Epidemics, Inequality and Poverty: from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. Lecture, 23 February 2023

Fundación BBVA at Palacio del Marqués de Salamanca. Paseo de Recoletos, 10. Madrid

February 23, 2023


19.00 – 20.30 CEST

Recent research has explored the distributive consequences of major historical epidemics, and the current crisis triggered by Covid-19 prompts us to look at the past for insights about how pandemics can affect inequalities in income, wealth, and health. The fourteenth-century Black Death, which is usually believed to have led to a significant reduction in economic inequality, has attracted the greatest attention – but the picture becomes much more complex if other epidemics are considered.

This seminar covers the worst epidemics of preindustrial times, usually caused by plague, as well as the cholera waves of the nineteenth century and the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-19. It shows how the distributive outcomes of lethal epidemics do not only depend upon mortality rates, but are mediated by a range of factors, chief among them the institutional framework in place at the onset of each crisis. It then explores how past epidemics affected poverty, arguing that highly lethal epidemics could reduce its prevalence through two deeply different mechanisms: redistribution towards the poor, or extermination of the poor. 

Prof. Guido Alfani

is Professor of Economic History at Bocconi University (Milan) where he is also a Fellow of Dondena Centre and of IGIER. He is an Affiliated Scholar at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality (New York), a Research Associate at the CAGE Research Centre (Warwick) and a Research Fellow of the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR, London). An economic and social historian and an historical demographer, he published extensively on Italy and Europe (and beyond), specialising in economic inequality and social mobility, in the history of epidemics and famines, in social alliance systems and social networks. During 2012-16 he was the Principal Investigator of the project EINITE-Economic Inequality across Italy and Europe, 1300-1800 (www.dondena.unibocconi.it/EINITE), funded by the European Research Council (ERC), and during 2017-22 he was the Principal Investigator of a second ERC project, SMITE-Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe 1300-1800. His most recent books are The Lion’s Share. Inequality and the Rise of the Fiscal State in Preindustrial Europe (CUP 2019, with Matteo Di Tullio) and As Gods among Men. A Social and Economic History of the Rich in the West (Princeton 2023).