hero working papers

The rich in historical perspective Evidence for preindustrial Europe (ca 1300-1800)

Number: 571
Year: 2016
Author(s): Guido Alfani
This article provides an overview of long-term changes in the relative conditions of the rich in preindustrial Europe. It covers four pre-unification Italian states (Sabaudian State, Florentine State, Kingdom of Naples and Republic of Venice) as well as other areas of Europe (Low Countries, Catalonia) during the period 1300-1800. Three different kinds of indicators are measured systematically and combined in the analysis: headcount indexes, the share of the top rich, and richness indexes. Taken together, they suggest that overall, during the entirety of the early modern period the rich tended to become both more prevalent and more distanced from the other strata of society. The only period during which the opposite process took place was the late Middle Ages, following the Black Death epidemic of the mid-fourteenth century. In the period from ca. 1300 to 1800, the prevalence of the rich doubled. In the Sabaudian State, the Florentine State and the Kingdom of Naples, for which reconstructions of regional wealth distributions exist, in about the same period the share of the top 10% grew from 45-55% to 70-80% - reaching almost exactly the same level which has recently been suggested as the European average at 1810. Consequently, the time series presented here might be used to add about five centuries of wealth inequality trends to current debates on very long-term changes in the relative position of the rich.

Keywords: Economic inequality; wealth concentration; richness; top wealthy; middle ages; early modern period; Italy; Low Countries; Catalonia; Black Death; property structures
JEL codes: N300, N330, N930, D310