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Inequality (un)perceived: The emergence of a discourse on economic inequality from the Middle Ages to the Age of Revolutions

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Listed:
  • Guido Alfani
  • Elena Roberta Frigeni

Abstract

Long-term developments in economic inequality are attracting growing attention. Earlier works focused on producing reliable measures of inequality, which overall suggest that in Europe, inequality levels were already high in preindustrial times and tended to grow almost continuously from the Middle Ages until the eve of the Industrial Revolution. Proposing a significantly different perspective, this article explores whether the change in inequality is connected to a change in how a condition of unequal distribution of property/income was perceived. By referring to large databases of manuscripts and printed editions covering ca. 1100-1830, we measure the occurrences of keywords connected to the notions of equality/inequality to determine when inequality became a topic considered worthy of specific reflection. Key texts are analyzed in depth to discover how and when such keywords acquired an economic meaning. Lastly, changes in meaning are connected to changes in levels of economic inequality. We demonstrate that the notions of equality/inequality appeared first in scholarly fields far from economic concerns and only slowly acquired economic meanings. This process intensified in the decades preceding the French Revolution of 1789, suggesting that changes in inequality levels contributed to brewing political upheaval in the Age of Revolutions.

Suggested Citation

  • Guido Alfani & Elena Roberta Frigeni, 2013. "Inequality (un)perceived: The emergence of a discourse on economic inequality from the Middle Ages to the Age of Revolutions," Working Papers 058, "Carlo F. Dondena" Centre for Research on Social Dynamics (DONDENA), Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi.
  • Handle: RePEc:don:donwpa:058
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Santiago-Caballero, Carlos, 2011. "Income inequality in central Spain, 1690-1800," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 48(1), pages 83-96, January.
    2. Alesina, Alberto & Perotti, Roberto, 1996. "Income distribution, political instability, and investment," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 40(6), pages 1203-1228, June.
    3. Aftalion,Florin, 1990. "The French Revolution," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521368100.
    4. Alfani, Guido, 2015. "Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View (Fourteenth to Eighteenth Centuries)," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 75(04), pages 1058-1096, December.
    5. Perotti, Roberto & Alesina, Alberto, 1996. "Income Distribution, Political Instability, and Investment," Scholarly Articles 4553018, Harvard University Department of Economics.
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    Cited by:

    1. Guido Alfani, 2017. "The rich in historical perspective: evidence for preindustrial Europe (ca. 1300–1800)," Cliometrica, Springer;Cliometric Society (Association Francaise de Cliométrie), vol. 11(3), pages 321-348, September.
    2. Guido Alfani & Francesco Ammannati, 2014. "Economic inequality and poverty in the very long run: The case of the Florentine State," Working Papers 070, "Carlo F. Dondena" Centre for Research on Social Dynamics (DONDENA), Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi.
    3. Guido Alfani & Matteo Di Tullio, 2015. "Dinamiche di lungo periodo della disuguaglianza in Italia settentrionale: una nota di ricerca," Working Papers 071, "Carlo F. Dondena" Centre for Research on Social Dynamics (DONDENA), Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi.

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    Keywords

    equality; inequality; economic inequality; social inequality; middle ages; early modern period; French revolution; economic thought;

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