Date of this Version


Document Type

Working Paper


Recent literature on developing countries has revived interest in structural change involving the reallocation of resources from agriculture to industry. Here, we focus on the first such historically important structural transformation in which some parts of Europe escaped from the Malthusian trap centuries earlier than the Industrial Revolution, while others stagnated. There is as yet no consensus as to the causes of this First Great Divergence. The paper advances the thesis that what lies at the root of different paths is the type of property rights inherited. As populations everywhere in Europe recovered from the catastrophes of the late medieval period, what mattered for the direction taken was the size of the landlord class and their landholdings. In western Europe where peasant proprietors tilled small plots, increases in population levels led to lower real wages. Given the low incomes of landlords and peasants, demand for manufactured goods remained low. At the other extreme, in eastern Europe, second serfdom kept wages low, and rents high. Yet given the small size of the land-owning class, these rents could not generate enough demand for high-end manufacturing processes either. Northwestern Europe, being in the middle in terms both of the size of the landholding classes and their properties, prospered as wages failed to decline even when population levels rapidly rose. Combined demand from landlords and workers kindled an expansion of the manufacturing sector.