The Economic History Review

Worth, age, and social status in early modern England1

Volume 64 Issue 2
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Published online: September 23, 2010DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2010.00533.x

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This article introduces a new source for assessing the distribution of wealth in early modern England derived from witness depositions taken by the church courts. It discusses the accuracy of statements of ‘worth’ provided by thousands of witnesses between the mid-sixteenth and later seventeenth centuries, and uses the monetary estimates of worth in goods that the majority of deponents supplied to assess the changing distribution of personal wealth. We argue that this data supports recent claims that the pre-industrial English economy experienced significant levels of economic growth, while showing that its benefits were increasingly unevenly distributed between different social groups. In particular, the century after 1550 witnessed spectacular increases in yeoman worth that outstripped inflation by a factor of 10. The relative wealth of yeomen was also underpinned by its more secure distribution over the life cycle which further compounded the differences between them and other social groups.