Measuring urban inequalities. Spatial patterns of service access in sixteenth-century Leiden

From Firenze University Press Book: Economic inequality in pre-industrial societies: causes and effect

University of Florence
3 min readJul 23, 2020

Arie Van Steensel, University of Groningen, Netherlands

The historical study of economic inequality has attracted considerable attention in recent years, even though the topic is not entirely new. Urban historians have already noticed the skewed distribution of wealth and income typical of late medieval cities and towns, as for example in Norwich, Augsburg or Ghent.

Moreover, two decades ago, Lee Soltow and Jan Luiten van Zanden wrote a seminal study on economic inequality in the northern Low Countries, in which they offer a broader analysis of its development and causes in the pre-industrial era.

Nonetheless, the compelling argument made by Thomas Piketty about the rise of economic inequality in the closing decades of the twentieth century has inspired historians to revisit the long-term historical evolution of inequality. The most prominent recent work is being conducted by Guido Alfani, who leads a major research project that reconstructs and compares inequality trends across premodern Europe.

On his part, Wouter Ryckbosch has published a more detailed picture of urban inequality trends in the premodern Low Countries. These studies have significantly increased our understanding of the historical development of economic inequality: apart from during a short period after the Black Death, the level of inequality appears to have risen slowly and incrementally across Europe, although this general trend was regionally differentiated.6 The causes of this trend, however, remain poorly understood, as do their real impact on the lives of men and women living in premodern European societies. Historians have put forward several possible explanations for the increase of economic inequality in premodern Europe.

Van Zanden, for example, has demonstrated that economic expansion in the premodern era was coupled with a considerable growth in inequality, a process to which, according to him, urbanisation and changes in the functional distribution of income contributed more than did an increase in the skill premium. Recently, Alfani and Ryckbosch have shown that economic growth offers no conclusive explanation for the estimated trend of rising inequality, which was even more pronounced in those regions that experienced economic stagnation, as central-northern Italy did, for example, in contrast to the Low Countries during the same period.

Non-egalitarian inheritance systems and differences in kinship structures did not have a differentiated effect on inequality either; they rather point to a number of other factors that had an impact on economic (re)distribution: increasing proletarianisation and the formation of a more centralised fiscal state contributed to growing disparities, while the presence of representative political institutions and a relatively progressive fiscal system with higher social expenditure suppressed this increase of economic inequality slightly.

Inequality is generally understood in economic terms and defined as a measure of the distribution of material resources among the individuals of a given population. In the case of premodern European towns, this distribution is often calculated on the basis of fiscal records that document estimated household wealth or house rental values.

These tax records, however, are not preserved for all places and periods, and the focus on wealth and income inequality leads to a rather one-sided view of well-being, which also excludes the tax-exempt urban population.

This contribution addresses these issues by developing a broader understanding of wellbeing in premodern towns and by using digital methods to map social and economic inequalities, thereby drawing on insights from research on socio-spatial equity from urban studies.

The key questions are how socio-economic inequality was reflected in the urban social topography and to what extent these spatial patterns reproduced inequality. Taking sixteenth-century Leiden as a case study, the spatial patterns of economic inequality and social segregation in this town are first examined. Next, the level of location-based inequality is explored by mapping and calculating urban spatial patterns of service accessibility.

This approach allows for the incorporation of more diverse sources, but, above all, it can result in a better understanding of the causes and effects of inequalities on well-being (at a microlevel) in premodern urban societies.


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