DP12582 | Pioneering into the Past: Regional Literacy Developments in Italy Before Italy

Publication Date


JEL Code(s)


Programme Area(s)



Blindfolded by a lack of earlier systematic data, comparative studies of regional developments in historical Italy begin with the formation of the Italian state, in 1861. We use literacy rates reported in post-1861 population censuses combined with the fact that literacy skills were usually achieved during youth to predict regional literacy developments all the way back to 1821. Our analysis informs ongoing debates about the origins and long-run evolution of Italy's north-south divide. By lifting the veil into Italy's pre-unification past, we establish that the north-south literacy gap was substantial already in 1821, grew markedly wider in the first half of the 19th century, only to revert back in 1911 to the 1821 level. Gender gaps in literacy essentially close in the north during 1821-1911, while in the south they registered a secular stagnation. This opens an avenue for investigating a new dimension of the north-south gap largely overlooked in the existing literature.