Plagues, wars, political change and fiscal capacity: Late medieval and renaissance Siena, 1337-1556

April 13, 2021 | Blog
Home > Plagues, wars, political change and fiscal capacity: Late medieval and renaissance Siena, 1337-1556

This blog is based on the full article published on The Economic History Review and available on Early View at this link


by Mattia Fochesato (Dondena Centre, Bocconi University)

Snow, Earthquake, and the plague in 1348 in Siena. Available at <>


During the second half of the fourteenth century, the prosperous city-states of northern and central Italy experienced a severe demographic and economic crisis that was initiated in 1348 by the ‘Black Death’ and exacerbated in the following decades by recurrent plagues.  Subsequent demographic shocks were exacerbated by continuous military threats due to the increased political instability of the region.  In this environment Italian cities were pressed to raise substantial resources to meet the needs of their populations and to maintain their independence.

How these political entities maintain fiscal capacity: were they able to raise the resources needed to accommodate the huge costs that they incurred as a consequence of these shocks? And, how did the political changes that took place during this period affect their capacity to cope with the crisis?

We answer these questions using a quantitative analysis of the fiscal system in late medieval Siena, a Tuscan city-state which experienced dramatic demographic, economic and political transformation in the two centuries following the Black Death.  This city, located in Tuscany, south of the Florentine territories, prospered during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries under an oligarchy of merchants and bankers.  It was then affected by the Black Death and recurring attacks from mercenary armies in the subsequent decades. Siena managed to survive; it maintained its independence by adopting a coalition government through which a relatively large portion of the population was represented.   This political change  differentiated Siena from most of the other independent Italian cities where oligarchic and seignorial institutions prevailed.

Intensive archival work on the late medieval fiscal documents has generated a new dataset on the revenues and expenditures of the Sienese government between  1337 and 1556, when the city lost its independence.  This dataset permits an assessment  of how non-oligarchic governments — which came to power in the period of demographic decline — maintained the capacity to raise and expend resources for public purposes.

Surprisingly, Sienese fiscal capacity did not collapse after the Black Death or in subsequent decades.  Even if, starting in the mid-fourteenth century, the city experienced a long phase of increasing demographic and economic stress, the coalition governments that emerged during these decades were able to maintain, and even temporarily increase fiscal capacity.

Analysis shows that Siena adopted a combination of fiscal instruments that were more progressive than the ones used in other cities.  The coalitions combined forced loans imposed on the whole population with a mix of indirect taxes — the incidence of which changed: Indirect taxes were extracted less from food consumption and more on foreign economic activities performed in the territory of Siena.

A unique combination of political participation and a progressive fiscal system allowed the city to survive in a period of crisis, and to maintain its independence for the subsequent two centuries.  Of course, these measures were not sufficient to preserve  autonomy: during the sixteenth century, increasing pressure from  politically expanding foreign powers stimulated the political consolidation of the once small Italian states.  Siena  was increasingly pressed by the expansionary policies of the richer and stronger neighbouring Florence and it lost its independence.

The experience of Siena indicates that the extension of political participation can be consonant with a more progressive fiscal system, thereby permitting a community to function and survive during  protracted crises.


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