In, Castles, Battles, Bombs: How Economics Explained Military History, I came across this passage :

"The cost lay mostly in direct labor cost, as most labor had to be paid. (In contrast, raw material cost does not seem to have been much of an issue."

It was only mentioned in passing and I wondered if it were true.

I just seemed strange to me that in 1000-1300, labor markets were competitive. Was it simply the sheer labor involved relative to their resource the cause? Were average monarchy's real net worth less unequal than I had imagined; the 1% rich today about 30 mill USD while the bottom less than 1USD income, might the monarch of the past be maybe a few thousand times the peasant instead of millions?

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    Surprisingly, there is nothing new under the sun. Labor was the most expensive item on the bill for the Egyptian pyramids, Roman roads and aqueducts, medieval castles and fortifications, early modern palaces, Victorian massive urban engineering, up to our very days. I have no idea why anybody would think that in medieval times engineers and masons and architects and surveyors and carpenters and so on were plentiful and worked for peanuts.
    – AlexP
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 13:58
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    "Expense" can be a flexible term when some castles were built, improved, renovated, and rebuilt over many generations. The Tower of London, for example, had major changes and improvements across 700 years. A fortress wasn't one season's project - it was a major investment. It was some monarchs' lifetime project.
    – user535733
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 14:35
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    "while the bottom less than 1USD income" the bottom 1% is not the able laborers, I'm afraid. A comparison to a median, or bottom 25% percentile would make more sense. In case of medieval society, there are record on how much day laborers were paid, and how rich some lords and kings were.
    – Alexander
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 16:18
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    i would imagine they didn't focus on raw material cost because all those costs were just rolled into the labor costs. Instead of paying for lumber, you are paying for woodcutters to cut trees down for you.
    – eps
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 21:37
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    It's not true most labor had to be paid. Up to the 14C, much labour was still effectively slaved. Much of the rest could as easily be tricked into getting nothing as were so many of the cathedral builders… For a cathedral, the church demanded you gave your services to God; in those days, enforceable. For a castle, the lord said you should give your services to the community or his glory and in those days, you had what chance of arguing? Labour seems not to have been competitive until in the 14C all classes were crippled by the Black Death and labour won out, for no apparent reason. Commented May 30, 2020 at 19:35

3 Answers 3


The labor market was limited by the number of workers available. Setting large stones into a high wall took skilled craftsmen assisted by a lot of unskilled labor. Don't forget majority of the population were required to grow food. if you moved people from farming to building you ended up with people starving. Most large projects like castles and even the waging of wars was scheduled around getting the crop planted and harvested.

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    Somebody had to design the wall, somebody had to survey the land, somebody had to supervise the construction, somebody had to cut the stones, somebody had to transport them to the building site, somebody had to erect the scaffolding, somebody had to assemble and drive the building equipment -- and all those were scarce specialists, members of guilds which set the prices and had virtual monopolies for their services.
    – AlexP
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 14:03

How Was Wealth Distributed

The complete answer is in the Medieval Price List for 1300, but I'll summarize :

  • Unskilled laborers (peasants, household servants) made 1 pence per day / 30p per month
  • Tradesmen (masons, carpenters) made 4p to 6p per day (avg. 5) / 150p per month
  • Professionals (soldiers, priests) made 1 to 3 shillings (12 pence) per day (avg. 2) = 24p / 720p per month
  • Artisans (top lawyers) made 1 pound (20 shillings = 240p) per day / 7,200p per month
  • Barons, in charge of a county earned ~1 pound per day - 240p per day / 7,200p per month, depending on the wealth of the county
  • Earls, in charge of a major region, could earn as little as Barons, but typically brought in 15 pounds per day - 3,600p per day / 108,000p per month
  • The Crown (king) typically brought in 82 pounds per day - 19,680p per day / 590,400p per month

So, the king made about 20 thousand times as much as the peasant.

The Construction Costs of Castles

Construction costs varied enormously. Frequently, older structures (churches, military towers) were re-purposed for the job.

Again, from the medieval price list, the price of a modest house was around was around 10 pounds (2,400p). A castle gatehouse cost almost as much (10 pounds). An expensive house was around 100 pounds (24,000 pence), which was also just about the construction price of a church. The construction cost of a tower was around 300 pounds (72,000p), and the construction price of a castle (details not included) was around 450 pounds (108,000p).

Maintenance of Castles

Typically, the household staff did minor maintenance. Contractors were hired for larger repairs.

A household staff received free housing and meals, as part of their compensation. Staff typically included :

  • 1 house manager (butler) at 8p per month
  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd, (and sometimes 4th) footman @ 1p per month (4p for all)
  • Cook @ 2p per month
  • Pages, carters, porters, falconers, groomers @ 1p per month (5p for all)

In 1000s, staff also included one or a few knights providing security.

So, total household monthly wages were around 19p per month.

There's More...

The Baron, and Earl, as the owner of the town and surrounding land, was responsible for the upkeep costs of most of the houses and business property in his territory. This was offset by rents, which were part of that Noble's income; and the wages of the crown paid foreign bribes, civic projects, and the standing armies. I'm left with the impression that oftentimes all parties, big and small, were just barely covering costs.

Like contemporary modern businesses, many nobles took on disastrous amounts of debts to pay the bills : the French king to the Templars, the Spanish monarchy to people who would be imprisoned during the Inquisition, Richard the Lionheart to almost anyone.

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    Your maintenance costs don't line up... I think you started calling rates that were 1p/day 1p/month. Also, wouldn't footmen be professional soldiers, not unskilled labor?
    – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 18:47
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    Footmen in this context our servants in the household. Also called useful men. I'll check the lineup. Thanks for the tip.
    – James McLellan
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 18:54
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    Ah. Are you talking about the household servant wages? Those are, in fact, per month according to the medieval price list. While an unskilled laborer makes 1p per day, they have to pay for their own meals and rent (~1p per day in costs). While a servant makes a much smaller amount of cash at 1p per month, room, meals, and a lot of other basic necessities are paid for. It's my only explanation for the wage difference.
    – James McLellan
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 23:39
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    82 pounds per day is not 500 thousand times as much as 1 penny per day. It's a little less than 20 thousand times as much. Your own numbers say that. You apparently compared the crown's monthly income to the peasant's daily income to get 500 thousand.
    – David K
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 4:05
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    It would make sense to assign monetary value to the non-monetary exchanges as well. The food and housing for servant is also part of cost of their work even though they don't get it as money. Also where peasants did corvée labour (do I understand correctly that in England they didn't and paid taxes instead, but in continental Europe they did?) they wouldn't be paid in money, but since that labour was the income for the lord, directing that work towards building a castle would still have financial value.
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 18:12

Castle building is a slow process, and people rarely start a new one.

Most of the suitable and advantageous places were already occupied by castles built earlier. Most castle owners would only embark on small upgrades: A stone wall to replace a wooden palisade, a tower strengthened, the lords living quarters upgraded to fashionable style...

So usually one would amass wealth slowly (distributing the cost in time), and then build something. Unless you were king and could levy taxes from the whole country, or a truly great fortune came your way: Famousuly the Duke of Austria spent a considerable part of the ransom of King Richard I, that amounted to 100000 pounds of silver, on the city walls of Vienna, and on some smaller towns.

  • I've wondered in the past about the economics of 100000lb of silver. How does having silver grow the crops or to feed to workers to build the wall. If those people weren't building walls in Vienna, what would they been doing instead?
    – James K
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 23:59
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    James K there was always excess available, but it was a small amount. Younger sons might have no prospects, workers in off seasons could make extra money, farmers produced slightly more than needed. Silver bought these things. It was a lot like economics anytheres, but not like the free-flowing labor market of today. The black death actually liberated a lot of workers who were offered incentives by nobles to migrate and do work off the land their families had been bound to for generations.
    – DWKraus
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 1:10
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    @JamesK Even if medieval agriculture only allows one non-farmer to be fed by nine farmers, and thus the density of masons is low, when you have a kings ransom at hand, you can DRAW IN the masons from a larger territory. These would be building bridges and walls and churches and whatever in their own towns, but the big money of the duke would attract them into Vienna for the duration of the construction. There were also professionals who were traveling continously, exactly because no single place had demand continously for their marginal services. (like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinker)
    – b.Lorenz
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 11:25

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