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

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SMITE (Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe: 1300-1800)

Reporting period: 2020-06-01 to 2021-11-30

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 are concentrating our archival research on Italy, where excellent sources exist, but the Italian case is being placed in the wider European context and indeed, we have steadily been collecting new data from archives in the Low Countries (both Belgium and The Netherlands), South France and North-East Spain. Furthermore, we have been collecting 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 first half of the project, we have been hard at work collecting 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 also identified a range of technical problems that arise when trying to measure social and economic mobility from historical data, and we have devised solutions to all of them. We have started presenting the project and the early results at international conferences and we have collected expert opinions useful to advance our research project. We are now drafting the first papers and at the same time we are working on finishing archival research for areas where it is still incomplete.
Our research so far 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 are observing, although they still need to be validated by additional research, are already allowing us to glimpse some hitherto unknown social phenomena. For example, the progressive divergence in mobility between North and South Europe, which grew ever more intense during the early modern period, 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.