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Wage Disparity in the Middle Ages...and romance, where the little guy wins

(Note: I will be sharing medieval info at the beginning of this post, and editorializing in a sarcastic manner by the end.)

William the Conqueror, aka William The Bastard, summa cum laude of the Battle of Hastings and conqueror of England, was worth what would today be over $189 billion dollars, U.S., post conquering.

William de Warenne, one of the Bastard’s stewards, was worth about $121bn in today’s dollars.

Richard fitzAlan, one of the brutal Sir de Warenne’s descendants & a leader himself in the Hundred Years’ War, comes in at a net worth of about $100bn U.S.

Double-Duke John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, was worth what would be today over $91 billion.

The list goes on.

This sort of wage/wealth gap between rich and poor was par for the course in the middle ages.

In the 1370’s, the average English weaver was making about 700 deniers (aka: pence, aka: that’s pennies) a year.

A mason was bringing home about 1000/yr, which can be seen as somewhat a representative income for merchants & craftsman—the newly developing ‘middle class.’

(An aside, b/c I’m big on asides…this ‘middle class’ spent about 25% of their disposable income on alcohol, mostly beer. Go, Englishmen, and the women who brewed it! Another almost-quarter of total income was spent on housing costs, and, good Lord, almost 65%, of total income went for TAXES. B/C those big social safety nets of the middle ages… And thus we see the major feeder tube for the Peasant’s Revolt.)

Back to our task…

The warden of London Bridge was raking in over twice what a mason did, almost 2500 annually, which doesn’t count all the bribes and payoffs he could count on, too. Score.

A baron could count on about 48,000. That’s 48x times as much as the ‘not-wealthy-but-still-buying-a-lot-of-beer’ mason and his economic cohorts.

An earl was bringing in about 96,000. That’s 96 times as much.

That’s some pretty big income disparities, but the really big outliers, like The Bastard and his BFFs, were less common. 

And let’s recall, yes, those nobles were big on ostentatious wealth and sticking it to the little guy, but they also were fighting wars, paying soldiers, ordering goods & sometimes paying for them, i.e. reinvesting in the society with that take-home money (and of course, the looting during the wars, assuming they won, but that’s another story…)

The point being, there was cyclical reinvestment by the uber-wealthy: they took it, but they spent it too.

As for the existence of such a pervasive & insane wealth disparity, well, thank goodness we don’t have to worry about that anymore in the States.  Because it would create a de facto nobility, as opposed to, you know, a representative democracy.  Thank goodness that’s all in the past, part of a darker, less democratic world.

Oh, wait.

The AFL-CIO estimated the *average* CEO in the U.S. in 2014 earned 373 times as much as the average U.S. worker.  (Of note, that’s the AVERAGE ceo, not a smattering of Rockefeller or Vanderbilt or John Jacob Astor outliers. Average CEO take-home pay.)

But wait, there’s more. It’s like a ginsu knife. Because that 373:1 ratio vastly under reports the difference. It’s actually more like 949:1.

Now, the real truth probably lies somewhere in between, because that higher, ‘take-home pay’ ratio includes stock-based pay, which varies. So we’re talking somewhere between 373x’s (straight compensation) and almost 1000x’s more (including stock-based pay) than the average worker.

In either case, I claim WTFery. (excuse my foul-mouthed acronym-ing)

One could almost be forgiven for saying that’s not free enterprise.That it’s more like hijacking free enterprise. 

There are several theoretical definitions/understandings of what ‘capitalism’ is, how it relates to a larger political structure, and what it can, or should, do.  But this sort of accrual of vast wealth to the few, with such large disparity between them and the rest of society, is not the sort of thing that can exist for long in a representative democracy before it ceases to be a democracy in even the loosest sense of the term.   That it becomes, in fact, far more like the middle ages. Only worse.

One could be forgiven…

Which is why I think a lot of my stories are about the little guy winning against unbeatable odds, a seemingly hopeless situation.  I admit it, I carry my modern sensibilities and values into my historicals, but I think that one, the little guy triumphing in a system stacked against them, is pretty timeless.  And it (hopefully!) brings hope and inspiration to readers.

What stories have you loved where the little guy triumphed??

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