Richardson G. (2005) Obamanomics and the medieval frat boys

Richardson Gary (2005) “The Prudent Village: Risk Pooling Institution in Medieval English Agriculture”, The Journal Of Economic History, 65/2, 386-413.


In this somewhat cumbersome article, Richardson argues against McCloskey’s widely accepted vision of the medieval peasant’s management of the risk of crop failures by scattering his arable land throughout his village. This strategy had a major shortcoming: it significantly reduced average crop yield, but according to Mc Closkey, no better option was available to mitigate the risks of everyday agrarian life (p.386).

Yet, as cooperation in various task was common in the English villages (open fields, councils), it seems strange that no collective insurance mechanism existed (p.387). And indeed, Richardson finds two such mechanisms: the fraternities and the customary poor law.

The fraternities

Many rural fraternities or guilds had mechanisms destined to relieve their members confronted with temporary hardship due to fire, theft, disease, accident, pestilence and illness (p.390). About 27% of rural fraternities clearly put assistance to their members in their status (sometimes in kind or through loans); but it is likely that more of these corporations acted as a safety net (p.391).

There was another way for fraternities to redistribute wealth. Guilds often had a strong religious undertone, in particular they were in charge of their members’ salvation. As charity was a way to buy one’s way out of the Purgatory, works of atonement were commonly performed by guildsmen for their own soul’s redemption or one someone else’s behalf (p.392). After the death of one of their members, fraternities would commonly generously give alms to the deserving poor (p.393).

“Fraternities served as a mechanism for screening the deserving and undeserving poor. […] Aid was a temporary solution to sudden calamity or misfortune, intended either to enable the brethren to recover their former status shortly, or to die with some dignity.”21 Of course, by ensuring that individuals met regularly, fraternities enabled members to know who among them deserved help and who did not. […]To protect against adverse selection, fraternities restricted entry to people from one parish, relatives of founders, and exceptionally pious persons. Fraternities required applicants to “be of good repute,” […] and to wait for several years after (p.394) admission before becoming eligible for benefits.”

The fact that most members of the fraternities were originally relatively well off and that there would typically be hundreds of members in each organization  guarantied that poor relief would not be ruinous for the members nor that all would be hit at the same time by an accidental crop failure (p.395).

Typically fraternities would collect an entrance fee plus a periodic allocation. Some required to be bequeathed part of a member’s estate at his death and other relied uniquely on ad hoc funds collection (p.396).

Richardson follows Rosser, Bainbridge, and Crouch in their estimates of the prevalence of guilds in late medieval England, that is: about 30,000 in the realm, one to three per parish on average and three for every four villages (although with significant variations in time and space). Overall, fraternities and their relief mechanisms were widespread in the 14th -16th-century England (p.397).

Key to the success of these institutions was their longevity. A very low estimate puts their average life expectancy around 45 years, but nearly 30% of the Cambridgeshire fraternities recorded in 1388 were still active in 1547 (p.398).

Customary poor laws

It was customary to allow poor peasants to collect peas in any field (even not their own) as long as it took place in daylight and they remained on the edges of the patches (p.406). Although, solely the very poor and those unable to work were allowed to gather peas in their neighbours’ fields (p.407). Peas are highly nutritious and had to be planted at intervals to replenish soil fertility but their market value was very low and rarely warrant an actual harvest, as a result prosperous peasants had a hidden incentive to feed the poor.

Similarly, after the harvest a significant amount of grain would have fallen to the ground but could not be sold nor stored, so the poor were allowed to glean on their neighbour’s fields. Conveniently, peas and gleaning combined afforded a year-round source of food to the poor as coddling (i.e. pea peaking) took place during the spring and summer while gleaning occurred during the fall and provided edible grain for the winter. But peas and gleaned grain made for a caloric yet unappealing porridge, which ensured that few would be tempted to free ride (p.408).

Few references to these customary law have been found, but it is likely they were widespread. Other types of collective insurance mechanisms appear punctually in the archives: the right for the needy to graze more than their share of animals on the commons, the automatic and enforceable right for the poor to rent and cultivate a small lots belonging wealthy peasants, etc.

Richardson estimates that McCloskey misinterpretation of the medieval insurance mechanisms comes from the assumption widespread in the 1970s that there was no such thing as a market in the Middle Ages (p.710). On the contrary, following Coase, Richardson asses that “inefficient grain-growing arrangements could not have persisted in medieval England, because extensive markets, stable institutions, and high volumes of transactions enabled peasants to rearrange activities and alleviate inefficiencies” (p.711).


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  • Crouch, David J. F. Piety, Fraternity, and Power: Religious Gilds in Late Medieval Yorkshire, 1389–1547. Rochester, NY: York Medieval Press, 2000.
  • ______. Gazetteer of the Religious Gilds and Services of Late Medieval Yorkshire. University of York, Centre for Medieval Studies Web Site. 2002
  • Cull, Robert J., Philip T. Hoffman, and Eric Hughson. “New Evidence for an Old Controversy: Scattered Landholdings and Open Fields.” Caltech Working Papers in Social Science # 788, February 1992.
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  • McCloskey, Donald. “English Open Fields as Behavior Towards Risk.” Research in Economic History 1 (Fall 1976): 124–70.
  • ______. “The Prudent Peasant: New Findings on Open Fields.” The Journal of Economic History, 51, no. 2 (June 1991): 343–55.
  • Richardson, Gary. “What Protected Peasants Best? Markets, Risk, Efficiency, and Medieval English Agriculture.” Research in Economic History, 2003.
  • Rosser, Gervase. “Communities of Parish and Guild in the Late Middle Ages.” In Parish Church and People: Local Studies in Lay Religion 1350–1750, edited by S. Wright, 29–55. London: Hutchinson, 1988.
  • ______. “Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensiality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England.” Journal of British Studies 33 (October 1994):

2 Responses to Richardson G. (2005) Obamanomics and the medieval frat boys

  1. ostrov says:

    Thank you,
    very interesting article

  2. Dave Parker says:

    Richardson is doubtless right to identify widespread peasant risk-pooling association, but it doesn’t follow that “inefficient grain-growing arrangements could not have persisted in medieval England,” since they obviously did over many centuries. While tradition was waning in the face of demographic upheaval and widening trade in agricultural produce, past custom continued to influence the shape of landholding and commercial orientation & market access were unevenly distributed. Citing 18th-century open-field productivity seems a particularly unsound basis for gauging efficiency in the 14th-16th centuries when overall yields were far lower. The presence of a functioning market does not presume maximum productive efficiency in the earlier period, since that wasn’t necessarily the object of the exercise.

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