Ever since money became a primary mode of exchange the economy has had an enormous effect on the ordinary day to day lives of people. Of course we are currently in one of those periods of decline with recovery seemingly still somewhere far off in the distance. During this recession many news outlets noted how different this economic downturn was to those in the past. No doubt that is true, but it is surely equally true of all economic downturns. No recession is precisely the same as another.
On the whole it can be said that the standard of living in England rose during the sixteenth century but there were nonetheless two periods of high inflation that caused serious problems for the population. In the last years of Henry VIII and first years of Edward VI debasement of the currency caused high inflation and then again towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign prices rocketed due to bad harvests with somewhere around a 50% increase in costs.
What did the chroniclers say about these periods of inflation and about the general rise in living standards? Annabel Patterson argues that William Harrison (writing for the Holinshed Chronicles) commented on the economic situations – albeit in a fragmentary way – in his Description of England (see Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles, ch. 5). In the 1577 edition Harrison was optimistic and pointed out various ways that the people were better off: primarily the prevalence of chimneys which aired out houses, softer bedding material, and an increase of imported luxuries such as tapestries, pewter and plate. This account was written during an upturn in real wages. In his later revisions of 1587 Harrison amended his account to reflect on the downturn that had since occurred. For instance the ‘amendment of lodging’ was recounted in 1577 as ‘great’ but in 1587 noted also as ‘not generall’ (Patterson, p. 82).
Simple adjustment of the words in a text between editions can be a useful indicator of fluctuations on the market during the early modern period. It is equally true today. If we look at the language used during the years of ‘boom’ compared to these years of ‘bust’ slight variations in word-use have been used to portray varying economic security. Terminology used to describe the work of bankers and the stock exchange has been particularly revised. Such thoughts leads me to a question (one which I don’t really have an answer to): how much of what happens in the economy is actually due to the words used to convey the situation compared to what the situation is actually about? There is no doubt that words have power to control situations and direct them along certain lines. So how far is our economy effected by words rather than facts and figures? I’m no economist so I cannot answer such a series of questions but it is perhaps useful to consider these things when reading the newspapers and, equally as important, when reading medieval and early modern chronicles.