I recently read that the Russians launched 35 missiles each costing around 1 million USD on Jarov, which made me realize that modern warfare is, to put it mildly, very expensive. But I would probably feel the same were I a burger in medieval Europe contemplating the cost of keeping a knight armed.

This topic is probably very complicated, so I'm not even sure if I can pose a "proper" question (i.e. one explicit enough), but could someone help me approximate how much medieval warfare cost in terms of GDP compared to modern one? Obviously, if they just did more war in ages past, that in itself might bias this, so I'm not sure what a good comparison would be really.

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    Insightful question - although it would be better if it were supported by preliminary research. I'd recommend addressing how total war fits into this, and I think it may be worth dividing at the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the US civil war. OTOH, the cost of fielding a lance might be an appreciable part of a knight's fee. Interesting
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 13:14
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    I'm not sure if I've seen it in this kind of of terms before (and I'm not sure you can talk about ancient/medieval "GDP", but I've seen it argued that the development of the entire Feudal System in the early middle ages Europe was a solution to the problem "How does a farming society afford to support a standing army of professional cavalry that's required to be militarily competitive in this age?"
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 13:42
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    Arguably, in the medieval era,military expenses were roughly 100% of government spending; after the invention of the welfare state, the proportion of military spending drops. Like I said, very intriguing question.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 14:10
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    @MCW No, there were plenty over expenses: living, luxury, buildings, roads... then the welfare state spent more Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 18:51
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    Regine Pernoud estimated a Templar Knight on the holy land needed the income of 4000 acres of land, including the expensive logistics Europe->Holy Land (not sure if it includes supporting units - laymen sergeant-of-arms). There were hundreds of knights at the peak of the order. If somebody knows the total area of cultivated land on Europe, it would be a good approximation of the cost of the Templars, although GDP is not only agro, even in Middle Ages.
    – Luiz
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 1:20

1 Answer 1


Gidday. From the 1930s British social historians of a marxist bent were deeply interested in the concept of time series of price-wage or price-capital structures. This is basically a way of saying "How do we measure 'worth' socially over time." British historians like MM Postan were interested in this problem for multiple reasons:

  • Many British historians were marxist: Britain had the first successful industrial boot of capitalism (Marxian sense), and so an undue emphasis was placed on British history. British historians had access to high quality data because of the lack of monstrous early modern wars in Britain. (Britain's early modern wars were merely horrific.) And so they attempted to figure out the price of beer in 1300 and 1930. … More fool them.
  • If we can figure out how long term pricing works we can figure out how things are changing and potentially do things we'd like to do.
  • Dude: land ownership structures. If you aren't excited about that then you're not into social history.

The problem was that the historians discovered that wage/price data from 1300 was from monastery records. That there was no general market in a capitalist sense of labour power and commodities to reproduce actual living labour. That what was true in 1830 was not in 1300. Which means that a pound ain't a pound.

So let's get to the meat: knowing the data and theory are bad, we can price a pound of government expenditure in 1300 and 1930. This is limited by the fact that the pound works differently in both eras.

Measuring Worth https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ukcompare/result.php?year_source=1300&amount=1&year_result=1930 provides the following

£1 in 1300:

  1. £12/10- reflecting the retail prices paid by people who work buying the necessities of life (1:12.5 in beers)
  2. £12/6- reflecting the proportion of total capitalist output (1:12.1 in possible beers)
  3. £85/14- in average earnings (holy shit beers are WAY MORE EXPENSIVE in 1930)
  4. £92/14- in per-capita GDP (holy shit workers get WAY LESS OF THE ECONOMY in 1930)
  5. £712 using GDP (what GDP in 1300?)

So there you go. Between 1300 and 1930 you could buy fewer beers, beers were more expensive, and the government controlled way more of the economy.

This is inline with Marx and Engels writings btw.

If you're offended the reason why is because there's a much larger base load of productive things (steel mills, ships) which exist. This "capital" has an interest in its reproduction. The reduction in actual beers drank though has been a matter of concern given that people get shot over it.

To compare military expenditure you'd want to compare %GDP but this is the worst historical figure to compare given that the UK government in 1944 could enclose ANYTHING to defeat Gitlerism. Whereas to defeat its close fraternal relations in 1300 the government had to beg borrow and steal to merely land in France to die attempting to become the King of France and abandon England.

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