Putting the finishing touches on a long-gestating major project this a.m., so just a quickie before I get back to ironing out some word-choice matters. The graph above comes from the much buzzed-about paper estimating that per-capita GDP in late Medieval England was around $1,000 in 1990 dollars—an estimate that, if accurate, would mean that the Joe Sixpacks of 1600s England were better off than contemporary residents of Burundi and Niger. I’m skeptical of this claim, primarily because the paper itself (PDF) makes no such grandiose claims—it was the public-relations department at Warwick University that added that extrapolation in its press release.
Still, the research makes for fascinating reading, and the authors were kind enough to include a bevy of helpful graphs and charts. My favorite is the horses-versus-oxen illustration I’ve selected for your viewing pleasure. Why did the English kiss off their oxen so rapidly after 1700 or thereabouts? Some clues are to be found in this 1989 article about the rise of the horse:
Horses often represented a much smaller capital investment than oxen, a matter of key importance for peasant cultivators in particular. This was because oxen always retained their value as meat, no matter how old they were, while elderly horses, due to the well-known and widely observed taboo on eating horseflesh, had little more value than their hides. Consequently, compared to oxen, the price range for horses was exceedingly wide – from over £100 for a prized war-horse all the way down to as little as 2s. for an old nag that may have been blind or lame but was still capable of some useful work. The horse trade in fact has often been compared to that for used cars today. As Joan Thirsk put it over a decade ago, ‘…there is a car within the price of everyone; you can pay £20 or you can pay £10,000’. The same applied for horses in the medieval period, where the wide variation in prices for the animals allowed peasants to acquire cheap horses much as the ‘banger’ trade in cars allows teenagers to do the same today.
Gadget development also played a role: The invention of the padded horse collar doesn’t get nearly enough adulation in geek circles.