January 31, 2024
Written by WID.world

Inequality across 700 years

Following the publication of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013, there has been a growing interest in economic inequality and its long-term trends. The expansion of data available to researchers has been particularly remarkable. There are now reconstructions of wealth and income inequality for many European areas – at a state or at least at a regional level – systematically covering the late Middle Ages and the early modern period.

In this paper, Guido Alfani provides an overview of long-term trends in income and wealth inequality, from about 1300 until today, and of the debate about the determinants of inequality change in history. It discusses recent acquisitions in terms of inequality measurement, building on earlier research and systematically connecting preindustrial, industrial, and post-industrial tendencies.

Key findings:

  • In the last seven centuries, inequality of both income and wealth has tended to grow continuously, with two exceptions: the century or so following the Black Death pandemic of 1347-52, and the period from the beginning of World War I to the mid-1970s.
  • The paper discusses recent encompassing hypotheses about the factors leading to long-run inequality change and argues for the need to pay close attention to the historical context. It identifies taxation as a central factor in shaping long-run inequality trends. More generally, it emphasizes that long-run inequality trends are crucially shaped by institutions and also by the human agency that has shaped those institutions over time.


  • Guido Alfani, Bocconi University, Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, WID Fellow



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