Measuring the Population of Foreign Workers in Renaissance Florence

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WESSWeb > WESS Newsletter > Spring 2017 > Renaissance Florence

Marta Deyrup shares the following project description from Dr. Bill Connell that may be of interest to WESSies:

The presence of transient foreign workers in an economy has often resulted in hostility on the part of the native population. Foreigners are accused of selling their labor cheaply and thus undercutting the local workforce. They are said to drain funds from the domestic economy because they do not spend their earnings locally but instead send much of them back home. The local population alleges that the workers’ poor housing (or lack thereof), cheap clothing, and substandard personal hygiene threaten the quality of life of longtime residents. In response to these complaints governments have regulated foreign workers by issuing work permits and visas, created border controls, and granted favorable treatment to certain categories of workers while taxing or excluding others. Although such workers have often created tension and anxiety in societies, economic historians find that their presence is an especially sensitive indicator of the state of an economy relative to other economies. Their high level of mobility means that the workers flock to places where the economy is growing, while they quickly leave when conditions sour or when better prospects emerge elsewhere.

Several years ago I discovered in the Florentine State Archives the records of a tax that was imposed in the year 1473 on the foreign workers in Florence and throughout the 44 jurisdictions of the Florentine state. The law’s preamble complained that the manual laborers who were coming from outside Florentine territory were saving their wages and sending them home rather than contributing to the local economy. So a system was established whereby each manual laborer not native to Florentine territory, provided he did not own land and had not married a native, was required to pay an annual tax. In exchange he received a numbered “policy” or visa, valid for one year. If he was found to be working without such a visa he was subject to a substantial fine.

In the Florentine archives I discovered registers that record the shipments and sales of the individually numbered policies that were delivered in each Florentine jurisdiction. The surviving registers date from 1473 to 1477 and 1494 to 1512. Both periods are of high interest to historians: the 1470s have sometimes been portrayed (evidently mistakenly) as a period when the Florentine economy verged on collapse; the second period covers the chronological arc of the restored Florentine Republic—a crucial time in Florence’s political and social history. From the visas delivered it is possible to compute the number of foreign laborers working in the many parts of the Florentine state, and then to track where these numbers were increasing and decreasing over time.

Data so precise for the medieval and early modern periods are extremely rare. It says something about the relationship between the economy and cultural production that this influx of laborers took place in the precisely the years when the Florentine Renaissance was at its peak.

I am considering doing this as a short book and would be happy to learn about research concerning transient manual laborers in other periods and other parts of the world. I have done some work, for instance, on Italian American "pick and shovel" workers circa 1900.

William Connell
La Motta Chair in Italian Studies and Professor of History
College of Arts and Sciences
Seton Hall University

Bill Connell

WESSWeb > WESS Newsletter > Spring 2017 > Renaissance Florence

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