by Guido Alfani and Wouter Ryckbosch
The question of how economic inequality changed during the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution has been attracting a growing amount of research effort. Nevertheless, a complete picture of the tendencies in economic inequality throughout pre-industrial Europe has remained out of our grasp. This paper begins to resolve this problem by comparing long-term changes in inequality between Central and Northern Italy on the one hand and the Southern and Northern Low Countries on the other hand. Based on new archival material, we reconstruct regional estimates of economic inequality between 1500 and 1800 and analyze them in the light of the Little Divergence debate, assessing the role of economic growth, urbanization, proletarianization, and political institutions. We argue that different explanations should be invoked to understand the early modern growth of inequality throughout Europe, since several factors conspired to make for a society in which it was much easier for inequality to rise than to fall. We also argue that although there was apparently a ‘Little Convergence’ in inequality, at least some parts of southern and northern Europe diverged in terms of inequality extraction ratios.
Keywords Economic inequality; early modern period; Sabaudian State; Florentine State; Italy; Low Countries; Belgium; The Netherlands; inequality extraction; wealth concentration; fiscal state; proletarianization