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<   No. 4191   2020-02-17   >

Comic #4191

1 Mercutio: We’ll pay you for the acting.
1 Bar patron 1: Now you’re talking! How much?
2 Mercutio: Er, what’s a reasonable rate? Um... £10 a day?
2 Shakespeare: No no—
3 Bar patron 1: What?! £10!! That’s a King’s ransom! What sort of dodgy scam are you running?!
4 Mercutio: Er, sorry. Tuppence a day?
4 Bar patron 1: Now you’re talking!

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I knew the format I wanted for this joke, but I had to do some research to find out what was a reasonable wage for a common labourer in mid 16th century England.

First I found the following scholarly article about it: Coman, K., 1893. "Wages and Prices in England, 1261-1701". Journal of Political Economy, 2(1), p. 92-94.

This paper contains a handy table of "prices per quarter" and "wages per day", listed for roughly each decade from 1261 to 1702. The "price per quarter" is "an average of six agricultural products: wheat, oats, barley, beans, peas, malt". There is no other explanation in the paper - I assume that this is the average cost of enough grain to sustain a single person for one quarter (i.e. three months). The "wages per day" is described as "the earnings of skilled artisans, viz.: carpenters (high and medium), masons, and tilers".

(EDIT: A few readers have informed me that there is an archaic unit of measurement known as a quarter, which was probably equal to roughly a quarter of a ton in the 16th century, although it was redefined in 1824 as a dry volume equal to eight bushels, or 64 gallons. For wheat, this would come to a bit less than a quarter of a ton. The quarter was redefined again in 1985 and further amended in 1993 to be a quarter of a hundredweight, making it equal to 28 pounds, a lot less than a quarter of a ton. Now, given the article was written in 1893, it's not clear if it uses the medieval quarter of a quarter ton, or the 1824 definition of eight bushels - or if indeed it means three months worth of food as I originally assumed.

According to a couple of references, a medieval peasant needed to eat about 14-24 bushels per year, or 150-250 kg per year of grain. A bushel is a unit of dry volume, which varies in weight depending on the grain, but comes to about 27 kg for wheat, so 14-24 bushels would be 378-648 kg. Hmmm. For oats, a bushel is more like 15 kg, making it 210-360 kg. Okay, at least now we have some overlap with the other estimate. If we take 200 kg per year of grain as our estimate, that's 50 kg per quarter (three months), whereas a quarter of a ton (the medieval definition) would be 230 kg, while the 1824 quarter is 8 bushels (presumably of oats, to be consistent), which comes to 120 kg.

So. Our table of prices "per quarter" refers to either prices per approximately 50 kg, per approximately 120 kg, or per approximately 230 kg - it's not clear which.

By the way, I don't think I've ever been more grateful that I grew up with the metric system.)

Table of wages and prices in England, 1261-1701

The prices and wages are listed in shillings and pence (s. and d.). So in 1536, where this comic is set, you can see that the "cost of living" is 5 shillings and 2.91 pence per quarter, while the average daily wage for a skilled artisan is 7.19 pence.

This, by the way, is an awful, awful table. In a modern publication, you'd expect the two units to be divided/multiplied to the same time period, to make direct comparison easier. Just from glancing at the table, without doing any mental arithmetic, you can't tell if the wages are enough to pay for the cost of living or not. As it turns out, they are. If a skilled artisan in 1536 works six days a week (as was normal), they will be taking home approximately (89×6/7)×7.19 = 548.5 pence = 45 shillings and 8.5 pence a quarter - enough to afford the 5 and a bit shillings worth of food for himself, plus a wife and six kids. Assuming no other bills, that is, which there probably were.

(EDIT: Given the above discussion on the ambiguity in "quarter", it's possible that the wages were enough to buy even more food. So our skilled artisans are certainly not starving.)

Compounding the awfulness of the table, the data are also presented in graphical form:

Graph of wages and prices in England, 1261-1701

Notice that the vertical axis is marked in shillings. The paper explains, "In order to render the variations more apparent and bring the two lines into immediate comparison, pence are represented as shillings in the wages line." So no, they're not multiplied out by a sensible factor to make it easy to compare the income to the cost of living directly over the same time period. The wages are arbitrarily multiplied by 12 for no good reason, but still presented as per a different time span than the prices! Anyway, data presentation rant over.

So, a skilled artisan can expect to make about 7 pence a day. What about an unskilled labourer, or even just some guy found in a pub who reckons he can act? I found a post on "Medieval Prices And Wages" on This indicates that around 1390-1400, an unskilled labourer would earn about 3 pence a day, a manservant 1 penny a day, and a maidservant or swineherd, a mere 0.3 pence a day. These are a bit less than the skilled artisan's 7 pence per day from 1536, so if inflation is not rampant we might be able to assume that an unskilled worked in 1536 could earn maybe 3 or 4 pence a day.

And indeed, I then learnt that inflation was pretty much zero during much of the medieval period. Economic theory was not even a thing, and prices (and hence wages) were pretty much static... until around 1500 when a thing called the Price Revolution happened. This was an era of relatively high inflation, which you can see as the sudden upturn in the graph above, starting right around 1500. It was caused by a number of factors: the sudden influx of large quantities of silver and gold from the New World by the Spanish, high population growth following the era of the Black Death, and increased urbanisation of Europe.

So 1536 was about in the middle of this inflationary period. But as we can see form the table and graph, the inflation wasn't ridiculous by modern standards - indeed it was only about an annual rate of 1 to 1.5%.

So anyway, I learnt a lot about prices and wages in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, and finally concluded that a few pennies a day would be a reasonable offer of employment for some unskilled yobs you might find in a pub. In the end I went for "tuppence" because it was a nice word and easier to say than "four pennies". (There's also "threepence", but I like "tuppence" better as a slightly pittance amount that leads into the punchline.)

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