Plague and long-term development

The lasting effects of the 1629-30 epidemic on the Italian cities

Guido Alfani is
associate professor at
Bocconi University
After many years of relative neglect, plague has recently started to recover a long-lost popularity among economic historians. In particular, the Black Death pandemic of the fourteenth century has been singled out as a possible factor favouring Europe over the main Asian economies, particularly India and China (for example, Clark 2007; Voigtländer and Voth 2013). Indeed, there is evidence of a long-lasting improvement in European and Mediterranean real wages immediately after the Black Death (Pamuk 2007; Campbell 2010). However, there is also evidence that in less densely populated areas of Europe, like Ireland or Spain, the long-term consequences of plague were negative, not positive, as “[Plague] destroyed the equilibrium between scarce population and abundant resources” (Álvarez Nogal and Prados de la Escosura 2013, p. 3). More generally it can be argued that maybe, among plagues and other lethal epidemics, the Black Death is the exception in having had (mostly) positive long-run consequences (Alfani and Murphy 2017).
Indeed, in a recent article I suggested that during the seventeenth century, the epidemiology of plague differed between the North and the South of Europe (Alfani 2013a). The South, and Italy in particular, was affected much more severely than the North. In 1629-31, plague killed about one-third of the population of northern Italy. A second epidemic, in 1656-57, ravaged central-southern Italy. In the Kingdom of Naples, overall population losses are in the 30-43 per cent range (Fusco 2009). The economic consequences of these plagues were negative and indeed, I argued that the differential impact of plague contributes to explain the origin of the relative decline of the most advanced areas of Italy compared to northern Europe (Alfani 2010; 2013a; 2013b).
In a new EHES working paper which I co-authored with Marco Percoco, we introduce the largest-existing database of urban mortality rates in plague years. This allows us, first, to demonstrate the particularly high severity of the last Italian plagues (in the two seventeenth-century waves, mean mortality rates in cities were in the order of 400 per thousand), and secondly, to analyze their economic impact.
By using the methods of economic geography, we study the ability of a mortality crisis to alter the growth path followed by a city (in particular, we follow the approach introduced by Davis and Weinstein 2002). We find evidence that the 1629-30 plague affecting northern Italy was able to displace some of the most dynamic and economically advanced Italian cities, like Milan or Venice, moving them to a lower growth path. We also estimate the huge losses the epidemic caused in urban populations (Figure 1), and show that it had a lasting effect on urbanization rates throughout the affected areas (note that changes on urbanization rates and in city size are often used as an indicator of economic growth or decline over the long run: see for example Bosker et al. 2008; Percoco 2013).
Figure 1. Size of the urban population in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto (1620-1700)
Our argument is further strengthened by the fact that while there is clear evidence of the negative consequences of the 1630 plague, there is very little to argue for a positive effect. As we suggest, the potential positive consequences of the plague were entirely eroded by a negative productivity shock. Our regression analysis provides indirect evidence of this, however there is also direct evidence as for key cities like Florence, Genoa and Milan we have time-series of real wages of masons covering the entire seventeenth century (Figure 2). This sample of cities includes one heavily affected by the 1630 plague (Milan: mortality rate of 462 per thousand), one relatively less affected (Florence: 137 per thousand) and one entirely spared (Genoa). Interestingly, of the three, the only one showing signs of an increase in real wages after 1630 is Genoa. 
Figure 2. Real wages of masons in cities of northern Italy and overall urban and rural real wages in central-northern Italy, 1600-1700 (index based on the average of 1620-30). 

By demonstrating that the plague had a permanent negative effect on many key Italian urban economies, we provide support to the hypothesis that the origins of the relative economic decline of the northern part of the Peninsula are to be found in particularly unfavorable epidemiological conditions. More generally, our paper provides a useful new perspective on Italian long-term economic trends, including aspects like the falling-back of northern Italy compared to its main European competitors and the final consequences of the progressive “ruralization” of the Italian economies during the seventeenth century.
The working paper can be downloaded here:


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Alfani, G. and T. Murphy. 2017. ‘Plague and Lethal Epidemics in the Pre-Industrial World’, Journal of Economic History, 77(1): 314-343.
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