North & South in the 1660s and 1670s: new understanding of the long-run origins of wealth inequality in England

By Andrew Wareham (University of Roehampton)

This blog is part of a series of New Researcher blogs.

Maps of England circa 1670, Darbie 10 of 40. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

New research shows that before the industrial revolution many more houses in south-east England had more fireplaces than houses in the Midlands and northern England. When Mrs Gaskell wrote North and South, she reflected on a theme which was nearly two centuries old and which continues to divide England.

Since the 1960s, historians have wanted to use the Restoration hearth tax to provide a national survey of distributions of population and wealth. But, for technical reasons until now, it has not been possible to move beyond city and county boundaries to make comparisons. 

Hearth Tax Digital, arising from a partnership between the Centre for Hearth Tax Research (Roehampton University, UK) and the Centre for Information Modelling (Graz University, Austria) overcomes these technical barriers. This digital resource provides free access to the tax returns, with full transcription of the records and links to archival shelf marks and location by county and parish. Data on around 188,000 households in London and 15 cities/counties can be searched, with the capacity to download search queries into a databasket, and work on GIS mapping is in development.

In the 1660s and 1670s, after London, the West Riding of Yorkshire and Norfolk stand out as densely populated regions. The early stages of industrialization meant that Leeds, Sheffield, Doncaster and Halifax were overtaking the former leading towns of Hull, Malton and Beverley. But the empty landscapes of north and east Norfolk, enjoyed by holiday makers today, were also densely populated then.

The hearth tax, as a nation-wide levy on domestic fireplaces, was charged against every hearth in each property, and the tax was collected twice a year at Lady Day (March) and Michaelmas (September).  In 1689 after 27 years it was abolished in perpetuity in England and Wales, but it continued to be levied in Ireland until the early nineteenth century and it was levied as a one- off tax in Scotland in 1691. Any property with three hearths and over was liable to pay the tax, and many properties with one or two hearths, such as those occupied by the ordinary poor, were exempt from the tax. (The destitute and those in receipt of poor relief were not included in the tax registers). A family living in a home with one hearth had to use it for all their cooking, heating and leisure purposes, but properties with more than three  hearths had at least one hearth in the kitchen, one in the parlour and one in an upstairs chamber. 

In a  substantial majority of parishes in northern England (County Durham, Westmorland, the East and North Ridings of Yorkshire) less than 20 per cent of households had three hearths and over, and only in the West Riding was there a significant number of parishes where 30 percent and more of households had three hearths and over. But, in southern England, across Middlesex, Surrey, southern Essex, western Kent and a patchwork of parishes across Norfolk, it was common for at least a third of the properties to have three hearths and over. 

There are many local contrasts to explore further. South-east Norfolk and north-east Essex were notably more prosperous than north-west Essex, independent of the influence of London, and the patchwork pattern of wealth distribution in Norfolk around its market towns and prosperous villages is repeated in the Midlands. Nonetheless, the general pattern is clear enough: the distribution of population in the late seventeenth century was quite different from patterns found today, but Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe would have recognized a world in which south-east England abounded with the signs of prosperity and comfort in contrast to the north.

Italy and the Little Divergence in Wages and Prices: Evidence from Stable Employment in Rural Areas, 1500-1850

by Mauro Rota (Sapienza University of Rome) and Jacob Weisdorf (Sapienza University of Rome)

The full article from this post was now published on The Economic History Review and it is available on Early View at this link

The Medieval Plow (Moldboard Plow). Farming in the Middle Ages. Available at Wikimedia Commons

More than half a century ago, Carlo Cipolla advocated that early-modern Italy suffered a prolonged economic downturn. Subsequently, Cipolla’s view was challenged by Domenico Sella, who contended that Italy’s downturn was mainly an urban experience, with the countryside witnessing both rising agricultural productivity and growing proto-industry at the time. If Sella’s view is correct, it is no longer certain  that rural Italy performed differently to its rural counterparts in North-Western Europe.  This potentially implicates how to think about long-run trends in historical workers’ living standards and how these varied across Europe.

The common narrative – that early-modern Europe witnessed a little divergence in living standards – is underpinned by daily wages paid to urban labour. These show that London workers earned considerably more than those in other leading European cities. There are two important reasons, however, why casual urban wages might overstate the living standards of most early-modern workers. First, urban workers made up only a modest fraction of the total workforce. They also received an urban wage premium to cover their urban living expenses – a premium that most workers therefore did not enjoy. Second, many workers were employed on casual terms and had to piece their annual earnings together from daily engagements. This entailed a risk of involuntary underemployment for which workers without stable engagements were compensated. Unless this compensation is accounted for, day wages, on the usual but potentially ahistorical assumption of full-year casual employment, will overstate historical workers’ annual earnings and thus their living standards.

We present an early-modern wage index for ‘stable’ rural workers in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, an important region in pre-industrial Italy (Figure 1).  Since these wages avoid the premiums described above, we argue that our wages offer a more suitable estimate of most historical workers’ living standards, and that the little divergence therefore should be considered using such wages instead. We draw a number of important conclusions on the basis of the new data and their comparison with pre-existing urban casual wages for Italy and rural stable wages for England.

Figure 1: Implied daily real wages of unskilled urban and rural workers in Italy, 1500-1850. Source: as per article.

First, we observe that early modern Italy’s downturn was effectively an urban one, with stable rural workers able to largely maintain their real annual income across the entire early-modern period (Figure 1). Indeed, the urban decline came from a pedestal of unprecedented high wages, possibly the highest in early-modern Europe, and certainly at heights that suggests that urban casual workers were paid considerable wage premiums to cover urban penalties alongside the risk of underemployment.

Our ‘apple-to-apple’ wage comparison within the Grand Duchy of Tuscany gives a precise indication of the size of the wage premiums discussed above. Figure 2 suggests that casual workers received a premium for job insecurity, and that urban workers, unlike rural workers, also received a wage premium. Further, when we compare the premium-free wages in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany with similar ones for England, we find that annual English earnings increased from 10 per cent higher than those in Italy in 1650, to 150 per cent higher by 1800 (Figure 3). If wages reflected labour productivity, then unskilled English workers – but not their Italian equals – grew increasingly more productive in the period preceding the Industrial Revolution.

Figure 2: The implied daily real wages of unskilled casual and stable workers in Tuscany, 1500-1850. Source: As per article.
Figure 3: Real annual income of unskilled workers in Italy and England, 1500-1850. Source: As per article.

We make three main conclusions based on our findings. First, our data support the hypothesis that early-modern Italy’s downturn was mainly an urban experience. Real rural earnings in Tuscany stayed flat between 1500 and 1850. Second, we find that rural England pulled away from Italy (Tuscany) after c. 1650. This divergence happened not because our sample of Italian workers lagged behind their North-Western European counterparts, as earlier studies based on urban casual wages have suggested, but because English workers were paid increasingly more than their Southern European peers. This observation brings us to our final conclusion: to the extent that annual labour productivity in England was reflected in the development of annual earnings, it increasingly outgrew  Italian achievements.

To contact the authors:

Mauro Rota,

Jacob Weisdorf,

Before the fall: quantity versus quality in pre–demographic transition Quebec (NR Online Session 3)

By Matthew Curtis (University of California, Davis)

This research is due to be presented in the third New Researcher Online Session: ‘Human Capital & Development’.


Map of East Canada or Quebec and New Brunswick, by John Tallis c.1850. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

While it plays a key role in theories of the transition to modern economic growth, there are few estimates of the quantity-quality trade-off from before the demographic transition. Using a uniquely suitable new dataset of vital records, I use two instrumental variable (IV) strategies to estimate the trade-off in Quebec between 1620 and 1850. I find that one additional child who survived past age one decreased the literacy rate (proxied by signatures) of their older siblings by 5 percentage points.

The first strategy exploits the fact that twin births, conditional on mother’s age and parity, are a random increase in family size. While twins are often used to identify the trade-off in contemporary studies, sufficiently large and reliable historical datasets containing twins are rare. I compare two families, one whose mother gave birth to twins and one whose mother gave birth to a singleton, both at the same parity and age. I then look at the probability that each older non-twin sibling signed their marriage record.

For the second strategy, I posit that aggregate, province-wide infant mortality rate during the year a younger child was born is exogenous to individual family characteristics. I compare two families, one whose mother gave birth during a year with relatively high infant mortality rate, both at the same parity and age. I then look at older siblings from both families who were born in the same year, controlling for potential time trends in literacy. As the two different IV techniques result in very similar estimates, I argue there is strong evidence of a modest trade-off.

By using two instruments, I am able to rule out one major source of potential bias. In many settings, IV estimates of the trade-off may be biased if parents reallocate resources towards (reinforcement) or away from (compensation) children with higher birth endowments. I show that both twins and children born in high mortality years have, on average, lower literacy rates than their older siblings. As one shock increases and one shock decreases family size, but both result in older siblings having relatively higher human capital, reinforcement or compensation would bias the estimates in different directions. As the estimates are very similar, I conclude there is no evidence that my estimates suffer from this bias.

Is the estimated trade-off economically significant? I compare Quebec to a society with similar culture and institutions: pre-Revolutionary rural France. Between  1628 and 1788, a woman surviving to age 40 in Quebec would expect to have 1.7 additional children surviving past age one compared to her rural French peers. The average literacy rate (again proxied by signatures) in France was about 9.5 percentage points higher than in Quebec. Assuming my estimate of the trade-off is a linear and constant effect (instead of just a local average), reducing family sizes to French levels would have increased literacy by 8.6 percentage points in the next generation, thereby eliminating most of the gap.

However, pre-Revolutionary France was hardly a human capital-rich society. Proxying for the presence of the primary educators of the period (clergy and members of religious orders) with unmarried adults, I find plausible evidence that the trade-off was steeper in boroughs and decades with greater access to education. Altogether, I interpret my results as evidence that a trade-off existed which explains some of the differences across societies.


Data Sources

Henry, Louis, 1978. “Fécondité des mariages dans le quart Sud-Est de la France de 1670 a 1829,” Population (French Edition), 33 (4/5), 855–883.

IMPQ. 2019. Infrastructure intégrée des microdonnées historiques de la population du Québec (XVIIe – XXe siècle) (IMPQ). [Dataset].Centre interuniversitaires d’études              québécoises (CIEQ).

Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH). 2019. Registre de la population du Québec ancien (RPQA). [Dataset]. Département de Démographie, Université de Montréal.

Projet BALSAC. 2019. Le fichier BALSAC. [Dataset]. L’Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.

Taxation and Wealth Inequality in the German Territories of the Holy Roman Empire 1350-1800

by Victoria Gierok (Nuffield College, Oxford)

This blog is part of our EHS Annual Conference 2020 Blog Series.


Nuremberg chronicles – Kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Since the French economist, Thomas Piketty, published Capital in the 21st Century in 2014, it has become clear that we need to understand the development of wealth and income inequality in the long run. While Piketty traces inequality over the last 200 years, other economic historians have recently begun to explore inequality in the more distant past,[1] and they report striking similarities of increasing economic inequality from as early as 1450.

However, one major European region has been largely absent from the debate: Central Europe — the German cities and territories of the Holy Roman Empire. How did wealth inequality develop there? And what role did taxation play?

The Holy Roman Empire was vast, but its borders fluctuated greatly over time. As a first step to facilitating analysis, I  focus on cities in the German-speaking regions.  Urban wealth taxation developed early in many of the great cities, such as Cologne and Lübeck. By the fourteenth century, wealth taxes were common in many cities. They are an excellent source for getting a glimpse at wealth inequality (Caption 1).


Caption 1. Excerpt from the wealth tax registers of Lübeck (1774-84).

Source: Archiv der Hansestadt Lübeck. Archival reference number: 03.04-05 01.02 Johannis-Quartier: 035 Schoßbuch Johannis-Quartier 1774-1784


Three questions need to be clarified when using wealth tax registers as sources:

  • Who was being taxed?
  • What was being taxed?
  • How were they taxed?


The first question was also crucial to contemporaries because the nobility and clergy adamantly defended their privileges which excluded them from taxation. It was Citizens and city-dwellers without citizenship who mainly bore the brunt of wealth taxation.


Figure 1. Taxpayers in a sample of 17 cities in the German Territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

Note: In all cities, citizens were subject to wealth taxation, whereas city-dwellers were fully taxed in only about half of them.
Source: Data derived from multiple sources. For further information, please contact the author.


The cities’ tax codes reveal a level of sophistication that might be surprising. Not only did they tax real estate, cash and inventories, but many of them also taxed financial assets such as loans and perpetuities (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Taxable wealth in 19 cities in the German Territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

Note: In all cities, real estate was taxed, whereas financial assets were taxed only in 13 of them.
Source: Data derived from multiple sources. For further information, please contact the author.


Wealth taxation was always proportional. Many cities established wealth thresholds below which citizens were exempt from taxation, and basic provisions such as grain, clothing and armour were also often exempt. Taxpayers were asked to estimate their own wealth and to pay the correct amount of taxes to the city’s tax collectors. To prevent fraud, taxpayers had to swear under oath (Caption 2).


Caption 2. Scene from the Volkacher Salbuch (1500-1504) shows the mayor on the left, two tax collectors at a table and a taxpayer delivering his tax payment while swearing his oath.

Source: Image: Pausch, Alfons & Jutta Pausch, Kleine Weltgeschichte der Steuerobrigkeit, 1989, Köln: Otto Schmidt KG, p.75


Taking the above limitations seriously, one can use tax registers to trace long-run wealth inequality in cities across the Holy Roman Empire (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Gini Coefficients showing Wealth Inequality in the Urban Middle Ages.

Source: Guido Alfani, G.,  Gierok, V., and Schaff, F.,  “Economic Inequality in Preindustrial Germany, ca. 1300 – 1850”.  Stone Center Working Paper Series, February 2020, no. 03.


Two main trends emerge: First, most cities experienced declining wealth inequality in the aftermath of the Black Death around 1350. The only exception was Rostock, an active trading city in the North. Second, from around 1500, inequality was rising in most cities until the onset of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This war, in which large armies marauded through German lands bringing along plague and other diseases, as well as the shift in trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, might be the reason for the decline seen in this period. This sets the German lands apart from the development of inequality in other European regions, such as Italy and the Netherlands, in which inequality continued to rise throughout the early modern period.



[1] Milanovic, B., Lindert, P.H., and  Williamson, J.,  ‘Pre-Industrial Inequality’, Economic Journal 121, no. 551 (2011): 255-272;  Guido, A. ‘Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View’, Journal of Economic History 75, no. 4 (2015): 1058-1096; Guido, A.,  and Ammannati, F.,  ‘Long-term trends in economic inequality: the case of the Florentine state, c.1300-1800’, Economic History Review 70, 4 (2017): 1072-1102; Wouter, R.,  ‘Economic Inequality and Growth before the Industrial Revolution: The Case of the Low Countries’,  European Review of Economic History 20, no. 1 (2016): 1-22;  Reis, J.,  ‘Deviant Behavior? Inequality in Portugal 1565-1770’,  Cliometrica 11, no. 3  (2017): 297-319; Malinowski, M.,  and  van Zanden J.L., ‘Income and Its Distribution in Preindustrial Poland’, Cliometrica 11, no. 3 (2017): 375-404.



Victoria Gierok:





The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health: Research from Economic History, Part A

This piece is the result of a collaboration between the Economic History Review, the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History and the European Review of Economic History. More details and special thanks below. Part B can be found here


Exhibit depicting a miniature from a 14th century Belgium manuscript at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

As the world grapples with a pandemic, informed views based on facts and evidence have become all the more important. Economic history is a uniquely well-suited discipline to provide insights into the costs and consequences of rare events, such as pandemics, as it combines the tools of an economist with the long perspective and attention to context of historians. The editors of the main journals in economic history have thus gathered a selection of the recently-published articles on epidemics, disease and public health, generously made available by publishers to the public, free of access, so that we may continue to learn from the decisions of humans and policy makers confronting earlier episodes of widespread disease and pandemics.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Generations of economic historians have studied disease and its impact on societies across history. However, as the discipline has continued to evolve with improvements in both data and methods, researchers have uncovered new evidence about episodes from the distant past, such as the Black Death, as well as more recent global pandemics, such as the Spanish Influenza of 1918. We begin with a recent overview of scholarship on the history of premodern epidemics, and group the remaining articles thematically, into two short reading lists. The first consists of research exploring the impact of diseases in the most direct sense: the patterns of mortality they produce. The second group of articles explores the longer-term consequences of diseases for people’s health later in life.

L0025221 Plague doctor
Plague doctor. Available at Wellcome Collection.


L0001879 Two men discovering a dead woman in the street during the gr
Two men discovering a dead woman in the street during the Great Plague of London, 1665. Available at Wellcome Collection.


Patterns of Mortality

Emblems of mortality: death seizing all ranks and degrees of people, 1789. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The rich and complex body of historical work on epidemics is carefully surveyed by Guido Alfani and Tommy Murphy who provide an excellent  guide to the economic, social, and  demographic impact of plagues in human history: ‘Plague and Lethal Epidemics in the Pre-Industrial World’.  The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 1 (2017): 314–43.  The impact of epidemics varies over time and few studies have shown this so clearly as the penetrating article by Neil Cummins, Morgan Kelly and Cormac  Ó Gráda, who provide a finely-detailed map of how the plague evolved  in 16th and 17th century London to reveal who was most heavily burdened by this contagion.  ‘Living Standards and Plague in London, 1560–1665’. Economic History Review 69, no. 1 (2016): 3-34. .  Plagues shaped the history of nations  and, indeed, global history, but we must not assume that the impact of  plagues was as devastating as we might assume: in a classic piece of historical detective work, Ann  Carlos and Frank Lewis show that mortality among native Americans in the Hudson Bay area  was much lower than historians had suggested: ‘Smallpox and Native American Mortality: The 1780s Epidemic in the Hudson Bay Region’.  Explorations in Economic History 49, no. 3 (2012): 277-90.

The effects of disease reflect a complex interaction of individual and social factors.  A paper by Karen Clay, Joshua Lewis and Edson Severnini  explains  how the combination of air pollution and influenza was particularly deadly in the 1918 epidemic, and that  cities in the US which were heavy users of coal had all-age mortality  rates that were approximately  10 per cent higher than  those with lower rates of coal use:  ‘Pollution, Infectious Disease, and Mortality: Evidence from the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic’.  The Journal of Economic History 78, no. 4 (2018): 1179–1209.  A remarkable analysis of how one of the great killers, smallpox, evolved during the 18th century, is provided by Romola Davenport, Leonard Schwarz and Jeremy Boulton, who concluded that it was a change in the transmissibility of the disease itself that mattered most for its impact: “The Decline of Adult Smallpox in Eighteenth‐century London.” Economic History Review 64, no. 4 (2011): 1289-314.   The question of which sections of society experienced the heaviest burden of sickness during outbreaks of disease outbreaks has long troubled historians and epidemiologists. Outsiders and immigrants have often been blamed for disease outbreaks. Jonathan Pritchett and Insan Tunali show that poverty and immunisation, not immigration, explain who was infected during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1853 New Orleans: ‘Strangers’ Disease: Determinants of Yellow Fever Mortality during the New Orleans Epidemic of 1853’. Explorations in Economic History 32, no. 4 (1995): 517.


The Long Run Consequences of Disease

‘Dance of Death’. Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). Available at Wikipedia.

The way epidemics affects families is complex. John Parman wrestles wit h one of the most difficult issues – how parents respond to the harms caused by exposure to an epidemic. Parman  shows that parents chose to concentrate resources on the children who were not affected by exposure to influenza in 1918, which reinforced the differences between their children: ‘Childhood Health and Sibling Outcomes: Nurture Reinforcing Nature during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic’, Explorations in Economic History 58 (2015): 22-43.  Martin Saavedra addresses a related question: how did exposure to disease in early childhood affect life in the long run? Using late 19th century census data from the US, Saavedra  shows that children of immigrants who were exposed to yellow fever in the womb or early infancy, did less well in later life than their peers,  because they were only able to secure lower-paid  employment: ‘Early-life Disease Exposure and Occupational Status: The Impact of Yellow Fever during the 19th Century’.  Explorations in Economic History 64, no. C (2017): 62-81.  One of the great advantages of historical research is its  ability to reveal how the experiences of disease over a lifetime generates cumulative harms. Javier Birchenall’s extraordinary paper shows how soldiers’ exposure to disease during the American Civil War increased the probability  they would  contract tuberculosis later in life: ‘Airborne Diseases: Tuberculosis in the Union Army’. Explorations in Economic History 48, no. 2 (2011): 325-42.


V0010604 A street during the plague in London with a death cart and m
“Bring Out Your Dead” A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665. Available at Wellcome Collection.


Patrick Wallis, Giovanni Federico & John Turner, for the Economic History Review;

Dan Bogart, Karen Clay, William Collins, for the Journal of Economic History;

Kris James Mitchener, Carola Frydman, and Marianne Wanamaker, for Explorations in Economic History;

Joan Roses, Kerstin Enflo, Christopher Meissner, for the European Review of Economic History.


If you wish to read further, other papers on this topic are available on the journal websites:


* Thanks to Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Cambridge University Press, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, and Wiley, for their advice and support.

Plague and long-term development

by Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Dondena Centre and IGIER)


The full paper has been published in The Economic History Review and is available here.

A YouTube video accompanies this work and can be found here.


How did preindustrial economies react to extreme mortality crises caused by severe epidemics of plague? Were health shocks of this kind able to shape long-term development patterns? While past research focused on the Black Death that affected Europe during 1347-52 ( Álvarez Nogal and Prados de la Escosura 2013; Clark 2007; Voigtländer and Voth 2013), in a forthcoming article with Marco Percoco we analyse the long-term consequences of what was by far the worst mortality crisis affecting Italy during the Early Modern period: the 1629-30 plague which killed an estimated 30-35% of the northern Italian population — about two million victims.


Figure 1 Luigi Pellegrini Scaramuccia (1670), Federico Borromeo visits the plague ward during the 1630 plague,

Alfani 1

Source: Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana


This episode is significant in Italian history, and more generally, for our understanding of the Little Divergence between the North and South of Europe. It had recently been hypothesized that the 1630 plague was the source of Italy’s relative decline during the seventeenth century (Alfani 2013). However, this hypothesis lacked solid empirical evidence. To resolve this question, we take a different approach from previous studies, and  demonstrate that plague lowered the trajectory of development of Italian cities. We argue that this was mostly due to a productivity shock caused by the plague, but we also explore other contributing factors. Consequently,  we provide support for the view that the economic consequences of severe demographic shocks need to be understood and studied on a case-by-case basis, as the historical context in which they occurred can lead to very different outcomes (Alfani and Murphy 2017).

After assembling a new database of mortality rates in a sample of 56 cities, we estimate a model of population growth allowing for different regimes of growth. We build on the seminal papers by Davis and Weinstein (2002), and Brakman et al. (2004) who based their analysis on a new framework in economic geography framework in which a relative city size growth model is estimated to determine whether a shock has temporary or persistent effects. We find that cities affected by the 1629-30 plague experienced persistent, long-term effects (i.e., up to 1800) on their pattern of relative population growth.


Figure 2. Giacomo Borlone de Buschis (attributed), Triumph of Death (1485), fresco

Alfani 2

Source: Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone (Italy).


We complete our analysis by estimating the absolute impact of the epidemic. We find that in northern Italian regions the plague caused a lasting decline in both the size and rate of change  of urban populations. The lasting damage done to the urban population are shown in Figure 3. For urbanization rates it will suffice to notice that across the North of Italy, by 1700 (70 years after the 1630 plague), they were still more than 20 per cent lower than in the decades preceding the catastrophe (16.1 per cent in 1700 versus an estimated 20.4 per cent in 1600, for cities >5,000). Overall, these findings suggest that surges in plagues may contribute to the decline of economic regions or whole countries. Our conclusions are  strengthened by showing that while there is clear evidence of the negative consequences of the 1630 plague, there is hardly any evidence for a positive effect (Pamuk 2007). We hypothesize that the potential positive consequences of the 1630 plague were entirely eroded by a negative productivity shock.


Figure 3. Size of the urban population in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto (1620-1700)

Alfani 3

Source: see original article


Demonstrating that the plague had a persistent negative effect on many key Italian urban economies, we provide support for the hypothesis that the origins of  relative economic decline in northern Italy are to be found in particularly unfavorable epidemiological conditions. It was the context in which an epidemic occurred that increased its ability to affect the economy, not the plague itself.  Indeed, the 1630 plague affected the main states of the Italian Peninsula at the worst possible moment when its manufacturing were dealing with increasing competition from northern European countries. This explanation, however, provides a different interpretation to the Little Divergence in recent literature.


To contact the author:



Alfani, G., ‘Plague in seventeenth century Europe and the decline of Italy: and epidemiological hypothesis’, European Review of Economic History, 17, 4 (2013), pp.  408-430

Alfani, G. and Murphy, T., ‘Plague and Lethal Epidemics in the Pre-Industrial World’, Journal of Economic History, 77, 1 (2017), pp. 314-343.

Alfani, G. and Percoco, M., ‘Plague and long-term development: the lasting effects of the 1629-30 epidemic on the Italian cities’, The Economic History Review, forthcoming,

Álvarez Nogal, C. and Prados de la Escosura,L., ‘The Rise and Fall of Spain (1270-1850)’, Economic History Review, 66, 1 (2013), pp. 1–37.

Brakman, S., Garretsen H., Schramm M. ‘The Strategic Bombing of German Cities during World War II and its Impact on City Growth’, Journal of Economic Geography, 4 (2004), pp. 201-218.

Clark, G., A Farewell to Alms (Princeton, 2007).

Davis, D.R. and Weinstein, D.E. ‘Bones, Bombs, and Break Points: The Geography of Economic Activity’, American Economic Review, 92, 5 (2002), pp. 1269-1289.

Pamuk, S., ‘The Black Death and the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ across Europe, 1300-1600’, European Review of Economic History, 11 (2007), pp. 289-317.

Voigtländer, N. and H.J. Voth, ‘The Three Horsemen of Riches: Plague, War, and Urbanization in Early Modern Europe’, Review of Economic Studies 80, 2 (2013), pp. 774–811.

Landlords and tenants in Britain, 1440-1660

review by James P. Bowen (University of Liverpool)

book edited by Jane Whittle

‘Landlords and tenanta in Britain, 1440-1660’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 15th August 2019. See below for details.



This book, the first volume in the Economic History Society’s ‘People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History’ paperback series, revisits Tawney’s classic work, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, published in 1912. It arises from a conference held to mark the centenary of the book’s publication and includes the leading figures in rural and agrarian history showcasing the latest research on issues originally discussed by Tawney. The book is logically structured. Keith Wrightson’s foreword provides personal insight as to attitudes amongst Cambridge economic historians who maligned Tawney. The first three chapters offer overviews beginning with Jane Whittle’s historiographical essay concerning Tawney, providing background to his Agrarian Problem. Christopher Dyer surveys the fifteenth century, given Tawney’s view that demographic changes were key in creating change in fifteenth-century England, providing the conditions for the ‘problem’ of the sixteenth century. Harold Garrett-Goodyear addresses the issues surrounding copyhold tenure and the institutional function of manor courts in promoting lords’ private interests as landowners and how this was reflected in economic and social change with the emergence of agrarian capitalism, greater social differentiation and the transition from feudal to modern society.

The remaining chapters are thematic, several of which are detailed local or micro-studies. Briony McDonagh and Heather Falvey explore the enclosure process at a local level. Complementing the rural viewpoint, Andy Wood shows how notions of custom and popular memory were prominent in urban society below the ‘middling sort’, specifically weavers of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, a cloth-working town. Whilst there is an apparent lack of evidence for Tawney’s sense of ‘ideal customary’, he suggests this does not undermine his view, conversely reinforcing his argument about the centrality of custom in popular political culture and disputes arising because of struggles over customary entitlement and urban identity. Providing a comparative dimension Julian Goodare searches for a Scottish agrarian problem, pointing out that whilst the two countries had different legal and political systems, similar processes seem to have been at play, suggesting a common economic problem rather than law or political structures.

Several chapters address the issue of tenure, Tawney having pointed to the insecurity of leasehold tenure and the increasing commercial landlord policies as being central to the agrarian problems of the sixteenth century. Jean Morrin examines a landlord-tenant dispute on the Durham Cathedral Estate over the abolition of traditional customary tenures, specifically tenant-right. She argues for a more subtle approach to leases in the early modern period given the various forms which they took, presenting a picture of negotiation and compromise, which not only encouraged tenants to improve farms, but also granted them the right to bequeath, sell or mortgage their leases to whomever they chose. Jennifer Holt explores the case of the Hornby Castle Estate in north Lancashire, analyzing the potential income from customary land and quantifying the shares of lords and tenants, demonstrating how manorial tenants benefitted despite the lord’s attempt to raise rents and fines, retaining their tenures on a customary basis.

Chapters by Bill Shannon and Elizabeth Griffiths look at landlord-driven agrarian improvement intended to raise revenue. Christopher Brooks considers the legal and political context, in particular the impact of the Civil Wars and Interregnum, highlighting the complexities which weakened Tawney’s assessment of the mid- and later seventeenth century. He highlights the common laws engagement with customary tenures by 1640, arguing that greater security afforded to smallholders enabled them to assert their rights more aggressively, with patriarchal and seigniorial landlord-tenant relationships being replaced by economic relations. Legal developments meant common law served the interests of ‘middling’ agricultural society and the gentry and that by the 1680s, land, including copyhold, had been absorbed into the market for both property and credit. Finally, David Ormrod reflects on the significance of Tawney’s work in relation to long-standing theoretical debates regarding the rise of capitalism and the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Whittle’s short conclusion effectively synthesizes the chapters, showing that debates have progressed since Tawney’s work not least with regard to the newer approaches towards political, social and rural history. Emphasis is placed on the ‘blurred boundaries’ which existed, leading to disputes notably over enclosure and tenure. Developments in England are viewed in a wider western European perspective, with reference to up-to-date research and future questions identified. The chapters form a coherent volume which, as the title suggests, focuses on the changing relationship between landlords and tenants, a well-established trend in agrarian historiography. Moreover, while it is recognized that any notion of a sixteenth-century agrarian revolution has been rejected, it nevertheless rightly argued that Tawney’s Agrarian Problem, ‘remains a crucial reference point’, containing much to, ‘inform and inspire the twenty-first-century historian seeking to understand the changes that took place in rural England between 1440 and 1660’ (pp. 17-18).


SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code B125 online hereOffer ends 15th August 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email


Note: this post appeared as a book review article in the Review. We have obtained the necessary permissions.

Squeezing blood from a stone: eighteenth century debtors’ prisons worked

by Alex Wakelam (University of Cambridge)


Woodstreet Compter.jpg
Wood Street Compter, 1793. Image extracted from page 384 of volume 1 of Old and New London, Illustrated, by Walter Thornbury. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

While it is often assumed that debtors’ prisons were illogical and ineffective, my research demonstrates that they were extremely economically effective for creditors though they could ruin the lives of debtors.

The debtors’ prison is a frequent historical bogeyman, a Dickensian symptom of the illogical cruelty of the past that disappeared with enlightened capitalism. As imprisoning someone who could not afford to pay their debts, keeping them away from work and family, seems futile it is assumed creditors were doing so to satisfy petty revenge.

But they were a feature of most of English history from 1283, and though their power was curbed in 1869, there were still debtors imprisoned in the 1920s. The reason they persisted, as my research shows, is because, for creditors, they worked well.

The majority of imprisoned debtors in the eighteenth century were released relatively quickly having paid their creditors. This revelation is timely when events in America demonstrate how easily these prisons can return.

As today, most eighteenth century purchases were done on credit due to the delay in wages, limited supply of coinage, and cultural preferences for buying goods on credit. But credit was based on a range of factors including personal reputation, social rank and moral status. Informal oral contracts could frequently be made with little sense of an individual’s actual financial status, particularly if they were a gentleman or aristocrat. As contracts were not based on goods and court processes were slow, it was difficult to seize property to recover debts when creditors required money.

Creditors were able to imprison debtors without trial in this period until they paid what they owed or died. The registers of a London Debtors’ Prison, the Woodstreet Compter (1741-1815), reveal that creditors had good reasons to do so. Most of the 10,156 debtors contained in the registers left prison relatively quickly – 91% were released in under a year while almost a third were released in less than 100 days.

In addition, 84% were ‘discharged’ by their creditors, indicating that either the prisoner had paid their debts or a new contract had been agreed. Imprisonment forced debtors to find a way to pay or at least to renegotiate with creditors.

Prisoners were not the poor, but usually middle class people in small amounts of debt. One of the largest groups was made up of shopkeepers (about 20% of prisoners) though male and female prisoners came from across society with gentlemen, cheesemongers, lawyers, wigmakers and professors rubbing shoulders.

Most used their time to coordinate the selling of goods to raise money, or borrowed yet more from family and friends. Many others called in their own debts by having their debtors imprisoned as well.

As prisons were relatively open, some debtors worked off their debts. John Grano, a trumpeter who worked for Handel, imprisoned in the 1720s, taught music lessons from his cell. Others sold liquor or food to fellow prisoners or continued as best they could at their trade in the prison yard. Those with a literary mind, such as Daniel Defoe, wrote their way out.

Though credit works on different terms today, that coercive imprisonment is effective at securing repayment remains true. There have been a number of US states operating what amount to debtors’ prisons in recent years where the poor, fined by the state usually for traffic violations, are held until they pay what they owe.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions even retracted an Obama era memo in December aimed at abolishing the practice. While eighteenth century prisons worked effectively for creditors, they could ruin the lives of debtors who were forced to sell anything they could to pay their dues and escape the unsanitary hole in which they were being kept without trial. Assuming that they did not work and therefore won’t return is shown by my research to be false.


Institutional choice in the governance of the early Atlantic sugar trade: diasporas, markets and courts

by Daniel Strum (University of São Paulo)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available for EHS members here.


Strum Pic
Figure 1. Cartographic chart of the Atlantic Ocean (c. 1600). Source: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Florence, Italy. Port. 27.  By kind permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivitá Culturali della Repubblica Italiana.
Reproduction of this image by any means is strictly prohibited.

In the age of sailboats, how could traders be confident that the parties with whom they were considering working on the other side of the ocean would not act opportunistically? Commercial agents overseas spared merchants time and the hazards of travel and allowed them to diversify their investments; but agents might also cheat or renege on or neglect their commitments.

My research about the merchants of Jewish origin plying the sugar trade linking Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands demonstrates that the same merchants chose different feasible mechanisms (institutions) to curb opportunism in different types of transactions. Its main contribution is to establish a clear pattern linking the attributes of these transactions to those of the mechanisms chosen to enforce them. It also shows how these mechanisms interrelated.

Around 1600, Europe experienced rapidly growing urban populations and dependence on trade for supplies of basic products, while overseas possessions contributed to a surging output of marketable commodities, including sugar. Brazil was turned into the first large-scale plantation economy and became the world’s main sugar producer, with Amsterdam emerging as its main distribution and refining centre. Most of the Brazilian sugar trade was intermediated by merchants in Portugal, and traders of Jewish origin scattered along this trade route played a prominent role in the sugar trade.  The Brazilian sugar trade required institutions with low costs in agency services and contract enforcement because it was a significantly competitive market. Its political, legal, and administrative framework raised relatively few obstacles to market entrants, and trade in a semi-luxury commodity necessitated low start-up costs.

Sources reveal that merchants of Jewish origin engaged mostly individuals of other backgrounds in transactions in which agents had little latitude, performed simple tasks over short periods, and managed small sums (see table 1). Insiders were not left out in these transactions, but the background of agents was not determinant.The research shows that these transactions were primarily enforced by an informal mechanism that linked one’s expected income to one’s professional reputation. Bad conduct led to marginalization while good behaviour vouched for more opportunities by the same and other principals. This mechanism functioned among all traders, despite their differing backgrounds, who were active in these interconnected marketplaces. This professional reputation mechanism worked because a standardization of basic mercantile practices produced a shared understanding of how trade should be conducted. At the same time, the marketplaces’ structure together with patterns of transportation and correspondence increased the speed, frequency, volume, and diversity of the information flow within and between these marketplaces. This information system facilitated both the detection of good and bad conduct and relatively rapid response to news about it.


Strum Pic 2
Figure 2. Sugar crate being weighted at the Palace Square in Lisbon. Source: Dirk Stoop – Terreiro do Paço no século XVII, 1662. Painting. Museu da Cidade, Lisboa, Portugal. MC.PIN.261.© Museu da Cidade – Câmara Municipal de Lisboa.

The professional reputation mechanism worked better on transactions involving small sums and fewer, simpler, and shorter tasks. Misconduct in these tasks were easier to detect and expose amid an extensive and heterogeneous network; and if the agent cheated, the small sums assigned were not enough to live on while forsaking trade.


Table 1. Backgrounds of agents in complex and simple arrangements

Type of transaction Outsiders Probable outsiders Insiders Probable insiders Relatives
Complex 2.6% 4.9% 69.9% 2.1% 20.6%
Simple 20.0% 70.0% 0% 10.0% 0%

Source: original article in the Economic History Review.


On the other hand, merchants of Jewish origin preferred to engage members of their diaspora in complex, larger, and longer transactions (see table 1). A reputation mechanism within diaspora was more effective in governing transactions that were difficult to follow. Although enforcement within the diaspora benefitted from the general information system, the diaspora’s social structure generated more information more rapidly about the conduct of its members. In each centre, insiders knew each other and marriages and socialization within the group prevailed. Insiders usually had personal acquaintances and often relatives in other centres as well. They were conscious of their common history and fragile status. Such social structure also provided greater economic and social incentives for honesty and diligence than the professional mechanism, making the internal mechanism preferable in transactions involving larger sums and wider latitude.

Finally, the research shows that the legal system was able to impose sanctions across wide distances and political units. Yet owing to courts’ slowness and costliness, merchants resorted to litigation only after nonjudicial mechanisms failed. Furthermore, courts could not punish inattention that did not breach legal, customary, or contractual specifications, nor could courts reward accomplishment.

Litigation had to supplemented the professional mechanism because its incentives were not homogeneous across all marketplaces and diasporas. Courts also reinforced the diaspora mechanism by limiting the future income an agent expected to gain from misappropriating large sums from one or many principals. Finally, the professional mechanism supplemented the diaspora mechanism by limiting alternative agency relations with outsiders for insiders who had engaged in misconduct.

Because merchants were capable of matching transactions with the most appropriate governing mechanisms, they were able to diversify their transactions, expand the market for agents, better allocate agents to tasks, and stimulate competition among them. The resulting decrease in agency costs was critical in a significantly competitive market as the sugar trade. Institutional choice thus supported and reinforced—rather than caused—expansion of exchange.

Anthropometric history and the measurement of wellbeing

Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Variations in human stature, 1887. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Interest in the history of human height, and other anthropometric indicators, has increased dramatically over the last four decades. Most of the earliest studies were based on measurements obtained from living subjects but increasing use has also been made of skeletal evidence (see for example, Steckel et al, 2019).

The development of the field reflects James Tanner’s conception of height as a ‘mirror of the condition of society’. The growth of children, he wrote, ‘is a wonderfully good gauge of living conditions and the relative prosperity of different groups in a population’ as well as an effective form of health screening (Tanner, 1987).

The use of height as a measure of human welfare can be traced back at least as far as the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1829, the French physician, Louis-René Villermé, argued that ‘human height becomes greater and growth more rapid… as a country is richer…. The circumstances which accompany poverty delay the age at which complete stature is reached and stunt adult height’ (Tanner, 1981).

During the 1980s and 1990s, Roderick Floud (1984), John Komlos (1987) and Richard Steckel (1992) all highlighted the value of height as a measure of human ‘wellbeing’. For Steckel, ‘average height is also conceptually consistent with [Amartya] Sen’s framework of functionings and capabilities though, of course, height registers primarily conditions of health during the growing years as opposed to one’s status with regard to commodities more generally’.

My paper at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference revisits some of these arguments to ask whether studies of height still provide a general guide to the wellbeing of past societies. It starts by looking at the background to the development of the field before considering some possible challenges.

These include debates over the reliability of historical height data, the nature of human growth and the proximate determinants of variations in human stature. The paper also explores the extent to which these variations can also be associated with indicators of future wellbeing.



Floud, R (1984) ‘Measuring the transformation of the European economies: income, health and welfare’, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 33.

Komlos, J (1987) ‘The height and weight of West Point cadets: dietary change in antebellum America’, Journal of Economic History 47: 897-927.

Steckel, RH (1992) ‘Stature and living standards in the United States’, in R Gallman and J Wallis (eds) American economic growth before the Civil War, University of Chicago Press.

Steckel, RH, CS Larsen, CA Roberts and J Baten (eds) (2019) The backbone of Europe: health, diet, work and violence over two millennia, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1981) A history of the study of human growth, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1987), ‘Growth as a mirror of the condition of society: secular trends and class distinctions’, Pediatrics International 29: 96-103.