Many might consider a discussion of minimum wages and unemployment rates in the Middle Ages as hopelessly anachronistic. Certainly medieval people would probably have had considerable trouble in understanding what either of these concepts meant. Unemployment rates — the percentage of the total available workforce who are not employed — would certainly puzzle them. In their minds, everyone, even the habitually lazy, would be put to work for family and community, especially at busy times like the harvest. Minimum wages in the way we think of them today would likely have been no easier for them to understand. Certainly, when state attempts to regulate wages were made in the Middle Ages, as after the advent of the Black Death, it was to set a ceiling on wages, not to bring them up to a certain level.
Yet medieval authorities undoubtedly did have a sense at any particular moment of what might comprise a basal or lowest level wage for both skilled and unskilled labour and would also have a sense, although certainly a more vague one, of the current availability of that labour. As a surrogate for these almost instinctively held notions, then, it might be useful, despite the dangers of anachronism, to apply modern concepts such as minimum wages and unemployment rates as conceptual aids for achieving a better understanding of waged labour in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, most of the work done on medieval wages, from Thorold Rogers onwards, has tended to be unhelpful for establishing such things as basal wages, either because of the focus on average wages, as discussed below, or because of a greater emphasis on elite workers, such as craftsmen.