Over two generations, socioeconomic class tends to be ‘sticky’. Statistically speaking, the occupation of a parent influences the occupation of a child. But what about the very long term?
Robert Wiblin has drawn my attention to this very interesting paper by the economic historian Gregory Clark, which argues that over multiple generations there is a class ‘regression to the mean’, with the inequalities of one generation washing out over time.
Clark’s method is to use English records of surnames, which can be used to roughly trace the class progress of people with different family names. Some surnames reveal class backgrounds because they are taken from medieval occupations (eg Smith, Clerk/Clark, Shepherd, Cooper, Carter). Clark furthers his study by examining the names in records of wills, tax payments, and court appearances. Over time, the share of names appearing in lists of those with large estates or criminal defendants can roughly track class progress.
What Clark finds is that England over the 800 years from 1200 was without persistent social classes. The handful of aristocratic families who can trace their family trees back centuries are outliers.
I will be very interested to see what other historians make of Clark’s thesis. Over the last 250 years I find it intuitively reasonably plausible that there are very high levels of multi-generational class mobility. The modern industrial world created many opportunities for social and economic advancement, and relatively speaking devalued the traditional source of wealth, holdings of agricultural land. But high mobility in the earlier period conflicts with my (admittedly superficial) understanding of the pre-modern world.