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Section IV.—: A Review of the Corn Wages of Labour from the Reign of Edward III. - Thomas Robert Malthus, Principles of Political Economy 
Principles of Political Economy (London: W. Pickering, 1836).
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A Review of the Corn Wages of Labour from the Reign of Edward III.
Some writers of great ability have been of opinion that rising prices, occasioned by an influx of bullion, are very unfavourable to the labouring classes of society; and certainly there are some periods of our history which seem strongly to countenance this opinion: but I am inclined to think, that if these periods, and the circumstances connected with them, be examined with more attention, the conclusion which has been drawn from them will not appear so certain as has been generally imagined. It will be found that, in the instances in question, other causes were in operation to which the effect referred to might more justly be attributed.
The period of our history more particularly noticed is the 16th century, from the end of the reign of Henry VII. to the end of the reign of Elizabeth. During this period it is an unquestionable fact that the corn wages of labour fell in an extraordinary degree, and towards the latter end of the century they would not command much above one-third of the quantity of wheat which they did at the beginning of it.
Sir F. M. Eden has noticed the price of wheat in nineteen out of the twenty-four years of Henry VII.’s reign, and in some of the years two or three times.* Reducing the several notices in the same year first to an average, and then taking the average of the nineteen prices, it comes to 6s. 3¼d. the quarter, rather less than 9½d. the bushel, and 2⅜d. the peck.
By a statute passed in 1495 to regulate wages, the price of common day labour seems to have been 4d. or 4½d. without diet. All labourers and artificers, not specifically mentioned, are put down at 4d.; but in another part of the statute, even a woman labourer (I suppose in hay time) is set down at 4½d. and a carter at 5d.*
At the price of wheat just stated, if the wages of the labourer were 4d. he would be able to purchase, by a day’s labour, a peck and three quarters of wheat, within half a farthing; if his wages were 4½d. he would be able to purchase half a bushel, within a farthing.
The notices of the price of day labour in the subsequent years are extremely scanty. There are none in the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward, and Mary. The first that occurs is in 1575, and the price mentioned is 8d.† Taking an average of the five preceding years in which the prices of wheat are noticed, including 1575, having previously averaged the several prices in the same year, as before, it appears that the price of the quarter of wheat was 1l. 2s. 2d. which is 2s. 9½d. the bushel, and 8¼d. the peck. At this price, a day’s labour would purchase a peck of corn, within a farthing, or of a peck.
This is a diminution of nearly a half in the corn wages of labour; but at the end of the century, the diminution was still greater.
The next notice of the price of labour, with the exception of the regulations of the justices in some of the more northern counties, which can hardly be taken as a fair criterion for the south, is in 1601, when it is mentioned as 10d. Taking an average from the Windsor table of five years, which includes, however, one excessively dear year, and subtracting to reduce it to Winchester measure, it appears that the price of the quarter was 2l. 2s. 0d. which is 5s. 3d. the bushel, and 1s. 3½d., the peck. A day’s labour would at this price purchase less than ⅔ of a peck.*
This is unquestionably a prodigious fall in the corn wages of labour. But it is of great importance to inquire whether the rate from which they fell was not as extraordinary as the rate to which they sunk; and here I think we shall find that the wages the most difficult to be accounted for are the high corn wages of the 15th, rather than the low corn wages of the 16th century.
If we revert to the middle of the 14th century, at the time when the first general statute was passed to regulate wages, the condition of the labourer will appear to be very inferior to what it was during the greatest part of the 15th century. This fact may be established on unexceptionable evidence. Statutes or regulations to fix the price of labour, though they do not always succeed in their immediate object, (which is generally the unjust one, of preventing it from rising,) may be considered as undeniable testimonies of what the prices of labour had been not long previous to the time of their passing. No legislature in the most ignorant age could ever be so rash as arbitrarily to fix the prices of labour without reference to some past experience. Consequently, though the prices in such statutes cannot be depended upon with regard to the future, they appear to be quite conclusive with regard to the past. In the present case, indeed, it is expressly observed, that servants should be contented with such liveries and wages as they received in the 20th year of the king’s reign, and two or three years before.*
From this statute, which was enacted in 1350, the 25th of the King, for the most unjust and impolitic purpose of preventing the price of labour from rising after the great pestilence, we may infer that the price of day labour had been about 1½d. or 2d. Common agricultural labour, indeed, is not specifically mentioned; but the servants of artificers are appointed to take 1½d., common carpenters 2d., and a reaper, the first week in August, also 2d., all without diet; from which we may conclude that the wages of common day labour must have been as often 1½d. as 2d.†
Sir F. M. Eden has collected notices of the prices of wheat in sixteen out of the twenty-five years of Edward III. previous to the time of the passing of the statute. Taking an average as before, the price of wheat appears to have been about 5s. 4d. the quarter, which is 8d. the bushel, and 2d. the peck.
At this price of wheat, if the labourer earned 1½d. a day, he could only purchase by a day’s labour ¾ of a peck of wheat; if he earned 2d. he could purchase just a peck. In the former case, he would earn less than half of the corn earned by the labourer of Henry VII.; and in the latter case, very little more than half.
But in the subsequent period of Edward III.’s reign, the labourer appears to have been much worse off. The statute of labourers was renewed, and, it is said, enforced very rigidly, notwithstanding a considerable rise in the price of corn.‡ On an average of the thirteen years out of twenty-six, in which the prices of wheat are noticed, the quarter is about 11s. 9d. which is about 1s. 5½ the bushel, and 4¼d. the peck.
At this price, if the money wages of labour had not risen, the condition of the labourer would have been very miserable. He would not have been able to purchase so much as half-a-peck of wheat by a day’s labour, about a fourth part of what he could subsequently command in the reign of Henry VII. It is scarcely possible, however, to conceive that the money wages of labour should not have risen in some degree, notwithstanding the statute and its renewal; but even if they rose one half, they would not have nearly kept pace with the price of corn, which more than doubled; and during the last twenty-five years of the reign of Edward III. the earnings of the labourer in corn were probably quite as low as during the last twenty-five years of Elizabeth.
In the reigns of Richard II. and Henry IV. the price of wheat seems to have fallen nearly to what it was in the first half of the reign of Edward III. From 1377 to 1398 inclusive, it was about 5s. 7d. the quarter; and from 1399 to 1411, about 6s. 1d.* It is difficult to ascertain how much the money wages of labour had advanced; but if they had risen so as to enable the labourer to support himself, through the last twenty-six years of the reign of Edward III. and had not sunk again, in consequence of the subsequent fall, which is probable, the labourer, during these reigns, must have been well paid.
During the reign of Henry V. and the first part of Henry VI. to the passing of the statutes in 1444, the price of the quarter of wheat was about 8s. 8d.† This would be 1s. 1d. the bushel, and 3¼d. the peck. For the greater part of these thirty-two years, the wages of day labour seem to have been about 3d. They did not probably rise to what they were appointed to be in 1444, that is 4d. or 4½d., till the ten dear years preceding the statute, during which, the average price of the quarter was 10s. 8d. On an average of the whole period of thirty-two years, the wages of day labour appear to have purchased about a peck of corn, rather less perhaps, than more, in reference to the greater portion of the period.
From 1444 to the end of the century, the average money price of wheat was about 6s. while the wages of day labour continued at 4d. or 4½d.* At the latter of these prices of labour, wages would purchase exactly two pecks of wheat, or half a bushel, and at the former price of half a bushel.
From the passing of the first statute of labourers in 1350 to the end of the 15th century, a period of 150 years, successive changes had been taking place in the quantity of metal contained in the same nominal sum; so that the pound of silver, which in the middle of the reign of Edward III. was coined into 1l. 2s. 6d. was, in the reign of Henry VII., coined into 1l. 17s. 6d.
One should naturally have expected, that this depreciation of the coin would have shown itself first, and most conspicuously, in some exportable commodity, such as corn, rather than labour; and so it probably would, as it did afterwards in the reign of Elizabeth, if wheat had not at the same time been cheap in the rest of Europe, particularly in France. In fact, however, this great fall in the intrinsic value of the coin was in no respect made up by the slight rise in the nominal price of wheat which occurred in the course of that period. This rise was only from about 5s. 4d. to 6s. or 6s. 3d. Consequently a very considerable fall had really taken place in the bullion price of wheat.
But the nominal price of labour, instead of rising in the same slight degree as wheat, rose from 1½d. or 2d. to 4d. or 4½d., a rise much more than sufficient to cover the deterioration of the coin; so that the bullion price of labour rose considerably, during the time that the bullion price of wheat fell. It is singular, that Adam Smith, in his Digression concerning the value of silver during the four last centuries, should not have noticed this circumstance. If he had been aware of this rise in the bullion price of labour, his principles, which led him to consider corn as a good measure of value, merely because it is the best measure of labour, should have led him to a very different conclusion from that which he has stated. Referring to labour which, it has been shown in this work, is the true standard measure of value, and in fact, is the standard which Adam Smith himself proposes, it appears that the value of silver from the middle of the 14th to the end of the 15th century, when the effect contemplated was the greatest, instead of rising to nearly double in value, fell in the proportion of from about 3 to 2.*
It was during the favourable part of this period that Sir John Fortesque wrote his work on Absolute and Limited Monarchy, and contrasted the prosperous and happy condition of the peasantry of England with the miserable state of the peasantry of France.†
But it is not sufficient to show that the condition of the lower classes of people in England during the last half of the 15th century, was much superior to what it was either in the preceding century, or subsequently during the depreciation of money occasioned by the discovery of the American mines. To prove that it was peculiar, we must compare it with the condition of the people after the depreciation had ceased.
According to Adam Smith, the effects of the discovery of the American mines seemed to be at an end about 1638 or 40. In 1651 the wages of day-labour, as established by the justices in Essex at the Chelmsford quarter-sessions, were for the summer half year, harvest excepted, 1s. 2d. This is a considerable rise in the money price of labour from the time of Elizabeth; but we shall find that it is hardly proportionate to the rise of the price of wheat. If we take an average of the five years preceding 1651,* the period to which the regulation would probably for the most part refer; it appears that the price of the quarter of wheat in the Windsor market, deducting to reduce it to Winchester measure, was 3l. 4s. 7d.† the quarter, which would be about 8s. the bushel, and 2s. the peck. At this price of wheat, with wages at 14d. the labourer would only earn of a peck, half a peck, and .
In 1661, soon after the accession of Charles II., wages were again regulated by the justices in Essex, at the Easter Sessions, and the price of common day-labour during the summer half year, with the exception of harvest time, was continued at 14d.
If we take an average of the price of wheat for the five years preceding 1661, as before, it appears that the quarter was 2l. 9s. 3d. This is 6s. 2d. the bushel, and 18½d. the peck. At this rate the labourer would earn about ¾ of a peck. It is true that the averages of the prices of corn here taken refer to dear times; but the wages were appointed just at these times: and in the regulations of 1651 it is expressly stated, that they are appointed, “having a special regard and consideration to the prices at this time of all kinds of victuals and apparel, both linen and woollen, and all other necessary charges wherewith artificers, labourers and servants have been more grievously charged with than in times past.”‡
If we take an average of the twenty years from 1646 to 1665 inclusive, we shall find that the price of wheat was rather above than below that of the five years preceding 1661. The average price of the quarter of wheat during these twenty years was £2. 10s. 0¾d.* which is 6s. 3d. the bushel, and nearly 19d. the peck. At this price, with wages at 14d. the labourer for these twenty years would hardly be able to earn so much as ¾ of a peck.
After 1665 the price of corn fell, but money wages seem to have fallen at the same time.
In 1682 wages at Bury in Suffolk were appointed to be 6d. in summer, and 5d. in winter with diet, and double without. This makes the summer wages 1s.; and according to the price of wheat in the preceding five years, the labourer who earned a shilling a day, could hardly command so much as ¾ of a peck of wheat.
The average price of the quarter of wheat from 1665 to 1700 was about £2. 2s. 6d. If we suppose the wages of labour during this period to have been about 1s. the earnings of the labourer would be about ¾ of a peck of wheat. But there is reason to think that the average money wages were not so high as 1s.
In the regulations of the justices at Warwick in 1685,† common labourers were allowed to take only 8d. a day for the summer half year. Sir George Shuckburgh puts down only 7½d. for the period from 1675 to 1720;‡ and Arthur Young estimates the average price of labour during the whole of the 17th century at 10¼d.§ If on these grounds we were to estimate the wages of labour from 1665 to the end of the century at 10½d. it would appear that the earnings of the labourer, in the 17th century, after the depreciation of money had ceased, were only sufficient to purchase [Editor: illegible number - ?/3] of a peck of wheat. Taking however the more favourable supposition of 1s. a day as the earnings of the labourer, they would purchase, as before stated, about ¾ of a peck.
During the first twenty years of the 18th century, the price of corn fell, but not much; and it may be doubted whether the price of labour rose.
In 1725, a few years later than the period alluded to, the wages of labour were settled by the justices at Manchester. The best husbandry labourer, from the middle of March till the middle of September, was not to take more than 1s. a day without meat and drink; but common labourers, and hedgers, ditchers, palers, thrashers, or other task-work, only 10d. Mr. Howlett, as quoted by Sir F. Eden,* states the price of day-labour, so late as 1737, at only 10d. a day; and Sir F. Eden, writing in 1796, observes, that from various information he had collected in different parts of England, he had reason to think that the wages of labour had doubled during the last sixty years, which could hardly be true, unless wages in the early part of the century had been lower than 1s.
The average price of wheat for the first twenty years of the century was rather less than £2.; and if the wages of labour were only 10d. or 10½d., the labourer would earn considerably less than ¾ of a peck. If the wages were 1s. he would earn ⅘ of a peck.
From 1720 to 1755 corn fell and continued low, while the wages of labour seem to have been about 1s. During these thirty-five years the price of wheat was about 33s. the quarter, or a little above 1s. the peck, and the labourer therefore, on an average of thirty-five years together, would be able to earn about a peck of wheat.
From this time corn began gradually to rise, while wages do not appear to have risen in the same proportion. The first authentic accounts that we have of the price of labour, after corn had begun to rise, is in the extensive Agricultural Tours of Arthur Young, which took place in 1767, 1768 and 1770. The general result of the price of labour from these tours, on the mean rate of the whole year, was 7s. 4¼d. a week.* Taking an average of the five years, from 1766 to 1770 inclusive, the price of the quarter of wheat was £2. 7s. 8d. or nearly 48s.† which would be 6s. the bushel, and 1s. 6d. the peck. At these prices of labour and wheat, the labourer would earn very nearly ⅚ of a peck.
In 1810 and 1811, accounts from thirty-seven counties, which, according to Arthur Young, were quite satisfactory, make the wages of day-labour for the mean rate of the year 14s. 6d.‡ a week, or nearly 2s. 6d. a day. The price of wheat for five years ending with 1810 was 92s.—ending with 1811, 96s.§ The prices both of labour and wheat appear to have doubled; and the labourer, in 1810 and 1811, could earn just about the same quantity of wheat as he could about forty years before, that is ⅚ of a peck. The intermediate periods must necessarily have been subject to slight variations, owing to the uncertainty of the seasons, and an occasional advance in the price of corn, not immediately followed by an increased price of labour; but, in general, the average must have been nearly the same, and seldom probably for many years together differed much from ⅚ of a peck.
Since the accounts given by Arthur Young, there has been no general calculation, that I am acquainted with, of the average money wages of agricultural labour, over districts sufficiently extensive to represent the whole. There are great differences in the prices of labour in different counties, and even in different parishes not very distant from each other. But from the numerous statements in the Agricultural Report, and what I have heard from other quarters, I should think that, making allowance for the difference between gold and paper during the high prices, the fall in the money price of standard labour has not been less than between 20 and 25 per cent.* As however the fall in the price of wheat has been much greater, it follows, that the labourer who is fully employed can now earn more wheat than he could at any period of the high prices. According to the calculations just referred to, when wheat on an average of 5 years ending with 1811 was 12s. a bushel, and 3s. a peck, the labourer with his half crown a day could only earn ⅚ of a peck; whereas now if he earns only 20d. a day, and wheat is 52s. a quarter, or 6s. 6d. a bushel, he can purchase a whole peck, and have a halfpenny remaining. If his wages were 2s. a day he could purchase nearly a peck and a quarter. If the price of the quarter of wheat, instead of 52s. were 48s. the quarter, which is higher than it has been for some time latterly, the labourer earning 12s. a week or 2s. a day could purchase a peck and ⅓, and earning only 20d. a day could purchase a peck and , which is a greater quantity than the labourer has been able to command since 1575, when the price of labour is first stated in the reign of Elizabeth.
It is certainly true therefore that for some time, nearly perhaps ever since the war, the fully employed labourers have been able, in spite of the corn laws, to purchase a more than usual quantity of wheat. The specific evil of the present times in regard to agricultural labourers is, that from the low price of corn as compared with the price of labour and the other outgoings of the farmer, he is unable to farm with spirit, and the consequence is that a considerable number of men are unemployed except by the parish. Nothing can shew more clearly that a brisk demand for labourers depends upon an increase of the funds for their maintenance, without a proportionate fall in their value.
[* ] State of the Poor, vol. iii. p. xli.
[* ] State of the Poor, vol. iii. p. lxxxix.
[† ] Ibid. vol. iii. p. lx.
[* ] The year 1597 seems to have been an extraordinary dear one, and ought not to be included in so short an average. If an average were taken of the five years beginning with 1598, the labourer would appear to earn about of a peck; and, on an average of ten years, from the same period, he would earn about ⅘ of a peck. During the five years from 1594 to 1598 inclusive, the price of wheat seems to have been unusually high from unfavourable seasons.
[* ] Eden’s State of the Poor, vol. i. p. 32.
[† ] Ibid. p. 33.
[‡ ] Ibid, p. 36. 42.
[* ] Eden’s State of the Poor, vol. iii. p. xxv. et seq.
[† ] Eden’s State of the Poor, Table of Prices, vol. iii.
[* ] Mr. Hallam, in his valuable Work on the Middle Ages, has overlooked the distinction between the reigns of Edward III. and Henry VI. with regard to the state of the labouring classes. The two periods appear to have been essentially different in this respect.
[* ] The nominal price of labour rose from about 1½d. or 2d. to 4d. or 4¼d. If we combine these proportions of 3 to 8, and 4 to 9 together, and correct the result by the diminution of the quantity of metal contained in the same nominal sum in the latter period, which was in the proportions of 1l. 17s. 6d. to 1l. 2s. 6d., or of 5 to 3, it will appear that the bullion price of labour rose nearly in the proportion of from 2 to 3, and consequently that the value of silver fell nearly in the proportions of from 3 to 2.
[† ] The rise in the bullion price of labour, while the bullion price of corn was falling, proved not only, that the English labourer could command a greater quantity of corn than usual, but that at the same time there was a great demand for labour, and all who were willing to work might be employed, two events which do not always go together, but which when they do, are most favourable to the labouring classes.
[* ] As the regulation passed in April, the year 1651 is not included in the average.
[† ] Encyclopædia Brit. Supp. Artic. Corn Laws, where a table is given with the deducted.
[‡ ] Eden’s State of the Poor, vol. iii. p. 98.
[* ] Windsor Table, deducting .
[† ] Eden’s State of the Poor, vol. iii. p. 104.
[‡ ] Philosoph. Trans. for 1798. Part i. p. 176.
[§ ] Annals of Agriculture, No. 270, p. 88.
[* ] Vol. i. p. 385.
[* ] Annals of Agriculture, No. 271, p. 215.
[† ] Deducting from the prices in the Windsor Table. Arthur Young deducts another 9th for the quality; but this is certainly too much, in reference to the general average of the kingdom to which the latest tables apply. I have therefore preferred adhering all along to the Windsor prices; and the reader will make what allowances he thinks fit for the quality, which, according to Mr. Rose, is not much above the average.
[‡ ] Annals of Agriculture, No. 271, p. 215 and 216.
[§ ] Windsor Table, Supp. to Encyclopædia Brit. Art. Corn Laws.
[* ] In many cases the apparent fall has been in the proportion of 15 to 10, and even greater. In the North Riding of Yorkshire wages of the same description are said to have fallen from 3s. 6d. to 2s. and 2s. 3d. (Agricultural Report, Merry, p. 112.) In Shropshire from 2s. 4d. to 1s. 6d. (White, p. 24.) In Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire, from 15s. and 18s. to 10s. since 1824. (Buckly, p. 398.) In Scotland, harvest wages from 2s. 6d. and 2s. to 1s. 6d. and 1s., and from 15s. and 12s. to 10s. and 8s. 6d. (Oliver, pp. 128 and 126.) Generally in the Lowlands the principal portion of the wages of labour is paid in kind, and the money value of that portion must therefore fall with the fall in the price of corn. The part paid in money has fallen, but not in proportion. In a private account which I received some years ago from the stewartry of Kircudbright, where the wages were all paid in money, it appears that from 1811 to 1822 the fall of summer wages was from 22d. to 15d., and of winter wages from 18d. to 1s.