Proposal preview

Preindustrial inequality: Europe, Asia and the Americas compared

After years of relative neglect by economic historians, recently long-term trends in economic inequality have become the object of considerable attention. Research teams in different parts of the world, including Europe and Asia as well as northern and southern America, have provided estimates of wealth or income inequality based upon a large amount of new data collected from the archives. In many instances, however, this research has remained isolated. Our session aims to promote comparison between different studies and different world areas, as well as to favour the development of common methodologies, an essential step to improve comparability of results.
The session will focus on preindustrial times, from the middle ages to the beginning of the modern age. It will explore long-term trends in economic inequality by employing measures like the Gini index and significant percentiles, related to the distribution of income or wealth inequality, or both. Thanks to recent research, we now know that levels of preindustrial economic inequality were not immutable. While the general tendency seems to have been for a rise in inequality (which is compatible with an “inequality possibility frontier” expanding as per-capita GDP increased), we also know that within Europe (and presumably within other continents, too) different paths emerged, according to mechanisms which are still to be fully understood. More generally, long-term trends in preindustrial inequality were the consequence of many factors. Thanks to the amount of information currently being collected, better and more comprehensive explanations of long-term inequality changes now seem to be within reach. For example, in the case of Europe, the development of the fiscal-military states and the related increase in per-capita (regressive) taxation could explain why inequality was rising even in periods of economic stagnation. This session aims to be an important step towards a deeper understanding of these key historical processes, which are connected to key transformations in the economic and social structures as well as in the institutional framework.
Regional differences in inequality trends can also be fruitfully related to the recent findings on the Great and the Little Divergence. How did international and inter-regional differences in the growth of income per capita relate to movements in inequality within countries? Did the two kinds of movements have common sources? That is, our session aims to explore whether differences in inequality (and in inequality extraction) could have been not only the result, but also a possible source of differences in long-term growth performance – hence, of divergence.
The session welcomes contributions from all parts of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, both empirical (providing new data) and theoretical or interpretative. It is expected that paper givers will discuss region-wide phenomena, either in a comparative perspective, or with respect to factors accounting for inequality variations across the communities and changes over time. Regarding the period covered, as is well known the industrial revolution invested different areas of the world at different times. As a rule of thumb, the papers included in the session will involve the years preceding 1850, although exceptions might be made when justified by local specificities.


  • Guido Alfani, Bocconi University,, Italy
  • Peter Lindert, UC Davis,, USA

Session members

  • Branko Milanovic, City University of New York,
  • Leticia Arroyo Abad, Middlebury College,
  • Luis Bértola, Universidad de la República, Montevideo,
  • John Coatsworth, Columbia University,
  • Javier Rodriguez Weber, Universidad de la República, Montevideo,
  • Walter Scheidel, Stanford University,
  • Shuang Chen, Iowa University,
  • Yingze Hu, Shanxi University,
  • Jeff Williamson, Harvard University,
  • Daniel Curtis, Leiden University,
  • Mats Olsson, Lund University,
  • Patrick Svensson, Lund University,
  • Leandro Prados de la Escosura, Carlos III University Madrid,
  • Wouter Ryckbosch, Vrije Universiteit Brussel,
  • Fabrice Boudjaaba, EHESS Paris,
  • Francesco Ammannati, Bocconi University,
  • Matteo Di Tullio, Pavia University,
  • Hector Garcia Montero, Pamplona University,
  • Jean-Pascal Bassino, IAO ENS Lyon,
  • Esteban Nicolini, Universidad del Norte de Santo Tomás de Aquino,
  • Fernando Ramos, Universidad Pablo de Olavide de Sevilla,
  • Hulya Canbakal, Sabanci University Istanbul,
  • Sevket Pamuk, Bogaziçi University Istanbul,
  • Guido Alfani, Bocconi University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Osamu Saito , Hitotsubashi University,
  • Peter Lindert, UC Davis,