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The Economy of Medieval Wales, 1067-1536

Author(s):Stevens, Matthew Frank
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Published by EH.NET (January 2022).

Matthew Frank Stevens. The Economy of Medieval Wales, 1067-1536. University of Wales Press, 2019. xiv + 149 pp. £24.99 (paperback). ISBN 978-1786834843.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.


This is a book of economic history. We don’t learn about politics or individual people; we do learn about the organization of production, immigration, and the growth of towns. The book is not a micro-history that examines new evidence on a very specific time and place. Nor is it a quantitative history that analyzes data. It is rather a historical survey providing an overview of how the Welsh economy changed over 500 years. While some primary sources are used, the book is primarily a synthesis of the secondary literature. We sometimes learn the evidence for particular conclusions, but the focus is more on the story than on the evidence. The book is brief and entirely readable; I found it both informative and enjoyable. There are some Welsh terms to learn, but these are all explained.

Stevens argues that we cannot simply apply English history to Wales. Yet the most important factor in the economic history of Wales is its relationship with England. Stevens argues that English conquest and immigration, along with Welsh geography, were the main factors shaping Welsh economic history during this period.

The book has three main parts: a literature review, a story of how the Welsh economy changed over time, and an analysis of what explains the observed changes. The introduction is a historiographical essay and provides a useful map of the literature for someone like me who is not an expert on Welsh history. The introduction also makes the case that Wales has been neglected in economic histories of Britain and thus needs its own.

The longest of the three parts (Chapters 1–3) tells a chronological story of how the economy of Wales changed between 1067 and 1536. The story told is one of expansion followed by decline. Before 1300 the population grew. English immigrants took over settlements in the lowlands with the best arable land, pushing the Welsh into upland farms. Towns and trade developed during this period. In the eleventh century trading towns were too vulnerable to attack to by warlords to be viable, but by 1300 there were 100 towns, and about 20 percent of the population was urban. Cardiff, with nearly 2000 people, was the largest town. Part of the urban population specialized in the production of cloth or leather goods. With towns came increased trade, and increased use of money. With trade, upland pastoral farms became more viable, because more valuable animal products could be exchanged for grain. The period of expansion also saw the building of castles, bridges, and fulling mills. Free peasants gradually replaced unfree peasants, though certain labor duties persisted. Stevens notes that the growth during this period was “externally driven” by English immigration.

Around 1300, when the Welsh population reached a maximum, the lowland population density in Wales was almost as high as in England, though wealth per capita was significantly lower. After 1300 famine and plague reduced population, and migration reversed as Welsh people emigrated to England. The labor shortage caused by the Black Death pushed lords to give up cultivating demesne lands themselves and lease the land. Wages increased about 50 percent, but wage labor was not common. The Glyndwr rebellion of 1400 also contributed to the decline; 40 towns suffered attacks and some were burned. Trade also suffered from the English response to the rebellion, which included the confiscation of goods and limits on the ability of the Welsh to purchasing property or congregate in one place.

The fourth chapter examines which historical model we should use to understand Welsh economic history. The chapter considers three models from European history: the demographic model, the Marxist model, and the commercialization model. None of these are deemed sufficient for understanding Welsh history. While population did grow between 1067 and 1300, this growth was not endogenous. Population growth resulted not from the expansion of the population into unused land, but from English immigration. The development of markets and towns were also driven by external (English) forces. Stevens also rejects the Marxist story of class struggle. Welsh history was not a class struggle between serfs and lords, since even before the Black Death most peasants were free. Defining the class struggle as one between Welsh peasants and English lords is not satisfactory because it ignores English peasants and Welsh burgesses. Stevens likes the commercialization model somewhat better, noting that does a fairly good job of describing Welsh urban history, at least before 1400.

Instead of adopting a model developed elsewhere, the book provides three themes to organize our understanding of Welsh economic history: conquest by England, ethnic differences between the English and the Welsh, and geography. The English introduced monetization and urbanization, and generally altered every economic institution. The Welsh were treated differently from the English. In addition, physical geography shaped Welsh history. With only about 14 percent of Wales croppable, settlement and trade were constrained. As a reader, I would have liked to see these themes highlighted earlier in the book, rather than at the very end.


Joyce Burnette is Professor of Economics and John H. Schroeder Interdisciplinary Chair in Economics at Wabash College. Her publications include Gender, Work and Wages in Industrial Revolution Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and “Why We Shouldn’t Measure Women’s Labor Force Participation in Pre-Industrial Countries” (Economic History of Developing Regions, forthcoming).

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Demography, including Migration
Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval