The Economic History Review

Wealth inequality in pre-industrial Europe: What role did associational organizations have?

Volume 75 Issue 3
Home > The Economic History Review > Wealth inequality in pre-industrial Europe: What role did associational organizations have?
Pages: 643-666Authors: Bas van Bavel
Published online: January 6, 2022DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13137

Log in to access the full article.

A host of studies on wealth inequality in pre-industrial Europe has recently been published. Out of these, a narrative emerges of rising inequality in a context of emerging markets and growing state taxation, punctuated by calamities. By surveying the available material, this article highlights an element that is less systematically discussed in this literature: the role of associational organizations. They developed less regressive forms of taxation and redistribution, embedded the transfer and use of land and capital in coordination systems that curtailed accumulation, and sometimes even imposed maximums of wealth ownership. The article tentatively argues that the resulting downward effect on wealth inequality was found most conspicuously in societies where associations of middling groups of owners-producers held strong positions in economic and political life, even despite the exclusive character of their organizations. Such societies were gradually eroded in the early modern period, most notably as a result of the emergence of factor markets and state centralization, and the associated processes of proletarianization and scale enlargement. This did not happen without opposition and conflict, however, as the process was sometimes halted and showed distinct geographical patterns, which in turn influenced patterns of wealth inequality.