Do we have a more medieval economy than we realise?

Radical Economics, July/August 2005

I am a member of the generation that was brought up most with the myth of progress. As we grew up, all around us the urban motorways and the tower blocks were driving out the high streets, parks and terraced avenues.

They still are today, of course, but then the ideological purpose was stronger. It was all in the name of ‘progress’, which we were constantly told it was impossible to obstruct.

We know better now. A little better, at least. We can see that ‘progress’ meant little more than change: and many of those changes were not real progress at all. We could have stood in the way of them after all, and we’d all be better off if we had.

In the decades since, most academic disciplines have dispensed with the idea of inevitable progress. Second-hand bookshops are littered with titles of forgotten historians peddling the idea.

One small area where the idea clings on – apart from architecture, but that’s another story – is in . The deeply flawed conception of economic growth carries within it this discredited idea: change is progress, more money means wealth.

It’s nonsense of course. But since medieval history is suddenly in vogue – the film Kingdom of Heaven may not have packed them in, but I have high hopes of my own contribution to the genre – we might perhaps direct those economists among us who still cling to the idea of inevitable progress in the direction of the twelfth century.

When archaeologists unearth skeletons in London from the period they are as tall, and therefore as well fed, as skeletons in any other period of history except our own. In the case of women, they are even slightly taller.

They lived in a society that built some of the greatest works of art humanity is capable of: in three centuries, the limestone quarries of northern Europe produced more stone for gothic cathedrals than was used in all ancient Egypt to build the pyramids.

Certainly there was famine and poverty, but that was brought about by war. For the most part, the hundreds of thousands of small independent farmers produced unprecedented and debt-free economic security – with more days off for the average farmworker than anything people now enjoy.

We may not want to catapult ourselves back there, but it is still worth wondering why – despite two centuries of economic growth – we can’t afford lives or cathedrals anything like those.

Victorian economists calculated that the average English peasant in 1485 needed to work 15 weeks a year to earn the money they needed to survive for the year. In 1564, it was 40 weeks.

Now, when tells us we are incomparably richer, it is impossible to buy a house in southern England and live a reasonable life without both partners working flat out all year. Sometimes even then, it simply isn’t possible.

Was it because of the network of local currencies in the twelfth century, which carried a negative interest rate because they were called in and re-minted every few years? Was it the medieval regulations against usury and debt? Was it the overwhelmingly local and independent structure of the economy – despite growing trade in luxuries – throughout the medieval period? Was it, perhaps, the spiritual basis on which the culture was based?

It would be easy to say there is no consensus on the answers to why their economy worked then, but actually there’s not even any discussion.

But it might be possible to look at the kind of slavery we sell ourselves into when we sign our mortgage documents. Or the bizarrely patronising approach to government (ministers are keen to encourage citizenship in schools, to get pupils to write letters to MPs or demonstrate, but they still don’t listen to what they say if they overwhelmingly oppose illegal wars).

We might look at the extraordinary powers over our lives held by multinationals and monopolistic supermarkets, and wonder whether we are more ‘medieval’ now than we think we are.


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