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

Number: 27
Year: 2010
Author(s): Guido Alfani
Keywords: history of climate,plague,famine,Little Ice Age,Malthusian crisis,Early Modern Italy,agrarian innovation,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 Boserup's 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.

Guido Alfani

Universita Bocconi, Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics


Keywords: history of climate, plague, famine, Little Ice Age, Malthusian crisis, Early
Modern Italy, agrarian innovation


Download: The paper may be downloaded here.