How compassionate capitalism flourished in medieval Cambridge

Wealthy entrepreneurs gave their profits away to city’s religious houses and hospitals

It is the most unequal city in the land – a place of college spires and glamorous May balls, where homelessness and food poverty are rife and the lowest-paid workers cannot afford their rent.

Now newly discovered historical documents reveal that Cambridge has also achieved a more egalitarian economic feat: as the birthplace of compassionate capitalism in the UK.

A fascinating manuscript about the property dealings of Cambridge’s wealthiest medieval families shows that they consistently gave their profits and assets away to improve the welfare of their local community. The find has provided the earliest evidence of this kind of systematic philanthropy ever uncovered in Britain.

The document, from 1279, puts Cambridge’s modern day record on inequality to shame, detailing how the city’s early capitalists used their wealth to benefit local religious houses and hospitals.

“It was one of the Hundred Rolls, a massive survey undertaken by the Crown similar to the Domesday Book. But it had been lost in the National Archives,” said Dr Catherine Casson, co-author of Compassionate Capitalism, a major new book on the subject. “The missing roll we found informed us about an area of Cambridge that no one had really looked at before.”

The roll recorded the ownership history of property in the city and its suburbs over the preceding 100 years, enabling Casson to analyse 36 family dynasties and more than 1,000 properties. “It’s very rare for this period of history to recreate any family trees, let alone 36.”

The data showed many of the city’s medieval entrepreneurs made their money in trade or as administrators for religious institutions and government. But they savvily invested their spare cash in the Cambridge property market, which boomed in response to legal reforms and a fierce new demand for student accommodation after the university was founded in 1209.

Some landlords even became property developers, subdividing the buildings they owned in order to buy vacant land to build new homes. “They keep half of the property for themselves and sell off the other half as a means of financing their purchase. So already they’re doing something we’re quite familiar with today.”

The majority of these newly wealthy families in Cambridge gave away more than half of their profits from property. “That’s not because they had to, it’s because they chose to,” said Casson.

At the time, other medieval families were spending their cash on luxury consumer goods such as jewellery, silks and furs, or choosing to live “a wild lifestyle” by 13th-century standards. “Potentially, they could have spent the money on mistresses... but also on things like food and drink. Bills for hospitality in medieval times were very high,” said Casson.

Instead, the entrepreneurs chose to fund places such as the Leper Chapel, part of an isolation hospital for people with leprosy. The building still exists in Cambridge today.

Casson thinks they probably hoped that investing in these projects would increase their chances of getting into heaven, as well as improving their stature in the local community.

But the medieval capitalists also had a real sense that providing the local community with financial support and a welfare infrastructure made Cambridge a more attractive – and economically successful – place to live, study and bring up a family in the 13th century. “It was a mutually beneficial process,” she said.

In 2018, a report showed income was more unevenly distributed among Cambridge residents than in any other UK city. The top 6% of earners who lived in Cambridge took home 19% of the total income generated by residents.

• This article was amended on 4 May 2020 because an earlier version referred to “Cambridge’s contemporary record on inequality” when the it was the university’s modern day record which was meant.


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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