Living standards and mortality since the middle ages


  • This research was undertaken as part of the HI-POD (Historical Patterns of Development and Underdevelopment: Origins and Persistence of the Great Divergence) Project supported by the European Commission's 7th Framework Programme for Research. We would like to thank Bruce Campbell, Romola Davenport, Richard Smith, Yannay Spitzer, and three referees for detailed and constructive comments. All errors are ours.


Existing studies find little connection between living standards and mortality in England, but go back only to the sixteenth century. Using new data on inheritances, we extend estimates of mortality back to the mid-thirteenth century and find, by contrast, that deaths from unfree tenants to the nobility were strongly affected by living standards. Looking at a large sample of parishes after 1540, we find that the positive check had weakened considerably by 1650 even though living standards were static at best, but persisted in London for another century despite its higher wages. In both cases the disappearance of the positive check coincided with the introduction of systematic poor relief, suggesting that government action may have played a role in breaking the link between harvest failure and mass mortality.