Economic Inequality and Social Mobility in Preindustrial Europe

Recent research in economic history has unearthed previously unknown facts about the long-term trends in inequality. We now have, for at least some areas of Europe, continuous time series of key inequality indicators from ca. 1300. Most of these series have resulted from the research conducted by the ERC-funded project EINITE – Economic Inequality across Italy and Europe 1300-1800. These new data are changing the way in which we perceive economic inequality not only in the past, but even today – as a key lesson from history, is that economic inequality (especially, but not only, of wealth) has a marked tendency for increasing over time, and only catastrophes on the scale of the Black Death or the World Wars managed to bring it down, albeit temporarily. Additionally, the new historical evidence is also relevant to the debate about the long-term determinants of inequality growth. This seems to be independent, to a large degree at least, from economic growth. Other factors seem to have played a crucial role, including institutional factors and in particular (in the early modern period) the rise of the fiscal-military state. These recent acquisitions, however, raise many questions about the actual impact on society of distributive dynamics. A more recent ERC project, SMITE – Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe 1300-1800, is currently exploring at least some key aspects of the social impact and significance of inequality change. The seminar, based on case studies from different European areas and especially from Italy and the Low Countries, will provide an overview of the research done or underway in the context of the aforementioned projects.

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