How to achieve a more compassionate capitalism: look back to medieval Cambridge

by Catherine Casson (University of Manchester), Mark Casson (University of Reading), John Lee (University of York), Katie Phillips (University of Reading)

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How can modern economies reconcile the pursuit of international competitiveness with promotion of the common good? They could learn from the medieval period!

Contrary to popular belief, England in the late thirteenth century had a dynamic economy. Legal advances created a lively property market; cutting-edge technologies improved water management and bridge-building; commodity trade expanded; and towns grew dramatically, both in number and size.

But this was not an early form of individualistic capitalism. Family bonds were strong and community loyalty was intense. Economic ‘winners’ showed compassion for losers, rather than contempt.

Thirteenth-century expansion was not based on a consumer-driven boom. Its focus was on local infrastructure and local wellbeing. City churches were financed by local people to meet the needs of local people. Hospitals cared for the old, the poor and the needy, including special facilities for those affected by disease. Their legacy remains with us today: the most valuable real estate in a modern city is often occupied by medieval churches and hospitals.

Using recently discovered documents and novel statistical techniques, we have analysed the histories of over one thousand properties in medieval Cambridge over this period. Using evidence from the so-called ‘Second Domesday’ – the Hundred Rolls of 1279 – we show how wealth accumulated by successful businesses was recycled back into the community through support for local churches and hospitals and for itinerant preachers based in the town.

Town government was devolved by the king and queen to the mayor and bailiffs, and they encouraged the development of guilds, which promoted cooperation. New professions emerged in response to the growing demand for legal and administrative services.

The business centre of Cambridge shifted south as the town expanded. ‘New wealth’ replaced ‘old wealth’ as a local commercial class replaced Norman aristocrats. But local pride and religious devotion – expressed through high levels of charitable giving – helped spread the economic benefits throughout the town community.

This self-sustaining system was, however, broken in the 1340s by the Black Death, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the punitive levels of taxation imposed on towns thereafter. When prosperity returned in the Tudor period, a more ruthless form of capitalism took root, and it is this ruthless form of capitalism whose legacy remains with us today.

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