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Money, Wages, and Real Incomes in the Age of Erasmus: The Purchasing Power of Coins and of Building Craftsmen's Wages in England and the Low Countries, 1500 - 1540

Listed author(s):
  • John H. Munro

This comparative study of money, coinages, prices, and wages in southern England and the southern Low Countries had its origins in a series of appendices and footnotes for the first twelve volumes of the Correspondence of Erasmus (1484-1527), part of the Collected Works of Erasmus, which the University of Toronto Press has been publishing since 1974. The questions first put to me were: can we identify and evaluate the various silver and gold coins that appear in Erasmus's correspondence, and references to his travels over an arc running from England, the Habsburg Netherlands, France, the Rhineland, Switzerland, and Italy? What were these coins in terms of their precious metal contents and exchange rates, with each other, and in relation to the moneys of account of England, France, and the Low Countries? The more economically interesting questions that developed were: (1) What was the purchasing power of these various coins in terms of everyday commodities? (2) What was the real value of the various benefices and stipends that Erasmus received from his benefactors: was he really so ill-paid, as he frequently intimated? (3) How would his 'standard of living' compare with that of skilled master craftsmen -- a mason or carpenter in Oxford and in Antwerp of this era - at least in terms of the purchasing powers of their money incomes? This study covers the Golden Age of Erasmus (1466-1536) in the first four decades of the sixteenth century, an era that also marked the onset of the famous Price Revolution, perhaps the most significant inflationary era in European economic history. It commences with an analysis of the original sources for the price and wage data utilized in this study, and the problem of 'wage stickiness', so that real wages were essentially a function of changes in the price level (rather than in the MRP of the craftsmen). The next part analyses the nature of relative price changes and of inflation during the first decades of the Price Revolution era, discussing the role of both demographic and monetary changes, but offering essentially a monetary explanation of that inflation. Then follows detailed analyses of the actual changes in the gold and silver coinages of England, France, and the Habsburg Netherlands from 1500 to 1540; changes in the coined money supplies and changes in credit, with the origins of a genuine financial revolution in the early 16th-century Netherlands. The rest of this paper focusses on the purchasing power of both coins and of building craftsmen's wages in England and the southern Netherlands over this four-decade period, in terms of the following commodities: wine, butter, beef, herrings, cod fish, eggs, wheat, peas, loaf sugar, paper, tallow candles, woollen, worsted, and linen textiles. For both regions, various estimates of these craftsmen's real wages and real incomes are made: in terms of these commodities and of a more broadly based 'basket of consumables'; and of the price indices derived from them for Brabant (Van der Wee) and England (Phelps Brown and Hopkins, as amended by my own research on their working papers in the LSE Archives). The comparative purchasing power of these wages is made for similar commodities in each region, estimating for which the English craftsmen was the gainer or loser in relation to his counterparts in the Antwerp-Lier-Brussels region. If English craftsmen, suffering a greater degree of wage-stickiness, thus suffered a greater fall in real incomes with the onset of the Price Revolution, they were not necessarily worse off in absolute terms by the late 1530s. The final table 17 compares their incomes with those of Erasmus, in terms of references to his various stipends and benefices mentioned in his correspondence for the year 1526, a tabulation that is far from complete. But that tabulation indicates that these incomes -- when Erasmus had been a Professor of Greek and Divinity at Cambridge -- amounted to the annual wage incomes for 82 Antwerp master masons and carpenters or 93 Oxford masons/carpenters. Today senior professors at the University of Toronto earn about 2.5 times the annual wage incomes of master carpenters. A very golden age for Erasmus indeed.

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Paper provided by University of Toronto, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number munro-01-01.

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Length: 182 pages
Date of creation: 24 May 2001
Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:munro-01-01
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