Author(s): Guido Alfani, Felix Schaff, Victoria Gierok
Keywords: Economic inequality; social inequality; wealth concentration; middle ages; early modern period; Germany; central Europe; plague; war; Black Death; Thirty Years’ War; poverty
This paper provides an overview of economic inequality in Germany from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It represents the first attempt at reconstructing long-term trends in wealth inequality in a central European area. It builds upon the data produced by the German Historical School, which from the late nineteenth century pioneered inequality studies, but also adds new archival information for selected communities and areas. Overall during the early modern period inequality was found to be increasing, as seems to have been the case in most of the European continent, but with an important local specificity: the terribly destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), together with the plague epidemic of 1627-29, are found to have caused a temporary but significant phase of reduction in inequality. This is in stark contrast to other European areas for which information is available, from Italy to the Low Countries, where during 1500-1800 inequality growth was monotonic. Some evidence of a drop in inequality is also found after the Black Death of 1348-49, but in at least part of Germany inequality growth seems to have resumed immediately after that plague. Our findings contribute to deepen and to nuance our knowledge of long-term inequality trends in preindustrial Europe, and offer new material to current debates on the determinants of inequality change in western societies, past and present.