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Engravings by Jacques Callot (1592-1635)

Source: Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A Poverty of Numbers: First Poverty Estimates for Preindustrial Germany, 1350-1800

How did poverty develop over the long run in the German territories of the Holy Roman Empire? This paper presents the first series of consistent poverty estimates spanning from 1325 to 1800. Based on data from 38 cities and 35 rural communities covering 138 villages, I provide estimates for a set of three measures of poverty: fiscal poverty, relative poverty and the Poverty Gap Index. Previously no consistent estimates had existed that would allow for a meaningful analysis of poverty in the long run. This gap is largely due to the lack of a common definition and measurement of the concept of poverty among scholars. I suggest a definition that can be easily applied and consistently measured across time and space to remedy this.


The results show that poverty declined in the aftermath of the Black Death, although only until about ca. 1425 – shorter than what had previously been suggested. I also show that poverty rose considerably during the sixteenth century, in line with much of the literature on this phenomenon. Moreover, I show that poverty peaked during the Thirty Years’ War and declined thereafter. The peak happens earlier in the urban communities than in the rural communities. This might be due to migration and the devastating consequences of the war on agriculture. Lastly, I show that poverty rose again from at least 1725 onwards and continuously did so until 1800.

Watch my 3-minute video summary presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2021:

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