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This article analyses the long-term development of the skill premium in western Europe in a global perspective, on the basis of data on wages of skilled and unskilled construction workers in more than a dozen European countries and regions, and in a number of non-European countries such as India, China, Japan, Russia, Korea and Indonesia. It shows that already in the late medieval period the skill premium in western Europe had fallen sharply and became, from the fifteenth century onwards, much lower than in most other parts of the world economy. Only in southern China, and perhaps also in nineteenth-century Japan, did the skill premium fall to an equally low level. The explanation for these global patterns focuses on factor proportions, the quality of institutions and demand-related factors. Moreover, it is argued that the skill premium measured in this way is also a predictor of long-term economic performance.
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The skill premium and the ‘Great Divergence’1
Jan Luiten van Zanden
IISG/University of Utrecht
The paper studies the long-term development of the skill premium of construction
workers in Europe in a global perspective. It shows that this price of human capital
declined sharply between ca 1350 and 1450, and, in particular in the North Sea region,
remained on a relatively low level since. It is also demonstrated that in other parts of
Eurasia with the possible exception of parts of China the skill premium was much
higher than in Europe. These developments and regional patterns are explained using
insights from human capital theory, focussing on the role played by interest rates and by
the efficiency of institutions for the training of apprentices. It is argued that the low skill
premium characteristic of western Europe in the early modern period is the result of
favourable conditions for human capital formation in general, and that high levels of
human capital formation in early modern Europe help to explain the ‘Great Divergence’
between Europe and the rest of Eurasia during the 19th century.
Relative prices are the DNA-prints of an economy. They are basic units of information
that reflect and define its structural features. In particular in the period before the mid
19th century, when other sources of information (such as historical national accounts)
are relatively difficult to acquire and subject to large margins of error, relative prices
and wages are crucial sources of information about the structure of the economy and its
level of development.
The study of relative prices should therefore allow us to understand more fully
the backgrounds and the dynamics of the ‘Great Divergence’ that occurred in the
century after the Industrial Revolution. Was the exceptional performance of the
European economy after about 1780 a more or less accidental by-product of
developments occurring during these decades, such as the rise of steam power, or the
result of patterns of economic change which began many centuries before the 1780s
perhaps already during the Middle Ages? The traditional view on this, shared by David
Landes, Eric Jones, Immanuel Wallerstein and Angus Maddison, is that the roots of
European uniqueness are to be found already in the (late) Middle Ages. Maddison has
produced estimates of the development of GDP per capita that are consistent with such
an interpretation, showing that already around 1800 Europe was much more developed
than the rest of the world. More recently however, Kenneth Pomeranz developed the
argument that until the middle of the 18th century, Western European levels of income
and welfare did not differ in a fundamental way from those in China and Japan (and
perhaps India), and that the ‘Great Divergence’ therefore occurred in the centuries after
1750 (or perhaps even 1800). More importantly perhaps, he also argued that this
divergence was not the product of fundamental differences between the two parts of
Eurasia, but the to some extent fortuitous by-product of a developments which
happened to take place in Western Europe during the 18th century: easy access to coal
(at the right places), and the fact a few countries in Western Europe controlled huge
A team of scholars led by Peter Lindert has recently been put together to find out
if the study of relative prices and wages can contribute to this discussion. A first and
highly preliminary results of the ‘global history of prices and incomes’ presented in
Buenos Aires in 2002, suggested that already during the Early Modern Period the
structure of relative prices in North-western Europe was distinctive in a number of
respects. Lindert formulated the working hypothesis that ‘Northwest Europe led in
the development of non-agricultural productivity concentrated in the capital-goods and
knowledge-intensive sectors’. The paper hypothesized that capital goods and knowledge
intensive products were relatively cheap in this part of the world (and interest rates were
relatively low), whereas foodstuffs/agricultural products (and land) were relatively
expensive there.3
This article investigates one aspect of this broader hypothesis, namely
concerning the remuneration of human capital. It tries to elaborate the Lindert idea
that northwest Europe had a comparative advantage in knowledge intensive sectors by
looking at the long-term development of the skill premium in Europe and parts of Asia.
It takes a rather limited view at this ‘skill premium’ by focusing on the difference in
daily wages between skilled craftsmen (carpenters and masons) and unskilled labourers
in the construction industry, a skill premium about which we are relatively well
informed. An added advantage of this skill premium is that technological change in the
construction industry was relatively slow in particular until the second half of the 19th
century meaning that the skills acquired by those craftsmen did not change much in
time, and were also more or less identical in different regions of the world (although
some variation did occur, of course). It can also be argued that carpenters and masons
possessed quite strategic skills. Masons were the architects (and other the entrepreneurs)
of almost all early modern buildings (famous architects such as for example Palladio
were trained as masons).4 Similarly, carpenters were the engineers of a technology
consisting mainly of wood, and shipwrights, millwrights, wheelwrights and other
specialized carpenters were responsible for an important part of new inventions. The
relative price of these skills was therefore important, not only for the construction
industry (which was the most important supplier of capital goods) but for the economy
as a whole. Finally, it will be argued that studying this segment of the labour market can
lead to insights into the conditions for human capital formation in the economy as a
whole, and that the skill-premium of construction workers can in be used to develop and
test ideas about the relative efficiency of institutions in general.
The hypothesis to be tested is that in Europe the skill premium was already
relatively low during the Early Modern Period (in fact, as I will show, since the late
Middle Ages). More important is to understand and explain this phenomenon: why did
the skill premium in European construction industry decline rapidly between 1350 and
1450, and why did it remain stable at a very low level during the next five and a half
centuries? I will use standard explanations of the skill premium, focusing on the one
hand on interest rates and the efficiency of capital markets, and on the other hand on
institutions for training and for wage setting in an attempt to explain the patterns found.
But let us begin by looking at some 20th century data about the skill premium in the
construction industry. Since the 1930s the ILO publishes, in its annual publication on
International Labour Statistics, data of the yearly ‘October census’, an inquiry more or
less the same in all countries involved, which produces data on wage levels of different
occupations in industry.5 For 1950 the number of countries covered by this census is
sufficiently large to make it possible to study the variation of the skill premium in
construction on a global scale.6 Freeman and Oostendorp, who used the same October
census to reconstruct wage differentials in manufacturing at about 1990, found a strong
correlation between different measures of the degree of variation in the wages paid (or
in wage rates) and GDP per capita. In Figure 1 the same relationship is shown,
including trend lines for different regions. The same relatively strong, negative
relationship between GDP per capita and skill premium in construction industry is
evident from it, which suggests that this measure of the skill premium reflects the same
kind of forces as the more complex and integral measures developed by Freeman and
Oostendorp. But this relationship was not exactly the same for all regions, however.
Wage inequality in the Americas (north and south did not make a difference here), in
Asia and Africa was higher than in Europe. Regressions with the data conform this
picture (where skill premium is the dependent variable and GDP per capita the
independent variable): dummies for Europe consistently had a negative sign (and are
highly significant), whereas dummies for the other continents had a positive signs.7
Figure 1 The relationship between GDP per capita and the
skillpremium of building craftsmen (c. 1950)
100,00 1000,00 10000,00
GDP/capita in 1950, in 1990 international dollars
Skillpremium %
Europe Asia Americas Africa
Log. (Asia)
Log. (Europe)
Log. (Americas)
Log. (Africa)
These data suggest that Europe was different, that the level of the skill premium was
lower there than in the rest of the world even much lower than in North-America.
The standard explanation for the negative link between wage inequality and level of
economic development is that the supply of human capital increases more rapidly than
demand for it during the process of ‘modern economic growth’. This hypothesis can,
however, not explain the low level of the skill premium in Europe in 1950; levels of
human capital formation in the US and Canada, for example, were probably higher than
in Western Europe, and certainly not lower.8 The variables that may help to explain this
gap are of an institutional nature and related to the level of corporatism of the western
European economy. Unfortunately, statistics measuring these institutions are
unavailable (on a global scale) for the 1950s.9
The work by Allen and Özmucur and Pamuk on wages of construction workers in
European cities in the very long run, makes it relatively easy to construct time series of
the skill premium in this industry between c 1300 and 1914.10 Figure 2 compares the
skill premium in Western Europe (the average for London, Oxford,
Amsterdam/Holland, Gent/Antwerp, Paris and Strasbourg) with the available estimates
for Japan, India and Korea.11 It shows that during the first half of 14th century the skill
premium in parts of Europe was relatively high at between 100 and 150% of the wage
of an unskilled labourer. From the evidence available for England it appears there may
have been an increase in wage inequality during the first decades of the 14th century,
and that already in the 1330s (after the Great European Famine of 1315-1322) a decline
set in.12 After the Black Death decline to the middle of the 15th century when a level of
about 50 to 60% was reached; it remained strikingly constant during the next 450
The observations we have for other parts of Eurasia for India, Japan, Korea
and Indonesia (the latter not shown in Figure1) suggest that the skill premium was
much higher there than in Europe. Unfortunately these data do not go back to the period
before 1600, but for the latter half of the period they are very clear. In Japan the skill
premium seems to have fluctuated between 150 and 250 percent; a typical observation
is that in 1802/04 a day labourer in Kyoto earned 0.92 momme per day, while the wage
of a carpenters in the countryside (in Kami-Kawarabayashi) was 2.6 momme and that
for Osaka carpenters 4.3 momme per day.14 A few 17th and 18th century observations for
India and Indonesia suggest similar high levels.15 Russia fits into the same picture; the
data published by Hellie for the 17th century point to a 100% (carpenter/unskilled
labourer) to 167% (mason/unskilled labourer) skill premium.16
The significant exception appears to be China. The detailed wage data available
for 1769 the result of government regulation of public construction show that in
large parts of China (Hunan, Gansu, Jiangsu) the skill premium was only about 25%. In
these regions the median daily wage of a craftsman was set at about .05 tael and that of
an unskilled labourer at about .04 tael per day. But in Zhili province, in particular in and
near Beijing, both nominal wages and skill premiums were much higher than elsewhere.
Nominal wages in the capital were three times as high as in the other regions for which
data are available, and the skill premium was as high as 80 to 100 %.17 Other evidence
related to construction workers in Beijing in 17th, 18th and 19th centuries tell a similar
story of a standardized skill premium of 100%.18 For other regions I could not yet
compare the 1769 regulations with other sources; it is s bit tricky to rely on too much on
these sources because they contain prices set by the state, and it is not completely clear
to what extent the quoted prices and wages reflected market values.19
It is also possible to compare between different parts of Europe (see Figure 3). I
distinguish three clusters of six cities each: Western Europe (Gent/Antwerp,
Amsterdam, Oxford, London, Paris, and Strasbourg), Southern Europe (Florence,
Milan, Naples, Valencia, Zaragoza/Madrid and Istanbul) and Central Europe
(Augsburg, Leipzig, Vienna, Danzig, Cracow and Warsaw). Not all time series are of
equal length, however. For the 14th century the western European pattern is based on
data from England and from the Low Countries (Holland and Gent); for southern
Europe in the 14th century we have only data for Florence and Zaragoza. But from the
15th century onwards data become more abundant. Figure 3 shows that both in Western
Europe and in southern Europe the skill premium declined rapidly after 1350; in the
south the fall is even more spectacular than in the north-west. The Zaragoza series
already peaks in the 1310s, but in Firenze and the Low Countries the decline of the skill
premium begins after 1348. But from the mid 15th century onwards the wage inequality
in the south tends to go up, a pattern that can also be found in the east (Poland and
Germany). Whereas the skill premium is between 50 to 60% in the north-west after
1450, it tends to increase to as much as 80 to 100% in eastern and southern Europe
during the 19th century. And whereas in the rest of Europe, the skill premium seems to
move more or less with the rhythm of population growth increasing during the 15th
century, stabilizing in the 17th century, and increasing again in the 18th and 19th century
there is remarkable stability in western Europe. The divergence that occurs in
particular after 1650 can still be found in 20th century data: in 1936/37, according to the
ILO data, the average for 6 eastern European countries was 56% (range: 28 and 95%),
of three southern European countries 45% (25 to 64%) and for four western European
countries 22% (12 to 28%).20
These two figures raise a number of questions about the remuneration of human capital
in early modern Europe. The first and perhaps most striking development is the sudden
and spectacular decline in the skill premium in the century after the Black Death. The
result was that during the Renaissance - between 1400 and 1550 there was an
exceptionally low level of remuneration for human capital. The stability of the skill
premium in Western Europe between c 1450 and 1914 is the second striking
phenomenon; how is it possible that in those four-and-a-half centuries relative pay of
craftsmen became ‘frozen’ a such a low level? The divergence of the south and the east
in the centuries after 1650 is perhaps the third remarkable development; this occurred
during a period in which in terms of real wages (according to Robert Allen) and of GDP
per capita (my own estimates) the countries around the north sea began to diverge from
those in east and south.21
According to standard economic theory the skill premium is the remuneration for
investing in human capital, eg. for not earning an income during the period in which the
apprentice was undergoing training and for the payment of fees to the master craftsman
who trained the apprentice. Therefore, the skill premium is in the long term determined
by (1) the costs of the training, such as number of years that are needed for acquiring the
specific skills (the unearned wage income during these years), and the fees paid, (2) the
interest rate linking the higher future earnings to the present, and (3) the expected higher
income after finishing the training period: the chances of earning the higher income of a
skilled workers and the number of years that one can expect to enjoy the skill premium.
This may seem a very modern idea, and the approach therefore perhaps slightly
anachronistic, but it can already be found in Adam Smith (as always), who wrote about
the skilled labourer that ‘the work which he learns to perform, it must be expected, over
and above the usual wages of common labour, will replace to him the whole expense of
his education, with at least the ordinary profit of an equally valuable capital… The
difference between the wages of skilled labour and those of common labour is founded
upon this principle’.22
The outlines of the apprenticeship system in Europe are relatively well known,
and seem not to have changed fundamentally in the period under study.23 Therefore it is
possible to roughly simulate the relationship between the ‘equilibrium’ skill premium
and the return on human capital, which will be related to the interest rate. The following
assumptions are used in this simulation:
- a 7 years apprenticeship period the standard in English contracts at ages 14
to 21;24
- the unearned income of the apprentice is estimated at 20% of the annual wages
of an unskilled labourer at age 14, increasing via 40% (15 years), 60% (16
years), 70% (17), 80% (18), 90% (19) to 100% at age 20;25
- after finishing their apprenticeship they will earn the wages of skilled craftsmen
for 45 years, at ages 21 to 65;
Three variants have been calculated: 1/ assuming that that an apprentice has a 100%
chance of becoming a craftsman after finishing his seven years of training; 2/ assuming
that this chance is 75%, and that there is a 25% chance that he will earn the income of
an unskilled labourer only; 3/ it is additionally assumed that the apprentice has to pay a
premium of 50% of the annual wage of an unskilled labourer up-front. Figure 4 gives
the relationships between skill premium and return on capital invested in training that
can be derived from these assumptions. It shows for example that a decline of the skill
premium from 135% (in 1325) to 60 % (in 1450) would be consistent with a decline of
the return on human capital from 19% to 10% in the first version, from about 15,5% to
8% in the second version, and from almost 14% to 7% in the third variant.26 Als added
to Figure 4 are the very rough estimates of interest rates and skill premiums for a
number of countries for the early modern period (explained more in detail below).
Given the fact that becoming a carpenter or a mason meant acquiring the same
skills before and after the Black Death, the simplest explanation for the post 1350
decline of the skill premium in construction is that interest rates in Europe declined
dramatically in this period. This is consistent with the evidence: all over Europe interest
rates seem to have declined in the century or so after the Black Death. The evidence
relates to actual interest rates on loans and on the public debt (collected by Sidney
Homer), on the yield on investment in land (put together by Clark and Epstein), and can
be derived from what we know about the seasonal fluctuations in grain prices, from
which McCloskey and Nash and Poynder have derived estimates of Medieval interest
rates.27 The exact degree of the decline of interest rates in Europe is not precisely known
however; for England Clark suggests a fall by perhaps as much as 50 to 60%, from 10 to
11% before 1350 to 4 to 5% in 1450-1500, but the number of observations for the latter
period is small.28
The returns on investment in human capital estimated by the model are
somewhat higher than these interest rates on capital market; the latter are related to the
more formal parts of the capital market, in which land was (or could be) used as a
collateral. Obviously, investment in human capital was more risky than investment in
land, but this risk premium was if we are to believe these calculations surprisingly
small in early modern Europe. Significantly, McCloskey and Nash also found a more
radical decline of interest rates on rural capital markets in their study of the seasonal
variation in grain prices.29 The evidence presented here and their study perhaps
indicates that the spread of interest rates between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ capital market
was also declining during the 1350-1450 period.
The ‘standard’ explanation for falling interest rates after 1350 is that the Black
Death caused an exogenous fall in population levels, which given the fact that the
capital stock and the cultivated land remained the same - resulted in a more favorable
capital/labour and land/labour ratio, which induced the fall in interest rates (and led to
increased levels of consumption, given the rise in wealth per capita). This then, it can
argued, induced households to increase their investments in human capital, leading to
the strong decline in the skill premium in the same years.
What is also striking is that in western Europe both interest rates and the skill
premium remained more or less constant (or showed an almost unnoticeable declining
trend) after 1450, and did certainly not rise again to the pre 1350-level, in spite of a
strong growth of population numbers and a subsequent decline of the land/man ratio in
the centuries after 1450. In fact, population growth after 1450 was particularly rapid in
those countries in the Netherlands and England where the skill premium remained
frozen at the 50-60% level. This means that the explanation for the fall in interest rates
and skill premium that focuses on the decline of population after 1348 as the
determining factor is incomplete. The evidence suggests that the at the same time
changes in the institutional setting of capital markets occurred, leading to increases in
efficiency in those markets (i.e. the fall of transactions costs), which resulted in a long
term increase in the supply of savings and a stabilization of interest rates in the very
long run. That in the centuries after 1450 interest rates and skill premiums did not
increase again but continued to low and perhaps even decline somewhat further during
the 18th and 19th centuries, is arguable the most significant development distinguishing
Western Europe from the rest of the Continent.30 That the demographic downturn after
1348 was perhaps of secondary importance - and perhaps only helped to attain a new
equilibrium in the capital market characterized by low transactions costs, high savings
and low interest rates - can also be argued on the basis of the case of Holland, where a
long-term expansion of the (urban) population between 1350 and 1500 coincided with a
decline of the skill premium (from about 100% in the 1340s to 40 to 50% in the early
1500s) and a similar fall in interest rates.31 It is beyond the scope of this paper to
analyze the causes of these changes in detail, but my argument is that the decline of
interests rates and the skill premium were fundamental for the long-term evolution of
the European economy in the centuries after 1350; in fact, as the data for 1950 show, the
regime of low interest rates and low skill premium is still with us today, as much as the
regime of high interest rates and high wage inequality still characteristic of South-East
But how to explain long-term stability of the skill premium between
1450 and 1914? Why did not the Dutch Golden Age, the Industrial Revolution or any
other major transformation of the economy of western Europe in these centuries lead to
changes in the demand and supply of skilled labour resulting in changes in their relative
prices? Part of the answer is that this did happen, but on other segments of the labour
market. De Vries and Van der Woude, Van Zanden (for salaried employees) and
Williamson (but contested by Feinstein) found evidence of increases in the skill
premium in other parts of the labour market, in particular related to relatively highly
skilled employees.32 These reflected bottlenecks in the supply of skilled labour, the
result of accelerations in economic growth and the transformation of economic
structures. It is not clear how exceptional such a rise in the skill premium was. I also
collected wage data for another group of highly skilled craftsmen, the composers and
printers working in the printing industry that arose after the invention of movable type
printing by Gutenberg in the 1450s. In a way these printers were the ICT-workers of the
late medieval and early modern period, operating and developing the new techniques of
mass production of information. Book production grew dramatically in Europe from the
1470s onwards and the demand for their skills must have been growing very rapidly.
But this did not lead to excessive wage levels; the most reliable data available, for the
large firm Plantin in Antwerp for the period 1560-1800, show that in this booming
centre of the printing industry wages of these highly skilled and literate workers were at
the same level as those of construction workers. Because many printers were recruited
from abroad in particular from Germany this must have been indicative of wage
trends elsewhere.33 This shows the relative flexibility of the supply of skilled labourers
in early modern Europe and suggests that the low skill premium found in the
construction industry may be indicative of the efficiency of the training system in
Can interest rates differentials also explain the gap in wage inequality between Europe
and the rest of Eurasia? Evidence that interest rates in Europe were lower than
elsewhere on the Eurasian continent is fragmentary, but the general tendency seems to
be that from the late Middle Ages onwards capital markets in Europe were more
efficient and developed broader and deeper - than elsewhere.34 Adam Smith was
already convinced of the fact that interest rates in Europe in particular in Great Britain
and Holland - were much lower than in China and the ‘Mahometan’ nations: ‘twelve per
cent accordingly is said to be the common interest of money in China’, he stated,
whereas he considered 3 to 4.5 per cent to be normal in Great Britain.35
The extreme of the spectrum of interest rates was probably South-East Asia;
recently a discussion started about the causes of the ‘high interest rates/thin capital
markets’ equilibrium trap, in which the region was caught as early as the 17th century.36
The ‘normal’ interest rate found by Boomgaard, for example, in an in-depth study of the
capital market in Buitenzorg (near present day Jakarta) in 1805 was between 40 to
50%.37 In another paper on interest rates in 17th century South and South-East Asia he
shows that these rates were usual for South East Asia, but that they were lower in India
(12-18% in Coromandel and Bengal, somewhat lower in Surat).38
The available data for Korea also point to a link between high interest rates and
high skill premiums; according to Jun and Lewis the interest rate in 18th and 19th
century Korea fluctuated between 25 and 50%, with an average of 37% (see Figure 4).
For Japan, finally, there are some data from Osaka from the 1830s onwards showing
that official interest rates fluctuated between 8 and 10%; the same source adds,
however, that in practice interest rates were often closer to 18 to 20%.39 These examples
show that there existed a big gap between western Europe on the one hand, and Asia on
the other hand. Figure 4 shows that, assuming that the costs of training young
apprentices are similar everywhere, the large differences in skill premiums between the
rest of Eurasia and post-1348 Europe can easily be explained by this gap in interest
rates. The efficiency of capital market institutions seems to explain the price of human
Figure 4 Modelled relationship between skill premium and
return on human capital; three variations.
0 50 100 150 200
skill premium
Return on human capital
100% 75%
75% plus up-front interest rates and skill premium
Poly. (75%) Poly. (100%)
Poly. (75% plus up-front)
before and
after 1350
Interest rates are only part of the story, of course. The efficiency of institutions
regulating the training of apprentices also plays a role. The contract between an
apprentice and his master is a highly complex one, involving different remunerations for
services spread out over a lengthy time period.40 Workers may fear, when they pay for
their training up-front, that they will not get the quantity and quality of training
necessary for becoming a skilled worker or an independent craftsman. Masters may fear
that after the apprentice has been a net liability for his household during the first years
of the contract, he will quit, before becoming a net source of income during the second
half of his term.41 When the master himself controls access to the ranks of skilled
craftsmen, trainees may also fear that he may renege on his promises.42 These by
definition ‘incomplete’ contracts may therefore result in underinvestment in human
capital; an efficient levels of human capital formation requires 1/ trust between both
parties, and/or 2/ third-party involvement, i.e. institutions that guarantee the fair
execution of the apprentice-contract.
In Europe guilds traditionally were the institutions that regulated the training of
apprentices; in England the state also began to regulate apprenticeship (from 1563
onwards), but this was entirely based on the rules already applied by the craft guilds.43
This meant that guilds almost everywhere operated as the ‘third’ party that saw to the
fair treatment of apprentices. The exceptionally low skill premium of post 1450 Europe
is therefore a testimony of the efficiency of the guilds (and, in England, of the additional
institutions guarantees supplied by the national organization of the apprentice contract).
If the guilds had been less efficient, if they had functioned as cartels of skilled labour
restricting the entry to the ranks of craftsmen, the skill premium would have been much
higher (or, in other words, the gap between the return on human capital and the interest
rate on the capital market would have been much higher). These conclusions are
relevant for the ongoing debate about the relative efficiency of the guilds in early
modern Europe. The traditional literature was very critical of the role of guilds, but
more recent literature has suggested that their role was much more positive, in particular
in the supply of training.44
The structure of labour relations may also help to explain the near-constant level
of the skill premium in Western Europe between 1450 and 1914. Knotter and De Vries
and Van der Woude has characterized the pre-modern labour market as consisting of
two segments.45 The first segment the ‘internal’ labour market was relatively small
in scale, and was characterized by stable labour relations and more of less fixed wages.
The second segment the ‘external’ market had different characteristics: labourers,
who were often seasonal migrants from the other parts of the Netherlands or Germany,
were employed on a project basis, changed employment frequently, and their wages
fluctuated much more than wages of the first segment. The second segment acted as a
buffer for fluctuations in the demand and supply of labour. The near-stability of wage
rates we find in sources about the construction industry is a feature of the first segment
of the labour market. Here, employment was a long-term relationship, and the costs of
renegotiating the wage on a regular basis (apparently) outran the benefits that both
parties could reap from such frequent renegotiations.46 Other mechanisms were used to
support employees in times of famine, such as a bonus payment at the end of the year to
compensate for dearth. The stability of nominal wages Amsterdam shipwrights, for
example, complained in 1869 that their wages had remained the same for more than 200
years! was therefore embedded in these long-term employment relationships. The very
stable skill premium should be seen against this background; stable nominal wages of
both skilled and unskilled labourers obviously resulted in a stable skill premium.
Of course, these institutions could not guarantee the long-term stability of the
skill premium at the 50 to 60% level if interest rates would go up or guilds became less
efficient in training apprentices. This may be the explanation for the divergence of
Southern and Eastern Europe between c 1450 and 1900 (and in particular after 1650).
The divergence of the skill premium in these regions compared to western Europe
shows a (not particularly strong) relationship with population growth: it increases in the
sixteenth century, followed by convergence during the 17th century crisis, and is again
followed by increases of skill premiums in the south and the east in the 18th and 19th
centuries (Figure 3). Whereas in western Europe this link between demography and skill
premium seems to be cut after 1450, it continues to exist in the rest of Europe. So it can
again be argued that the ‘real’ problem to be explained is why the skill premium in
western Europe remained at the very low level attained in 1450.
It is clear that an efficient system of training, organized by the guilds, was a
precondition for the low skill premium we find in western Europe. But can it also be
argued that institutions for training were inefficient elsewhere? A systematic study
comparing systems of apprenticeship in different parts of the world is beyond the scope
of this paper, but a few observations can be made. Guilds or similar institutions
organizing craftsmen with the same skills existed outside Europe, in particular in China
and Japan, but they in general do not seem to have had the same independent status as
a corporate entity with their own rights and obligations as the guilds of western
Europe. Institutions for training apprentices in Japan are depicted by Saito as being
rather rigid with a training period up to 20 years for apprentices in merchant firms
which may have played a role in keeping the skill premium at a high level.47 Castes to
some extent fulfilled the same function in India, and their role in restricting access to
specific skills has been criticized, but the evidence for this is limited.48 Finally, in south-
east Asia similar institutions for the training of apprentices were not well developed, or
even totally absent; there, a large part of the skilled workforce consisted of Chinese
immigrants and their descendents.
So perhaps it can be claimed that the rest of Eurasia did not have the guild
system that was characteristic for Europe, but the estimates presented in Figure 4 do not
suggest that variations in the efficiency of training system are an important explanation
of large differences in the skill premium. The upper line of Figure 4 can be interpreted
as an efficiency frontier, combining each skill premium with the highest return to
human capital (or, in other words, with the lowest costs of training). The closer a
country moves towards this curve, the more efficient the training system will be. Europe
does not distinguish itself in this respect Korea (in particular), India and Japan are as
close to the efficiency frontier as western Europe (after 1350). Of course, the underlying
estimates of interest rates and skill premiums both for Europe and for the rest of
Eurasia49- are rather weak, but the pattern that emerges seems to be consistent.
An aspect that is related to this brief sketch of the structure of the labour market is the
status of the unskilled labourers in different parts of the world. In Europe these
unskilled construction workers were full time urban inhabitants who were active on this
first segment of the labour market. In Japan, India and Indonesia one gets the
impression that unskilled labourers are basically agricultural labourers coolies is the
term used in South Asia who were part-time active in construction and other urban
activities. Saito in his study of the Japan labour market stressed the links between the
urban market for unskilled labourers and the situation in agriculture; unskilled labourers
in cities earn about the same wage as ‘male springtime farm workers’, which means that
no big urban-rural wage gap existed.50 We have already seen that in China wages in
Beijng were much higher than in the south and west of the country, suggesting a big
urban-rural wage gap. The situation in Indonesia and India was perhaps similar; the big
gap we find between the wages for skilled and for unskilled labour may therefore result
from the fact that the non-European measures of the skill premium also include the
urban-rural differential.
In Western Europe these differentials were surprisingly small. During the 16th
and 17th centuries agricultural wages in Holland were more or less on par with those of
unskilled workers in the building industry.51 In England we find the same picture
between 1300 and 1700 with some (in itself quite significant) fluctuations, nominal
wages in agriculture were at the same level as the wages of unskilled labourers in
construction.52 It appears therefore that western Europe was not only characterized by
very low skill premium, but also by the fact that the wage gap between town and
countryside was remarkably small.
New growth theory postulates that human capital formation is one of the determinants
of long-term economic growth. If this is correct, one would expect that the different
conditions for human capital formation, reflected in the differences in the skill premium
analysed in this paper, have affected long term economic growth. For the early modern
period this is difficult to test, because of the poor quality of the estimates of GDP in this
period, but the fact that the skill premium was the lowest in the most dynamic parts of
Western Europe the region around the North Sea is significant. Moreover, the low
skill premium seems to precede the expansion of these economies by one or two
centuries. The Dutch Golden Age began after about 1580, and the acceleration of the
English economy occurred during the middle decades of the 17th century, that is, 130 or
200 years after skill premiums (and interest rates) had fallen to their historic
But the more important question is probably if the differences in the price of
human capital can explain the ‘Great Divergence’ after about 1780. This idea is tested
in two ways. Figure 5 shows the relationship between the average skill premium in the
period 1750-1820 and the growth of GDP per capita during the 19th century (the period
1820-1913) according to the estimates by Maddison.54 Because the 1820 estimates of
levels of GDP are relatively weak and subject to much debate the revisionists claiming
that the gap between Europe and China was much smaller than estimated by Maddison
I also correlated the absolute level of GDP per capita in 1913 on the skill premium in
the period 1750-1820 (Figure 6).
Figure 5. The average skill premium of construction
workers between 1750 and 1820 and GDP per capita
growth in 1820-1913
10 100 1000
Skill premium (log-scale)
GDP p.c. growth
lands Japan
Figure 6 The skill premium in 1750/1820 and GDP per
capita in 1913 (log-scale)
100 1000 10000
GDP per capita in 1913
Skill premium
Both relationships are quite strong. There are two significant outliers in Figure 5, China
and the Netherlands (and Japan has a somewhat higher rate of growth than might be
expected on the basis of its skill premium at about 1800).55 China is the only country
with a declining GDP per capita (according to Maddison) and continues to be the
enigma of this paper. Growth in the Netherlands was relatively slow because it started
from a rather high level. The Dutch anomaly disappears in Figure 6. China is the only
significant outlier in Figure 6.56
These relationships can also be tested econometrically. Table 1 shows how
robust this explanation of the differences in growth rates and the levels of GDP in 1913
is. These results show that differences in conditions for human capital formation, which
already arose during the late Middle Ages, are an effective explanation of the ‘Great
Divergence’ during the 19th century.
The argument that has been developed in this paper is that the skill premium measured
in this relatively simple way as the difference between the wages of carpenters and
masons on the one hand and those of unskilled labourers in construction on the other
hand is probably a good proxy of the quality of the institutional framework of an
economy. This follows from the analysis of the main factors determining it:
- the level of interest rates, as paid by/used as a shadow price by (urban)
households; it is generally accepted that interest rates are good indices of the
quality of the institutional framework of an economy, but they are difficult to
measure in a standardized way; the skill premium offers an elegant alternative
- the efficiency of institutions for the formation of human capital, in particular
apprenticeship-contracts, the guilds in which they are embedded, and the degree
of trust between apprentice and master that results from these institutions again
we deal with strategic variables for measuring the quality of the institutional
In other words, a low skill premium shows that households have access to relatively
cheap capital (the result of their own savings or of borrowing on a capital market) and
that institutions for the formation of human capital are efficient. The long-term effect
will be that investment in human capital will be high and that its level will be close to
the socially optimal level (reflecting social costs and profits). This will obviously have
long-term consequences for economic growth; one expects growth to be strongest in
economies with high levels of human capital formation and a low skill premium. The
differential growth of the economies of early modern Europe, on which we have
concentrated in this paper, seems to confirm this hypothesis. But even more striking are
the high correlations between international differences in the skill premium at about
1800 and growth during the 19th century. Therefore, the skill premium is not only a very
good measure of the quality of the institutional framework on an economy, but also a
good predictor of growth in the long run.
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Table 1. Explaining the Great Divergence with international differences in the skill
GDP p.c.
growth 1820-
GDP p.c. in
(t-value) (t-value)
Constant 3.306
Skill premium -.542
-6.19 -.937
China dummy -.995
-5.57 -1.320
Holland dummy -.621
-3.04 -
R^2 .847
Note: all variables as logs, except for the growth rates of GDP per capita
Figure 2 The skill premium of craftsmen in construction in Western
Europe, India, Japan and Korea, 1300-1914
1300 1350 1400 1450 1500 1550 1600 1650 1700 1750 1800 1850 1900
skill premium
Europa India Japan Korea
Figure 3 The skill premiums of craftsmen in construction in
western, southern and central Europe, 1300-1914
1300 1350 1400 1450 1500 1550 1600 1650 1700 1750 1800 1850 1900
skill premium %
Western Europe Southern Europe Central Europe
Poly. (Southern Europe) Poly. (Western Europe)
1 I thank Peter Koudijs for helping me to collect the data for this paper, Bas van Leeuwen for assisting me
with a few econometric experiments, and the participants at the conference Towards a Global History of
Prices and Wages in August 2004 at Utrecht University, and in particular Bob Allen, Bas van Bavel, Greg
Clark, Najaf Haider, Phil Hoffman, Seong Ho Jun, Jan Lucassen, Paolo Malanima, Christine Moll-
Murata, Sevket Pamuk, Peter Lindert and Johan Söderberg for their valuable comments.
2 Discussion about these issues has ‘taken off’ since the publication of Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great
Divergence in 2000; see also Bin Wong 1997.
3 Lindert et al 2002.
4 For the role of masons see Richard Goldthwaite 1990 pp. 125 ff.
5 Freeman and Oostendorp 2001 give an historical overview of the october census.
6 Sources: ILO, Yearbook of Labour Statistics, 1946-1954 (for a few countries wage data from years
close to 1950 had to be used); GDP: Maddison 2001.
7 A number of regressions were run, using different definitions of regions; the only region of which the
dummy did not have a positive sign apart form Europe was Oceania, with only two observations
(Australia and New Zealand); the Asian country that fitted well into the European pattern was,
unsurprisingly, Israel (wages Jews).
8 The first data in the global dataset by Barro and Lee are for the 1960s and show that average years of
schooling in the US and Canada were more than 8, a level only attained by Germany and Denmark, the
other European countries fell clearly behind this; in 1950 the gap between both sides of the Atlantic must
have been even bigger.
9 Regressions with data from the 1990s about the degree of corporatism or the degree of unionization of
the non-agricultural labour force suggest strong negative links between these institutional variables and
the skill premium, but in almost all cases the dummy for Europe remains negative and significant.
10 Sources: Allen 2001 (I used the underlying series published at; for Istanbul from Özmucur and
Pamuk 2002 (published at ); additional data for the Low Countries
1347-1500 are from Van Bavel and Van Zanden 2004, and for Zaragoza in the 14th and 15th century from
Palacio 1994, pp. 362-3.
11 Sources: Japan: Saito 1978 and Saito 2003; India: Van Leeuwen 2004; Broadberry and Gupta 2003;
Korea: Jun and Lewis 2004.
12 Cf Clark 2004b for a slightly different timing of the decline of the skill premium in England; the
decline after 1350 has already been noted by Beveridge and by Postan; see Phelps Brown and Hopkins,
1981: 8.
13 After 1914 it declined to an even lower level, to about 25% in 1936: Phelps Brown and Hopkins 1981:
8-12; also ILO Yearbook, 1936.
14 Saito 2003; Nishikawa 1978: 80-1 also gives wages for skilled and unskilled workers in saltmaking in
Choshu in the 1840s which indicate a similar skill premium (4.6 momme for a skilled workers against 1.6
momme for an unskilled worker and .8 momme for an unskilled female labourer).
15 See on India: Broadberry and Gupta 2003; for Indonesia: Van Zanden. 2003.
16 Hellie 1999: 413-74.
17 My estimates based on the 1769-documents published by the project Staat, Handwerk und Gewerbe in
Peking, 1700-1900 (at results in, in
taels per day (Jiangsu data acquired from Christine Moll-Murata):
N = Masters Labourers Skill premium (%)
Hunan 10
Jiangsu 63
Gansu 50
Zhili/ Shuntian 24
Zhili/Baoding-Tiajin 34
Zhili/other prefectures 82
18Moll-Murata 2003, 2004, and presentation of the latter paper, in which regulations of wages of
construction workers were discussed from 1659, 1665, 1723 and 1736 all showing the same skill
premium of 100%.
19 Mazundar 1998: p. 54 gives a few wage data for 18th century Guangzhou which also suggest a rather
high skill premium; a paper press worker in South China received 750-900 cash per month, whereas an
agricultural worker earned 450-500 cash per month, form which a skill premium of 50 to 100% can be
20 ILO, Yearbook of Labour Statistics, 1938.
21 Allen 2001; Van Zanden work in progress.
22 Smith 1776/1976: 203-4.
23 Epstein 1991 is the best survey of the medieval system; for England: Humphries 2003.
24 See Humphries 2003: 75; also Epstein 1991: 142 who gives a seven years apprenticeship period for
carpenters in 13th century Genoa, but shorter periods for masons (5 or 6 years).
25 These rough estimates are based on two sources: the wage profile of printers in Antwerp (Plantin) in
the 16th-18th century from Scholliers 1959 and Impens 1965, and the age-profile of textile workers in
England in the first half of the 19th century from Johnson 2003.
26 The extremely low skill premium of 20-25% found in large parts of China would be consistent with
interest rates of 1 to 3%.
27 Homer and Sylla 1996: 99-100, 106-8; Clark 1988: 268-76; Epstein 2000: 18-25, 60-61; McCloskey
and Nash 1984; Poynder 1999.
28 Clark 1988; also Epstein 2000: 61.
29 McCloskey and Nash, 1984.
30 Epstein 2000 and Clark 1988 speculate about these changes but do not yet give adequate explanations.
31 The fall in interest rates is documented by still unpublished research by Jaco Zuyderduyn (Ph D
student Utrecht University).
32 De Vries and Van der Woude 1997: 632-4; Van Zanden 1995; Williamson 1985; Feinstein 1988.
33 Data from Scholliers 1959 and Impens 1965
34 See Pomeranz 2000: 178-9; Sylla and Homer 1996: 610-615.
35 Smith 1976: 198.
36 See Henley 2004.
37 Boomgaard 1986; also Van Zanden 2003 for Java in the 19th century;
38 Boomgaard 1996; other 17th century interest rates from this paper, which is based on data from loans
supplied by (and in a few cases obtained by) the East India Company: Thailand about 24%; Jambi (on
Sumatra) 24-36%; Banten (on Java) 18-24%, whereas in the Netherlands the VOC could easily borrow at
3.5 to 5% during the 16th century.
39 Myomoto 1963: 344.
40 Humphries 2003.
41 See Epstein 1991: 102 ff; almost all contracts contained clauses forbidding the apprentice to quit before
the contract period had ended.
42 Humphries 2003: 81-2.
43 Humphries 2003; Epstein 1991.
44 An overview of the debate stressing the role guilds played in training in Epstein 1998.
45 Knotter 1984; see also De Vries and Van der Woude 1997: 636-47.
46 The basic assumption underlying this, was that prices in the long run were stable.
47 Saito 2002.
48 Cf. the discussion in Haider 2004.
49 Sources of interest rates: Western Europe/England: Clark 1988; India: Boomgaard 1996; Japan:
Myomoto 1963; Korea: Jun and Lewis 2004.
50 Saito 1978: 88; Saito 2003 gives for the base period 1802-4 that the mean money wages
for agricultural labourers in the countryside was 1.0 momme and for Kyoto day labourers 0.92 momme
per person-day;
51 Van Zanden 2002
52 Clark 2004
53 But one can also argue that the expansion of the North Sea economy began earlier, for example in the
16th century (with the growth of the Antwerp economy) or in the late medieval period (see Van Bavel and
Van Zanden 2004 for the latter argument concerning Holland); that would mean that both processes the
decline of the skill premium and the first phases of economic growth coincided.
54 Maddison 2001; for the Chinese skill premium I took the Beijng figure for 1769 (84%); taking a lowe
skill premium would make China an even more extreme outlier.
55 It is significant that the Japanese skill premium fell strongly during the second half of the 19th century,
especially during the 1880s; see Van Leeuwen 2004; for China I used the skill premium of Beijing in
1769, for two reasons: it is probably more representative of overall levels of wage inequality than the
other 1769-data, and I also used data from the big cities of other countries (the Netherlands is represented
by Amsterdam etc.).
56 But Chinese GDP per capita in 1913 level is also underestimated; see Ma (2004).
... It has been observed that the historical trend of this ratio has strongly increased in the last decades (Sill, 2002). In particular, in this post-ICT age the most relevant event emerging in the economic and technological context is digitalization (Van Zanden, 2009). For the future, technological change seems to be vulnerable to a deeper labour bias: labour-biased technological change, a process resulting from progress in the knowledge of machineries and robotics linked to big data that will enable machines to substitute workers also in non-routinized tasks, both manual and cognitive (Frey and Osborne, 2013;Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014;Hershbein et al., 2018). ...
... Con el propósito de ahorrar tiempo y espacio, me limitaré a citar solo algunas de las aportaciones que considero más relevantes en esta inmensa literatura, con especial atención a las realizadas desde el ámbito hispánico(Horrell y Humphries, 1992, 2012van Zanden, 1999van Zanden, , 2005van Zanden, , 2009van Zanden, , 2011Allen, 2001Allen, , 2015Allen, , 2019Allen, , 2020Allen, , 2021Allen y Weisdorf, 2011;Llopis y García Montero, 2011;Humphries, 2013;López Losa, 2013;Andrés y Lanza, 2014González-Mariscal, 2015;Horrell, Humphries y Sneath, 2015;Humphries y Weisdorf, 2015de Pleijt y van Zanden, 2016Calderón et al., 2017;López Losa y Piquero, 2018;Stephenson, 2018Stephenson, , 2019Stephenson, , 2020Humphries y Schneider, 2019a, 2019bPérez Romero, 2019; Rota y J. L. Weisdorf, 2019; Rota y J. Weisdorf, 2019; García-Zúñiga, 2020; García-Zúñiga y López Losa, 2021). ...
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This study examines Nordic economic convergence from the sixteenth to twentieth century respective of the economic leaders, in effect the UK before 1914 and USA thereafter. The paper uses a novel approach of combining the analysis of both GDP and wages. The examination of real GDP per capita suggests that there was a catch-up process in play, both with the economic leaders and among the Nordic states, from the early nineteenth century onwards. However, the examination of the adjusted silver wages suggests convergence among the Nordic economies by the end of the eighteenth century. Therefore, we argue, no single Nordic Model emerged from these development patterns, even though the Nordic states today do have striking similarities. Furthermore, they diverged from the West European growth path until the twentieth century, thus they were a part of the Little Divergence at Europe’s other peripheries. The world wars and other crises delayed the full impacts of the convergence process until the latter part of the twentieth century.
Price currents and newspapers are major sources of information on prices during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but drawing conclusions about trends and fluctuations in values from the quotations in these sources poses several recurrent difficulties. After discussing the origins of the prices in these sources, we use a range of examples, mainly involving commodity prices, to illustrate important problems in working with historical price data. These include missing observations and price inertia, varying gaps between low and high price quotations, and the splicing together of price series from different sources or for different commodity qualities. The last two problems often arise from changes over time in the detail with which prices for heterogeneous commodities were reported.
Historical research on the race between education and technology has focused on the West but barely touched upon ‘the rest’. A new occupational wage database for 50 African and Asian economies allows us to compare long‐run patterns in skill premiums across the colonial and post‐colonial eras (c. 1870–2010). Our data reveal three major patterns. First, skilled labour was considerably more expensive in colonial Africa and Asia than in pre‐industrial Europe. Second, skill premiums were distinctly higher in Africa than in Asia. Third, in both regions, skill premiums fell dramatically over the course of the twentieth century, ultimately converging to levels long observed in the West. Our paper takes a first step to explain both the origins of the Africa–Asia gap and the drivers of global skill premium convergence, paying special attention to the colonial context that shaped demand, supply, and labour market institutions.
In this paper we use administrative tabulations from occupation-based income tax (class tax) to estimate income inequality in the Duchy of Warsaw. We start off by estimating income inequality in the Department of Kalisz, and then use the decomposability of the Theil index to estimate national income inequality based on a sample of Theil indices corresponding to different settlement types. According to our results, income inequality in the Duchy was at a moderate level, although in the biggest cities it was relatively high. Income inequality at county level was positively correlated with the mean income of the county.
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Historians have observed a strong degree of divergence in population trends after the Black Death across Europe. A comprehensive explanation for this divergence is still missing and previous scholarship has cited the importance of either endogenous or exogenous factors. The most prominent exogenous factor cited in the literature is regional variation in the impact of the Black Death and repeat plague outbreaks, while explanations referring to the effect of endogenous factors have pointed to the role of fertility as a prime mover in long-term demographic developments instead. This article will use the County of Hainaut in the southern Low Countries as a case study to analyze the effect of endogenous socio-institutional factors on diverging regional population developments. However, by using data from a single (nearly) continuous source of mortmain accounts, this analysis will also take into account long-term mortality trends. This article concludes that diverging regional population trends after the Black Death in the County of Hainaut are mostly due to endogenous societal factors and not differentials in exogenous mortality trends in the long-run.
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This research develops an expanded unified growth theory that incorporates the endogenous accumulation of physical capital, population, human capital, and technology. The model incorporates a complementarity between physical capital and human capital and can be extended to a multi-country setting with international technology diffusion. The analytical characterization of the mechanisms behind the observed patterns of long-run growth and comparative development delivers a consistent explanation for a large set of seemingly unrelated empirical facts. A quantitative multi-country version of the model matches various empirical regularities of long-run growth dynamics and comparative development patterns that have previously been studied in isolation. The findings also shed new light on the role of the demographic transition for convergence patterns, the specification of cross-country growth regressions, technology spillovers, and the secular stagnation debate.
The Black Death was the largest demographic shock in European history. We review the evidence for the origins, spread, and mortality of the disease. We document that it was a plausibly exogenous shock to the European economy and trace out its aggregate and local impacts in both the short run and the long run. The initial effect of the plague was highly disruptive. Wages and per capita income rose. But, in the long run, this rise was only sustained in some parts of Europe. The other indirect long-run effects of the Black Death are associated with the growth of Europe relative to the rest of the world, especially Asia and the Middle East (the Great Divergence), a shift in the economic geography of Europe toward the northwest (the Little Divergence), the demise of serfdom in western Europe, a decline in the authority of religious institutions, and the emergence of stronger states. Finally, avenues for future research are laid out. (JEL N13, N30, N43, J10, I12, I14, I30)
The main concern of this book is to determine when the gap in living standards between the East and the West emerged. Why did Europe experience industrialization and modern economic growth before China, India, or Japan? This is one of the most fundamental questions in Economic history and one that has provoked intense debate. The established view, dating back to Adam Smith, is that the gap emerged long before the industrial revolution. How did the standard of living in Europe and Asia compare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? This book proposes an answer by considering evidence of three sorts. Firstly, economic, focusing on income, food production, wages and prices; secondly, demographic, comparing heights, life expectancy, and other demographic indicators; and thirdly, a combination of the economic and the demographic, investigating the demographic vulnerability to short-term economic stress.