Friday, 5 May 2017

Les trois cents sans gloire

If you think it seems a long time since the egalitarian high noon of Les Trente Glorieuses, at least be thankful that there are people still alive who remember when things were getting better for most people in Europe and the rest of the West. According to this post at Metafilter, when workers' wages collapsed in the mid 1500s, real wages didn't recover for another three centuries. Other interpretations of the facts exist but it is, at the very least, good to see the welfare of the average person being considered as the stuff of of history, as opposed to the history-as-lists-of-monarchs approach still being kept on life support by the David Starkeys othis world:
For about two centuries after the Black Death, workers in Europe had it good, medievally speaking. The medieval calendar was filled with festivals and feast days; dragons and church ales, carnivals and food fights, and an extra day off every week of the year. In bad years, it took only a few hundred hours of work to pay for the grain needed to feed a family; in good years, closer to a hundred hours. Then, in less than 50 years starting in the mid-1500s - and as quickly as the 10 years from 1540 to 1550 in at least one area - everything changed, almost everywhere in Europe.

Workers' real wages dropped dramatically. Now, a bad year for wheat prices meant that a few thousand hours of work per year were needed to afford a family's grain - which meant death by starvation of the poorest and weakest. The range of prices flipped: What was a bad year for workers in the 1400s - having to work a few hundred hours a year to pay for grain - now seemed a great year, a bumper crop. And it stayed this way. Workers' real wages did not rise back to late medieval levels until the late 1800s, over 300 years and an Industrial Revolution later.

Feasts and festivals for the poor fell out of fashion. "By the same statute, women singing round summer-trees, or maypoles, are ordered to be taken, handled, and put upon the ducking-stone." Gone was the inclusiveness of earlier Carnivals.

But not everyone suffered. In relation to the income of the rich, prices for servants and luxury goods dropped. Because of Engel's Law (no, not that Engel), high wheat prices had a small impact on the budgets of the rich. Cheaper servants made them considerably better off, and the engine of elite fashion became a whirlwind.

A massive increase in silver mining, first (beautifully illustrated) in Central Europe and later (horrifically) in South America, is blamed for the rise in (nominal) prices. The drop in (real) wages is blamed variously on population increases, the Little Ice Age, and the transmutation of silver into almost unparalleled violence, directed downward in service of social transformation.

(An explanatory note on the graph in the "10 years" link: The white dots and background are for 1400-1600. The text suggests that 12 quintals of grain would be needed to feed a family for a year, and the numbers on the left side of the graph - cut off in the scan, unfortunately - are in tens of hours needed to afford 1 quintal. The numbers are, from the top down, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, 5, 0, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and I'd be glad for anyone to correct my interpretation of the 0,9,8,7... numbers as 1.0, 0.9, 0.8, etc. Thus the top of the graph represents 50x10x12=6000 hours of a labourer's work needed to feed a family; a devastating famine. The "everything changed" and "not everyone suffered" links go more deeply into the numbers behind the drop in real wages for workers across most of Europe, and what people spent money on besides grain.).
Reproduced in full because I think this stuff matters more than Henry VIII's love life.