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Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe: 1300-1800

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What the past teaches us about social mobility

Researchers are building an extensive database about social mobility trends in Europe starting from the Black Death and through to the Industrial Revolution.

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Inequality and social mobility aren’t modern-day buzzwords, they’re issues with which Europe has been grappling since the early 1300s. “Because so little data about preindustrial social mobility is available today, we aren’t able to learn from our mistakes,” says Guido Alfani, a researcher at Bocconi University, Milan. “Instead, it seems history keeps repeating itself.” With the support of the EU-funded SMITE project, Alfani is leading an effort to better understand social mobility trends in Europe starting from the Black Death and through to the Industrial Revolution. “Our goal is to not only measure mobility, but also learn about its consequences for the economy and society at large,” adds Alfani.

Measuring medieval and early modern social mobility

The project, which received support from the European Research Council, collected an extensive database about both economic mobility across classes and occupational mobility. “Nobody has ever attempted to properly measure medieval and early modern social mobility using archival sources,” explains Alfani. “This meant we had to start from scratch using our own innovative methods for researching sources and analysing data.” While most of the project’s archival research happened in Italy, which is home to excellent sources, the project also looked at Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain. “Although our research concentrated on specific European regions, we framed our findings within a continental context,” remarks Alfani.

How pandemics infect inequality and social mobility

One of these findings was an understanding of how social mobility fluctuated, often impacted by major events. For example, after the Black Death of 1347-52, researchers identified several generations when it was relatively easy to move up or down the social ladder. Interestingly, this seems to be an exception as, starting in the 1400s, social mobility steadily declined across the continent. “These findings about the mobility-increasing impact of the Black Death could prove quite interesting as today’s society begins to transition into our own post-pandemic period,” says Alfani. “However, COVID-19 will have a very different impact on inequality and mobility for the simple reason that, luckily, mortality levels were much lower than the Black Death, which killed a very significant proportion of Europe’s population.” The project has already published an article about the impact major epidemics and pandemics can have on economic inequality, poverty and social mobility in the ‘Journal of Economic Literature’.

A new field of research in preindustrial social mobility

8Another important finding was that, starting in the 1600s, northern European societies became somewhat more mobile than their southern counterparts. According to Alfani, this could have contributed significantly to the so-called ‘little divergence’ in economic development and performance between northern and southern Europe during pre-industrial and early industrial times, and which partly persists to this day. “Findings like these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can learn about social mobility by diving into the past,” concludes Alfani. “I am confident that our work has set the stage for a new field of research into pre-industrial social mobility.”


SMITE, social mobility, Black Death, Industrial Revolution, inequality, economy, economic mobility, occupational mobility, pandemics, COVID-19, poverty

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