Real inequality in the early modern Low Countries: the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, 1500–1660


  • This article benefited from insightful comments made by conference participants at the Economic History Society Conference (Cambridge, 2011) and the Ninth European Historical Economics Society Conference (Dublin, 2011), as well as the perceptive criticism and constructive suggestions provided by three anonymous referees. The final version was proofread by Linguapolis, University of Antwerp.


This article studies the welfare effects of economic growth in the early modern Low Countries. It applies the recently developed concept of ‘real inequality’ to a case study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Southern Netherlands and demonstrates, by incorporating relative price movements, that specific (and in this case stagnant) nominal income inequality trajectories may disguise underlying shifts in real inequality that are influenced by socially biased relative prices. The analysis is then extended to include changes in demography and household size, which reveals a second important limitation in the study of long-term economic inequality. In contrast to the stagnation and eventual decline in nominal inequality seen in ’s-Hertogenbosch during the long sixteenth century (1500–1650), this broadened concept of ‘augmented’ real inequality in fact suggests the occurrence of a significant upturn during the first half of the sixteenth century. Furthermore, while nominal inequality had decreased, real inequality appears to have been higher by the middle of the seventeenth century than it had been around 1500. The study of global and/or long-term inequality, in particular, would benefit greatly from a proper social, economic, and historical contextualization of these trends, not least in terms of the social biases in relative prices and household composition.