Poverty in the Holy Roman Empire: A Long-Run Perspective from 1350 to 1800

June 9, 2021 | Blog
Home > Poverty in the Holy Roman Empire: A Long-Run Perspective from 1350 to 1800

by Victoria Gierok (Nuffield College, University of Oxford)


This blog is based on the author’s poster presented to the Economic History Society’s annual conference, 2021.  This poster was awarded a New Researcher’s poster prize.


Scholars studying poverty in the pre-industrial era have argued that it is impossible to produce poverty estimates for the Holy Roman Empire as a whole.  This opinion was strongly expressed by Robert Jütte : ‘[W]e have to give up the idea of trying to estimate the national extent of poverty’, (Jütte 1994: 50). However, given the importance of understanding poverty and inequality in the past, it seems worthwhile to attempt this difficult task.

The basis of this attempt is a dataset consisting of wealth tax data from 38 cities and 35 rural communities (at parish or village level).  Figure 1 shows the distribution of these localities.  By the fifteenth  century, wealth taxes were common in many towns.  Wealth taxes were levied on a household’s total wealth, including their primary dwelling and other real estate, agricultural land,  and  furnishings, tools, silverware, and cash.


Figure 1. Sample Communities across the German Territories of the Holy Roman Empire. Source: author’s collection


Many scholars note that the poor were sometimes underreported in tax registers because they possessed little or no wealth, (Dirlmeier, 1978). However, this weakness can be addressed by gathering data for several years and averaging the number of the poor reported for each year (Dirlmeier 1978: 495-99). Moreover, many cities taxed even the poorest households with a fee (Vorschoss or Herdschilling). An in-depth study of archival tax registers shows that many cities recorded households even if they were too poor to pay any tax. Occasionally, a diligent scribe added an explanation such as ‘old and blind’ or ‘destroyed by a fire’. Figure 2 shows two examples of such register entries.


Figure 2. Two Tax Registers Recording Poor Households. Notes: Left panel shows a tax register of the city of Hachenburg, 1592. At the bottom of the page, a poor household without a tax payment labelled “poor” (arm) and specifying that he “has nothing” (hatt nichts). Right panel shows a tax register of the city of Lübeck 1750. On the right page, it notes “two basements, in which poor people live” (2 Keller, darin arme Leute). Source: Landeshauptarchiv Koblenz, Nr. 620-4: Stadt Hachenburg „Schatzzettel der Stadt Hachenburg 1592“; Stadtarchiv Lübeck, 03.04-05 Schoßherren 01.02 Johannis-Quartier Nr. 032.

Another obstacle to generating consistent long-run estimates on poverty is a proper definition of this term. Consistent with the current literature on poverty, I define poor households as those that owned less than 50 percent of median wealth. Aggregating the data shows the following long-run trends (Figure 3). First, poverty in urban localities declined in the aftermath of the Black Death. However, this decline was relatively short-lived: in several cities relative poverty started rising again in the early fifteenth century. Second, poverty rose considerably during the sixteenth century, a trend consistent with much of the literature. This could be driven by population growth and further state consolidation, which meant an increasing burden of taxes and fees. Finally, relative poverty peaked during the Thirty Years’ War and declined thereafter. The peak occurred earlier in urban rather than rural communities. This might be due to migration and the devastating consequences of war on agriculture. Lastly, poverty increased again continuously from at least 1725 until 1800.

Augsburg provides an interesting example of how post-Black Death migration into cities offered opportunities to newcomers. Hans Fugger, the ancestor of the famously-rich Fugger dynasty, was a weaver who migrated to Augsburg around 1377 – ten years after his brother Ulrich (Strieder 1935: 163-67). Based on tax data, Hans seems to have accumulated considerable wealth over the following decades (Strieder 1935: 165). The stellar ascent of his descendants is of course not representative for any of the other migrating weavers and spinners, but Hans Fugger’s story might be a good illustration of the opportunities that awaited in other cities. Several other weaver families migrating into Augsburg followed a similar path (Strieder 1935: 147 ff).


Figure 3. Long-run trends in relative poverty in the Holy Roman Empire 1350-1800. Source: author’s own

This first attempt at determining long-run relative poverty has confirmed a number of claims made for individual communities and it offers the potential to put case studies into a wider perspective. It also demonstrates which areas need more attention, including consistent long-run definitions of poverty.


To contact the author: victoria.gierok@nuffield.ox.ac.uk



Jütte, Robert. Poverty and deviance in early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Dirlmeier, Ulrich. Untersuchungen zu Einkommensverhältnissen und Lebenshaltungskosten in oberdeutschen Städten des Spätmittelalters. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1978.

Strieder, Jakob. Zur Genesis des modernen Kapitalismus. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1935.