It may conjure up images of rotting teeth, terrible healthcare and a bracingly short life expectancy, but we can learn an awful lot from the 12th century — at least in terms of how the economy was handled.
In fact, England then was something of a paradise of long holidays, parties and an underdeveloped work ethic, the Guardian Hay festival heard on Thursday.
According to David Boyle, of the New Economics Foundation thinktank: “No one wants to live with medieval dental arrangements, or on a diet of mead and wheat husks. And we do know that the medieval period was full of terrible things like rape, pillage, torture and droit du seigneur [the supposed right of a feudal lord to have sexual relations with a vassal’s bride on her wedding night]. We wouldn’t want to live there. But they did have a very healthy skepticism about money and money values.”
Asked what aspects of the 12th-century economy should be exported to modern Britain, Boyle said: “Debt-free living; a lot of holidays and parties and a lack of work ethic; the idea of a ‘just price’ for goods; some aspects of the medieval guilds and the importance of craftsmanship; and a more spiritual response to money.”
“When you dig up 12th-century skeletons you find they are taller or as tall as skeletons at any other part of history other than our own,” he added. “That suggests they were getting economics right.”
Boyle said that for a small farmer in the 12th century to make a sufficient amount to live on for a year, he would be able to take 170 days’ holiday. The trend ever since, it seems, has been for work to take over. In 1495, he estimated, such a person would have to work 15 weeks of the year, but by 1564 the figure was 40 weeks and this year most British households require two adults to work full-time to support a home and family.
There was, he added, a sophisticated banking system — which enabled Richard the Lionheart, say, to deposit money in London and collect it in Geneva en route to the Crusades. However, debt was frowned upon, and did not form the fundamental part of economic life that it does now.
Boyle and his NEF colleague Andrew Simms also admiringly referred to a particular kind of coinage minted by cathedrals, among other institutions, during the period. “Black money” made of tin (or mereaux as the coinage was known in France) had to be spent within a certain time period, or else exchanged for less than had been originally paid for it. This discouraged hoarding and saving.
They also pointed to the “12th-century renaissance” — a period of intellectual growth, the establishment of great cathedrals and the beginnings of the universities.
“Towards the end of the 12th century there were fascinating social experiments in northern Spain and southern France, in which, for instance, women were involved in running Provence,” Boyle said. “But that was followed by a wave of intolerance lasting for centuries afterwards. We need to look at what happened after the end of the 12th century and make sure it doesn’t happen to us.”
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