Historical wealth inequality in Europe: a Q&A with Felix S F Schaff

Investigating how the political economy of wealth inequality and factors like warfare, religious confession and political institutions have shaped wealth inequality in the long run.

Felix S F Schaff is a PhD candidate in the Department of Economic History

For a historically interested person, getting in touch so directly with the economy of the past is fascinating
Felix Schaff
Felix Schaff

What are you currently researching?

My research focuses on historical wealth inequality in Europe in the very long run, from the late Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution.

In the first part of my PhD project, I use archive documents to estimate the extent of inequality. In essence, I try to construct inequality statistics for a pre-statistical age.

In the second part of my project, I aim to identify some of the causes driving the patterns observed in the data. I am particularly interested in the political economy of wealth inequality and how factors like warfare, religious confession and political institutions have shaped wealth inequality in the long run.

What attracted you to this area of research?

I was very interested in economic inequality when it became topical after the Financial Crisis. All available statistics indicated very high levels of inequality at the start of the statistical series, around the beginning of the 20th century. I wondered where these high inequality levels came from.

That was the start. But I was also lucky to meet two economic historians working on inequality and historical political economy during my master’s in Milan and Cambridge. They passed their passion on to me, taught me many of the technical details, and encouraged me to develop my own research interests.

How will your research have a wider impact on society? Can you give some real-world examples of the impact your research will have?

Historical research helps us understand the roots of today’s society. That is important in itself. But specifically, pre-industrial inequality research significantly changes how we think about causes of inequality in the long run.

The established view in economics has long been that inequality is just the unavoidable downside of economic growth, the price for prosperity. Yet, recent studies show that inequality developed quite independently from economic growth in the very long run of history. For example, political factors seem to have mattered much more than growth. I believe that is a relevant message for today’s inequality debate.

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

I really enjoy collecting entirely new data from historical documents in numerous archives and discovering data patterns that we did not previously know about. I collect data from tax documents, which are 200 to 700 years-old, and in some cases haven’t been read since their original creation. The pages are sometimes full of sand, dirt, corn and even blood.

For a historically interested person, getting in touch so directly with the economy of the past is fascinating. But even more rewarding is to see – after many intermediate steps – the descriptive data that emerges from these documents. Producing for the first time a time series of Gini coefficients or the top 1% wealth share for the age of Martin Luther is really exciting.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

There have been many, but the top three are: first, learning how to read 500-year-old documents, that is, palaeography. The language and symbols are different and people did not care about grammar or punctuation at the time.

Second, acquiring the econometric-technical skills to analyse these data was a long journey. That was not always fun, but very useful.

Third, building a theoretical framework to explain the data patterns, and being then able to write these down in an accessible way. Academics are ultimately writers so being able to write in a compelling way is crucial. I wasn’t aware of the importance of writing before starting graduate school.

What resources have you found useful in undertaking your research? (Eg: PhD Academy, CIVICA course catalogue etc...)

My supervisors have taught me many essential skills, such as reading historical documents and developing a theoretical framework. But two other resources have been crucial.

First, the PhD Academy has offered exceptionally good training, especially compared to other universities. Particularly valuable is the training available in self-management, mental strength and writing.

Second, the CIVICA courses are amazing. At one point, I needed an advanced applied econometrics course for my research. At that time, there were no courses available at LSE that seemed adequate. But there was the perfect course for my training needs at Bocconi University in Italy, which I could take thanks to the CIVICA network. In the end, that course was central in developing the necessary skills for my research.