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EINITE Report Summary

Project ID: 283802
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Italy

Final Report Summary - EINITE (Economic Inequality across Italy and Europe, 1300-1800)

The aim of EINITE was to clarify the dynamics of economic inequality in Europe from the late Middle Ages through the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Before this project, very little data about economic inequality during such an early period was available. What existed usually involved only single years and/or small areas. EINITE contributed in a decisive way to change such situation, by building an extensive database of comparable measures of economic inequality, mainly of wealth (for which better documentation exists). Most of the data collected by EINITE comes from new archival research on Medieval and Early Modern sources. The project covered systematically most of the Italian peninsula (where the best and most ancient surviving sources tend to concentrate), including in its analyses all the main Italian pre-unification states. Beyond Italy, EINITE researched selected areas of Europe, including central Spain, Catalonia, southern France and Normandy, southern and northern Low Countries, and England.
The research conducted by EINITE led to the conclusion that throughout the Early Modern period, inequality tended to grow everywhere or almost everywhere in Europe. This happened both in areas that were growing economically, and in others that were stagnating or declining. Consequently, no easy explanation exists for the processes unearthed by the project – in particular, EINITE demonstrated that economic growth was not the sole driver of inequality change in the preindustrial period, as suggested by a few earlier studies. To put it differently, there is no single “necessary” condition for experiencing inequality growth. There is, instead, a range of “sufficient” conditions, which according to the area and the historical period led to inequality growth. Among the factors that we explored in detail, beside economic growth, there are the rise of the fiscal-military state and the associated “inegalitarian” redistribution processes, the crisis of small peasant ownership (“proletarianization”), and population change.
For the Middle Ages, we found a partially different situation. In all the areas where the available historical sources allowed us to include the fourteenth century in the analysis, we found that the Black Death epidemic of 1347-51 triggered a phase of sustained decline in economic inequality which lasted for about a century. Our current estimate is that quickly after the plague, the top 10% rich lost their grip on 15-20% of the overall wealth: as labour became scarce, real wages increased allowing larger strata of the society to gain access to property.
Interestingly, if we combine EINITE findings for 1300-1800 with the recent estimates of European inequality during the nineteenth and twentieth century, we find only two phases of significant inequality decline, triggered by catastrophic events: first the Black Death, and about six centuries later, the two World Wars and the shocks which occurred between them. It is intuitive how the long-term perspective offered by EINITE suggests that we need to move beyond the old characterization of inequality time dynamics, including in the contemporary period, which was provided by scholars like Simon Kuznets.
These long-term dynamics were not without consequences for how a condition of economic inequality was perceived by different societies. In this regard, we found evidence that in preindustrial Europe, economic inequality was not perceived as a problem per se. The situation started to change in the decades immediately preceding the French Revolution (1789), but seemingly it was only during the nineteenth century that "inequality" really became a keyword for Western Culture.

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