I was looking up the income disparity today. What I got for America, was Food service could get as little as $18,000 annual income, while Lawyers got paid $140,000, surgeons $320,000, and Bill Gates made something between 2,600,000,000 and $11,500,000,000 annually. So Bill Gates earns over 600,000 times the income of the poorest job I could find.

My question was how much of an income gap there was in medieval Europe, to compare? Were the Kings and merchant guild leaders earning 600,000 times what the day labourer was earning, in the middle ages?

If you need the time narrowed down further, I was thinking from the years 1200 to 1400.

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    Technically it was infinite. Serfs were not paid; their income was zero. Wealth was measured in land ownership not income, and land ownership was limited to the nobility, who were < 15% of the population. Income disparity would have been effectively meaningless, but the top quintile of the population probably owned 90% of the wealth, with the other 10% shared among the bottom four quintiles.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 21:33
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    This boils down to a list question, looking for the wealthiest individuals in history, covered by wikipedia here.
    – justCal
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 0:00
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    @MarkC.Wallace Serfs had to pay a tax of labour, and often a tax based off the land's value, something like 33%. So their income would be based heavily on their land and their ability to manage it. Being able to sell their produce would also factor in. Calculating this would be extremely complicated, so I think it would be better to compare to the daily wage/annual income of a "day labourer" in the towns. It is traditional to use that as a measurement.
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 3:58
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    @justCal ...That article only has this top twenty list as a source: cheatsheet.com/breaking-news/… Wikipedia is hardly a good source, and this article it's based on does not answer the question. The article itself seems highly dubious, when William the Conqueror is listed as the third richest man of all history. If no one knows an example of a high income from the middle ages, with a laborer's wage to compare, I'll have to go without knowing.
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 4:09
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    @LarsBosteen That question is so specific it lacks all meaning. Many kings were in debt, and kept borrowing money from their rich barons. There would be no answer to that question, only a thousand very narrow anecdotes. It wouldn't be a more interesting, it would be a useless question, like how long is a piece of string. It would also be far more difficult to answer. If you see merit in what you posed, then this question's importance is clear. To understand WHERE the king stands in wealth, so you understand where the Lords stand in wealth, you must understand how they compare to a day's labor.
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 8:29

2 Answers 2


A quick look at the list of wealthy individuals from the middle ages, gives us William the Conqueror for someone most of us are familiar with. The wiki list is a bit vague on dollar amounts, so a little more research leads us to another article here which has this to say:

William the Conqueror was a King of England, and had an inflation-adjusted estimated net worth of $229.5 billion.

(google says that's £172.125 billion) Since comparing net worth is not a simple issue, the OP is asking for income figures. Digging a little deeper I was finally able to come up for some numbers on William, which show why he was considered one of the richest men in history.

From the Book Taxation, Revenue, Expenditure, Power, Statistics, and Debt of the Whole British Empire; Their Origin, Progress, and Present State: , published in 1833,there is a table which shows the revenue of William the Conqueror:

enter image description here

So £400,000. But this is just one source, so continuing to search, another book showed up discussing this:The History of the Public Revenue of the British Empire : Containing an Account of the Public Income and Expenditure from the Remotest Periods Recorded in History, to Michaelmas 1802; with a Review of the Financial Administration of the Right Honorable William Pitt. By Sir John Sinclair published 1803. On page 70 they get around to discussing the revenue collected by William:
enter image description here

Another match of the £400,000 figure, with a source. Later in the book(pg 72) they discussed the reasons for trusting the figures presented by this source:

...it is impossible totally to discredit the accounts of Vitalis an historian who was born only nine years after the conquest and consequently must have enjoyed better access to information than any modern can pretend to

...Besides Vitalis is so particular in the sum he mentions stating not only the pounds but even the number of farthings which William received namely £1,060 30 s 1/2d a day ...that one would suppose his information was derived from authentic records and was not founded on vague or hasty computations.

The historian whose figures are mentioned is Orderic Vitalis, and the wiki page mentions, concerning him:

Modern historians view him as a reliable source.

So we have an estimate of roughly £400,000 for an income for William the Conqueror.

Concerning the laborers wage:

Another quick search for wages at that time gives us a site, The History of England which says:

So a labourer for example, earned £2 a year in 1300

(There is some other good info on the above site as well concerning things such as the value of bread and other wage figures.)

Getting rid of my old attempt at comparing apples and oranges, or trying to translate values to todays' dollars or pounds, we have two numbers £400,000 to £2. Therefor, if we take the 19th century figures at face value, we can conclude that:

- William the Conqueror made 200,000 times the wage of a day laborer.

Not quite the equivalent of Gates 33 million per day, but not inconsequential. It was definitely, as Mel Brooks would say,"Good to be King".

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    Net-worth is not a good comparison. He owned most of England, Normandy, and some parts of Italy (the exact amount depending on how you count assets owned by family and lent to vassals). Most of that money is in the land and property, in assets. That makes it very hard to spend. But yes, the two examples you found would be dated similarly enough to qualify, if an estimated income could be provided. Or, if net worth of the day labourer could be provided, I would upvote the answer.
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 7:23
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    Medieval labourers were normally serfs? And you just assume a serf's net worth is zero? This is an absurd answer, and should be removed due to its poor quality and misleading nature. Serfs are tied to land, they're not slaves you buy and sell. Medieval labourers were often the poor classes inside towns. Serfs would only be able to do such work in their spare time from farming, as farming would be more profitable to them. I would be interested in a source for the commonality of serf day-labourers in the medieval period. The net worth estimate is worse than useless as it stands.
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 3:31
  • If we're going to use net worth estimates, the difficulty we would run into is that many of our poorest have negative net worth. 25% of Americans, for example, have negative net worth: sovereignman.com/trends/… So, anyone with no debts and $10 is unlimitedly more wealthy, making the comparison useless. A serf would likely have much higher net worth due to lower debts and owning their own livestock. This is why I didn't ask for a net worth comparison, but asked for an income comparison.
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 3:31
  • @Johnny Found some income values for William the Conqueror, adjusted answer with new information.
    – justCal
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 21:07

In their book, Henry II: New Interpretations, Christopher Harper-Bill and Nicholas Vincent discuss the annual income received by King Henry II of England, based on the earlier analysis by James Ramsey. There are a range of figures to choose from:

"The average annual audited Exchequer income throughout the entire reign was just over £18,000. Prior to the 1165/66 financial year the average was only £13,300; thereafter it rose to £20,400".

  • [p249]

"Furthermore, given the historical preoccupation with 1180 as the date closely associated with the start of sustained price rises, the average annual income for the period from 1179/80 until the end of the reign was a few pounds shy of £22,000".

  • [Ibid]

These are slightly earlier than the period you're considering, but should still give a reasonable approximation of the expected range. For convenience, I will take the quoted average figure for the whole reign of £18,000, but you can do the same calculations for other parts of the reign.

There were 12 pennies to a shilling, and 20 shillings to a pound. This gives 240 pennies to the pound.

Thus the income of the king was 4,320,000 pennies per year.

At the other end of society, the figures are equally difficult to calculate, but the Medieval Prices and Wages page (from the History of England podcast site) notes that an unskilled labourer might earn two pence (2d) per working day in 1300. A six-day week would thus earn him 12d, or 1 shilling per week. This is 52 shillings, or 624d per annum.

Even further down the hierarchy, a swineherd would earn 0.3d per working day, or about 93d per annum.

Thus, the unskilled labourer earned about 7 times as much as the swineherd.

And the King's income was just under 7,000 times that of the unskilled labourer, and 46,451 times that of the swineherd.

(Taking the higher figure of £22,000 for the king's income at the end of the reign would mean that the king's income was about 8,500 times that of the unskilled labourer, and 56,774 times that of the swineherd. That is still an order of magnitude smaller than the figures you found for today).

So, I think we can reasonably conclude that life was much more comfortable for the king than it was for the swineherd!

  • Good info on the kings salary, but can we show that King Henry II was actually the richest man in the world at that time? I definitely agree, however, it was good to be King.
    – justCal
    Commented Dec 24, 2017 at 20:29
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    @justCal Certainly not. Although he was probably the richest man in England (particularly with his holdings in Normandy). Commented Dec 24, 2017 at 21:03
  • That might explain the order of magnitude difference to the OPs comparison.
    – justCal
    Commented Dec 24, 2017 at 21:09
  • @justCal You mean there were kings who made over 90 times the income of Henry II? I'm not sure if the Holy Roman Empire combined with France would make close to a hundred times the income. That is how much Bill Gates makes, 91 times that of the English King, compared to the laborer's pay.
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 3:26
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    @Johnny There was Musa I of Mali who, although rather later in date, was supposed to be "inconceivably wealthy". Nobody knows exactly how rich he was, but his income may well have been orders of magnitude more than any other medieval king. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 16:32

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