Abstract: This article quantifies the activities of medieval and early modern parliaments. It traces the long-term evolution of this European institution, and offers a first pass at analysing its impact on long-term economic development. Starting in Spain in the twelfth century, parliaments gradually spread over the Latin west between 1200 and 1500. In the early modern period, parliaments declined in influence in southern and central Europe and further gained in importance in the Netherlands and Britain, resulting in an institutional ‘Little Divergence’ between 1500 and 1800. We discuss the background of this phenomenon in detail. Moreover, by analysing the effects of parliamentary activity on city growth we find that these differences in institutional development help to explain the economic divergence between north-western and southern and central Europe.
Parliament is one of the institutional innovations of the middle ages, and one that is still going strong. In the Latin west this body, which represented various segments of the population—usually the Church, the nobility, and the cities—was arguably the most important institution to constrain the actions of the sovereign. By convening a parliament, a king also demonstrated that he was prepared to be constrained. Although the way in which parliaments were elected changed radically after the French Revolution, having such an institution that monitors the executive and is central to the lawmaking process has become standard for almost all nations from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. However, the spread of parliaments during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came after a long period in which the institution had been on the defensive in large parts of Europe, after its initial and relatively successful rise during the late middle ages. During the period between 1500 and 1800 kings often refused to convene parliaments, and found various ways to limit their powers. Moreover, the power and privileges of kings versus parliaments was the main issue in the great socio-political conflicts of the period, such as the Dutch Revolt of the 1570s, the English Revolution of the 1640s, and the French Revolution of 1789, and many others.