How Rich a Lawyer, How Poor a Tailor? An Economic Hierarchy of Occupations in Fifteenth-Century Spain
By Jeff Fynn-Paul
Paper given at the University of Utrecht, on October 16, 2008
A tax record from the Catalan city of Manresa known as the Liber Manifesti of 1408 provides detailed occupational and capital-holding data for the heads of 640 households. This number probably encompassed all but a few of the city’s householders at the time, with the greatest exception being an unknown, but probably small, number of clerics. The aim of this paper is to present a picture of the craft sector of the Manresan economy to a level of detail which is unusual for premodern Europe, in the hopes of nuancing our notions of what a guild or occupational sector might entail.
In particular, it will be seen that some occupations contained a very heterogeneous group of householders, in terms of both wealth and economic function. It will be contended that in those occupational sectors where wholesaling and other capitalistic activity was sustainable, a greater range of economic classes can be found masquerading under the same occupational title, whereas in occupations where the capitalistic functions were handled by merchants or other nominally ‘exogenous’ agents, we find a more concentrated distribution of wealth.
Likewise, it will be seen that within each profession, differing levels of wealth led to different investment (capital-holding) strategies. And while much of this points to the dangers of generalizing about premodern occupational titles, it should be kept in mind that, oftentimes, contemporaries had relatively clear ideas of where the practitioner of a given occupation stood on the social and economic ladder. Our evidence can thus give us an important economic base for helping us to reconstruct (and deconstruct) these mental hierarchies based on occupational status which were so important in premodern society—as indeed they continue to be today.