Research program : Upper Tail Human Capital and the Rise of the West

In 2016, I started to consider the following problem:

Context: Over the period 1500-1800, the "West" gained global primacy, through a set of "revolutions": the "humanistic revolution", the "scientific revolution", and, finally the "industrial revolution".

Question: Were knowledge institutions such as universities and academies essential for this rise ? were scholars and literati key for this development ? or, instead, is the enthusiasm for knowledge a mere consequence of enrichment?

Database: To address this question, there is a need for a database on members of universities and scientific societies at the European level. Key point: A European view is needed to grasp the mobility and network patterns.

Starting 2021, this research program is funded by an ERC advanced grant from the European Union.

Broad audience documents

Preliminary Results (click on title to expand)

Agglomeration and sorting patterns among medieval and early modern scholars testify to a functioning academic market in Europe. Such market forces shaped the geographic distribution of upper-tail human capital, and contributed to bolstering European universities at the dawn of the Humanistic and Scientific Revolutions.

The video on the right maps the university-scholar dyads over time. Red dots correspond to universities. Blue dots represent scholars' birthplaces. Size of blue dots are function of publications. The dashed lines link academic scholars' birth place to the university for which they taught through the least costly path, using the human mobility index of Ömer Özak.

The Academic Market and the Rise of Universities in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (1000-1800) CEPR Discussion Paper 14509 [with F. Docquier, A. Fabre and R. Stelter]

pdf article | appendix appendix | slides slides | homepage Docquier | homepage Fabre | homepage Stelter

Human capital transmission and Nepotism. From the Bernoullis to the Eulers, families of scholars have been common in academia since the foundation of the first medieval universities. In this paper, we have shown that this was the result of two factors: First, scholar's sons benefited from their fathers' connections to be nominated to academic positions in their father's university. Before 1800, one in ten scholars' sons were nepotic scholars. They became academics even when their underlying human capital was 2.4 standard deviations lower than that of marginal outsider scholars. Second, scholars transmitted their sons a set of underlying endowments, i.e., human capital and abilities, that were crucial for the production of scientific knowledge. Our estimates suggest a large intergenerational elasticity of such endowments, as high as 0.6.

Nepotism vs. Intergenerational Transmission of Human Capital in Academia (1088--1800) CEPR Discussion Paper 15159 [with M. Goñi]

pdf article | pdf appendix | slides slides | homepage Goñi

Chicoyneau family

The Network of Universities and the Protestant Reformation. For a long time, the European academic world was an interconnected network with scholars moving positions at will. With the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the academic world became divided. Few people held positions in both worlds. We show in this paper that this religious divide had asymmetric consequences. The Catholic South lost centrality in the network of universities, and this was not fully compensated by the creation of new universities by the very dynamic Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Publications in the Catholic world peaked at their pre-reform level. On the Protestant side, the converted universities tended to gain centrality, while newly created universities quickly came to enjoy a central position, in particular in the Lutheran and Calvinist worlds. This ascension to primacy goes together with higher and rising publication levels.

Winners and Losers from the Protestant Reformation: An Analysis of the Network of European Universities IRES Discussion Paper [with P. Morault]

pdf article | homepage Morault

network of universities after the Protestant Reformation

Catholic Censorship and the Demise of Knowledge Production. Censorship makes new ideas less available to others, but also reduces the share of people choosing a non-compliant activity. We propose a new method to measure the effect of censorship on knowledge growth, accounting for the endogenous selection of agents into compliant vs. non-compliant ideas. We apply our method to the Catholic Church’s censorship of books written by members of Italian universities and academies over the period 1400-1750. We highlight two new facts: once censorship was introduced, censored authors were of better quality than the non-censored authors, but this gap shrunk over time, and the intensity of censorship decreased over time. These facts are used to identify the deep parameters of a novel endogenous growth model linking censorship to knowledge diffusion and occupational choice. We conclude that censorship reduced by 30% the average log publication per scholar in Italy. Interestingly, half of this drop stems from the induced reallocation of talents towards compliant activities, while the other half arises from the direct effect of censorship on book availability.

Catholic Censorship and the Demise of Knowledge Production in Early Modern Italy CEPR Discussion Paper 16409 [with F. Blasutto]

pdf article | homepage Blasutto

Right panel: Distribution of published authors by quality. Red: censored. Green: non-censored

Distribution of published authors by quality. Red: censored. Green: non-censored.

Project application texts (unsuccessful and successful)

I think it can be useful for potential applicants to the ERC to show the various stages of my project with a summary evaluation by the panel. By sharing the summary evaluations, I do not want expectations of uniform treatment to be formed: one should know that the discussion in the panel contributes a lot to the final grade and decision to fund, and all this dynamic cannot always be transferred in written comments. A different panel can take a different view (as you will see), and what helped the proposal get funded might not be what will help some other proposal.

pdf Part B1 in 2016

pdf Part B2 in 2016

Evaluation 2016

pdf Part B1 in 2017

pdf Part B2 in 2017

Evaluation 2017

pdf Part B1 in 2018

pdf Part B2 in 2018

Evaluation 2018

pdf Part B1 in 2019

pdf Part B2 in 2019

Evaluation 2019

Pilots to study feasibility

Is it feasible to build a database of members of knowledge institutions before 1800 in Europe ? Two "pilot" studies have been carried out, testing the best case (well documented universities and academies in Germany and The Netherlands), and the worst case (university with little existing information in France, Aix-en-Provence). In the first study we collected vital dates and activity periods for 10k scholars using the information offered by Dutch and German universities. In the second study, we consider a university that has neither a ready-to-use website nor published biographies of their professors. Here, we combine knowledge from books written on their history and published cartularia with local biographical dictionaries. Starting from none, we identified 476 scholars at this university, attesting to the feasibility of the data collection effort.

These two studies also carry a message on their own.

Leaders and Laggards in Life Expectancy among European Scholars from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Century, Demography 58, 111–135 [with R. Stelter and M. Myrskylä]

abstract abstract | pdf article | appendix appendix | slides slides | homepage Stelter | homepage Myrskylä

A la découverte des professeurs de l’ancienne université d’Aix, depuis ses origines à 1793, Annales du Midi, 131(307-308), 379-402 [avec A. Fabre]

abstract abstract | pdf article | appendix appendix | data data | blog blog | photo map | homepage Fabre


The first one looks at apprenticeship, how it is related to knowledge diffusion in a Malthusian growth model, and why Europe developed specific bottom-up apprenticeship institutions. The second paper builds a large sample of famous people, studies their longevity, and defends the view that human capital might have been key in triggering the take-off of the West.

Clans, Guilds, and Markets: Apprenticeship Institutions and Growth in the Pre-Industrial Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133, 1-70, 2018 [with M. Doepke and J. Mokyr]

teaser teaser | abstract abstract | pdf article | appendix appendix | data data | slides slides | blog blog | bibtex citation | homepage Doepke | homepage Mokyr

The Longevity of Famous People from Hammurabi to Einstein, Journal of Economic Growth, 20, 263–303, 2015 [with O. Licandro]

teaser teaser | abstract abstract | pdf article | appendix appendix | slides slides | data data | blog blog | blog blog | photo photo | bibtex citation | homepage Licandro