time until the 1960's.

For most people (defeat in France, recurring plague and the "Wars of the Roses" notwithstanding) if ever there was a "Merrie England", this was it. [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015),  p.128.]
We confess that we find these type of accounts to be both informing and entertaining.  There are few things more deliciously ironic than setting our arrogant, self-absorbed age on its heels.

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