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Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe: 1300-1800

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - SMITE (Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe: 1300-1800)

Reporting period: 2021-12-01 to 2022-05-31

The goal of SMITE is to improve our knowledge of long-term trends in social mobility, from the decades immediately preceding the Black Death of 1347-49 up until the eve of Industrialization. The objective is not only to measure mobility, but also to understand its consequences for the economy and society at large. Before we started, very few data about preindustrial social mobility were available, especially for southern Europe. Our project aims to change this situation entirely by building an extensive database about social mobility, measured in different ways including: economic mobility across wealth classes and occupational mobility. Most of the data we collect come from new archival research on Medieval and early modern sources. We concentrated our archival research on Italy, where excellent sources exist, but the Italian case has been placed in the wider European context and indeed, we have collected new data from archives in the Low Countries (both Belgium and The Netherlands), South France and North-East Spain. Furthermore, we have collected published data and existing databases from all over the continent to extend our comparison.

SMITE organizes its scientific activities around three main research questions:
1) What were the long-term trends in social mobility, and how do they relate to economic growth? (this is the crucial question to which the others are all connected)
2) What was the connection between social mobility and economic inequality?
3) What were the effects of plagues and other severe mortality crises on social mobility?

The research conducted so far along the lines of such research questions has led us to formulate a few intermediate working hypotheses. First, during the Early Modern Period a divide seems to have appeared between north Europe, where upward mobility was easier, and South Europe where from the late sixteenth or the early seventeenth century it became increasingly difficult to move up the social ladder. This seems to be an aspect of the Little Divergence (the process leading the centre of the European economy to move from South Europe, and particularly from central-northern Italy, to North Europe and particularly to the Low Countries and later England) which was hitherto unexplored. Second, major mortality crises and particularly plagues were able to create huge waves of easier upward mobility in the Middle Ages – but their effects were much more limited and short-lived in early modern times. Finally, regarding the connection between inequality and mobility, as inequality is found to have been growing almost everywhere in early modern Europe differences in mobility trends are leading us to understand better the implications of preindustrial distributive dynamics. In particular, it seems that the Little Divergence led to a contrasting situation of high inequality, difficult upward mobility and economic stagnation in South Europe, while in the North the negative consequences of high inequality were somehow mitigated by relatively easy upward mobility and by substantial economic growth. As this situation identified for the past seems to match quite well the divides that came to characterize much of the continent from the most recent economic crisis, it is clear how our historical work speaks directly to current debates and concerns about inequality growth and the virtual absence of mobility in many European societies.
During the project, we collected data for a range of Italian regions (including Apulia, Lombardy, Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto) as well as for other European areas, particularly south France and the Low Countries. We have identified a range of technical problems that arise when trying to measure social and economic mobility from historical data, and we have devised innovative solutions to all of them. We have presented the project and its main results at many international conferences, with more to come in the upcoming months and years (of particular note, the session “Inequality and social mobility in preindustrial times”, organized by the P.I. at the World Economic History Conference of Paris, in July 2022 – the conference was originally planned for 2021, but postponed because of Covid-19). This has allowed us to collected expert opinions useful to advance our research and to properly draft the related publications. Scientific dissemination has also been achieved by means of the organization of three workshops at Bocconi (including a “double workshop”) and a final conference which took place in April 2022. Finally, the P.I. has delivered a large number of seminars and webinars on the results of the project. The first articles using data from the project have already been published, especially regarding data on inequality and poverty, while the publications on social mobility strictly meant are in advanced state of elaboration and will be submitted for publication in the upcoming months.
Our research has been successful in showing that reconstructing long-term trends in social mobility based on the archival sources available for preindustrial Europe is, indeed, possible. The trends that we have observed have allowed us to unearth some hitherto unknown social phenomena. A particularly important finding is the progressive divergence in mobility between North and South Europe, which grew ever more intense during the early modern period. This is a new fact that is bound to change the way in which we think about the Little Divergence as well as to change our understanding of the actual social implications at the local level of the general tendency towards inequality growth that characterized the continent during ca. 1450-1800. Another important finding, one which the Covid-19 pandemic has made particularly relevant for current debates, is that the Black Death of 1347-52 led to a phase of high social mobility which lasted for about two generations. However, subsequent major plaguesdid not have these same consequences, which focuses our attention on the historical context and the broad range of factors that contribute to shape the social-economic consequences of pandemics – until today. Beyond social mobility, the project had led to a substantial improvement in our knowledge of preindustrial inequality, of poverty, and of processes of social-economic promotion/demotion. In particular, it has created the conditions for proceeding to much broader and systematic comparisons between different parts of Europe, and between different historical periods.