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British Economic Growth, 1270-1870

Author(s):Broadberry, Stephen
Campbell, Bruce M. S.
Klein, Alexander
Overton, Mark
van Leeuwen, Bas
Reviewer(s):Persson, Karl Gunnar

Published by EH.Net (August 2015)

Stephen Broadberry, Bruce M. S. Campbell, Alexander Klein, Mark Overton and Bas van Leeuwen, British Economic Growth, 1270-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xxxix + 461 pp. $40 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-107-67649-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Karl Gunnar Persson,  Department of Economics, University of Copenhagen.

This collective work is an ambitious and careful attempt to reconstruct historical national income accounts for England/Britain over six centuries — from 1270 to 1870. GDP is estimated from the output side unlike the study by Gregory Clark (2010), which covers approximately the same period and reconstructs national accounts from the income side. The major results from these two studies differ profoundly: Clark is an advocate of “Malthusian stagnation,” while British Economic Growth presents a more dynamic view of the pre-industrial economy. The contrasting results are a reminder that historical national accounting is marred by the fragility of the underlying data and is sensitive to approximations and assumptions needed to reach an end result.
British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 begins by establishing population levels (chapter 1) and by implication population growth rates. It acknowledges that population level estimates differ by a wide margin for the medieval period and the authors opt for estimates in the middle of the existing range.

In chapters 2 and 3 agricultural volumes are reconstructed by first establishing the area of agricultural land in use, the share of different crops, the number of cattle, etc. Output for the different components can then be estimated using yields and conversion ratios for various crops and animals. The final step is to aggregate these outputs into an agricultural sector output. All this is done in a transparent way, largely based on primary sources.  The incremental nature of agricultural progress is visible in increasing yields and reduced fallows. However, for the medieval period the documentation stems from the estate sector which is a relatively small part of the agrarian sector, less than a quarter. Was the non-estate sector, run by tenants, sharecroppers and free-holders, more efficient? The authors indicate that there is some evidence that this was the case, but they nevertheless assume that conditions in the estate sector prevailed in agriculture at large. For the post medieval period, paradoxically perhaps, the documentation is thinner and farm accounts do not appear until the end of the eighteenth century

Chapters 4 and 5, which are devoted to industry and services, rely more on the secondary literature. Output volumes in the various subsectors are established in chapter 4, and then aggregated to GDP and GDP per head in chapter 5. The resultant pre-1700 GDP series are, of course, a major accomplishment of synthesis, while the post-1700 figures differ only marginally from those established by Nicholas Crafts and Knick Harley and they all rely heavily on Walther G.  Hoffmann’s (1955) pioneering work.

Part 2 of British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 has a more analytical approach, discussing how the new results compare to those of other studies. The central claim in the book is to stress the resilience of the growth process even when faced with continued population growth and resource constraints. When GDP per head increased after the Black Death, because of a softening of resource constraints, the Malthusian expectation would be that income would fall when population stated to grow again in the sixteenth century. The authors take an explicit non-Malthusian position showing that the expected reversal did not happen. In fact the authors argue that income per head doubled from the pre-Black Death period to the mid eighteenth century. Their target here is the argument of Clark (2010) and Michael Postan before him, that pre-industrial income per head was stationary in the long run. That is, income increases were transitory and the only permanent effect of technological change would be an increase in population. Chapter 6 is devoted to comparing real wages series with GDP per head. Clark’s reconstruction of GDP is driven by his real wage series which tend to support the Malthusian thesis. However, wage data are constructed from day wages and British Economic Growth argues that you can reconcile a stationary day wages series with increasing GDP per head by adjusting for known increases in days worked in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The authors do not seriously challenge the validity of the day wage series as such, even if there is a discussion in the literature. One major problem is that the salaried working class was a quite small proportion of the labor force. Most people were tenants, free-holders and self-employed, and very little is known about their income and whether it tracked day wages.

How do you assess the accomplishment of this study in the face of alternative interpretations? One way is to look at the general consistency of the many claims made. One surprising result in chapter 7 is that kilocalorie use per head implied by the agrarian output and population series is more or less stable over the entire period. The implication is that the increase in income per head did not spill over into increased demand for calories, but only into more expensive calories, say, beer instead of porridge.  The calorie intake throughout is not far off the minimum requirement for an active life, and at the same level as in France in the eighteenth century, although French workers were known as being less productive in physically demanding work in that period. There are in fact a number of recent assessments of calorie supplies, reviewed by Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda (2013), and while all studies apply the same methodology results differ too much for comfort. The most optimistic ones by Robert A. Allen and Craig Muldrew end up at calorie intake about 70 percent higher in the eighteenth century. Kelly and Ó Gráda suggest that agricultural output might in fact be underestimated in British Economic Growth.

Another puzzle refers to the sharp increase of the relative share of the non-agricultural labor force in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (chapter 9). Such a change would presumably have generated changes in consumption patterns in favor of industrial goods and services. However, changes in the consumption pattern of that magnitude are not entirely plausible given the reported slow growth of income. Is income growth underestimated for this period? Other indicators point in that direction. For example per capita consumption of metals had tripled by 1700 compared to its peak medieval level, which you would suspect to be associated with more vigorous growth of income.

British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 will be a work of reference, inspiration and controversy for decades to come. Some results will undoubtedly be challenged and revised. Others will stand the test of time. The claim that England/Britain was on a trajectory of slow income growth from medieval times is one of the results which probably will last.


Gregory Clark (2010). “The Macroeconomic Aggregates for England, 1209-1869.”  Research in Economic History, 27: 51-140.

Walther G. Hoffmann (1955). British Industry, 1700-1950. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda (2013). “Numerare est Errare: Agricultural Output and Food Supply in England before and during the Industrial Revolution.” Journal of Economic History, 73: 1132-63.

Karl Gunnar Persson is Professor Emeritus of Economics at University of Copenhagen.  A revised and enlarged edition of his book An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions and Growth, 600 to the Present (in collaboration with Paul Sharp) was published in 2015 by Cambridge University Press.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century