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Medieval Price List (ucdavis.edu)
347 points by danso on Dec 1, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 146 comments

Medieval pricing and economy is interesting. I just listened a lecture last summer.

These were not free market prices. "Fair price" was moral issue within the community. You could not charge too much extra if the customer faced sudden urgent demand. And buyer was not allowed to exploit the seller either. Exploiting temporary scarcity or oversupply when bargaining would get you into trouble with the law, the guild etc. Determining the fair price level was delicate political process.

Not necessarily a bad thing, as prices weren't regulated to be inflexible either. In response to merchant abuse, adulteration and fraud a whole slew of measures evolved, including the 1266 Bread and Ale Assizes. The court assizes were responsible for setting the fair price which both took into account supply and demand, and local variation, and for sampling the goods produced. This was not a national economy, the "right" price for ale or grain could vary just a mile or two down the road, or in the next valley over, subject to local weather and harvests. Which is why the local assize courts controlled it.

One of the other interesting things was bread and some other foods adjusted to supply and demand by changing weight not price. Each assize set the current right weight of a farthing loaf. A standard weight loaf came much later, in the 19th century!

There were also aletasters, breadmasters and a whole variety of others who would engage in sampling, and sometimes use of secret shopping, to ensure the local merchants for a particular good were producing quality, weight and not adulterating. What is less clear is whether they took their role seriously or whether it was a sinecure for free food and beer. The fines seem, in some regions, to have often been small and arbitrary, and it was often all under the auspices of the manor. Was it a valuable piece of Medieval regulation, or corruption? Well, going on how the Assizes of Bread and Ale played out, there was ample opportunity for local corruption and arbitrary fees.


> What is less clear is whether they took their role seriously or whether it was a sinecure for free food and beer.

Could it have been both? I mean, if I decided to work as a taster of bread and ale just to have free food, I'd still like that food to be of at least passable quality, and I would complain if it was adulterated. The incentives of employer and employee seem to align here.

Prices did move based on supply and demand. The main issue dictating this was actually the limitations of transport. In areas with ready access to water transport though, you will find price integration (i.e. local prices moving together) and this is definitely true to a significant extent in the UK (another good example, obviously, are the Low Countries which were heavily integrated into global markets).

One thing to bear in mind with the historiography of this is that historians think what you say is true, and it is definitely true to an extent, because food rioting and all the actions limiting the grain trade are highly visible to us. But it is worth remembering that the basis for economic life was quite different. You had the market but, if you were a serf, you were protected against total destitution (except in periods of severe population pressure) so all of this stuff wasn't quite as sensitive as you think (it also wasn't political in any sense that we recognise today, all of this was handled locally). What definitely was sensitive (and often political in a way that makes sense today) were food riots...but that isn't the same thing.

Source: http://faculty.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/papers/market... - there is tons of stuff generally measuring the cointegration of prices in medieval bulk commodities markets.

> Prices did move based on supply and demand. The main issue dictating this was actually the limitations of transport. In areas with ready access to water transport though, you will find price integration (i.e. local prices moving together) and this is definitely true to a significant extent in the UK (another good example, obviously, are the Low Countries which were heavily integrated into global markets).

The UK did not exist in medieval England, and the medieval Dutch weren't known for trading with the Javanese and the Maori.

Just read the research. And I didn't say the UK existed, I said the market existed across the UK (if you read the research, you would know that price integration has been proved across medieval England, Wales, and Scotland i.e. what is the UK today).

And yes, but neither the Javanese or the Maori grew grain (the Maori were still nomadic in this period, growing grain would have made no sense). Again: the integration has been proved for the grain markets that existed around Western Europe, the Baltic regions (and Asia if you consider Russia in this period), north Africa, and the Levant i.e. the global grain market that existed in medieval periods. No, this doesn't include China, where there was substantial internal trade in this period, but this doesn't seem to be a huge difference.

Isn't it an effect of physical proximity, of the seller somewhat at least more probably having some relationship with the buyer?

Abusing, in all senses of this verb, is much easier if you absolutely don't know, won't know and even don't relate to your victim.

Screwing, taking excessive advantage or even only playing it without respect with a total anonymous stranger is one thing, doing so with someone who may become your neighbor, brother-in-law... or who may be a friend of someone who is a friend of your father... or may be a soldier fighting on your side... is another thing.

Wherever something is wrong, something it too big -- L. Kohr.

> Abusing, in all senses of this verb, is much easier if you absolutely don't know, won't know and even don't relate to your victim.

Well that's patently untrue. The average abused child or woman actually lives with their abuser. A significant number of abused children are abused by someone who is not in their family but who knows them. It seems that people fear abusing strangers (who are more likely to report you) more than those who are close (who are more likely to say "it's not his fault").

When talking about economics relations, there is a difference. In most cases, and I am sure that was meant here, there is an "outside option". And then things differ.

If we analyze supplier networks, trade relations in old style bazar or markets, or even just the playing of simple two-player games, then we see that a long term relationship, or its prospect, may make it much more likely that people cooperate in some sense.

This has two effects: A code develops where blatant exploitation is unusual, even if it would be an equilibrium in a one-shot contact. Second, however, there is more leeway for small exploitations, those that can not be "identified" to be causal from the seller (price hikes elsewhere etc.).

Anyhow, your point is true (since he said all senses of the word) but I think this issue is too multi dimensional to find an analogy in home violence

Sorry. I meant 'abusing' in the context of the article: during a commercial operation adopting a behavior (towards the other party) which will be scorned at (scam/swindle, speculation...).

zwaps' interpretation is the right one.

I think this is a result of living in close-knit communities. Where everyone has been knowing everyone else for generations and there is no-one else to help the day you might be in the lurch it is simply not a good idea to squeeze people as much as possible when the opportunity arises.

Thatcher's daily wage: 3 pence a day. Price for a tunic: 3 shillings.

A tunic is two weeks' earnings. Let's say you make $36,000 a year; two weeks' earnings for you is $1500.

The invention of mill-powered looms began the Industrial Revolution, completely upending the economies of Europe.

Today I can buy a t-shirt for less than an hour at minimum wage (in the USA).

The reality is that the loom, for as amazing as it is, is only a small piece of why that item costs so little.

Tunic, possibly wool or linen. Both of these items still come at a massive premium today when compared to a cotton or a synthetic. We have made changes and massive progress in the production of the base materials.

We have transport issues, it is unlikely that your typical tunic was an imported good. It was probably made and sourced much more locally. Today, due to the nature of production and the structure of tax and tariffs on garments it is likely that your t-shirt is fairly well traveled, with it crossing the ocean more than once (cotton to Asia, woven in one place, made into a garment in another, possibly printed on in a third before even making it to you).

There is a LOT more to the story, sewing machines, zippers (YKK is a fascinating company), elastic, pattern making, fabric cutting. The boxes that your products are shipped in, cardboard and steel, the packaging plastic - the inks for it. Dye is a whole field of science and research that has made so much progress in the last 50 years never mind going as far back as a "tunic".

The point is there is a massive iceberg under that loom, one you barely see or think about.

I've recently become an instant fan of Bernadette Banner, historical clothing recrations specialist, with video and Pinterest channels.

In a piece I'd submitted to HN a few days ago, she discussed the matter of a cheap Chinese knock-off of a 15th century gown. Somehow an item made of wool-blend, silk, and other fabrics, constructed over 250 hours, was being sold for $40.98.

Short-cuts were taken.

Aside from a host of other aspects (ownership of ideas, fraud, misappropriation of likeness, etc.), the segment is a tour de force of textile and garment techniques and technologies. As is virtually all of Ms. Banner's video archive. I've virtually no interest in the topic itself, though I'm somewhat aware of the historical significance of clothing technology and its role in the Industrial Revolution. She herself is must-watch Web-V, based on knowledge, wit, charm, diction, geek-out nerdiness, and sheer enthusiasm for her topic.

In the dozen or so videos I've watched to date, she covers many of the elements you describe (possibly excepting zippers).

In overall impact, I'd compare her work with Primitive Technology. Much of the framing is different, but the end result, someone captivated by and exceedingly competent in what they're doing, sharing it with the world, is quite similar.


This one? https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21611950

BTW, I notice that you also have an interest in printing. Don't know if you've ever taken a class in it, but I did (semester-long "Introduction to Printmaking" at a local art school at night) and it was an amazing experience. I was way outclassed by everyone else who knew at least how to draw, paint, etc, but I still had a lot of fun learning about various printing techniques, types of paper, etc.


I have numerous interests. There is a madness to the method, I swear! (Or vice versa.)

History of print and media is a somewhat recent interest, though I've had numerous relevant prior experiences. Little by way of formal instruction.

You talking undershirt or an actual tshirt? That’s disposable clothing at that price.

The miracle of textiles is an artifact of the past. In order to make the insane supply chain make sense, the product is cheapened to the minimum viable level. Most of what happens today is financial engineering.

My old ring-spun champion sweatshirts from the 80s:90s are a much better and cheaper product than most stuff on the market today. All made (farmed, spun and sewn) by US labor in South Carolina or New York.

>That’s disposable clothing at that price.

I have not found price to have much basis on the lifetime of a tshirt. The design/mass production of the design seems to be most of the cost. You can buy a high quality tshirt for very cheap its just the same design has been sold 500,000 times already.

Decent t-shirts can be had at most department stores for around $10 where I live. Minimum wage here is around $7ish. It's not quite an hour after taxes, but it's comfortably two hours of labor per shirt. Sometimes a lot more if you can score a good deal at a discount outlet store.

Granted, you can also buy very cheap quality shirts at Wal-Mart for around that price, but those won't survive much longer than a year with regular wear and washes.

I bought a 5-pack of T-shirts from ASOS in April, they go through the washing machine weekly (low temp, hang dried) and are still perfectly wearable. Nothing particularly eye-catching, but don't fall apart either.

The price was $6.72 per shirt and the same pack is currently on sale for $4.27 per shirt.

Based on previous experience, I expect them to last around 100-120 washes. Worn every other week, this translates to 4-5 years.

JC penny printed t-shirts $6 us. But, to your point, they are "terrible".

You can still find high quality fabrics that have been turned into garments but it is rare and costly. I, as someone who is tall, am mostly locked out of these markets. Interestingly however I am more often then not forced to buy more expensive and better formal items (suits in particular).

Those markets for quality textiles are often now, as they were then, bespoke. Your height is just more fabric.

You can pick them up in bulk from a wholesaler for under $2/3 a shirt (that is premium ringspun).

Tbh, if you get from a decent supplier then the quality is usually fine. I am not sure why there is a stigma around non-US products. A lot of third-world countries have very skilled labour. And most of the "US-branded" t-shirts today are of very variable quality...but that is the only product these days for certainty that your clothes weren't made by a child.

Actual t-shirt. Not uncommon under $5, sometimes $1, at Walmart. Yes clothing can be disposably priced if you search a bit.

Well, there are still very high quality t-shirts being made. Namely Velva Sheen in the US and Merz b. Schwanen in Germany. There do cost the same as a proper shirt.

Undershirts are much cheaper; at least the last ones I bought were like 6 for a few dollars.

Interestingly, I haven't found pants that I like that are manufactured in the recent era, even with a reasonably large budget, compared to a laborer. (though I guess thatching is moderately skilled labor, so maybe you would compare it to my computer-technician work?) I love my old Australian army surplus wool cargo slacks; manufactured in the early '50s, I can only find them on ebay. They are super nice; the wool is harsher than smartwool (and they need dry cleaning) but they are super comfortable, and come with a pocket for my reading device. The pockets are lined with thick, heavy cotton that keep stuff from falling out way better than the polyester of most modern wool slacks, and they don't have the lining that most modern wool slacks have, either. (I.. have issues with the feel of a lot of kinds of polyester against my skin, especially when sweating, and most of the wool slacks I've seen have polyester linings down the front to change the way the pants hang or soemthing) and these pants are about a thousand times better in the rain than cotton pants.

But I don't think this is primarily the cost of the wool: Contrast this with shirts, where I can buy a really nice modern wool blend shirt for about a day or maybe day and a half of minimum wage, one that has all the moisture management and skin feel properties of wool but that holds up in the dryer pretty okay. I mean, I guess the same company makes some nice tights which make great undergarments for a Californian visiting a place that snows, so the problem is actually, I guess, that I'm unwilling to go out in public in tights without pants over them, and I live in a place where pants over tights is just too warm.

Same with a lot of the famous, longer lived brands. Seems to tie in with the brand rather than the product becoming the important thing. Quality craters. Often the product(s) that build the brand in the first place, e.g. Craghoppers Kiwi outdoor trousers, been around since before me, but the quality seems to decline every couple of years. Now the only ones worth buying now are old ones on eBay and are unrecognisable compared to the ones sold in the 70s and 80s. The once cheap copies are now often better. Loads of other examples.

I think that most of this effect is just how cheap precision is, and the fact that the cost of raw materials hasn't dropped; I mean, compare my ikea shelves to my parent's heavy metal furniture from the '60s. at first glance, the ikea stuff looks super cheap; but the tolerances! in many ways, my ikea furniture is a marvel of engineering. It's essentially a bit of cardboard encased in a very thin layer of whole wood, and it works!

But I do like the feel on the older stuff that consumed more material.

I think that may be part of the story, and I suspect heavily that overall we are using far more materials than in my parents or grandparents day. I still have a pair of Craghoppers I bought in the 1980s, and a good ten years of life was to be expected. When I eventually stopped buying two-three years was nearer the mark. Having aged 40 years, I suspect if anything they get lighter use today than way back when. :)

Same for furniture - the cardboard+wood miracle of engineering may work for a while, but have kids or move home once and it'll be beyond its limits. The bookcase my great-grandfather made as part of his cabinet maker apprenticeship is doing fine... One joint is a little sloppy and probably needs a little maintenance, but it's moved house (and family) dozens of times...

One thing I am sure of though - for brand profit, trousers that are worn out under five years are far better than those that might last fifteen. Especially if you can trade off retained customer belief in a maker of good quality - which few of them are any more.

For ~dress, I wear oversize black raw silk women's tai chi pants. With the tight bottoms cut off, and hemmed. So they're loose, with a little flare.

For heavy pants, I wear black cotton gi bottoms. I've tried to find heavy raw silk, but it's not readily available.

Army surplus energy cargo pants that need dry cleaning? I assume these are dress uniform or something?

Prior to the rise of synthetics, wool was in fact among your best outdoor-wear options. Military uniforms and mountain climbers would wear it. Even swimsuits and cycling shorts were made of wool, the latter through the 1970s (though spandex Lycra nylon was being introduced).

The transition point came in the 1950s and 1960s with the mass-marketing of synthetic fabrics and outdoor-wear, principally rip-stop nylon. Even then, a natural product, goose down, remained the preferred insulating material in parkas.

Until the 1880s, the only clothing materials that existed were cotton, linen, a few other plant fibres (jute, woven grass), wool, leather, silk, furs, and (generally for military use) metal.

In the 1880s, the first synthetics appeared: viscose rayon and cellulose (generally only used in collars and cuffs). In the decade of the 1930s, virtually all modern synthetic plastics were introduced, virtually all at Du Pont. Some of those saw introduction during WWII, though most didn't make widespread appearance until afterward.

The seismic shift in fashions from the 1940s-1950s to the 1960s wasn't just due to the everyday adoption of what had been working-man's clothing (denim blue jeans and cotton tee-shirts), but synthetic fabrics and dyes.

During the industrial revolution, it was thread-handling characteristics as well as cost which drove the adoption of cotton. Wool was too elastic, and tangled in machines (and was expensive). Silk was prohibitively expensive. Flax threads are insufficiently elastic, and would break.

Cotton threads were just right, and could be spun, spindled, and woven on early mechanical equipment. Cost was relatively low, and England / Britain has ample supplies from its colonies in Egypt and the Americas.

most wool pants are dry clean only. I actually don't know anything about the actual context of these pants when in use.


(I'm not vouching for that vendor, but I'm pretty sure that's what I've got. I got mine from ebay)

What you want are boiled wool pants. They don't shrink. I have an old pair of ~work pants like that. I think that they were originally part of a suit.

Thanks for the suggestion. That does sound exactly like what I want. I'll be ordering a few pairs to see if it works out as well as it sounds.


Boiled wool blankets are also great. Very warm. And very durable. Much like felt.

The Bank of England has an inflation calculator which goes back to 1210: https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/in...

According to that site, £ 1 in 1330 would be £ 1056.57 in 2018. So the 1330 penny would be worth about £ 4.40375 today. That thatcher would make about £ 13.21 a day, and the tunic would cost £ 158.54, or about $205 in a currency we're more familiar with. For that to be "two weeks' wages" implies a yearly wage of about £ 3800, or $4900. (Of course as the linked site points out, that sort of income calculation doesn't account for non-monetary sources of consumption, which were non-negligible back then.)

The fundamental issue with applying an inflation adjustment over long periods of time, is that societies are so different, that the typical basket of goods purchased is very different and less certain.

I like to hold something constant as a reference point, but you have to think about what, because for instance, if you're choosing between gold, silver, bread, beer, chicken, or beef, then you have to consider that they may have changed price dramatically relative to each other so which one you use makes a big difference.

I guess an inflation calculator is good if you really know what people bought, but it seems like information would be sparse enough that might mislead you. And like others have said, buying things with money, let alone documenting it, would have been far less prevalent.

Yes, of course some relative prices have changed dramatically! If you choose to hold constant the price of a customary work-week of semi-skilled labor, you get something quite close to dsr_'s calculation where the tunic costs as much as $1,500. But given that the goal of all economic activity, including labor, is consumption, the least bad choice would seem to be choosing some sort of indexing based on an average consumption basket - which is essentially what an "inflation calculator" does.

My point was that using an inflation calculator defers to someone's idea of what a basket was, and that may obscure the lack of data, so it might be better to study a few different things that people used both then and now and come up with your own reference point.

I'm not saying there's any alternative, ultimately, to the concept of an average consumption basket, just that methods of determining it might be different. When you have really limited data, you can look at it more closely, and you probably need to, to leverage the context because it's not going to be an unbiased sample.

> using an inflation calculator defers to someone's idea of what a basket was

In this case that someone is Greg Clark (Professor of Economics at UC Davis). The link goes direct to a .xlsx which reveals the "basket" and all the figures - it's a mixture of several (presumably average) wages and a "cost of living".

This is probably the research paper (2009) http://faculty.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/papers/Macroa...

We need the price of a big mac in c1350 is what you're saying?

Well, that's an interesting question. It would have been nearly impossible to make anything resembling a Big Mac in 1350, even if you were a king. And now you can get one for what, $4?


We can price out foodstuffs based on macro and micro-nutrients. This is in fact what many measures of inflation and consumer prices were doing especially from the early 20th century through the 1950s or 1960s.

Subsequently the CPI "market basket" approach dominated.

The fact that meat, especially beef, was a rarity in most diets, makes the Big Mac example not particularly germane.

I believe it's Adam Smith who noted that whilst the price of corn ("grain") is highly variable year-to-year, owing to fluctuations in crop yields, it was remarkably constant century to century.

The Green Revolution changed this, of course, though by some arguments, that relies strongly on unaccounted costs.

> or about $205 in a currency we're more familiar with

A currency you're more familiar with. Many of us are familiar with multiple currencies, including GBP, EUR, and, yes, USD.

To whit – you're comparing decimal GBP to predecimal pounds, shillings and pence. You might as well compare drachma.

For reference, 1 Euro = 340.75 drachma.

Well, at a particular (final) point in time. Not over 1,000 years of usage.

Also important was mechanized spinning of thread. https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/06/the-3500-shirt-history-... cites making a shirt in the middle ages as 7 hours of hand-sewing, 42 hours of hand-weaving, and 500+ hours of hand-spinning. https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2015/10/23/was-medieva... has much higher estimates of spinning rates, but would still result in at least 40 hours of spinning (9000 yards from that first post divided by the 200 m/hr very generous overestimate from the second post; estimates of spinning speed seem to vary _very_ widely).

One difference, of course, is that weaving was much more centralized to start with (spinning needed next to no machinery and a lot less training), so the economic impacts were very different.

Thatchers didn't do too well, not much use for that profession any more.

They definitely suffer from a grass ceiling.

Well done.

Plenty of use for them in my part of the world (south of England). According to the National Society of Master Thatchers, there are around 1000 thatching businesses operating in the UK today. https://www.nsmtltd.co.uk/brief-history/

What? I've heard of at least one that's internationally famous...

Margaret doesn't count. ;)

I disagree - I know a thatcher in Holland.

I guess you’re well off if you survive the crash and are one of the few remaining.

You have a pretty captive market.

Willingly captive. Plenty of thatch around where I grew up, but seeing it removed and tiled (instead of rethatched) isn't that uncommon either.

The maintenance and insurance costs of a thatched roof are ... through the roof.

Nicely done :) But also very true.

This is super interesting, however I think it would have been more fun to read if it also had a column of approximate price in adjusted $CAD for example. That way it would be easier to get a "feel" for what stuff was worth.

Also, why isn't Salt on the list? Wasn't that a crucial thing?

Feels like I’m reading a Dungeons & Dragons item sheet except using British units instead of gold, silver, and copper.

As it happens, I've been putting together notes for a new D&D campaign I'll be running in the near future. I downloaded this exact price list as a reference three days ago.

Beer .5 ducat a pint. College starting at 640 ducats a year up to 2560 ducats a year. So formal education started at 1280 times and went up to 6400 times the price of a pint. Which at $6/pint today would be ~$7500 to $36k a year.

Yeah, comparing beer prices, it looks like the exchange rate is around 1 farthing = $5 USD (assuming buying direct from producer, not at a bar that is adding overhead after distribution. US booze distribution laws are insane and add tons of cost)

So that makes

  1 penny = $40
  1 crown = $200
  1 shilling = $480
  1 pound = $9600

The craft brewery here sells one of their cheaper beers for $3 a pint.

(they mostly have $4 and $4.50 price points, with some smaller batches costing more)

How much is community college where you are? How much is state?

The localest community college is $5,000 in-county, around $7,000 in state. A cheaper state school is ~$10,000 a year (all numbers are tuition).

In the Bay Area beer is upwards of $10+ now.

That padded salary doesn't feel too good anymore, does it?

I will never complain about Sydney's ~$10.5AUD/~$7USD pints (568ml) again.

Great data. I would love to normalize this and apply an inflation calculator so people could know what things cost in these times. Anyone want to help?

Yes, I would love to see this in modern prices, no matter how roughly it gets converted. The use of pre-decimalized pounds makes it even more inscrutable. It would make that list a hundred times more interesting if we had some basis to compare with.

Came here to ask the same thing. I can’t make heads or tails of it otherwise.

    Best Gascon in London         4d/gallon   1331        [2]     194
    Best Rhenish in London        8d/gallon     "          "       "

This is reversed now, German Riesling much cheaper than Bordeaux.

At the time, Bordeaux was an English possession (Angevin Empire) so the lack of any complications like import duties would account for the price difference:


Fascinating list, but the notation is confusing in places. The pound sterling is denoted by an L:

     1 pound (L) = 20 shillings (s)
in the introduction, but in the text both the L and the £ are used, sometimes in the same line!

    Minimum     £2£L3/year  Late 14 cen [3]     75
What have I missed?

The symbol £ is merely a stylised L , so you've missed nothing.

It's odd therefore to use both in a mix, but probably it just reflects typing up from a mix of sources.

>What have I missed?

Perhaps that he wrote "The list of medieval prices which follows is by no means complete or thoroughly researched" in the very first line?

It's not a professionally compiled list meant to present to your boss.

It's just a list that some guy made and put online.

Yes, I understand that. I’m just confused by the author’s use of BOTH the L and the £ together, on the same line.

Ignorant question: What is a pound in this case? It isn't actually a pound of silver in weight, right? I get really confused with modern British currency and what silver the system was based on in the past, etc.

If I see that something is 20 shillings, does that mean it cost me a pound of silver by weight out of the ground to buy?

Yes, it's a weight of silver, around this era.

One Troy pound (373g) [of silver] divided into 240 pennies (making a penny about 1.55g). Exactly what a shilling is varies, between 4 and 6 pennies. [ https://regia.org/research/misc/costs.htm ]

The last time that a "pound sterling" actually bought a pound of Sterling silver was 1300. Since then, currency debasement was the name of the game and in the next 300 years the silver content of the currency shrank by a factor of three.

If I recall correctly, the pound is just a unit of account (I think I'm using that right) during the Medieval era. No one is actually carrying around pounds of silver.

So a year's rent for a shop in mid London was twice the price of a cow or a pile of silver worth £240 today.

edit: or half a year's wage for a laborer, equivalent to aprox £9,000 today.

Those ratios seem to have changed: apparently the benefits of greater efficiency in mining, cattle raising etc. have not be evenly distributed.

For anyone else who is wondering what a biciron is, apparently it's a t-shaped iron wedge that a blacksmith uses to shape metal against. The name seems to come from a contraction of iron beak, in all the references I came across online it is written as two words "bic iron".



I read it in the list, at first, as bitcoin, and had to do a double take.

Its not that long ago we still had 3d etc. 1/4 penny, 1/2 penny here in the uk. Thrupenny bit.

We still had ha’pennies after decimalisation. Even before, the pennies weren’t worth what they used to be. In parts of the nineteenth century a penny would be worth something on the order of what 50p is worth today.

I guess with money stored largely in bank accounts and financial instruments, inflation becomes a more reasonable thing and the fact that it’s annoying to buy things with physical money matters less. Yet even at the start of the twentieth century banknotes could be worth a lot more than anything today (in the U.K. you only go up to £20 normally. Compare to the us where $100 isn’t abnormal, or to 1900 when 100 £20 notes could buy a moderately sized house (but there were also £100, £200 notes, and higher denominations though I doubt they were used much). I think the U.K. should remove every coin less than 10p (ideally I would get rid of everything less than 50p but perhaps there should be a 50p and 25p coin for some time) from circulation and issue some new banknotes (at least a £50 note that shops accept, so maybe a £100 note should exist too). But I guess that isn’t going to happen because no one really cares about cash.

> I think the U.K. should remove every coin less than 10p (ideally I would get rid of everything less than 50p but perhaps there should be a 50p and 25p coin for some time)

Aim for 5p to be the lowest, to start.

Even in the Nordic countries, where there's less wealth inequality, the smallest coins are worth 8.4p (Norway 1kr), 8.1p (Sweden 1kr), 5.7p (Denmark ½kr), 4.3p (Finland 5¢).

> issue some new banknotes (at least a £50 note that shops accept

They already do accept them where they're common (e.g. touristy places in London) so the problem will solve itself, but in any case, the new £50 will be issued in 2021.

A friend of my wife hooked up with a college lecturer in his 60s a while back, maybe 10 years ago. She was cleaning up his kitchen when she came across an old tin of baked beans at the back of a cupboard, with the price on it in old money.

I'm not old enough to have used old money myself, but we were still using the old shillings as 5 pence pieces when I was a kid. I remember using half penny coins as well. We had a jar of big old money coins in a jar, with pennies, farthings and at least one three pence piece.

It's not that long ago we left the gold standard.

Rent: 5s/year. Horse: 50s.

Yep. Awesome.

Rent's so variable, but rurally can certainly be as low as £2,400pa (£200pcm) today. A horse today could also easily exceed £24,000.

And indeed those £2,400pa of rent give you a room with plumbing, central heating and hot water...

Sounds like a good opportunity for renting land and breeding horses.

Yeah rent looks suspiciously cheap. Esp with Brass pot: 2s

I'd love to use this data and create some sort of feudal economic simulator and/or build an RPG with these prices as opposed to arbitrary "gp" values.

Can’t help but be reminded of that immortal sales pitch: ”I can make whatever you wish for a wee little bit more than me competition.”

My whole life I thought it was spelled "midevil" due to this time period being especially evil. Every day you learn something new.

From French médiéval (“middle”), from Latin medium (“middle”) + aevum (“age”).

Labourer: £2/year max

7 Books: £5

An average labourer in the UK today would make about £17,000pa, making these books the modern equivalent of about £42,500 or £6,000 a piece.

Obviously this was at a time before mass printing was available, but this really puts into perspective just how absolutely unattainable information was for the average person back then. Remarkable.

Somewhere I'd run across a reference to the price of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (published 1776), in terms of a general workingman's wages.

As I recall it was on the order of about 1/5 a typical annual income.

This being in the late 18th century, 300 years after Gutenberg, with a well-established printing trade.

Books remained staggeringly expensive.

The progress made in printing over the course of the 19th century boggles the mind. As of 1800, typical presses were still made of wood, and though printing was generally in quarto or octavo pages (4-8 impressions per side of paper), a pressman might turn out 120 - 180 impressions an hour, and I believe that's generous.

The improvements from there were:

- Cast-iron rather than steel presses. Greater strength, lighter weight, improved efficiency and mechanism. Print rates doubled.

- Steam-powered presses. The pressman no longer was responsible for physically pressing each image.

- Rotary presses. Rather than Gutenberg's repurposed wine-press design, type was placed on a drum, with sheets fed through the mechanism.

- Electric drive. Like steam, but less steamy and more sparky.

- Web presses. Rather than individual sheets, a continuous sheet of paper. This is where paper-on-rolls came into being.

- Speaking of which, paper manufacturing was improving, and costs falling, all through this period.

- At the same time literacy rates were increasing from ~10-25% ~1700 to 95%+ by 1900. The people could now read.

- Typesetting enhancements, including oil-based inks, offset-type (where the print impression is a 3rd generation from the type originally used to cast the intermediate slug), linotype, multi-colour presses, improved engraving (for images), and eventually photo-lithography.

By the end of the century a high-speed electrically-powered Linotype web press could achieve a million impressions an hour or more.

Compare with webserver hit rates and their improvement from 1990 - 2020.

Correction: that should read "cast iron rather than wood presses".

High-quality steel (following Bessemer, ~1865), futher improved speed, quality, and reliability.

Creation of modern fonts being an another milestone? I imagine the Gothic/Fraktur fonts were extremely impractical for high volume reading, for any reading really.

NB: I've an interest in printing, I'm not an expert by any stretch.

Possibly, though fonts were already pretty modern by the 18th century, at least in significant part. Aldus Manutius italic font was a major step forward (~1449 - 1515). German was the odd language out, still relying on blackletter fonts through the 20th century. These had been replaced by the 17th century elsewhere in Europe. See:


If you go back further, there are numerous improvements to printing, bookmaking, and typography, going back to the invention of spaces between words, mixed-case (minuscule) type, and punctuation, as well as headings, chapters, and more. A good book on the history of the book should cover this (I've glanced at several, can't recommend any offhand).

Another amazing online resource is the History of Information, which covers the topic from the dawn of speech to the present: https://www.historyofinformation.com





Also since the books were not affordable to most people, in the early 19th century large commercial lending libraries like Mudies become established. Leading to the popularity of the 3-volume novel, which the libraries favoured since for each novel, they would be earning thrice the subscription.

Followed fairly quickly on by public libraries, generally around 1850.

Britain's Public Libraries Act dates to 1850. The Warrington Municipal Library opened in 1848, the same year the Boston Public Library was founded, though it didn't actually open until 1854.


And after that:

- Inkjet

- Laser

- Amazon

Effectively, yes.

You could add in typewriters, and a number of light-duty press and duplication methods: spirit copiers / mimeographs, stencils, photostats ("xerox"), and eventually dot-matrix, daisy-wheel, laserprint, and inkjet printers.

Amazon and print-on-demand technologies also apply. Effectively a book, including binding and covers, can come out of a single machine. The Internet Archive has a print-on-demand system, though the only documentation I find of it is at the PoD Wikipedia article (photo of IA's printer-binder):


That's not really compatible to improvements in printing technology. Printing on home inkjet or let was and still is hugely more expensive and slower per page than buying a mass produced book or newspaper, and Amazon didn't introduce any printing technology unless you were referring to e-ink used in Kindle (but they didn't invent it).

Laserjet printing is comparable to the cost of commercial photocopying, at a few pennies per page. Inkjet is, of course, far more expensive.

There is a trade-off in cost, speed, and access. If you've got a reasonably high-speed laserprinter, you can provide a printed copy of a book in a few minutes. There are binding options available as well, some of which are quite comparable to lower-grade commercial paperback bindings.

Amazon's book sales inclue traditional hard- and soft-cover pre-printed materials, as well as print-on-demand, and electronic books. I'd consider most of Amazon's book sales and production at least adjunct to, and in cases, directly part of, improvements in print technology. Distribution itself has been a nontrivial problem.

Laser printing introduced a cheap way to print small quantities at a decent quality.

On the office multi-function printer, I can print booklets of up to something like 80 A3 (folded to A4) pages, with automatic stapling.

Amazon (and others) have print-on-demand for small quantities of larger volumes.

I mean, you're not wrong, but also they would gather in groups and have one person read aloud to the rest. So even if you were poor and illiterate you could still learn from written works.

There was once the job of the lector, who would be hired to read to employees doing menial tasks all day, like a living audiobook subscription.

That's how the anarchist, modern liberal and socialist ideas spread through Europe. You had this guys doing a manual job while someone was reading for them the classics and the new books on Politics and Philosophy, then you had a powerful and organized working class. Amazing.

Why did the factory owners pay for (or at least allow) those sorts of books to be read? Wouldn't they view it as against their interests?

I think most lectors were paid by workers pooling some of their money, not by a factory owner.

The capitalist didn't always know what was going on in their factories. Besides that, workers used to pay somebody to read for them, or they would select someone from their own group.


I’ve been wondering, why is it that few people study research methods outside of Ph.D. programs? My guess is that until very recently most people didn’t have access to research material... it was all at university & private libraries.

Also, this highlights how lucky we are to have Wikipedia. I’m not that old and my parents had to save quite a lot for us to have an encyclopedia at home. Few of my friends did. It cost as much as a computer.

My parents saved up and got Britannica, and it was great not having to go to the library to do school work. A few years later we got a PC with Encarta and almost never used the paper tomes again.

It blew my mind that you could fit that much on a PC and I instantly knew that Britannica was going to have to adapt to emerging technologies or die.

I don't think that's quite right, bound books were a luxury good but you still had much cheaper vellum, scrolls, and so forth.

Vellum is more expensive than paper.

The cheap alternative to bound books were pamphlets, generally stitched, and often comprised of a single sheet of folded paper.

An octavo pamphlet could run 16 pages (8 impressions per side). I don't know if longer materials (32 - 64 pages) were produced, though I suspect these were printed on multiple pages.

Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice, a 32-page pamphlet, has printers marks for four sides ('B', 'C', and 'D' noted on pages 9, 17, 25, respectively), as an example, which would likely correspond to two double-sided octavo signatures:

https://www.designersinsights.com/designer-resources/underst... https://archive.org/details/agrarianjusticeo00pain

Even in 1000AD? Low grade vellum could be made by anyone at home. Was paper in industrial production by that point?

Paine was not a medieval writer.

The period addressed by the article is ~1260 - 1520. So 1000 CE is out of scope.

Even were it:

- The typical person was illiterate Households would not be producing writing materials in any quantity.

- Animal products are expensive, period. Non-animal alternatives would be used where possible.

- For short-term writing surfaces, wood, stone, clay, and at some point (possibly later in time) slate were used. The Greeks used wax-coated boards (few of which, for obvious reasons, survived).

- Woven textiles were a significant form of recordkeeping, such as the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century).

- Notable legal documents, such as the Magna Carta, were written on parchment (animal skins).

- Other surfaces included fired pottery, birch bark, and (in east Asia) bamboo.

It's not so much that vellum was cheap, as that paper simply didn't exist before ~1000. Over the next ten centuries, processes for production and reductions in price increased not only the prevalence of paper, but the total amount of written material.

Gutenberg's press coincided with new, cheaper, papermaking processes. Even so, many of the original works printed by Gutenberg were on vellum, including about a quarter of the original Gutenberg Bible.

In all of Europe as of 1400, estimates are that there were on the order of 50,000 books. Not title, but volumes in total.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing#/media/Fil...

I wasn't mentioning Paine as an example of a mediaeval writer, but as an example of a pamphlet whose construction I'd noted, was curious of, and had surmised the printing logistics of.

There are several problems with your assertion. The most relevant is simply that written materials were rare. Unbelievably rare. The library of the University of France in the 10th century contained a total of fewer than 2,000 books, and was among the largest in Europe.

I noted pamphlets as an alternative to books: multiple pages, formed by simple folds, stitches, or staples. And ... not widely produced until the 16th century. See:


The methods however did not appreciably change until mechanised processing and printing in the 19th century, mostly after 1850. I recommend, again, Hamilton Holt's excellent, short, informative, and readable Commercialism and Journalism which describes the explosion of popular print in the latter half of the 19th century, from the perspective of 1909:

"Since 1850, the [printing] industry has increased over thirty-fold..."


As of 1000 CE, if you wanted to distribute something widely in print, you'd probably ... use a single-page woodblock (or woodcut) prints. Though even that didn't become widespread until the 1300s, and then, was impressed not on vellum, but cloth:


You might wish to aquaint yourself with some of the actual history here, and grasp for intent rather than trivial and incidental characteristics.


s/University of France/University of Paris/

Libraries existed.

Most valuable books were routinely chained to desks or shelves, so you could not have a chance to grab it and run.

Ah, but would the lay person have been allowed into them? Also, wouldn't most of the volumes in the libraries have been written in Latin and thus unreadable outside of the Church.

If I recall correctly, most early libraries were situated inside monasteries.

> Also, wouldn't most of the volumes in the libraries have been written in Latin and thus unreadable outside of the Church.

Well I'm not sure that's going to be an issue if we're talking about the accessibility of the text to an illiterate person. An illiterate person can't read. So we need to consider the situation only of literate people.

Interestingly, in medieval Roman countries, texts intended for public reading were written in Latin, but the lector would read it in somewhat formal popular language. This is not hugely different from the situation available in English speaking countries prior to the 1980s, when most bibles were written in a grammatically, lexically and phonetically very foreign language. Even today, our texts are still phonetically very foreign. And for general texts it was common - Greek, Arabic, Chinese - all written very differently than spoken a century ago.

A literate French-speaker in the medieval period would not have reacted to a Latin text as a foreign language. They would just have read the text with equivalent contemporary pronunciations. A recently produced text would in many cases use more customary language too, so they wouldn't need to remember the dated bookish words.

(And actually, in medieval England, there were scientific/theological texts produced in English. You surely couldn't read and understand them today because the language has changed too much, and they went out of fashion so they weren't maintained. But they existed.)

The King James Bible also deliberately used a style that was already archaic at the time:


This is actually not true. Chained books did exist but they were not the norm at all. The trend actually came far later when libraries were trying to appear old and important that they grabbed on to the idea and elevated this myth that loads of chained books existed in the past.

Instruction at Oxford is about 5 anvils/year. Think there has been some price inflation since then? Maybe better to compare it to barrels of beer.

I am not sure what you mean, but an anvil is about as high-tech a device as you get in medieval times. They would be one of the most expensive items in a village.

Yes, they are cheap now, that’s why beer would be the better comparison.

Still not cheap for a quality anvil, good ones can cost more than a used car.

Don't forget that many of the colleges had scholarships for the "poor, stupidly bright" kids going back several centuries: the Oxbridge colleges had traditional links with different areas of the country going back surprisingly far in history. For example, writing of Merton (Oxford, founded 1264) "By 1370 the college had been converted to a predominantly monastic society, but by 1384 arrangements were made for the maintenance of five poor secular undergraduates who were to assist in the chapel and who were to act as servitors to the monk-fellows. After achieving competence in grammar, these poor scholars were to study arts and one or two of them might even proceed to civil law." [1]

Whilst it is undeniably true that the predominant occupant of an Oxbridge college was a comparatively well-to-do member of society, I suspect that the disparity of fees mentioned reflects the disparity of charges made at the time.

[1]: The History of the University of Oxford: Volume II: Late Medieval Oxford by J. I. Catto and T. A. R. Evans, Print ISBN-13: 9780199510122

Anvils represented a large mass of wrought iron, weighing several hundredweight, possibly 300 - 400 pounds (135 - 180 kg).

Iron required not just mining, but smelting and working. Coal wasn't widely used until after 1700, so instead charcoal was used for fuel and coking, I need to check sources, but charcoal and coke have roughly the same energy yield per unit mass, and the ratio of coke to ore was about 1:1 in the 1950s. Charcoal itself is yielded from four to five times its mass in original wood.

So a 250# anvil, one of middling weight, would have required well over a ton of wood fuel alone.

I had fun some time back calculating the firepower of a British Ship of the Line in terms of cords of wood, based on both the cannonballs and the gunpowder (charcoal is an ingredient) involved. I believe it out-massed the ship itself by a considerable margin.

Metals are extraordinarily expensive for a pre-industrial society without abundant energy resources. Which is to say, all of them.

8-10 tons of charcoal per ton of pig iron:


Or 60ish sheep per year.

That's kept up remarkably well: a sheep can go for £150 [0] and tuition at Oxford is £9,250/year[1].

[0] https://www.farmingads.co.uk/black-leicester-longwool-tup-/L...

[1] https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/fees-and-fundi...

But the price of tuition at Oxford is politically, not market, linked, and so if you graphed this over time it'd be all over the place even just the last twenty years.

A fair point, it's not really an invariant. Though the price of a sheep is just as politically linked given that most farm income in the UK comes from EU subsidies, not from selling goods [0].

[0] https://fullfact.org/economy/farming-subsidies-uk/

Anvils just got a whole lot cheaper.

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