Author Archives: guidoalfani

On the Long-term Determinants of Cultural Traits: Family Structures in the Past

Origins and Implications of Family Structure across Italian Provinces in Historical Perspective

By Graziella Bertocchi (Modena and Reggia Emilia University and IZA) and Monica Bozzano (Modena and Reggia Emilia University)

Abstract: In this study we review the literature on the origins and implications of family structure in historical perspective with a focus on Italian provinces. Furthermore we present newly collected data on three of the main features of family structure: female mean age at marriage, the female celibacy rate, and the fraction of illegitimate births. The data are collected at the provincial level for 1871, the year of Italy’s political unification. The analysis of the data allows us to confirm and quantify the geographic differentiation in family patterns across the country.
We also illustrate the links between family structure and a set of socio-economic outcomes, in the short, medium, and long run.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017‒06‒25

Review by: Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan)

The recent interest in the long-term determinants of cultural traits has led to a new wave of research on family systems in the past, as well as to debates that renewed old disputes about the actual possibility of identifying areas of coherent family systems and their causal effect on contemporary behaviours. Graziella Bertocchi and Monica Bozzano have been very active in this field, focusing on such a culturally fragmented and varied area as Italy. In this new working paper, they present further evidence at the provincial level from the Italian 1871 census. They show the importance of looking at the sub-national and indeed, at the sub-regional level to identify correctly the prevalent family structures and demographic behaviours. Their data show feeble evidence that the so-called EMP (European Marriage Pattern) is associated with economic development, human capital accumulation and women’s empowerment. These findings are relevant to current debates on European family systems and on their possible permanent effects on cultural traits.


Italian Family, early twentieth-century. Source:


This paper presents new data, at the provincial level, about family structures in Italy in 1871. In that year, the first national census was made after the conquest of Rome and the incorporation of the residual territories of the former Papal States, and Veneto, into the Kingdom of Italy. The authors provide information about family types, female age to marriage, proportion of brides under age 20, female final celibacy rates, and illegitimacy rates. Family types are classified as nuclear vs complex, as well as according to the four-way classification introduced by Todd (1990) which combines residential habits (neolocal vs patrilocal) and inheritance systems (partible vs impartible): absolute nuclear family, egalitarian nuclear family, stem family, and communitarian family. Additionally, the authors build upon earlier research (Bertocchi and Bozzano 2015) to apply their own classification of Italian families, which distinguishes between egalitarian families with late female age to marriage (found to be prevalent, in 1871, in the North-West of Italy), incomplete stem families (prevalent in the North-East), communitarian families (prevalent in the Centre) and egalitarian families with early age to marriage (prevalent in the South).
Beyond the technicalities of the classification, an important contribution of the article is to clearly show, by means of a set of well-drawn maps, the high variability of family types and behaviours to be found across the Italian peninsula, even in contiguous territories. The obvious consequence of this, is to make it much more difficult to neatly characterize different parts of Italy according to their family systems and prevalent demographic behaviours.
Interestingly, the authors focus on characteristics connected to the so-called European Marriage Pattern (EMP), including nuclear residential patterns, relatively late age to marriage and relatively high final celibacy rates. The prevalence of the EMP has been connected to economic success, as originally hypothesized by Hajnal (1965) and as later assumed by many economic historians and economists (for example, Greif 2006; De Moor and Van Zanden 2010). But in this paper, in the authors’ words, “Overall our results show very feeble evidence that the different characteristics of the EMP are associated with economic development, human capital accumulation, or women’s empowerment” (p. 14). However, the authors do find a significant correlation between some of their indicators and measures of contemporary gender balance. For example, gender equality in economic leadership (measured as the rate of women in managerial positions) in year 2009 is found to grow with the female mean age to marriage in 1871 and to decline with the proportion of brides under age 20 and the prevalence of nuclear families. This is in line with earlier research by Bozzano (2016).
The authors are mindful of placing correctly their discussion in the broader context of current research on the long-term impact of family systems and structures done by economic historians and economists. Consequently they provide to all researchers interested in the field a useful survey of the recent literature (although a better coverage of recent demographic and historical-demographic literature would also have been useful – see for example Reher 1998).


This paper is an interesting and important contribution to the renewed pan-European research efforts aimed at identifying the characteristics of past family systems. Although many researchers pursue this objective solely to improve our knowledge of the past, others are driven by the aim of finding long-term determinants of differences in current social and economic behaviour. Two examples of this are the “Patriarchy Index” project (Szołtysek et al. 2017) and the recently-started Institutional Family Demography project (IFAMID) led by Arnstein Aassve, which is currently focusing on the measurement of another of Hajnal’s favoured indicators, the prevalence of life-cycle servants, at the European sub-national level. Yet other scholars have analysed previously-neglected aspects of past societies which could also explain current behaviour – for example godparenthood practices, which began to diverge across Europe at the time of the Reformation and which might have led to differences in ways of doing business (Alfani and Gourdon 2012).
The sub-national scale of analysis is a particularly useful characteristic of this paper. First, it allows (at least on principle) for more precise measurement and greater explanatory power. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, it reminds us that complexity in the geographic distribution of social systems and behaviours is the common feature of most of the European continent. Indeed, a seemingly frequent characteristic of old debates is that they are easily forgotten – and what might have seemed to be final acquisitions need to be re-discovered and re-discussed, decades later. This is the case of debates about the actual possibility of applying broad generalizations to studies of European social-economic dynamics, the most common of which, both when referring to the European continent, or to Italy alone, seems to be the “North vs South” one. Such debates already involved, in a somewhat defensive position, Peter Laslett and his school, but have been renewed due to the popularity acquired by Todd’s more recent classifications among economists and to some degree among economic historians (interestingly, Todd seems to have been much less influential on historians of the family). The debates about the role played by the EMP in determining economic success, which have recently been the object of intense discussion in the pages of the Journal of Economic History (Dennison and Ogilvie 2014; 2016; Carmichael et al. 2016), have old roots. It is still unclear where current discussion will lead us – whether we are bound to conclude that if we examine European family systems closely, they are in fact too diverse and intermixed to be of much use as indicators of persistent cultural divides, or whether we will finally reach a consensus on broad, documentable differences which do not only fit nicely with our views on European societies (even though such views might be more than a little tainted by prejudice and ideology), but do actually explain something. What is clear is that, in order to make the discussion progress in a fruitful way, we need more high-quality data – which is what this paper successfully delivers for Italy.
There are, of course, issues which might be debated further. For example, this paper (like most of its kind) does not discuss the choice of period to measure differences in past family systems. It is not enough to state that the earliest-available encompassing census is used – is 1871 also the right period to measure such differences? Were not family differences already influenced by the Industrial Revolution and the demographic transition, and were not these processes more advanced at that time in the North (and especially in the North-West) than in the South of Italy? And why did the authors not control in their regression analysis for the pre-unification Italian state to which each province belonged, given that they work on a period immediately following the birth of the Kingdom of Italy? Indeed, why should we rule out the possibility that pre-unification states also had permanent effects, perhaps due to some influence on their local family systems? Finally, how far could family systems in 1871 determine differences in cultural traits today, given the intense internal migration processes that affected Italy? Many northern regions today have a very mixed population if we consider where the current population’s ancestors lived in 1871. Should we not conclude that current cultural traits are better explained by past family systems in provinces of out-migration (mostly the southern ones) compared with those of in-migration (mostly the northern ones)? And how could we take this into account, if indeed it is possible?
But these are questions better left for further research and for future debates, which already seem to be looming on the horizon. For now, we should be grateful to the authors of this paper for providing us with new material to ponder.

Selected bibliography

Alfani, G. and Gourdon, V. (2012), “Entrepreneurs, formalization of social ties, and trustbuilding in Europe (fourteenth to twentieth centuries)”, Economic History Review 65 (3), pp. 1005–1028
Bertocchi, G. and M. Bozzano (2015),“Family Structure and the Education Gender Gap: Evidence from Italian Provinces,” CESifo Economic Studies 61, pp. 263–300.
Bozzano, M. (2016), “On the Historical Roots of Women’s Empowerment across Italian Provinces: Religion or Family Culture?”, European Journal of Political Economy, forthcoming.
Carmichael, S. G., De Pleijt, A., van Zanden, J.L. and De Moor, T. (2016), “The European Marriage Pattern and Its Measurement”, Journal of Economic History 76, pp. 196–204.
De Moor, T. and J. L. van Zanden (2010), “Girlpower: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period”, Economic History Review 63, pp. 1–33.
Dennison, T. and S. Ogilvie (2014), “Does the European Marriage Pattern Explain Economic Growth?”, Journal of Economic History 74, pp. 651–693.
Dennison, T. and S. Ogilvie (2016), “Institutions, Demography, and Economic Growth”, Journal of Economic History 76, pp. 215–217.
Greif, A. (2006), “Family Structure, Institutions, and Growth: The Origins and Implications of Western Corporations”, American Economic Review 96, pp. 308–312.
Hajnal, J. (1965), “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective”, in D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley (eds.), Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, Edward Arnold, London, pp. 101–143.
Reher, D.S. (1998), “Family ties in Western Europe: Persistent Contrasts”, Population and Development Review 24, pp. 203-234
Szołtysek, M., Poniat, R., Gruber, S., Klüsener, S. (2017), “The Patriarchy Index: a new measure of gender and generational inequalities in the past”, Cross-Cultural Research 51 (3), pp. 1-35
Todd, E. (1990), L’Invention de l’Europe. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.


Wealth and Income Inequality in the Early Modern Period

Comparing Income and Wealth Inequality in Pre-Industrial Economies: Lessons from 18th-Century Spain

By Esteban A. Nicolini (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) and Fernando Ramos Palencia (Universidad Pablo de Olavide)

Abstract: In this new working paper on preindustrial inequality, Nicolini and Ramos Palencia build upon their earlier work on income inequality in eighteenth-century Old Castile (Nicolini and Ramos Palencia 2015) by looking into one particularly important, and difficult to assess, aspect: how to reconstruct, for a given preindustrial society, estimates of both income and wealth inequality – considering that the sources, according to the place and the period, have the tendency to inform us only about one of the two. Given the amount of new information about long-term trends in preindustrial inequality, of either income or wealth, which has been made available by recent research, the authors point at what clearly constitutes one of the next steps we should take and in doing so, they also provide a useful contribution to the methodological debates which are taking place among scholars working on preindustrial inequality.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-03-29

Review by Guido Alfani


In this paper Nicolini and Ramos explore the connection between income and wealth for a large sample of communities from different Spanish provinces: Palencia, Madrid, Guadalajara and Granada. They combine information from two different sources:

1. the Catastro de Ensenada (ca. 1750), which provides information about household income, and

2. probate inventories (covering the period 1753-68), a source which has often been used to estimate wealth inequality.

These two sources are combined using nominative linkage techniques in order to take advantages of one to solve the weaknesses of the other. In particular, the almost-universal scope of the survey within the Cadastre enables Nicolini and Ramos to assess with certain precision the actual coverage of the probate inventories (which tend to be biased towards the upper part of the distribution). This allows them the resampling or weighthing of the information to improve the study of wealth inequality. It should be underlined that the Catastro de Ensenada is a truly exceptional source. It was an early attempt at introducing a universal tax on income. As the new tax was proportional and should have replaced a number of indirect provincial taxes with regressive effects, this fiscal innovation clearly moved in the direction of a more equitable system of taxation. Unfortunately, the new tax was never implemented – but at the very least, the attempt to introduce it generated a vast amount of useful information.


Nicolini and Ramos were able to reconstruct both income and wealth for 194 observations, out of the much larger sample of 6,214 households for which they only have information about income. Nicolini and Ramos then explore the connection between income and wealth, finding (as was expected) a very strong correlation. However, they go much deeper, thanks to an econometric approach in which the distortions in the sample (determined in particular by over-representation of rich households) are corrected by weighting. They obtain many interesting and potentially useful results, in particular:

  1. they estimate the average rate of return to wealth to be 2.9% p.a. – which is, generally speaking, much smaller that usually implied in the literature. For instance, the rate of return to wealth implied by Lindert in his work on the Florentine Cadastre of 1427 was 7% p.a. (see below). However, if the association between income and wealth is analyzed by considering their logarithm (which is the econometric specification preferred by Nicolini and Ramos), then the elasticity of income to wealth varies between 0.4 and 0.9 depending on the region. This means that a 10% increase in household wealth is associated to an income increase comprised in the 4-9% range. This range is consistent with empirical findings in many studies of past and present societies, all of which suggest that income inequality is lower than wealth inequality;
  2. the distribution of household income increases less steeply than the distribution of household wealth. This might be due to the fact that labour income is relatively larger in the bottom part of the distribution, or that the wealth of the bottom part of the distribution consists for a larger part of income-producing assets, while the wealth of the richest people would consist also of other assets, including (unproductive) status goods and luxuries as well as cash;
  3. the relationship between wealth and income differs depending on the sector of activity of the household head (primary vs secondary/tertiary) and on the place of residence – although somewhat surprisingly, and differently from what reported for other European regions (for example Tuscany by Alfani and Ammannati 2014), Nicolini and Ramos do not find that urban households had greater wealth than rural ones. In the study by Nicolini and Ramos urban and rural wealth were usually on par, but in the extreme case of Guadalajara urban dwellers were less wealthy than rural dwellers.


Sample of Catastro de Ensenada (Archivo Simancas)

Sample of Catastro de Ensenada (Archivo Simancas)



This paper makes many interesting and potentially important contributions to the study of inequality in the early modern period, a field which has been particularly fertile in recent years. First, it provides new information about inequality in the Iberian peninsula, integrating other recent studies (e.g. Santiago-Caballero 2011; Reis and Martins 2012). Secondly, it contributes considerably to the development of a methodology to translate in a non-arbitrary way income distributions into wealth distributions, and vice versa. This is a crucial point, which deserves some attention.

The Ensenada Cadastre is an exceptional source as it provides data on income. As a matter of fact, most other sources of the “cadastrial” kind are essentially property tax records, which always list real estate and sometimes other components of wealth – but not income. However, it has also been argued that for the preindustrial period, in most instances wealth distributions are the best proxy we have for income distributions (Lindert 2014; Alfani 2015). This being said, moving from the good-quality distributions of wealth that have recently been made available for different parts of late medieval and early modern Europe (in particular, Alfani 2015; Alfani and Ryckbosch 2015) to acceptable distributions of income is clearly a worthy pursuit.

I would differ with Nicolini and Ramos Palencia in their statement that theirs is the first attempt at studying together income and wealth distributions in the pre-industrial period. For example, Soltow and Van Zanden (1998) did so in their study of the Netherlands. However, Nicolini and Ramos do provide useful and interesting insights into how to convert wealth distributions into income distributions. Many such attempts are currently underway and there are earlier examples, like Lindert’s method to convert the distribution of wealth in the 1427 Florentine catasto into an income distribution (results used in Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson 2011).

Moreover, Nicolini and Ramos Palencia stress many potential pitfalls in procedures of this kind. This being said, there are aspects of their current reconstructions which are a bit surprising and might be the result of sampling issues, as 59% of the 194 observations relate to the province of Palencia. Is Guadalajara, where rural dwellers were wealthier than urban dwellers, an exceptional case or does this depend on the very small sample (just 12 observations) the authors have for that region? To dispel any doubts, more probate inventories should be collected, in order to improve the territorial balance within the sample and to better account, both in the estimation process and in the econometric analysis, for possible regional variations. However, this does not alter the general conclusion. The paper by Nicolini and Ramos is a very useful piece of innovative research, grounded in new archival data and packed with useful insights about how to improve our knowledge of inequality in the pre-industrial period.


Ferdinand VI (1713 – 1759), called the Learned, was King of Spain from 9 July 1746 until his death.

Ferdinand VI (1713 – 1759), called the Learned, was King of Spain from 9 July 1746 until his death.


Selected Bibliography

Alfani, G. (2015), “Economic inequality in northwestern Italy: A long-term view (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)”, Journal of Economic History, 75 (4), 2015, pp. 1058-1096.

Alfani, G. and Ammannati, F. (2014), Economic inequality and poverty in the very long run: The case of the Florentine State (late thirteenth-early nineteenth centuries), Dondena Working Paper No. 70.

Alfani, G., Ryckbosch, W. (2015), Was there a ‘Little Convergence’ in inequality? Italy and the Low Countries compared, ca. 1500-1800, IGIER Working Paper No. 557.

Lindert, P.H. (2014), Making the most of Capital in the 21st Century, NBER Working Paper No. 20232.

Milanovic, B., Lindert, P.H. and Williamson, J.G. (2011). “Pre-Industrial Inequality”, The Economic Journal 121: 255-272.

Nicolini, E.A. and F. Ramos Palencia (2015), “Decomposing income inequality in a backward pre-industrial economy: Old Castile (Spain) in the middle of the eighteenth century”, The Economic History Review, online-first version, DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12122.

Reis, J., Martins, A. (2012), “Inequality in Early Modern Europe: The “Strange” Case of Portugal, 1550-1770”. Paper given at the conference Wellbeing and Inequality in the Long Run (Madrid, 1 June 2012).

Santiago-Caballero, C. (2011), “Income inequality in central Spain, 1690-1800”, Explorations in Economic History 48(1): 83-96.

Soltow, L. and Van Zanden, J.L. (1998), Income and Wealth Inequality in the Netherlands, 16th-20th Century. Amsterdam, Het Spinhuis.