Only Plagues and Wars Curb Inequality's Rise. But Why?

, by Fabio Todesco
At Bocconi the final conference of EINITE, a ERC winning research project featuring Guido Alfani as principal investigator, which studied economic inequality in preindustrial Europe

In 2011 Guido Alfani obtained a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for his Economic Inequality across Italy and Europe, 1300-1800 (EINITE) research project. Tomorrow leading European scholars of the topic will meet at Bocconi for the final EINITE Conference. Economic Inequality in Preindustrial Europe (Manfredini Room, via Sarfatti 25, 10am).

"Our research found evidence that economic inequality has been continuously soaring throughout those five centuries", Prof. Alfani says, "with the remarkable exception of the period following the mid-fourteenth-century Black Death pandemic. Inequality seems to have a tendency to soar, unless dramatic shocks happen, such as the Black Death or WWII, in the case of Thomas Piketty's studies on contemporary economic inequality. The tricky part is explaining why. We don't find a sufficient reason, but a multiplicity of necessary ones".

Economic inequality in the preindustrial age is a complex subject. "Data are scarce and when the EINITE program kicked off there was only a seminal work by Utrecht University's Jan-Luiten Van Zanden. To investigate the topic you need scholars able to conduct archive research, single out the relevant data, build a database and apply modern inequality and social mobility methodologies to it", continues Alfani.

In its five years the EINITE research program, hosted by Bocconi's Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policies, has involved some of the major scholars of the field (École des Haute Études en Sciences Sociales' Fabrice Boudjaaba, Universidad Carlos III's Carlos Santiago-Caballero and Vrije Universiteit's Wouter Ryckbosch as associate researchers, while Van Zanden and University of Glasgow's Samuel Cohn contributed data about parts of Europe) and Bocconi post-doc researchers (Francesco Ammannati, Matteo Di Tullio, Roberta Frigeni, Héctor Garcìa Montero, Sergio Sardone and Davide De Franco). At the EINITE Conference they will meet almost all the European scholars of the topic.

The output of the research program consists so far of some twenty publications and working papers, including Alfani's Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View (Fourteenth to Eighteenth Centuries), (Journal of Economic History, 75 (4), pp. 1058-1096) and Alfani and Ryckbosch's Growing Apart in Early Modern Europe? A Comparison of Inequality Trends in Italy and the Low Countries, 1500–1800, (Explorations in Economic History, 2016,, forthcoming).