Final Conference of the ERC Einite Project on European inequalities from the Black Death to the Nineteenth Century by Samuel Cohn

EINITE+Logo+-+ArtigianaleOn 25 November, 2016 Bocconi University hosted the final conference on Guido Alfani’s five-year European Research Council grant on pre-industrial inequalities in Europe. The idea for the project was born well before anyone beyond the banlieue of Paris had heard of Thomas Piketty. Moreover, it has asked different questions from Piketty and has investigated the longue durée before Piketty’s research begins in the nineteenth century. The conference attracted papers from the major players in this pre-industrial field–economic historians such as Jan-Luiten Van Zanden (Utrecht), Sevket Pamuk (Boğaziçi University, Istanbul), Mats Olsson (Lund), and Jaime Reis (Lisbon). The conference’s twelve papers explored different methods and a wide range of sources from Eastern Europe to the Iberian Peninsula, and Southern Italy to Scandinavia. These include church and civil fiscal records, marriage contracts, and household inventories all with different rules, exemptions, lacunae, etc. Yet, despite these vast differences as well as with different targets of measurement—wealth, income, landed property, and moveable goods–the project’s researchers, who have been working on this project over the past five years, along with the guest lecturers at the conference, arrived at a remarkable consensus in the trends over time, despite contrasting economies, political regimes, and demographic developments. From the Black Death of 1347-53 well into the fifteenth century, a rare moment in economic history ensued: inequalities in wealth (and income, where it could be measured) declined. By the mid-fifteenth century, these trends reversed and began their long march towards greater inequality that continued into the nineteenth century and in some places such as Sweden into the twentieth. This European unity runs against economic models that have held sway since the 1950s as with Kurzets’ curves or that inequality correlates closely with increases in GDP. Instead, Alfani’s team and now others have shown that the steady rise of inequalities in Early Modern Europe marched on with few reversals over four centuries, no matter whether economies were expanding or stagnating. This long continuum appears in southern and northern Europe and within the Ottoman Empire despite contrasting economies and political regimes.

One difference in these early modern trends, which unfortunately failed to receive the discussion it deserved during the conference, was the effects of plague or of other catastrophic demographic events after the Black Death. While the Black Death (1347-53) reversed tendencies towards inequalities across contrasting communities in Europe, creating relative equality for a century or more, neither the Thirty Years War (1618-48) nor big plagues, such as those of the 1630s and 1656-7, at least in Italy, repeated the Black Death effect. However, seventeenth-century plagues in the Ottoman Empire and Southern France did reverse for a generation or more inequality’s steady progress into the nineteenth century. No doubt, these differences emerged from the different strategies rulers and elites devised to maintain their social and economic status with changes in fiscal policies and laws of inheritance. But the underlying mechanisms governing these differences in inequalities and a precise map of such changes across Europe remain to be drawn.

Finally, the single measure of Gini coefficients of inequality (which all the papers in this conference relied upon with little qualification) may hide important shifts arising in particular segments of the population as within labouring and artisan classes.[1] Mainly through the study of speech, vocabulary, titles, manners, dinning implements, and dietary customs and tastes, historians such as John Walter, Keith Wrightson, Steve Hindle, and Andy Wood for England, John Najemy for Florence, and Inneke Baatsen for Bruges and Antwerp, have detected a widening gap between the poor and better-heeled artisans and other middling sorts during the sixteenth century.  A specific number such as a single Gini coefficient can easily mask significant social and cultural developments of inequality within clusters of a population. Moreover, the cultural dimension of inequalities was one of the original five planks of the Einite project, and at least one article from its researchers has recently appeared on the perception of economic inequality from the twelfth to the nineteenth century.[2] In this final successful conference, however, no talk mentioned this strand of the project.

In conclusion, this international conference of economic historians across Europe marked a fitting termination to the Einite ERC project, which already published essays that have changed our notions of the long-term trends and determinants of inequality across five centuries. It has also opened an array of new questions for economic and cultural historians alike, not only of the preindustrial past but of contemporary history and the present.  To what extent have social, political, legal, and cultural factors overridden economic determinants of expansion or decline in shaping economic inequality? A transnational laboratory of five centuries has called into question economic theories derived from recent history and current events alone.

Samuel K. Cohn is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, where his research interests include the history of medicine and histories of popular protest in medieval and early modern Europe.



[1] A statistical figure of the distribution of wealth or income devised by Corrado Gini (1884-1965), in which 0 equals perfect equality in a society and 1, total inequality.

[2] Roberta Frigeni and Guido Alfani, “Inequality (Un)perceived: The Emergence of a Discourse on Economic Inequality from the Middle Ages to the Age of Revolution,” Journal of European Economic History 45,1 (2016), 21-66.