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Climate, population and famine in Northern Italy: General tendencies and Malthusian crisis, ca. 1450-1800


  • Guido Alfani


This article provides a picture of long-term developments in the relationship between population and resources in Northern Italy that takes fully into account climate. It analyzes both the slow underlying development of climatic conditions over the centuries (in the theoretical framework of the Little Ice Age) and the consequences of short-term periods of heightened instability. The most severe famines are shown to be events triggered by climatic and environmental factors operating at a time when the maximum carrying capacity of the system had been reached or, at least, when the population was exerting considerable pressure on the potential for food production. This is the case of the famine of the 1590s, the greatest demographic catastrophe of a non-epidemic nature to strike Northern Italy since the Black Death and up to the end of the eighteenth century. The article also analyzes long-term paths of agrarian innovation, suggesting that most (but not all) of this was consistent with Boserupís idea of chain-reactions of innovations induced by demographic pressure. These processes, though, were too slow to compensate for a rapidly growing population. Finally, the article provides a periodization in which the period between the famine of the 1590s and the great plague pandemic of 1630 is shown to be the crucial turning point in how population dynamics, climate and agrarian innovation interacted.

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  • Guido Alfani, 2010. "Climate, population and famine in Northern Italy: General tendencies and Malthusian crisis, ca. 1450-1800," Working Papers 027, "Carlo F. Dondena" Centre for Research on Social Dynamics (DONDENA), Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi.
  • Handle: RePEc:don:donwpa:027

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Miles Corak & Christine Lietz & Holly Sutherland, 2005. "The Impact of Tax and Transfer Systems on Children in the European Union," Papers inwopa05/30, Innocenti Working Papers.
    2. Andrea Brandolini, 2006. "Measurement of Income Distribution in Supranational Entities: The Case of the European Union," LIS Working papers 452, LIS Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg.
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    Cited by:

    1. Guido Alfani, 2015. "Famines in late Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A test for an advanced economy," Working Papers 082, "Carlo F. Dondena" Centre for Research on Social Dynamics (DONDENA), Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi.
    2. Alfani, Guido, 2015. "Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View (Fourteenth to Eighteenth Centuries)," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 75(04), pages 1058-1096, December.
    3. Guido Alfani & Matteo Di Tullio, 2015. "Dinamiche di lungo periodo della disuguaglianza in Italia settentrionale: una nota di ricerca," Working Papers 071, "Carlo F. Dondena" Centre for Research on Social Dynamics (DONDENA), Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi.

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    history of climate; plague; famine; Little Ice Age; Malthusian crisis; Early Modern Italy; agrarian innovation;

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