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Social Norms, Demographic Shocks, and Dowries in Florence, 1250-1450

  • Maristella Botticini
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    By exploiting more than 4,500 unpublished dowry contracts written in Florence between 1242 and 1435, I am able to present the first systematic analysis of dowry trends and bequest behavior in medieval and early Renaissance Florence. I examine the effects of demographic shocks and changes in social norms on marriage markets and inter-generational transfers. Demographic shocks, such as the Black Death of 1348 that reduced labor supply and increased the return to human capital, and a new social norm, that came to prevail in the marriage market with the demise of the feudal system, both contributed to the increase in urban dowries from the 13th to the 15th centuries. In his famous Divina Commedia, the poet Dante Alighieri was the first to suggest that dowry values were increasing in Florence at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century. Other literary evidence indicates that dowry values rose in Florence from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. In the 1340s, the Florentine citizen Giovanni Villani asserted that in the thirteenth century, 100 lire was the typical dowry in Florence. A dowry of 200 or 300 lire, which was typical in his times, would have been judged as extravagant one century earlier. Were Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Villani right? From the data I collected, the answer is "apparently yes." In current lire, the median dowry was 100 lire in the second half of the thirteenth century and 272 lire in the decade before the Black Death of 1348 (Table 2). The numbers from the quantitative evidence seem to perfectly match the figures suggested in Villani's narrative account. However, the systematic data present a more complex picture with respect to the one depicted by the narrative evidence. Also, my data illustrate the trend in rural dowries, for which neither Dante nor Giovanni Villani had any information. Table 2 and Figure 1 indicate three main trends that need to be explained. First, when looking at the median dowry, there was a continuous upward trend in nominal dowry values---both urban and rural---from the thirteenth century up to the Black Death. The years immediately following the plague witnessed a reduction in the size of dowries, but this trend soon reversed and dowries kept soaring up to the end of the period under consideration, in the mid-1430s, when the median dowry in the city was 820 lire---eight times its value in the thirteenth century. Second, the divergence between the urban and the rural marriage markets, already picking up before the Black Death, greatly deepened in the subsequent decades. Third, various measures indicate that in the city dowry inequality rose, whereas it remained the same in the countryside (Table 3). The trend in nominal dowry values (Table 2, left-hand side), as well as the narrative evidence suggested in Dante's and Villani's remarks, do not take into account the changes in prices over the two centuries. The soaring trend in dowry values might reflect an underlying price inflation. To control for this possibility, Table 2 (right-hand side) presents dowry values in constant (1420-1430 base) lire. Some important changes in the trends should be noticed. Urban dowries, even when measured in costant lire, kept increasing up to 1348, decreased immediately after the Black Death, and then kept soaring until the 1430s. In contrast, when measured in constant lire, rural dowries were decreasing even before the plague, and even when the trend reversed, they never went back to their thirteenth-century values. If dowries are a proxied for wealth, one first conclusion one can draw is that, despite a similar demographic shock, the urban and the rural economies and societies, reacted in very different ways to the turmoil brought by the epidemic. What factors determined the spectacular increase in the size of urban dowries given by Florentine parents to their daughters? And why did dowry values remain stable, or actually decreased, among rural households? HYPOTHESES "Selective Plague" The selective plague hypothesis would maintain that the Black Death affected the size of dowries by selectively killing more men and making the sex ratio more favorable to men in the marriage market. Yet, demographers and historians have claimed that the plagues of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries hit mostly women and young people (Herlihy and Klapisch 1978). Table 4 displays the sex ratios from last wills and from the census. Women were "scarce" no matter what historical sources one relies on. "Larger Shares of the Pie" The "larger shares of the pie" hypothesis postulates that as a result of the Black Death killing many young people, parents were able to make larger intergenerational transfers to their surviving children because they had available a larger wealth per child to allocate. Table 5 indicates the average number of children per household in Florence from 1260 to 1435. These figures suggest that the Black Death reduced the average number of children per household. Yet, during the first half of the fifteenth century, when dowry values were increasing, the average number of children (and daughters) per household was almost identical to the pre-plague value. Parents did not provide larger dowries because they had to divide the household wealth among a smaller number of children. "Demographic Shocks and the Returns to Human Capital" An alternative explanation for why urban dowries increased in medieval and early Renaissance Florence relies on a human capital type of argument. If repeated bouts of the plague reduced the population of Florence in the fourteenth century and kept it low into the 1400s, wages for skilled workers and the earnings of professions (artisans, merchants, doctors, notaries) would rise because of the return to their human capital, a scarce factor that could not be simply replaced by bringing in unskilled workers from the countryside. Figures 3 and 4 seem to provide support for this hypothesis. The nominal wages of both unskilled and skilled workers rose steeply after the plague due to the huge labor shortage, and after the 1360s when prices started plummeting the real wages kept increasing. In the late fourteenth century, the wage increase attracted a large flux of male migrants from the Florentine countryside who helped replenish the ranks of urban unskilled workers killed by the plague (Cohn 1980, 109). But these same rural immigrants could not easily substitute for the skilled workers and the notaries, merchants, and artisans killed by the plague. If several occurrences of the plague reduced the number of skilled professionals, the returns to their human capital likely increased. Therefore, it is plausible to conceive that in the marriage market after episodes of plagues the demand for, say, merchant bankers, wool and silk merchants, sellers of spices, medical doctors, shoemakers, and jewelers drove the size of dowries up. At the same time, fathers who practiced these skilled occupations were able to pay larger dowries. "Social Norms and the Florentine Marriage Market" Cole, Mailath, Postlewaite (JPE 1992) show that economies differing in social organizations, for example, in the allocation of mates, can yield distinct market allocations and dissimilar growth rates due to the different savings behavior of parents. C-M-P compare two social norms: one in which women' status is determined solely by relative wealth (the Wealth-Is-Status equilibrium) and another in which status is inherited (the Aristocratic Equilibrium). In Wealth-Is-Status economies, intergenerational transfers are greater than in Aristocratic economies because parents wish to transfer more wealth to their daughters to make them more attractive as mates in the matching process. In economies in which status is inherited by parents, there is no incentive to save more because in order to follow the social rule and not get punished each woman must match with a man of equal status. The feudal world resembles the Aristocratic Equilibrium in which a person's status is inherited from parents. When the city-states and the communes emerged in Italy around the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they mainly did so to establish a new political and economic order in which status was not to be based on ancestry. By the middle of the fourteenth century Florence was a society in which the social standing and prestige of a household was determined more and more often by wealth. The emergence in medieval and early Renaissance Florence of a different social norm according to which status was determined by wealth and no longer by ancestry seems to have had an impact on dowries. Figure 1 and 2, and Table 2 indicate that from the second half of the thirteenth century urban parents continued to give their daughters larger and larger dowries. This trend continued after the Black Death and into the fifteenth century. The plague of 1348 likely raised the returns to human capital. However, in a society like the feudal one in which ancestry and not wealth determined one's social standing, higher returns to human capital would have not been appreciated and would have not taken into consideration when deciding the size of the dowry. In contrast, rural households were less concerned about status and social standing than their urban fellow counterparts. In the rural world, the feudal social norm according to which one inherited his/her parents' status was not entirely discarded. The consequence of this different social norm that governed the rural marriage market was that rural households provided their daughters with dowries of similar size across two centuries despite they experienced the same demographic shocks that their urban fellows experienced

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    Paper provided by Society for Economic Dynamics in its series 2004 Meeting Papers with number 4.

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    Date of creation: 2004
    Date of revision:
    Handle: RePEc:red:sed004:4
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