Evolving gaps: occupational structure in southern and northern Italy, 1400-1861

March 11, 2022 | Blog
Home > Evolving gaps: occupational structure in southern and northern Italy, 1400-1861

by David Chilosi (Department of Political Economy, King’s College London and Carlo Ciccarelli (Department of Economics and Finance, University of Roma Tor Vergata)

The full paper from this blog post has now been published on The Economic History Review, at this link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ehr.13159

How did the occupational structure of southern and northern Italy evolve in the decades and centuries before their unification (1861)? The conventional wisdom traces the origin of the north-south divide to the high middle ages (c. 1000-1300), when autonomous cities in the centre-north specialised in commerce and industry, while feudal monarchies in the south specialised in agriculture. Revisionist historians disagree: for them, in 1861 there was no difference in standards of living between northern and southern regions. The debate has so far paid scant attention to the period between the late middle ages and unification, as conventional and revisionist scholars alike assume that southern and central-northern Italy shared similar economic trajectories, so that their comparative development remained stable. This article offers a new quantitative analysis of the comparative development of southern and central-northern Italy in these ‘forgotten centuries’ (1400-1861).

We look at the occupational structure because crucial aspects of the debate directly concern its evolution and it is a key indicator of economic development. Even in the absence of direct observations, occupational trends can be estimated with urbanization rates, using early national censuses to anchor them to final levels. Until now, however, two related obstacles prevented the application of this approach to southern Italy: first, the early Italian censuses are biased, with southern agricultural occupational shares which are too low; second, the widespread presence of large centres inhabited by a large proportion of farmers, agro-towns, make it difficult to extrapolate agricultural employment shares from urbanization rates. We overcome these difficulties by relying on a previously neglected source: censuses carried out by regional states in the early 19th century. We show that these censuses do not suffer from the same biases as the first post-unification censuses. With our newly compiled data-set we are thus able, for the first time, to estimate trends in the occupational structure of Italian provinces during the Risorgimento and in southern Italy over the very long-run.

We find that – consistent with the conventional wisdom and against the revisionist view – the agricultural occupational share in 1861 was in the order of 10 percentage points larger in the south than in the centre-north. We thus overturn the biased picture emerging from national censuses of southern Italy being more industrialized than the centre-north at the time of unification. During the Risorgimento (1800-1861), the aggregate occupational shares changed little both in the south and the centre-north. However, there were significant differences within macro-areas. Underneath the aggregate calm the picture was rather dynamic, with rapid structural transformation in several northern provinces. These provinces at the beginning of the 19th century were about as agricultural as their southern counterparts.

Trends (yearly changes) in agricultural employment shares by province in Italy, 1800-1861. Source: based on authors’ calculations.

The assumption that not much happened before 1800 appears unwarranted: structural transformation in the south nearly halved the difference in agricultural employment share with the centre-north during the 15th and 16th centuries, but occupational convergence came to a halt with the ‘17th-century crisis’.

Agricultural employment shares in Italy, 1400-1861. Source: based on authors’ calculations.

Our trends only imperfectly conform to the idea that the centre-north enjoyed a persistent economic advantage grounded in its precocious industrialization in the high middle ages. We sketch an alternative model, in which institutional competition, unintended consequences and exogenous shocks implied that regional inequality was evolving rather than persistent.

For instance, structural transformation in southern Italy during the Renaissance (1400-1600) was associated with fiscal catch-up. The ‘fiscal-military state’ was pioneered by the medieval city-states of central-northern Italy. However, by the mid-16th century, the southern Italian kingdoms had developed consolidated public debts and fiscal systems able to exercise a fiscal pressure comparable to those of the regional states of the centre-north.  Conversely, in the second half of the 17th century, fiscal capacity in the south fell increasingly behind at the same time as there was structural divergence with the centre-north. An exogenous epidemiological shock can help understand this pattern:  the plague hit the south in the 1650s. The Kingdom of Naples was amongst the worst-hit areas: there the plague wiped out over one third of the population.

Our Risorgimento’s trends are consistent with the argument that specialization in silk production rather than prior proto-industrial development provided the crucial impetus behind the industrialization of northern Italy at the time. Silk exports’ growth had powerful unforeseen consequences and was unleashed by an exogenous shock: the global demand for silk greatly increased in the wake of the industrialization of north-western Europe. In short, while the north-south divide pre-dated unification, our ‘decompression of history’ suggests that it was more accidental and less stable than implied by the conventional wisdom on its medieval deep roots.

To contact the authors:

David Chilosi, david.chilosi@kcl.ac.uk

Carlo Ciccarelli, carlo.ciccarelli@uniroma2.it