December 07, 2010

Medieval GDP per capita

On the left there are some interesting tables from the paper.

I don't know how accurate of GDP per capita is that far in the past, as a certain number of assumptions must come into play. However, these numbers should give pause to anyone who makes broad statements about different populations' innate ability based on their present- or recent economic output, especially when such inferences are pushed thousands of years into the past.

The paper also has some estimates of population and population growth rates which should be interesting for population geneticists in calibrating their models.

Medieval England Twice as Well Off as Today’s Poorest Nations
New research led by economists at the University of Warwick reveals that medieval England was not only far more prosperous than previously believed, it also actually boasted an average income that would be more than double the average per capita income of the world's poorest nations today.


aargiedude said...

This could be related:

2570 BC....Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt)
1311 AD...Lincoln Cathedral (England)
1549 AD...St. Olaf's Chruch (Estonia)
1884 AD...Washing Monument (USA)
2007 AD...Burj Khalifa (U.A.E.)

Of all the countries in the world, it was England who finally broke Egypt's multi-millenial title of having the world's tallest building.

By the way, I replicated Dienekes' barplot analysis, to ensure I was using the various programs involved correctly, and yes I was, but here's a fun side-by-side comparison between his run and my own:

barplot comparison: argiedude and Dienekes

Romanians' results differ somewhat because I excluded the 2 samples indicated by Dienekes as being probably Gypsies.

eurologist said...

Interesting to see how the populations of Holland and Great Britain were able to prosper form their colonies, Italy a bit, but Spain not at all. I guess some societies were a bit more democratic in spreading the wealth.

Also clearly visible is the effect of the 30 Years' War and continued wars from Sweden against northern European territories, in both the Swedish and German numbers. Northern Germany in particular was vastly destroyed several times over, lasting more than a century -- and it took five decades of Prussia's at times very effective rule to recover (in terms of social and material well-being - even if the primary goal was to have and support a stronger army.

aargiedude said...

Sorry for double posting. There are so many things that could be said about these results. It's really interesting. Notice the huge jump between 1348 and 1400. The Great Plague happened between that time, right? The Great Plague seriously reduced the population, and historians have noted that those that survived had a better life because the reduction led to greater plots of land per family, plus the aristochracy was now faced with a labor shortage situation, and they couldn't treat peasants like they used to. Another interesting thing to notice is how Italy was notably above the rest of Europe (per capita) almost up to the 1600's. And Spain wasn't too bad, either. It's an opposite picture of Europe today.

DagoRed said...

Italy had not colonies in 1850, Italy was not a nation state until 1960. Italy was the richest country in Europe and, maybe in the world until the explosion of the civil wars, this isn't a surprise in 1500. From there its decline with the hegemony of foreign powers.

DagoRed said...

Sorry, Italy wasn't a nation-state until 1860, of course.

aargiedude said...

eurologist, I think you made some really erroneous observations there. In 1500 AD England and Holland already had a GDP per capita that probably puts them close to the highest ranked countries in the world. [This study seriously has to be expanded to include places like Turkey, Iran, China, Japan. I'm sure there's very good data on all of them.]

But you really blew it with Italy. Italy starts to go down when the colonial era begins. More or less the same with Spain, who apparently never saw any benefit from its colonies.

And the 30 Years' War began after 1600. You can see that Germany and Sweden have their worst GDP per capita between 1570 and 1600, before the 30 Year War began. Also, the war, regardless of how bad, is not going to have lasting effects on their economy almost 200 years afterwards! Their low GDP per capita in 1800 is due to some other reason, not to the 30 Years War.

Italy had not colonies in 1850, Italy was not a nation state until 1960.

The 2nd part isn't correct, Italy became a country (as we know it today) in 1860 or 1870, I think.

Italy was the richest country in Europe and, maybe in the world

It could easily be that huge swaths of the Middle East, and Iran, and other parts around there were just as high or higher. This study seriously has to do an expanded follow up study. And make sure to include China.

Lugus said...

Perhaps Italy's decline in GDP starting circa 1500 had something to do with Luther's 95 Theses?

Marnie said...


I've read that too that the Thirty Years War devastated Germany and the landscape and people were stricken from the page of history.

Gioiello said...

DagoRed writes: "Italy was not a nation state until 1960".

Until 1861.

Jack said...

The Britsh Crown owed the Kingdom of the two Sicilies (which really was about half of present day Italy, there was nothing sicilian about it) a bundle of money. This is probably explains why they helped the Savoy conquer the South.

aargiedude said...

Broadberry and Gupta (2006) point out that during the early modern period European wages were significantly above Asian wages, if compared at the exchange rate (the silver wage) rather than the amount of grain they could purchase (the grain wage).

The early modern period, from what I could infer in the pdf, starts around 1550. What this suggests, as they point out, is that Europeans spent less money on food as a percentage of their overall income, and since their consumption of food per capita was similar to Asians, then Europeans had a notably higher real income. If all this is true, then the notion that Europe became important simply because they found and exploited America is very seriously undermined.

DagoRed said...

How Gioiello writes the kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, Rome and the region Lazio annexed in 1870, but only in 1918 Italy reached its natural borders.

It's true that the decline of Italy began with the Italian colonial era, but not for it and not for the religious wars of 1600.
These are things that all Italian students know , but I understand that foreigners can ignore them.

At that time, Italy was divided into about a dozen states who had achieved a balanced coexistence with the diplomacy of Lorenzo de Medici (the Magnificent), but all fell to his death (1492)and soon started wars between different states, and to overwhelm theirs opponent called in Italy the Spanish and French armies.
The small Italian states, although rich and evolved quickly discovered that they were not able to stand up to such powerful armies, and came to be subjugated by foreigners, who went to war for decades.

You can read about this "History of Italy" by Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), it's easy to find the entire book in Italian in the net, I do not know if there is an English version.

eurologist said...


Not sure where your ad hominem is suddenly coming from, but you have to learn how to read these things in a comparative manner, not in an absolute sense. If three European countries' GDP goes up, but one goes down, then you can comment on reasons, etc.

Black death before the 30-Years' War, Swedish Wars after. Italy benefits a bit from colonies, but has the same extreme local patriotism forces against it as the-then non-unified Germany, etc. It's not that difficult to understand. What is mind-boggling (and educational) is how the Hanseatic League persisted, prospered, and was the main cultural influence all the while, and how quickly Prussia turned things around.

You are welcome.

Andrew Lancaster said...

"these numbers should give pause to anyone who makes broad statements about different populations' innate ability based on their present- or recent economic output, especially when such inferences are pushed thousands of years into the past."

I do not see the logic of this remark. Europeans have been agricultural and sedentary for more than a thousand years, and although it might be possible to make it sound like a stretch it is in fact obvious that being sedentary a thousand years ago is correlated to being sedentary today.

Consider that the following two remarks are quite uncontroversial:-

1. Material wealth as measured by any such study is correlated most meaningfully with division of labour, and hence to the extent of settled and specialized labour.

2. Such lifestyles were historically discovered to be useful, and therefore became prevalent, in places where environmental conditions gave challenges that could be solved by farming.

In colonial times British economists noticed that in tropical countries there was a backward sloping supply curve for labour, breaking some assumptions required in many models of why free trade works well. What this meant was that people felt no need to work beyond a certain level of hours even for much higher pay, and then they went fishing or whatever.

I am not saying that such different economic histories might not have led to selection for certain traits, perhaps something like the effects of domestication on animals which live in sedentary communities. But I see no reason to see these traits as being causative of living or not living in a sedentary way to begin with.

Best Regards

Ttarler said...

There are two things that are problematic with these numbers.

First and foremost, they don't indicate at all what the income stratum were. GDP per capita is notoriously bad because everyone is averaged out, including the kings and the peasants.

This also gives no indication of the purchasing power parity of those nations. I don't believe they had actual currency at that time, so the barter system would have rendered such calculations useless.