September 23rd, 2010

What a princess goes for today


             Diego Velázquez, Maria Teresa of Spain, 1652

The princess Infanta Maria Teresa, a subject of my Habsburg project, had a dowry of roughly 500,000 French Écus (according to Wikipedia). Her arranged marriage to (double first cousin) King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, was a highly important union. France and Spain had been endlessly fighting during the Thirty Years’ War, and this marriage was supposed to symbolize peaceful relations. Yet although Maria Teresa and Louis the XIV eventually married (after Philip IV dragged his feet on the issue), the debt was never paid. Spain blamed this on previous wars, they were strapped for cash.

This is curious, as King Philip IV was happy to build the Buen Retiro Palace and seemed to spend money freely amassing over 4,000 art works from all over Europe during his reign. So why the dowry default?

I asked my husband, Felix, to crunch some numbers. What would the princess be worth today? Was she so expensive Spain really couldn’t afford to pay the French? Baffled, he went to Twitter and threw out the question:

Tweeps, help me! What is 500,000 French ecus, circa 1650, in today’s dollars?

After over 12 hours, many smarty-pants folks, like Tony Fratto, weighed in. It was a puzzling question which had responses like this:

Mr_Sterling: @felixsalmon The entire island of Manhattan sold for 60 Dutch guilders in 1625. The value of 500,000 ecus in 1650 is thus the whole planet.

Of course, the Lenapes got screwed in this deal. I believe they also received some oyster shells and furs on top of the sale - so that’s not weighing apples with apples.

Davis_Seth: @felixsalmon 1 pre-Revolution ecu = $25 in 2006 money according to Wikipedia. So 500,000 = $12,500,000

At some point last night, a lot of people come to $12,500,000 by looking at the Wikipedia page for Écu and getting the math wrong. $12.5 million for the princess? For Spain? No way. It had to be more.

TonyFratto: @felixsalmon Just back of the envelope: ecu = 5-6 livres; 1 livres = 1 lb of silver. x today’s price of silver.

BnkrChick: @felixsalmon 2 lbs of bread in 1650 = 1 livres, via @tonyfrato 1 lb silver = 6 livres = 1 ecu. something like this, but too many variables.

EpicureanDeal: @alea_ @felixsalmon Yet many things one can obtain now—longer, healthier lives, eg—were literally unobtainable and priceless in 1650.

True. Especially when we’re talking Habsburgs, they were inbred and dropping like flies at the time - the mortality rate was off the chart. However, the princess was an exception and owned up to her responsibility to France. She lived to be 45 years old, and of her six children who mostly died in infancy, her first son actually survived her and went on to rule both France & Spain.

EpicureanDeal: @alea_ @felixsalmon A sounder comparison would be to compare dowry as a % of 1650 GDP then adjust to today. Prob much more than $64 mm.

EpicureanDeal: @alea_ @felixsalmon Then comparison becomes “how much of everything available can I buy with this” in 1650 and now. Makes more sense.

EpicureanDeal: RT @alea_: @EpicureanDeal i am guessing about 1% of french gdp, est. roughly 300 mln livres and 6 livres to 1 ecu cc: @felixsalmon

So there you have it, and it looks like @alea_ worked it out with EpicureanDeal. Felix figured 1% of GDP of France is somewhere around 3 billion dollars today. Could Spain afford to pay 1% of France’s then GDP as a dowry? Spain’s GDP had to be worth more than France, the Habsburgs owned almost 3/4 of Europe at the time. I put out a Tweet:

black_von: @alea_ @EpicureanDeal @felixsalmon If the princess was worth 1% of France’s GDP, then what percentage was she of Spain’s GDP? (circa 1650)

@alea_ RT @black_von: probably a bit less in terms of Spain’s GDP, but don’t have number handy

Basically as I thought; the princess was worth less than 1% of Spain’s GDP. Now, if anyone can tell me why a father would default on his daughter’s dowry, when it’s only less than 1% of his country’s fortune and is meant to instill peace across the land after the worst war in European history up to that point - let me know. I’ll update this page as answers come in.

  1. misspaintsil reblogged this from hyperallergic
  2. hyperallergic reblogged this from blackvon and added:
    Read the whole thing, it is a fantastic piece of detective work and a great story.
  3. mattlehrer reblogged this from blackvon and added:
    I love a good inflation calculation.
  4. blackvon posted this
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