The GDP, real wages and working hours of France since the 13th century

Every few years, an economic historian in training spends thousands of hours in archives assembling a long quantitative essay. It’s the work of monks (in fact, when you go far back in history, you also end up working with monks and nuns – which was my case on Canadian economic history). It’s the kind of work that requires patience, attention to details and (did I say it already?) patience.

I did that for my own work on Canadian economic history. For two years, I locked myself in the archives of two religious congregations to collect and transcribe close to a million price and wages information. For these two years, I did not write one single paper. I just collected the data and constituted a list of the papers I could write. However, once its finished, you may party like a sailor fresh off the boat because you end up with a wealth of data to answer hundreds of questions. When I finished my own thing on Canada, I was thrilled as I thought it constituted a great advance in quantitative knowledge (which I could use to assess tougher historical questions).

However, compared to the work of Leonardo Ridolfi, my own work looks like a dwarf (I confess envy here).  Ridolfi spent hundreds of hours assembling a quantitative essay on France’s economy since 1250. This is monumental!  France has generally been a statistical abyss (except for demography and some price series) especially when compared to England. Yet, the country is highly relevant to western economic history. After all, the question of why did the Industrial Revolution take place in Britain is the mirror of asking why it did not happen in France. As a result, Ridolfi’s work fills one of the largest voids in the field of economic history and will end up being one of the most cited dissertations for the next ten years I expect.

He constructed estimates of real wages, prices, incomes and working hours. As such, he provided the widest possible statistical portrait possible which (I wont get into details here) circumvents tons of empirical complications that may limit the quality of each variable taken separately (see for example the manner in which GDP is calculated and the role that estimating working hours plays).

I invite anyone interested in economic history to read his work. But, I will give you the main conclusion I gathered: France was not as poor as many believed. I recently pointed this out in an article which I am trying to get published, but Ridolfi’s work proves my point beyond my wildest expectations. I assembled the most relevant figures below.


Aggregate measures of well-being, England 1781-1850

I went in the field of economic history after I discovered how much it was to properly measure living standards. The issue that always interested me was how to “capture” the multidimensional nature of living standards. After all, what weight should we give to an extra year of life relative to the quality of that extra year (see all my stuff on Cuba)?

However, I never tried to create “a composite” measure of living standards. I thought that it was necessary, first, to get the measurements right. However, I had been aware of the work of Leandro Prados de la Escosura who has been doing considerable work on this in order to create composite measures (Leandro also influenced me on my Cuba reasoning – see this article).

A year ago, I discovered the work of Daniel Gallardo Albarrán from the University of Groningen at the meeting of the Economic History Society (EHS). Daniel’s work is particularly interesting because he is trying to generate a composite measure of well-being at one of the most important moment in history: the start of the British industrial revolution.

Because of its importance and some pieces of contradicting evidence (inequality, stature, amplitude of real wage increases, amplitude of income increases, urban pollution leading to increased mortality risks etc), the period has been begging for some form of composite measure to come along (at least a serious attempt at generating it). Drawing on some pretty straightforward microeconomic theory (the Beckerian in me likes this), Daniel generates this rich graph (see the paper here).


The idea is very neat and I hope it will inspire some economic historians to attempt an expansion upon Daniel’s work. I have already drawn outlines for my own stuff on Canada since I study an era when (from the early 1800s to the mid-1850s) real wages and incomes seem to be going up but stature and mortality are either deteriorating or remaining stable while inequality is clearly increasing.