The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Preindustrial Inequality

  • Branko Milanovic
Reference work entry


This article considers inequality in preindustrial societies, defined as those prior to the industrial revolution and subsequent non-industrial societies that are not systematically integrated into the advanced world’s economy. Although data on individual incomes and wealth in these societies are limited, increasingly they are becoming available. On the basis of these data, inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient is often on a par with modern industrialized societies, but the income gradient tends to be different, with a mass of people at subsistence level or marginally above, few at the mean, and a small affluent class. More work remains to be done, particularly on the relationship between income inequality and economic progress.


Gini coefficient Income distribution Inequality Kuznets curve Preindustrial societies 

JEL Classifications

D31 N30 O1 
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.



I am grateful to Mihail Arandarenko, Peter Lindert, Leandro Prados de la Escosura and Jeffrey Williamson for excellent comments.


  1. Allen, R.C. 1992. Enclosures and the Yeoman: Agricultural development of the South Midlands, 1450–1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allen, R.C. 2003. Progress and poverty in early modern Europe. Economic History Review 56: 403–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Allen, R.C. 2007. How prosperous were the Romans? Evidence from Diocletian’s Price Edict (AD 301), Discussion Paper Series 363. Oxford: University of Oxford, Department of Economics, October.Google Scholar
  4. Arkell, T. 2006. Illuminations and distortions: Gregory King’s scheme calculated for the year 1688 and the social structure of later Stuart England. Economic History Review 59: 32–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berry, A. 1990. International trade, government and income distribution in Peru since 1870. Latin American Research Review 25(2): 31–59.Google Scholar
  6. Bértola, L., C. Castelnovo, E. Reis, and H. Willebald 2006. Income distribution in Brazil, 1839–1939. Paper presented at Session 116 of “A Global History of Income Distribution in the Long 20th Century,” XIV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki-Finland 21–25 August.Google Scholar
  7. Bértola, L., C. Castelnovo, J. Rodriguez, and H. Willeband 2009. Income distribution in Latin American Southern Cone countries during the first globalization boom, ca. 1870–1920. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  8. Campbell, B. 2007. Benchmarking medieval economic development: England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland c. 1209. Economic History Review 60: 1–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Clark, G. 2005. The condition of the working class in England, 1209–2004. Journal of Political Economy 115: 1307–1340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cosgel, M. 2004. Ottoman tax registers. Historical Methods 37(2), Spring, 87–100.Google Scholar
  11. Cosgel, M. 2006. Taxes, efficiency, and redistribution: Discriminatory taxation of villages in Ottoman Palestine, Southern Syria, and Transjordan in the sixteenth century. Explorations in Economic History 43: 332–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. de Tocqueville, A. 1835. Memoir on pauperism, 1997. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.Google Scholar
  13. Engerman, S., and K. Sokoloff 1997. Factor endowments, institutions and differential paths of growth among New World economies. In How Latin America fell behind: Essays on the economic histories of Brazil and Mexico, 18001914, ed. S. Hager, 260–304. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Feinstein, C. 1988. The rise and fall of the Williamson curve. Journal of Economic History 48: 699–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Finley, M. 1985. The ancient economy, 2nd ed. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  16. Frank, A.G. 1998. Re-orient: Global economy in the Asian age. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  17. Goldsmith, R.W. 1984. An estimate of the size and structure of the national product of the early Roman Empire. Review of Income and Wealth 30: 263–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Herlihy, D., and C. Klapisch-Zuber. 1985. Tuscans and their families. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Herlihy, D., C. Klapisch-Zuber, R.B. Litchfield, and A. Molho The online catasto. Available at: Accessed January 2008 (a searchable online database of tax information for the city of Florence in 1427–29, based on D. Herlihy and C. Klapisch-Zuber, principal investigators, Census and property survey of Florentine dominions in the province of Tuscany, 1427–1480).
  20. Hoffman, P.T., D. Jacks, P.A. Levin, and P.H. Lindert. 2002. Real inequality in Europe since 1500. Journal of Economic History 62: 322–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kuznets, S. 1955. Economic growth and income inequality, presidential address to the 67th meeting of the American Economic Association, Michigan, December 1954; published in American Economic Review 45 (1955) and Economic growth and structure: Selected essays. New Delhi: Oxford and IBH, 1965.Google Scholar
  22. Laiou, A. 2002. The economic history of Byzantium: From the seventh through the fifteenth century. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.Google Scholar
  23. Lindert, P.H. 2000. Three centuries of inequality in Britain and the United Stares. In Handbook of income distribution, ed. A. Atkinson and F. Bourguignon. Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  24. Lindert, P.H., and J.G. Williamson. 1982. Revising England’s social tables, 1688–1812. Explorations in Economic History 19: 385–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lindert, P.H., and J.G. Williamson. 1983. Reinterpreting Britain’s social tables, 1688–1913. Explorations in Economic History 20: 94–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lindert, P.H., and J.G. Williamson. 1985. Growth, equality and history. Explorations in Economic History 22: 341–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Malanima, P. 2006. Pre-modern equality: Income distribution in the Kingdom of Naples (1811). Paper presented at 14th International Congress of Economic History, August 2006, Helsinki. Available at:
  28. Mayhew, N.J. 1995. Modeling medieval monetization. In A commercialising economy: England 1086 to c. 1300, ed. R.N. Britnell and B.M.S. Campbell, 55–77. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  29. McCants, A. 2007. Inequality among the poor of eighteenth century Amsterdam. Explorations in Economic History 44: 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Milanovic, B. 2006. An estimate of average income and inequality in Byzantium around year 1000. Review of Income and Wealth 52(3): 449–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Milanovic, B., P.H. Lindert, and J.G. Williamson 2009. Preindustrial inequality. Unpublished ms, available at: Previous version published as Measuring ancient inequality, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 13550.
  32. Morrisson, C., and W. Snyder. 2000. The income inequality of France in historical perspective. European Review of Economic History 4: 59–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Pareto, V. 1896. La courbe de la repartition de la richesse. Université de Lausanne. Republished as On the distribution of wealth and income, Rivista di Politica Economica, 645–660, 1997. (The same issue of Rivista di Politica Economica contains English translations of five other articles by Pareto on the same topic.)Google Scholar
  34. Pen, J. 1971. Income distribution: Facts, theories, policies. New York/Washington, DC: Praeger.Google Scholar
  35. Polanyi, K. 1944. The great transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  36. Pomerantz, K. 2000. The great divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Prados de la Escosura, L. 2007. Inequality and poverty in Latin America: A long-run exploration. In The new comparative economic history: Essays in honor of Jeffrey G. Williamson, ed. T.J. Hutton, K.H. O’Rourke, and A.M. Taylor, pp. 291–315. Boston: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  38. Prados de la Escosura, L. 2008. Inequality, poverty, and the Kuznets curve in Spain, 1850–2000. European Review of Economic History 12: 287–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rawls, J. 1971. A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Rostovtzeff, M. 1926. The social and economic history of the Roman Empire, 1957. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Scheidel, W., and S.J. Friesen 2009. The size of the economy and the distribution of income in the Roman Empire. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, January.Google Scholar
  42. Schiavone, A. 1995. The end of the past: Ancient Rome and the modern West, 2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Schwarz, L.D. 1979. Income distribution and social structure in London in the late eighteenth century. Economic History Review 32: 250–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Shiue, C., and W. Keller 2007. Markets in China and Europe on the eve of the industrial revolution. American Economic Review 97: 1189–1216, September.Google Scholar
  45. Soltow, L. 1968. Long-run changes in British income inequality. Economic History Review 21: 17–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Soltow, L. 1989. Income and wealth inequality in Amsterdam, 1585–1805. Economisch-en-Social Historisch 58: 72–95.Google Scholar
  47. Soltow, L., and J.-L. van Zanden. 1998. Income and wealth inequality in the Netherlands, 16th–20th century. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.Google Scholar
  48. Sussman, N. 2005. Income inequality in Paris at the heyday of the commercial revolution. Jerusalem: Hebrew University. Available at:
  49. Van Zanden, J.L. 1995. Tracing the beginning of the Kuznets curve: Western Europe during the early modern period. Economic History Review 48: 643–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Van Zanden, J.L. 2003. Rich and poor before the industrial revolution: A comparison between Java and the Netherlands at the beginning of the 19th century. Explorations in Economic History 40(1): 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Walbank, F.W. 1946. The decline of the Roman Empire in the West. London: Cobbett Press.Google Scholar
  52. Wen, J.G. 2009. Why was China trapped in an agrarian society – An economicgeographical approach to the Needham puzzle. New History, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  53. Williamson, J.G. 1980. Earnings inequality in nineteenth century England. Journal of Economic History 40: 457–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Williamson, J.G. 1982. The structure of pay in Britain, 1710–1911. Research in Economic History 7: 1–54.Google Scholar
  55. Williamson, J.G. 1985. Did British capitalism breed inequality? Boston: Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  56. Williamson, J.G. 2009. History without evidence: Latin American inequality since 1491. Mimeo.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Branko Milanovic
    • 1
  1. 1.