Labour, Productivity, Wages in Italy, 1270-1913

Labour, Productivity, Wages in Italy, 1270-1913

By Paolo Malanima

Paper given at Towards a Global History of Prices and Wages (2004)

Introduction: Despite its industrial growth since the 1880s, on the eve of the First World War Italy was still a relatively backward region of Western Europe. Its labour productivity in agriculture was one-fourth that of the United Kingdom. Although over the last 30 years its industry had regained much lost ground, its industrial labour productivity was still much lower than that of Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, and less than half that of Great Britain. Industrial wages were, as a consequence, also lower. Gone were the times when Italian real wages had been among the highest in Europe. As we know, they had already started to decline in the late Middle Ages and to begin a slow recovery only at the end of the 19th century.4 However, many uncertainties still remain as regards their movement during the centuries from the late Middle
Ages onward.

Despite its central importance for our understanding of the main trends of the economy, our knowledge of wage movement in Italy is limited to a rough outline. We still lack reliable series of wages for a period going from the end of World War I to very recent times. We do have several more or less good series for individual regions or cities before the 19th century. They have, however, not yet been connected, and, as a consequence, cannot provide evidence for long-period trends, and tell much more than short-period
local stories.

The purpose of the present essay is, first of all, to collate the existing dispersed series of wages and single out the main phases and trends in wage movement within a long-period macroeconomic perspective, from the late 13th century -when the first published data are available – until 1913, when Italy was going through the first phase of Modern Growth. They will be examined in the context of the evolution of the Italian economy from the late Middle Ages until the beginning of its modern take-off. I will focus on central and northern Italy, because they are better represented than southern Italy in published studies.

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