Plague in seventeenth-century Europe and the decline of Italy: an epidemiological hypothesis

Guido Alfani, Università Bocconi

This paper compares the impact of plague across Europe during the seventeenth century. It shows that, contrary to received wisdom, seventeenth century plague cannot be considered a “great equalizer”: the disease affected southern Europe much more severely than the north. In particular, Italy was by far the area worst struck. Using both new archival sources and previously published data, the article introduces a novel epidemiological variable that has not been considered in the literature: territorial pervasiveness of the contagion. This variable is much more relevant than local mortality rates in accounting for the different regional impact of plague. The paper shows that pandemics, and not economic hardship, generated a severe demographic crisis in Italy during the seventeenth century - at a time when northern European populations were growing quickly. Plague caused a “system shock” to the economy of the Italian peninsula that might be key in understanding the start of its relative decline compared to the emerging northern European countries. The paper also provides new insights about changing of the biological characteristics of plague over time, and about the reasons for its disapperance from Europe as an endemic disease.

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Presented in Session 32: Demographic stress in the past