Category Archives: Guido Alfani

On the Long-term Determinants of Cultural Traits: Family Structures in the Past

Origins and Implications of Family Structure across Italian Provinces in Historical Perspective

By Graziella Bertocchi (Modena and Reggia Emilia University and IZA) and Monica Bozzano (Modena and Reggia Emilia University)

Abstract: In this study we review the literature on the origins and implications of family structure in historical perspective with a focus on Italian provinces. Furthermore we present newly collected data on three of the main features of family structure: female mean age at marriage, the female celibacy rate, and the fraction of illegitimate births. The data are collected at the provincial level for 1871, the year of Italy’s political unification. The analysis of the data allows us to confirm and quantify the geographic differentiation in family patterns across the country.
We also illustrate the links between family structure and a set of socio-economic outcomes, in the short, medium, and long run.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017‒06‒25

Review by: Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan)

The recent interest in the long-term determinants of cultural traits has led to a new wave of research on family systems in the past, as well as to debates that renewed old disputes about the actual possibility of identifying areas of coherent family systems and their causal effect on contemporary behaviours. Graziella Bertocchi and Monica Bozzano have been very active in this field, focusing on such a culturally fragmented and varied area as Italy. In this new working paper, they present further evidence at the provincial level from the Italian 1871 census. They show the importance of looking at the sub-national and indeed, at the sub-regional level to identify correctly the prevalent family structures and demographic behaviours. Their data show feeble evidence that the so-called EMP (European Marriage Pattern) is associated with economic development, human capital accumulation and women’s empowerment. These findings are relevant to current debates on European family systems and on their possible permanent effects on cultural traits.


Italian Family, early twentieth-century. Source:


This paper presents new data, at the provincial level, about family structures in Italy in 1871. In that year, the first national census was made after the conquest of Rome and the incorporation of the residual territories of the former Papal States, and Veneto, into the Kingdom of Italy. The authors provide information about family types, female age to marriage, proportion of brides under age 20, female final celibacy rates, and illegitimacy rates. Family types are classified as nuclear vs complex, as well as according to the four-way classification introduced by Todd (1990) which combines residential habits (neolocal vs patrilocal) and inheritance systems (partible vs impartible): absolute nuclear family, egalitarian nuclear family, stem family, and communitarian family. Additionally, the authors build upon earlier research (Bertocchi and Bozzano 2015) to apply their own classification of Italian families, which distinguishes between egalitarian families with late female age to marriage (found to be prevalent, in 1871, in the North-West of Italy), incomplete stem families (prevalent in the North-East), communitarian families (prevalent in the Centre) and egalitarian families with early age to marriage (prevalent in the South).
Beyond the technicalities of the classification, an important contribution of the article is to clearly show, by means of a set of well-drawn maps, the high variability of family types and behaviours to be found across the Italian peninsula, even in contiguous territories. The obvious consequence of this, is to make it much more difficult to neatly characterize different parts of Italy according to their family systems and prevalent demographic behaviours.
Interestingly, the authors focus on characteristics connected to the so-called European Marriage Pattern (EMP), including nuclear residential patterns, relatively late age to marriage and relatively high final celibacy rates. The prevalence of the EMP has been connected to economic success, as originally hypothesized by Hajnal (1965) and as later assumed by many economic historians and economists (for example, Greif 2006; De Moor and Van Zanden 2010). But in this paper, in the authors’ words, “Overall our results show very feeble evidence that the different characteristics of the EMP are associated with economic development, human capital accumulation, or women’s empowerment” (p. 14). However, the authors do find a significant correlation between some of their indicators and measures of contemporary gender balance. For example, gender equality in economic leadership (measured as the rate of women in managerial positions) in year 2009 is found to grow with the female mean age to marriage in 1871 and to decline with the proportion of brides under age 20 and the prevalence of nuclear families. This is in line with earlier research by Bozzano (2016).
The authors are mindful of placing correctly their discussion in the broader context of current research on the long-term impact of family systems and structures done by economic historians and economists. Consequently they provide to all researchers interested in the field a useful survey of the recent literature (although a better coverage of recent demographic and historical-demographic literature would also have been useful – see for example Reher 1998).


This paper is an interesting and important contribution to the renewed pan-European research efforts aimed at identifying the characteristics of past family systems. Although many researchers pursue this objective solely to improve our knowledge of the past, others are driven by the aim of finding long-term determinants of differences in current social and economic behaviour. Two examples of this are the “Patriarchy Index” project (Szołtysek et al. 2017) and the recently-started Institutional Family Demography project (IFAMID) led by Arnstein Aassve, which is currently focusing on the measurement of another of Hajnal’s favoured indicators, the prevalence of life-cycle servants, at the European sub-national level. Yet other scholars have analysed previously-neglected aspects of past societies which could also explain current behaviour – for example godparenthood practices, which began to diverge across Europe at the time of the Reformation and which might have led to differences in ways of doing business (Alfani and Gourdon 2012).
The sub-national scale of analysis is a particularly useful characteristic of this paper. First, it allows (at least on principle) for more precise measurement and greater explanatory power. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, it reminds us that complexity in the geographic distribution of social systems and behaviours is the common feature of most of the European continent. Indeed, a seemingly frequent characteristic of old debates is that they are easily forgotten – and what might have seemed to be final acquisitions need to be re-discovered and re-discussed, decades later. This is the case of debates about the actual possibility of applying broad generalizations to studies of European social-economic dynamics, the most common of which, both when referring to the European continent, or to Italy alone, seems to be the “North vs South” one. Such debates already involved, in a somewhat defensive position, Peter Laslett and his school, but have been renewed due to the popularity acquired by Todd’s more recent classifications among economists and to some degree among economic historians (interestingly, Todd seems to have been much less influential on historians of the family). The debates about the role played by the EMP in determining economic success, which have recently been the object of intense discussion in the pages of the Journal of Economic History (Dennison and Ogilvie 2014; 2016; Carmichael et al. 2016), have old roots. It is still unclear where current discussion will lead us – whether we are bound to conclude that if we examine European family systems closely, they are in fact too diverse and intermixed to be of much use as indicators of persistent cultural divides, or whether we will finally reach a consensus on broad, documentable differences which do not only fit nicely with our views on European societies (even though such views might be more than a little tainted by prejudice and ideology), but do actually explain something. What is clear is that, in order to make the discussion progress in a fruitful way, we need more high-quality data – which is what this paper successfully delivers for Italy.
There are, of course, issues which might be debated further. For example, this paper (like most of its kind) does not discuss the choice of period to measure differences in past family systems. It is not enough to state that the earliest-available encompassing census is used – is 1871 also the right period to measure such differences? Were not family differences already influenced by the Industrial Revolution and the demographic transition, and were not these processes more advanced at that time in the North (and especially in the North-West) than in the South of Italy? And why did the authors not control in their regression analysis for the pre-unification Italian state to which each province belonged, given that they work on a period immediately following the birth of the Kingdom of Italy? Indeed, why should we rule out the possibility that pre-unification states also had permanent effects, perhaps due to some influence on their local family systems? Finally, how far could family systems in 1871 determine differences in cultural traits today, given the intense internal migration processes that affected Italy? Many northern regions today have a very mixed population if we consider where the current population’s ancestors lived in 1871. Should we not conclude that current cultural traits are better explained by past family systems in provinces of out-migration (mostly the southern ones) compared with those of in-migration (mostly the northern ones)? And how could we take this into account, if indeed it is possible?
But these are questions better left for further research and for future debates, which already seem to be looming on the horizon. For now, we should be grateful to the authors of this paper for providing us with new material to ponder.

Selected bibliography

Alfani, G. and Gourdon, V. (2012), “Entrepreneurs, formalization of social ties, and trustbuilding in Europe (fourteenth to twentieth centuries)”, Economic History Review 65 (3), pp. 1005–1028
Bertocchi, G. and M. Bozzano (2015),“Family Structure and the Education Gender Gap: Evidence from Italian Provinces,” CESifo Economic Studies 61, pp. 263–300.
Bozzano, M. (2016), “On the Historical Roots of Women’s Empowerment across Italian Provinces: Religion or Family Culture?”, European Journal of Political Economy, forthcoming.
Carmichael, S. G., De Pleijt, A., van Zanden, J.L. and De Moor, T. (2016), “The European Marriage Pattern and Its Measurement”, Journal of Economic History 76, pp. 196–204.
De Moor, T. and J. L. van Zanden (2010), “Girlpower: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period”, Economic History Review 63, pp. 1–33.
Dennison, T. and S. Ogilvie (2014), “Does the European Marriage Pattern Explain Economic Growth?”, Journal of Economic History 74, pp. 651–693.
Dennison, T. and S. Ogilvie (2016), “Institutions, Demography, and Economic Growth”, Journal of Economic History 76, pp. 215–217.
Greif, A. (2006), “Family Structure, Institutions, and Growth: The Origins and Implications of Western Corporations”, American Economic Review 96, pp. 308–312.
Hajnal, J. (1965), “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective”, in D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley (eds.), Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, Edward Arnold, London, pp. 101–143.
Reher, D.S. (1998), “Family ties in Western Europe: Persistent Contrasts”, Population and Development Review 24, pp. 203-234
Szołtysek, M., Poniat, R., Gruber, S., Klüsener, S. (2017), “The Patriarchy Index: a new measure of gender and generational inequalities in the past”, Cross-Cultural Research 51 (3), pp. 1-35
Todd, E. (1990), L’Invention de l’Europe. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.


On Social Tables, Inequality and Pre-Industrial Societies

“Towards an explanation of inequality in pre-modern societies: the role of colonies and high population density”

by Branko Milanovic (City University of New York)

Abstract: Using the newly expanded set of 40 social tables from pre-modern societies, the paper tries to find out the factors associated with the level of inequality and the inequality extraction ratio (how close to the maximum inequality have the elites pushed the actual inequality). We find strong evidence that elites in colonies were more extractive, and that more densely populated countries exhibited lower extraction ratios. We propose several possibilities linking high population density to low inequality and to low elite extraction.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2016-11-13

Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan)

Given the recent increase in the availability of good-quality data on pre-industrial (or pre-modern) societies, there is much need for works of synthesis aimed at discovering the factors shaping long-term inequality trends. Branko Milanovic has been particularly active in this field, with the publication of a recent book on Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016, Harvard University Press) [see the reviews here – Ed]. In this new working paper, Milanovic tries to move forward, using a large database of social tables to single out the potential causes of differences in historical inequality levels and in inequality extraction. He focuses in particular on institutional factors (inequality in colonies vs other areas) and on demographic factors (population density). The results are very interesting and represent a useful step forward in our understanding of inequality change in preindustrial societies.

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-11-13. It makes use of a relatively large collection of social tables for preindustrial societies, including overall 40 social tables for about 30 distinct countries/world areas over a very long time: from Athens in 330 BCE to British India in 1938. As is well known, social tables allow us to roughly estimate income inequality. They are particularly useful in situations of relative scarcity of data and although they have been in use for centuries – the first example is Gregory King’s social table dating 1688 – many new ones have recently been produced for a variety of preindustrial societies across the world (see Lindert and Williamson 2016 for the U.S., Saito 2015 for Japan, Broadberry et al. 2015 for England, and Alfani and Tadei 2017 for Ivory Coast, Senegal and the Central African Republic). Although estimating complete distributions is the better option (see for example the accurate reconstruction of income distribution in Old Castile around 1750 by Nicolini and Ramos 2016, the impressive work by Reis 2017 on Portugal from 1565 to 1770, and finally, the estimates of wealth inequality in the period 1300-1800 produced by the EINITE project for a variety of Italian pre-unification states and other European areas: Alfani (2015, 2017); Alfani and Ryckbosch (2016); Alfani and Ammannati (2017), this is not always possible or feasible and social tables must be considered a good alternative especially when there is a relative scarcity of data.


As rightly argued by Milanovic, the recent accumulation of new evidence has not been accompanied by equal advances in the work on causal factors driving inequality change in preindustrial times. The seminal article by Van Zanden (1995), in which long-term inequality growth in the Dutch Republic was explained by long-term economic growth, has later been nuanced by works demonstrating that during the early modern period, in many parts of Europe inequality grew also in phases of economic stagnation, or even decline (Alfani 2015; Alfani and Ryckbosch 2016). The role played by large-scale mortality crises, particularly plague epidemics, has been underlined and the Black Death of 1347-51 has been shown to be the only event able to produce large-scale and enduring inequality decline in the period from ca. 1300 to 1800 (Alfani 2015; Alfani and Ammannati 2017). In a very recent book, Scheidel (2017) has taken this line of reasoning further, arguing that all substantial declines in inequality recorded in human history are due to catastrophic events (epidemics, wars, revolutions…).

Milanovic’s aim is to find further regularities, looking for possible economic, institutional or demographic drivers of inequality change in preindustrial times. He adopts the theoretical framework of the Inequality Possibility Frontier (introduced in Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson 2011), arguing that we should focus not only on how unequal a society is, but also on how much inequality it manages to “extract” compared to the maximum inequality it could achieve given that everybody needs to reach at least the subsistence level. Hence, as an economy manages to increase the per-capita surplus produced, it also acquires a potential for becoming more unequal. A first relevant empirical finding is that colonies tend to be exceptionally extractive, especially at low levels of per-capita GDP. As Milanovic points out, this is not surprising and can be explained by colonies being more exploitative, i.e. being pushed closer to the inequality possibility frontier by rapacious elites. This is apparent when looking at inequality extraction (being a colony raises the “inequality extraction ratio” by almost 13 percent points), but not necessarily when looking at overall inequality as measured by a Gini index.

Branko Milanovic

Branko Milanovic

A more novel finding is the negative correlation between population density and both inequality and inequality extraction. In fact, a “high number of people per square kilometer seems to be a strong predictor of relatively egalitarian economic outcomes” (p. 16). Explaining this empirical finding is not easy and Milanovic resorts to two conjunctures: 1) in a less extractive economy, the poor enjoy relatively good living conditions and this might lead to greater population growth; or 2) a particularly dense population might be better able to make the position of the elite/of the ruler relatively precarious, enjoying de facto some sort of control over the actions of the elite and forcing it to adopt less extractive policies. As is clear, the direction of causality is the opposite in the two explanations – which are probably to be considered not mutually exclusive. Other correlates of inequality and inequality extraction include per-capita GDP and urbanization rates, which turn out being borderline significant (per-capita GDP) or positively but non-significantly correlated (urbanization rate), coherently with what was found by other recent comparative studies (Alfani and Ryckbosch 2016; Alfani and Ammannati 2017).


Undoubtedly, Milanovic’s new article helps to fill in a real need for more comparative research on preindustrial societies. The findings, albeit provisional, are very interesting and either they provide useful confirmation of what has already been argued by others – for example about the inability of per-capita GDP to explain preindustrial inequality growth in a satisfying way– or they lead us to think along new lines, especially regarding the impact on inequality of demographic variables. In fact, as urbanization rates proved to be a far poorer explanatory variable for inequality change than we expected (see in particular Ryckbosch 2016; Alfani and Ryckbosch 2016; Alfani and Ammannati 2017), demographic factors came to be perceived as probably relevant, but also somewhat puzzling (exception made for mass-mortality events like the Black Death, whose inequality-reducing effects now stand out very clearly). Population density offers us a novel perspective and in time, might prove to be the right path to follow.

However, there is also some space for constructive criticism. A first point to underline is that, differently from what Milanovic argues, the time might not yet be ripe for the kind of definitive and encompassing comparison that he seems to have in mind. The data available is still relatively scarce, including for Europe, which is the world area that has attracted the greatest amount of recent research. Additionally, social tables, albeit easily comparable, are not perfectly comparable – for example because they can include a greatly varying number of classes/groups. In some instances, classes are very few and we have no hint at within-class inequality. These are two reasons why, as argued above, complete distributions are strictly preferable to social tables. Finally, in the current version of Milanovic’s database, for the vast majority of countries only one social table is available, whereas multiple social tables for the same country at different time points would make for sounder statistical analyses. There are ongoing projects, especially EINITE and related projects, whose aim is to provide comparable state-level information on wealth and income inequality for large areas of the world at different points in time in the long run of history, but these projects are heavily dependent on new archival research and require time to be completed.


Secondly there are other possible common factors shaping long-term inequality change which Milanovic cannot consider in the context of the current article. Some of these have been underlined by a recent comparative paper by Alfani and Ryckbosch (2016) which, although focusing on “only” four European states during 1500-1800, nevertheless had the advantage of having recourse to inequality measures produced with a common methodology and covering all states continuously in time. This study underlined two factors common to all the areas covered: 1) “proletarianization”, i.e. the progressive disappearance of small peasant ownership, which occurred throughout Europe during the early modern period, and 2) the inequality-increasing consequences of the rise of the fiscal-military states from ca. 1500. These factors might have played a role also in other world areas, from the broader Mediterranean to East Asia and maybe elsewhere – but at present that is no more than speculation.

Obviously, such criticism in no way negates the considerable usefulness of Milanovic’s new paper – which is also a further demonstration of how his relatively new concept of the inequality possibility frontier allows for a deeper understanding of the actual conditions and consequences of distribution. It does, however, indicate that we are still a long way from being able to identify without ambiguity the main causes of inequality change in preindustrial societies that so many international economic historians are now attempting to discover.

Selected bibliography

Alfani, G. (2015), “Economic inequality in northwestern Italy: A long-term view (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)”, Journal of Economic History, 75(4), 2015, pp. 1058-1096.

Alfani, G. (2017), “The rich in historical perspective. Evidence for preindustrial Europe (ca. 1300-1800)”, Cliometrica 11(3), forthcoming (early view: ).

Alfani, G., Ryckbosch, W. (2016), “Growing apart in early modern Europe? A comparison of inequality trends in Italy and the Low Countries, 1500–1800”, Explorations in Economic History, 62, pp. 143-153.

Alfani, G., Ammannati, F. (2017), “Long-term trends in economic inequality: the case of the Florentine State, ca. 1300-1800”, Economic History Review, forthcoming.

Alfani, G., Tadei, F. (2017), Income Inequality in Colonial Africa: Building Social Tables for Pre-Independence Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, IGIER Working Paper, forthcoming.

Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Klein, A., Overton, M, Van Leeuwen, B. (2015), British Economic Growth 1270-1870, Cambridge University Press.

Lindert, P.H. and Williamson, J.G., Unequal gains. American growth and inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2016.

Milanovic, B. (2016), Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, Harvard University Press.

Milanovic, B., Lindert, P.H., Williamson, J.G. (2011). “Pre-Industrial Inequality”, The Economic Journal, 121, pp. 255-272.

Nicolini, E.A., Ramos Palencia, F. (2016), “Decomposing income inequality in a backward pre-industrial economy: Old Castile (Spain) in the middle of the eighteenth century”, Economic History Review, 69(3), pp. 747–772.

Reis, J. (2017), “Deviant behaviour? Inequality in Portugal 1565–1770”, Cliometrica, 11(3), forthcoming (early view:

Ryckbosch, W. (2016), “Economic inequality and growth before the industrial revolution: the case of the Low Countries (fourteenth to nineteenth centuries)”. European Review of Economic History, 20(1), pp. 1-22.

Saito, O. (2015), “Growth and inequality in the great and little divergence debate: a Japanese perspective”, Economic History Review, 68(2), pp. 399–419.

Scheidel, W. (2017), The Great Leveller: Violence and the Global History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Present, Oxford University Press.

Van Zanden, J.L. (1995), “Tracing the Beginning of the Kuznets Curve: Western Europe during the Early Modern Period”, Economic History Review 48(4): 643-664.

Wealth and Income Inequality in the Early Modern Period

Comparing Income and Wealth Inequality in Pre-Industrial Economies: Lessons from 18th-Century Spain

By Esteban A. Nicolini (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) and Fernando Ramos Palencia (Universidad Pablo de Olavide)

Abstract: In this new working paper on preindustrial inequality, Nicolini and Ramos Palencia build upon their earlier work on income inequality in eighteenth-century Old Castile (Nicolini and Ramos Palencia 2015) by looking into one particularly important, and difficult to assess, aspect: how to reconstruct, for a given preindustrial society, estimates of both income and wealth inequality – considering that the sources, according to the place and the period, have the tendency to inform us only about one of the two. Given the amount of new information about long-term trends in preindustrial inequality, of either income or wealth, which has been made available by recent research, the authors point at what clearly constitutes one of the next steps we should take and in doing so, they also provide a useful contribution to the methodological debates which are taking place among scholars working on preindustrial inequality.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-03-29

Review by Guido Alfani


In this paper Nicolini and Ramos explore the connection between income and wealth for a large sample of communities from different Spanish provinces: Palencia, Madrid, Guadalajara and Granada. They combine information from two different sources:

1. the Catastro de Ensenada (ca. 1750), which provides information about household income, and

2. probate inventories (covering the period 1753-68), a source which has often been used to estimate wealth inequality.

These two sources are combined using nominative linkage techniques in order to take advantages of one to solve the weaknesses of the other. In particular, the almost-universal scope of the survey within the Cadastre enables Nicolini and Ramos to assess with certain precision the actual coverage of the probate inventories (which tend to be biased towards the upper part of the distribution). This allows them the resampling or weighthing of the information to improve the study of wealth inequality. It should be underlined that the Catastro de Ensenada is a truly exceptional source. It was an early attempt at introducing a universal tax on income. As the new tax was proportional and should have replaced a number of indirect provincial taxes with regressive effects, this fiscal innovation clearly moved in the direction of a more equitable system of taxation. Unfortunately, the new tax was never implemented – but at the very least, the attempt to introduce it generated a vast amount of useful information.


Nicolini and Ramos were able to reconstruct both income and wealth for 194 observations, out of the much larger sample of 6,214 households for which they only have information about income. Nicolini and Ramos then explore the connection between income and wealth, finding (as was expected) a very strong correlation. However, they go much deeper, thanks to an econometric approach in which the distortions in the sample (determined in particular by over-representation of rich households) are corrected by weighting. They obtain many interesting and potentially useful results, in particular:

  1. they estimate the average rate of return to wealth to be 2.9% p.a. – which is, generally speaking, much smaller that usually implied in the literature. For instance, the rate of return to wealth implied by Lindert in his work on the Florentine Cadastre of 1427 was 7% p.a. (see below). However, if the association between income and wealth is analyzed by considering their logarithm (which is the econometric specification preferred by Nicolini and Ramos), then the elasticity of income to wealth varies between 0.4 and 0.9 depending on the region. This means that a 10% increase in household wealth is associated to an income increase comprised in the 4-9% range. This range is consistent with empirical findings in many studies of past and present societies, all of which suggest that income inequality is lower than wealth inequality;
  2. the distribution of household income increases less steeply than the distribution of household wealth. This might be due to the fact that labour income is relatively larger in the bottom part of the distribution, or that the wealth of the bottom part of the distribution consists for a larger part of income-producing assets, while the wealth of the richest people would consist also of other assets, including (unproductive) status goods and luxuries as well as cash;
  3. the relationship between wealth and income differs depending on the sector of activity of the household head (primary vs secondary/tertiary) and on the place of residence – although somewhat surprisingly, and differently from what reported for other European regions (for example Tuscany by Alfani and Ammannati 2014), Nicolini and Ramos do not find that urban households had greater wealth than rural ones. In the study by Nicolini and Ramos urban and rural wealth were usually on par, but in the extreme case of Guadalajara urban dwellers were less wealthy than rural dwellers.


Sample of Catastro de Ensenada (Archivo Simancas)

Sample of Catastro de Ensenada (Archivo Simancas)



This paper makes many interesting and potentially important contributions to the study of inequality in the early modern period, a field which has been particularly fertile in recent years. First, it provides new information about inequality in the Iberian peninsula, integrating other recent studies (e.g. Santiago-Caballero 2011; Reis and Martins 2012). Secondly, it contributes considerably to the development of a methodology to translate in a non-arbitrary way income distributions into wealth distributions, and vice versa. This is a crucial point, which deserves some attention.

The Ensenada Cadastre is an exceptional source as it provides data on income. As a matter of fact, most other sources of the “cadastrial” kind are essentially property tax records, which always list real estate and sometimes other components of wealth – but not income. However, it has also been argued that for the preindustrial period, in most instances wealth distributions are the best proxy we have for income distributions (Lindert 2014; Alfani 2015). This being said, moving from the good-quality distributions of wealth that have recently been made available for different parts of late medieval and early modern Europe (in particular, Alfani 2015; Alfani and Ryckbosch 2015) to acceptable distributions of income is clearly a worthy pursuit.

I would differ with Nicolini and Ramos Palencia in their statement that theirs is the first attempt at studying together income and wealth distributions in the pre-industrial period. For example, Soltow and Van Zanden (1998) did so in their study of the Netherlands. However, Nicolini and Ramos do provide useful and interesting insights into how to convert wealth distributions into income distributions. Many such attempts are currently underway and there are earlier examples, like Lindert’s method to convert the distribution of wealth in the 1427 Florentine catasto into an income distribution (results used in Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson 2011).

Moreover, Nicolini and Ramos Palencia stress many potential pitfalls in procedures of this kind. This being said, there are aspects of their current reconstructions which are a bit surprising and might be the result of sampling issues, as 59% of the 194 observations relate to the province of Palencia. Is Guadalajara, where rural dwellers were wealthier than urban dwellers, an exceptional case or does this depend on the very small sample (just 12 observations) the authors have for that region? To dispel any doubts, more probate inventories should be collected, in order to improve the territorial balance within the sample and to better account, both in the estimation process and in the econometric analysis, for possible regional variations. However, this does not alter the general conclusion. The paper by Nicolini and Ramos is a very useful piece of innovative research, grounded in new archival data and packed with useful insights about how to improve our knowledge of inequality in the pre-industrial period.


Ferdinand VI (1713 – 1759), called the Learned, was King of Spain from 9 July 1746 until his death.

Ferdinand VI (1713 – 1759), called the Learned, was King of Spain from 9 July 1746 until his death.


Selected Bibliography

Alfani, G. (2015), “Economic inequality in northwestern Italy: A long-term view (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)”, Journal of Economic History, 75 (4), 2015, pp. 1058-1096.

Alfani, G. and Ammannati, F. (2014), Economic inequality and poverty in the very long run: The case of the Florentine State (late thirteenth-early nineteenth centuries), Dondena Working Paper No. 70.

Alfani, G., Ryckbosch, W. (2015), Was there a ‘Little Convergence’ in inequality? Italy and the Low Countries compared, ca. 1500-1800, IGIER Working Paper No. 557.

Lindert, P.H. (2014), Making the most of Capital in the 21st Century, NBER Working Paper No. 20232.

Milanovic, B., Lindert, P.H. and Williamson, J.G. (2011). “Pre-Industrial Inequality”, The Economic Journal 121: 255-272.

Nicolini, E.A. and F. Ramos Palencia (2015), “Decomposing income inequality in a backward pre-industrial economy: Old Castile (Spain) in the middle of the eighteenth century”, The Economic History Review, online-first version, DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12122.

Reis, J., Martins, A. (2012), “Inequality in Early Modern Europe: The “Strange” Case of Portugal, 1550-1770”. Paper given at the conference Wellbeing and Inequality in the Long Run (Madrid, 1 June 2012).

Santiago-Caballero, C. (2011), “Income inequality in central Spain, 1690-1800”, Explorations in Economic History 48(1): 83-96.

Soltow, L. and Van Zanden, J.L. (1998), Income and Wealth Inequality in the Netherlands, 16th-20th Century. Amsterdam, Het Spinhuis.

An International Comparison of #Inherited #Wealth (#OldEurope vs the #USA)

Inherited Wealth over the Path of Development: Sweden, 1810–2010

by Henry Ohlsson (, Jesper Roine ( and Daniel Waldenström (

Abstract: Inherited wealth has attracted much attention recently, much due to the research by Thomas Piketty (Piketty, 2011; 2014). The discussion has mainly revolved around a long-run contrast between Europe and the U.S., even though data on explicit historical inheritance flows are only really available for France and to some extent for the U.K. We study the long-run evolution of inherited wealth in Sweden over the past two hundred years. The trends in Sweden are similar to those in France and the U.K: beginning at a high level in the nineteenth century, falling sharply in the interwar era and staying low thereafter, but tending to increase in recent years. The levels, however, differ greatly. The Swedish flows were only half of those in France and the U.K. before 1900 and also much lower after 1980. The main reason for the low levels in the nineteenth century is that the capital-income ratio is much lower than in “Old Europe”. In fact, the Swedish capital-income ratio was similar to that in the U.S., but the savings and growth rates were much lower in Sweden than in the U.S. Rapid income growth following industrialization and increasing savings rates were also important factors behind the development of the capital-income ratio and the inheritance flow during the twentieth century. The recent differences in inheritance flows have several potential explanations related to the Swedish welfare state and pension system. Sweden was “un-European” during the nineteenth century because the country was so poor, Sweden is “un-European” today because so much wealth formation has taken place within the welfare state and the occupational pension systems.


Review by Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan)


The paper by Ohlsson, Roine and Waldenström was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-08-25. It provides annual estimates of inheritance flows and of the share of inherited wealth over total wealth for Sweden covering fully two centuries, from 1810 to 2010. In this period, Sweden changed deeply: originally a relatively poor and mostly agrarian country, by the 1970s it was one of the wealthiest areas of the world. It also became known for its particularly extensive welfare state.


Building upon earlier research conducted by Roine and Waldenström on wealth concentration and on the wealth-income ratio in Sweden, the paper points out a striking difference between such country and other European areas: while in nineteenth-century France and U.K. the wealth-income ratio was in the 600-700 percent range, in Sweden it stayed within the 300-500 percent range until the early twentieth century. These values are similar to those characterizing the U.S., and the authors argue that they go hand in hand with the limited importance of inheritance flows in nineteenth century Sweden and the U.S. compared to France and the U.K. In both Sweden and the U.S., limited historical accumulation of wealth explains initial low wealth-income ratios.

However, the similarities stop here as the authors describe the first as a poor country characterized by sustained out-migration, and the second as a “land of opportunity”. By 1950, in all the four countries wealth-income ratios had converged to low levels (generally speaking, in the 200-400 percent range, with Sweden even falling below 200 in the 1970s). In recent decades, all four countries experienced a tendency to the increase in the wealth-income ratio. In Sweden, however, the increase has been smaller and what is more, it has resulted into an only minimal increase in inheritance flows.


The core of the paper consists in an attempt to reconstruct the long-term evolution of inherited wealth (b), which is shown to have been around 11 percent of the national income throughout the nineteenth century (half the figure for France and the U.K.), later dropping to just 5 percent around 1970. Following Piketty’s approach, the authors decompose the inheritance flow into its determinants which comprise, apart from the wealth-income ratio (β), the ratio of the average wealth at death to the average wealth of the living (μ) and the mortality rate (m). This can be described with a simple formula:

b= β·μ·m

The reason why we are interested in the share of inherited wealth is that, according to what Piketty (2014) suggests, if the share of inherited wealth is too high then it may result incompatible with the principles of meritocracy and social justice which characterize modern democracies. The authors find that in Sweden, in the long run the wealth-income ratio was the main driver of changes in the share of inherited wealth (in its turn, the wealth-income ratio was influenced by changes in private savings and by fluctuations in the growth rate). However in recent decades, an increase in the wealth-income ratio has only partially translated into an increase in the share of inherited wealth, essentially due to a decline in the ratio of the average wealth at death to the average wealth of the living. The authors provide two possible explanations for this: the fact that new wealth was accumulated among the relatively young, or the retirement savings pattern which, in comparison to France and the U.K., would lead the Swedish to be keener on decumulating private wealth.


Ohlsson, Roine and Waldenström provide a novel perspective on an old story – how Sweden became an exceptionally “egalitarian” Western society – by making excellent use of the analytical tools produced by the recent wave of research on long-term changes in inequality. They provide many interesting and useful insights into two centuries of Swedish history, although sometimes more detail would be useful. For example the statement, that maybe the recent increases in the wealth-income ratio translated only partially into an increase in the share of inherited wealth because new wealth was accumulated mainly by the relatively young, would probably require more supporting evidence.

Particularly interesting is the analysis of the role played by the public in transferring wealth inter-generationally, by means of an exceptionally generous welfare state which basically replaces part of the private inheritance (and influences the pattern of private savings). Perhaps this aspect would have been worthy of further discussion, clarifying for the international reader how such welfare state system came into being, but also pointing out at possible cultural differences between the Swedish and others which might explain a preference for both a more developed welfare state, and lesser wealth (and income) inequality in general. Instead, Ohlsson and colleagues simply suggest that Sweden was «un-European» essentially because «old wealth was not as important in Sweden as it was in France and the U.K. in the 1800s», this in turn being due to the fact that «Swedes were so poor that they simply needed to eat almost all their income in the pre-1900 era» (pp. 21-22). But, looked at from the view point of continental Europe, Sweden has many other peculiarities which might be relevant in explaining the dynamics that the authors so convincingly reconstruct. This being said, the paper is clearly an important contribution to current debates on long-term changes in inheritance and inequality, pointing out many aspects which would well be worthy of more international research.

References and Suggested Further Reading

Alafani, G. (2014) “Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View (Fourteenth to Eighteenth centuries)”, Dondena Working Paper, n. 61, March 2014.

Atkinson, A.B. (2012) “Wealth and Inheritance in Britain from 1896 to the Present”, Working Paper, Oxford University.

Lindert, P.H. (1991) “Toward a Comparative History of Income and Wealth Inequality”, in Y.S. Brenner, H. Kaelble, M. Thomas (eds.), Income Distribution in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 212-231.

Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Piketty, T., G. Postel-Vinay, and J-L Rosenthal (2006) “Wealth Concentration in a Developing Economy: Paris and France, 1807-1994”, American Economic Review, 96(1): 236-256.

Piketty, T. and Zucman, G. (forthcoming 2014), “Capital is Back: Wealth-Income Ratios in Rich Countries 1700-2010”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 129(3).

Roine, J. and D. Waldenström (2009), “Wealth Concentration over the Path of Development: Sweden, 1873-2006”, Scandinavian Journal of Economics , 111(1): 151-187.