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|Titolo:||A Spiralling Crisis: Famine, Finance and Public Works in the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza 1590-1600|
|Autori interni:||PODESTA', Gian Luca|
|Data di pubblicazione:||2010|
|Abstract:||THE ORGANISATION OF THE VICTUALLING SYSTEM IN THE CITY OF PARMA 1545 – 1589 The Duchy of Parma and Piacenza was created by Pope Paul III for his son Pier Luigi Farnese in 1545 . In 1547, some nobles organised a plot to kill the new duke, instigated by Charles V, who aspired to the direct control of Piacenza, the city where the exchange markets organised by the Genoese bankers took place . The Farneses managed to regain control of Piacenza only after ten years. Since then, their policy aimed at weakening the Duchy’s great aristocratic families. The fact that the Farneses did not originate from that territory represented an obstacle: they did not possess any land of their own, nor could they weigh too heavily on their subjects by increasing fiscal pressure. The greatest part of the dukes’ financial resources came from their Roman feuds: in 1589 about 60% of State revenue came from their feuds in Lazio and in the Kingdom of Naples . Table 1. The population of the Parma territory in the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries 1545 1596 1627 1739 1765 Parma 19.532 23.910 30.000 26.101 31.921 Surrounding Countryside 122.625 103.815 98.629 134.371 145.079 Total 142.157 127.725 128.629 160.472 177.000 Source: Marzio Achille Romani, Nella spirale di una crisi. Popolazione, mercato e prezzi a Parma tra Cinque e Seicento, Milano, Giuffrè Editore, 1975, p. 4. After the plot, Parma became the new capital of the Duchy. The presence of the court warranted a high volume of State expense and a good level of employment for the residents: in 1593 the revenue of the Parma territory amounted to just 17%, whilst the expenses reached 62%. The Farneses managed public finances with the aim of ensuring the consensus among the Parma population. A crucial objective was to guarantee the constant supply of foodstuffs to the people, in order to prevent riots and revolts. Bread made with the finest flour was reserved for the city, whilst the rural areas had to make do with coarse bread prepared with a mixture of pulses and less valuable cereals. The body in charge of the influx of foodstuffs was called “annona” (“food board”) and was entrusted to the two most important government institutions in the city: the governor, who had to guarantee the necessary quantities of cereals, meat and other products to feed the citizens, checking that they were sold in the public market at the right prices fixed by public administration and using weights and measures certified by the State; and the Council of the Elders of the community, which was in charge of solving the more delicate victualling problems (such as purchasing cereals abroad in case of scarcity, creating public reserves, requisitioning food products during periods of famine); they also elected the officials in charge of the principal victualling institutions and fixed a political price for bread and meat . The norms regulating the food boards were contained in the body of statutes of the Parma municipality, issued between 1316 and 1345, a collection of laws that practically remained in force until the end of the XVIII century. The main principle was that of ensuring the supply of food to the city at all costs, even to the country’s detriment, preventing any attempt at monopoly and speculation, by delegating the determination of prices to public administration and limiting negotiations only to some rigorously defined and watched over areas, such as the urban public market (food rationing laws). In the XVI century, municipal statutes were integrated by new regulations issued by the Duke, inspired by mercantilist policies. They established that within eight days from the end of harvesting landowners had to declare the volume of the harvest. In the declaration all types of cereals and pulses had to be listed. On the basis of these data, the victualling magistrates estimated whether the quantities were sufficient to feed the population, and if necessary they could increase the stocks by purchasing cereals abroad. By the end of August all landowners, including feudatories, had to transfer to Parma the whole quantity of wheat that exceeded their needs, plus half their harvest of pulses and low-quality cereals. Export was normally forbidden, and only during the most abundant years could public administration grant special permits to sell to bordering territories. Legislation also safeguarded the quality of food products, by making sure that bakers and butchers did not sell adulterated or damaged goods. In good years, cereals spontaneously poured onto the city market and prices were low, so State officials did not directly intervene, leaving market forces to act freely. The situation changed if harvests were bad. After issuing their estimates based on the landowners’ declarations, which not always reflected the truth, the magistrates had to decide how to find the capitals needed to guarantee consumption for the whole year. Some extraordinary financial operations were then necessary: money could be borrowed from private individuals or ecclesiastical institutions, or from the Duke himself, though this measure in times of crisis was hampered by scarce liquidity as well as by increases in interest rates. Normally the community preferred to grant the tax contractors, who anticipated the money, the right to collect new taxes or increased rates of existing ones. If the expenses were very high and internal resources were insufficient, then it was absolutely necessary to find the money on the international capital markets, borrowing from the richest Genoese, Tuscan or Roman merchant-bankers. A riskier alternative was the recourse to the exchange fairs, which at that time took place in Piacenza, with the attendance of all the great European merchant bankers. If none of these solutions was possible, then the lender of last resource was the Duke, though he could himself have big cash problems. In the direst instances of agricultural underproduction food consumption was strictly rationed. Smaller than normal bread loaves were baked, in order to control prices and offer even the poorest among the people the chance to feed themselves; moreover, it was forbidden to bake luxury bread and sweets. All foreign beggars and vagrants were expelled from the State, and the same treatment was meted out to any peasants from the surrounding rural areas who, moved by famine, sought refuge in the Church’s charitable institutions. To limit speculation, the maximum quantities of cereals that could be purchased daily were fixed. To help the poorest citizens, State shops were opened, where it was possible to buy bread made with a mixture of inferior quality cereals and pulses, sold at a low price. Periodically Church bodies distributed bread to poor families and often offered them shelter in their own charitable institutions. Some believed that in times of crisis a providential solution could be found by stimulating a programme of public works, in order to guarantee employment and provide an income for the population. But in the worst recessions this opportunity was also hampered by the fact that, in order to feed the workers employed in the heavier jobs, it was necessary to grant them more consistent bread rations, thus depleting the already scarce reserves. As Prince Ranuccio Farnese objected to his father, the Duke Alessandro, who had suggested they should enlist the peasants too to carry out public works, it was better to leave country dwellers in their own land, because there they could feed themselves with little expense (perhaps only with beans and chestnuts), whilst in the city they would consume greater quantities of cereals essential to feed the urban workers . Another element impeding the victualling magistrates’ action during a crisis was the fact that they had to provide for the people’s basic needs by obtaining the cooperation of the landowners, who often tried to flout the laws. The nobility and the clergy, who controlled almost all the land, could gain considerable economic benefits by speculating on the price of cereals. The Duke’s government had not deeply affected the great feudatories’ power yet. Until the start of the XVII century the Farneses behaved with the utmost prudence towards Parma’s great aristocratic families, often allowing them to increase stocks in their castles and to export cereals abroad. The Church behaved in a totally independent manner vis-à-vis State legislation. The ample autonomy granted during past centuries and the Pope’s influence allowed the ecclesiastical landowners (bishops and monasteries) to resist the victualling magistrates’ pressure. Another notable problem was represented by the illegal export of cereals abroad. Smuggling had reached remarkable levels at the end of the XVI century. In 1580 the Duke ordered an investigation which resulted in the death penalty for the official in charge of export permits, whilst several other officials were imprisoned . But the severity of punishment did not seem to deter smugglers, as in 1586 new cases of corruption in the management of permits came to light . Table 2. Distribution of Parma citizens’ real estate according to 1608 Cadastral Survey (percentage rates) Categories Income Class (for liras of account) Income Class (for liras of account) Income Class (for liras of account) Total Income Class (for liras of account) 0-250 251-1.875 Over 1.876 Feudatories 0,21 0,33 20,93 21,47 City dwellers 21,05 44,62 12,86 78,53 Total 21,26 44,95 33,79 100,00 Source: Marzio Achille Romani, Nella spirale di una crisi. Popolazione, mercato e prezzi a Parma tra Cinque e Seicento, Milano, Giuffrè Editore, 1975, p. 4. However, normal speculation by the great landowners produced additional problems of supply for the city. Formally, this was perfectly legal. Unlike small farmers, who were forced to sell the stock exceeding their own consumption immediately to pay the debts contracted during the year, the rich landowners could spread the sales of cereals over time, so as to obtain maximum profit. When they anticipated that the Duchy’s global harvest would be too scarce to satisfy demand, they closed their own warehouses, waiting for the inevitable price rise. Generally speaking, when penury began, the victualling magistrates started to buy cereals in other States not hit by scarcity. Purchase prices abroad were normally lower than internal ones, but the accessory costs of imports (transport, custom duties and interest on capitals) often reduced the difference. Of course the food boards were not aiming at making profits, but at guaranteeing supplies to the city at moderate prices and recovering the cost of buying goods abroad. Speculators often hampered the fulfilment of these objectives, by reopening their warehouses to prevent community action. Thus the price of cereals (inelastic demand goods) normally fell, rendering partly superfluous the State’s purchases. As a consequence, the town’s victualling magistrates were often forced to take upon themselves the contracted debts or to transfer them onto the tax-payers by means of tax increases . CRISIS AND FAMINE 1590-1593: CONJUNCTURAL OR STRUCTURAL CRISIS? The chance to weaken the aristocracy arose from a deep economic crisis caused by a long series of failed harvests that resulted in a famine. Between 1589 and 1593, crops were always largely below the population’s needs, generating one of the typical subsistence crises of the ancient regime: the common people starved to death, the countryside did not produce any surplus for the urban markets, craftsmen could not sell their wares, trade was paralysed and the Duchy’s economy was in depression. Among the many calamities afflicting the Duchy during the XVI and XVII centuries, the most “transparent”, in the sense of a typical subsistence crisis generated by a series of adverse climatic factors and not further aggravated by external causes such as war or epidemics, was that which developed between 1590 and 1593. The most important consequence was an increase in the Duke’s centralising power to the detriment of older institutions such as the feudatories and the municipalities. The audacious management of victualling policy by the Duke revealed the inadequacy of municipal magistrates and highlighted the great feudal families’ decline. The Parma town council was no longer able to find the necessary capitals to supply the urban population on credit markets, whilst only the Duke had the advantage of being able to obtain large loans in exchange for more solid guarantees. The feudal lords had enjoyed greater power at the time of the Italian wars, when they had enlisted in the service of France or Spain, but after 1559 a long period of peace had ensued. Moreover, they were also weakened by the economic consequences of the long inflation of the XVI century (the price revolution), caused by the influx of precious American metals. The first signs of the crisis impending on the city were visible in the autumn of 1588: the harvest had been reasonable, but higher prices of cereals in neighbouring States produced an increase in smuggling which depleted stocks. We can almost say that famine was predictable, as almost thirty years had passed from the last grave crisis , an unusually long period for ancient regime societies. A sharp increase in the price of cereals signalled the impending catastrophe . Cardinal Alessandro Farnese from Rome warned his nephew Ranuccio that from Lombardy news had come of imminent famine . But despite the warning signs, neither central government nor the municipal authorities took any measure to increase reserves. Table 3. Controlled price of wheat in the Public Market of Parma 1585-1595 (Average of the Year) Year Controlled price (in “soldi” of account) 1585 139,25 1586 132,80 1587 140,20 1588 117,18 1589 164,43 1590 274,33 1591 392,80 1592 402,00 1593 235,11 1594 144,12 1595 143,55 Source: Marzio Achille Romani, Nella spirale di una crisi. Popolazione, mercato e prezzi a Parma tra Cinque e Seicento, Milano, Giuffrè Editore, 1975, p. 307. The weather had been dismal: the spring of 1589, cold and wet, and the cool summer which followed, contributed to the poor harvest, insufficient to satisfy the urban population’s needs for a whole year. The particular circumstances were made worse by speculation encouraged by high prices: the ecclesiastical feudatories, taking advantage of their immunity, smuggled and sold their stocks in bordering states . At the start the municipal magistrates underestimated the situation. The Elders of the Parma Council postponed all decisions until after a general survey of all food stocks in the territory and accused the central government’s representative (the city Governor), who strongly advised them to purchase grains abroad, of being exceedingly alarmist. Only in December did they recognise the gravity of the crisis, but it was too late by then. The bitterly cold winter which followed the cool, damp autumn aggravated the situation for the poorest city and country dwellers, who started to suffer from starvation. Famine was widespread in the North of Italy and the magistrates in charge of victuals had great trouble finding cereals to feed the hungry population: “We couldn’t purchase any wheat in Apulia or anywhere else in the Kingdom of Naples […] and we could not find any in several other countries, although we used all powerful means available to us” . The picture is shocking: the birth rate fell about 22% on average, but some areas witnessed a 45% drop . Generally speaking, the reduction in the birth rate is the clearest sign of an ancient regime crisis caused by famine. However, in this case, the mortality rate also increased remarkably, reducing the population of vast areas even further. The negative effects of the crisis produced a strong demographic decline in the Parma territory . The most clear-headed person to judge the situation seemed to be Alessandro Farnese, despite the fact that he was in Flanders at the head of the Spanish army. He obtained from the Pope the right to export cereals grown by the Farneses in their own Latian feuds, and recommended his son not to issue any laws to keep prices artificially low, because that would only increase smuggling . At last the Parma municipality bought some wheat to feed the city and the surrounding country. A State-run shop was opened to sell bread made with pulses and low-quality cereals at controlled prices. The weather did not improve the following year either. Moreover, the reduction in stocks had resulted in a decrease in the quantity of cereals sown. The penury had been also worsened by the delay with which the municipal authorities had taken action and by conflicts with the ducal government. In summer 1590 a quick survey ascertained that about 38% of wheat was lacking to meet the city’s needs, as well as large quantities of the less valuable grains necessary to feed the rural population. At last this time the Elders of the town council recognised the gravity of the situation. The town magistrates could at least partially fight the calamity only by taking out loans for about 110,000 escudos from private bankers or religious orders, enough to buy about 100,000 tons of cereals in Flanders. In order to assuage the worst effects of famine, the authorities adopted exceptional measures aimed at increasing the offer of grains on urban markets, rationalising consumption and supporting the poorest inhabitants, whilst the countryside was abandoned to its own devices, as no measures were envisaged to supply it with food. Feeding the towns was the prime objective, also to prevent the population from rioting : cereals were requisitioned from wealthy citizens, if they possessed more than what was deemed sufficient for normal everyday needs; foreign beggars were forbidden entrance into the cities, whilst whoever possessed food stocks above eight days’ needs was forbidden to buy any further wheat; moreover, deals above 4.7 kg of grain were also prohibited. However, Flemish wheat turned out to be of rather poor quality, lighter than the sample and not very suitable for baking, whilst transporting it from the coast to the towns, across the mountains, meant a long and arduous journey . The harvests of the next two years were also largely insufficient. Adversity sharpened the contrasts between social classes and between the different communities making up the state. First of all between nobles and common people, as the first opposed the formation of public food reserves at prices fixed by the town authorities, while the latter accused the first of speculating and worsening the famine . Moreover, there were conflicts between towns and country, as well as between Parma and Piacenza, the two largest cities of the Duchy, as the latter accused the authorities to favour the capital as regards food supplies . The nobles, already weakened by the long inflation of the XVI century (the “price revolution” which reduced their income), were not in a condition to help the peasants. The town magistrates in charge of supplying towns were also impotent. The Duke Alessandro Farnese, the hero of Flanders, took advantage of this situation to strengthen his ducal power. Alessandro imposed by force a supplementary tax to buy cereals, and took out a large loan from the Balbani, the Lyons bankers . Later, the Duke subscribed another loan in Anvers, with the Genoese bankers Spinola, in order to buy wheat in Danzig . The Duke struck a deal with the Spinolas, agreeing to purchase great quantities of wheat and rye to feed the starving citizens of Parma and Piacenza. In January 1592, the authorities carried out a survey of the urban population, to assess the quantity of cereals required and compare it with the stocks available in town and with the amounts bought from the Spinolas. The notable reduction in the population showed that available stocks exceeded requirements, so the Parma community decided to sell to Genoa part of the rye coming from the Baltic, to recover at least some of the expenses occurred. Unfortunately, the strong influx of foodstuffs from Northern Europe contributed to lower prices . Part of the capitals thus obtained was used to build a new fortress in Parma, which absorbed a lot of manpower . This way, Alessandro solved the subsistence crisis and strengthened the power and prestige of the Farnese dynasty. The Duchy’s great aristocratic families saw their traditional ties to the people seriously weakened. At last the climatic situation improved and the 1592 harvest was satisfactory, even though things went back to normal only in 1593 . Even though the 1592 harvest had not been as plentiful as in the best years, the food situation was nevertheless coming back to normal. In September the cereal survey verified that the reserves stored in the city were almost equal to consumption and could be integrated by cereals purchased abroad. The worst was over. It was only necessary to mix the flour with inferior cereals and pulses. The experience had been useful to improve both victualling institutions and the perception of exchange mechanisms. The crisis also had political, juridical, social and moral consequences. A report reserved for the Duke stated that high mortality rates had reduced the population in the State territory, whilst the countryside had been largely abandoned as it was easier to find food in the cities. The crisis had produced an increase in salaries, a reduction in cultivated land, the decline of commerce and a decrease in fiscal revenue. Moreover, a significant change had occurred in landed property that had especially favoured the Church, which had bought many plots of land belonging to noble families and to small farmers-owners at low prices . Beyond the level of material life, the period of crisis produced important political and social changes. The famine of 1590-93, a peculiar event because it was caused only by climatic factors without the incidence of war and/or epidemics, destroyed any remaining illusions as to the weight and role of feudatories inside the state, highlighting on the one hand their decline, and on the other the presence of a widespread system of patronage centred around the ruling family. It also accelerated the ascent of a special social class, that of the urban, non-aristocratic magnates (who would, however, acquire nobility status during the XVII century). These wealthy individuals, after a long apprenticeship as urban magistrates (and therefore in a subordinated position vis-à-vis the powerful rural nobility) had now taken advantage of the alliance stipulated with the Farneses in order to acquire a privileged political status, as well as the financial benefits linked to their office. “New men” were then climbing the social ladder and ensured the future of their families by making use of and thus supporting the reigning prince’s ambitions . So, as the events of the early XVII century would show, a conjunctural underproduction crisis would generate a change in the economic, political and social structure of the State. Table 4. The Density of Population in the Parma Territory by Two Census (Inhabitans for Square Kilometre) District 1545 1593 Town 43,70 47,79 Plain 86,95 82,10 Left Hill 46,89 46,66 Right Hill 50,83 56,37 Left Mountain 44,66 36,49 Right Mountain 61,12 37,69 Total 55,69 51,18 Source: Marzio Achille Romani, Nella spirale di una crisi. Popolazione, mercato e prezzi a Parma tra Cinque e Seicento, Milano, Giuffrè Editore, 1975, p. 38 and 41. THE GREAT PLOT OF 1611 Ten years after the famine the Farneses attacked the remaining feudal power, already weakened by the recession. The aim was to increase State patrimony to the detriment of the aristocracy and the clergy. The first attack was aimed at the Church. In 1605 the Duke put strong pressure on and finally forced the Benedictine monks to hand over to him the land belonging to the Fontevivo Abbey, one of the Duchy’s most fertile areas, for the price of only 210,000 silver ducats. To find the money, the Duke created, with the collaboration of the Roman bankers Chigi, the first instance of public debt: it was called Monte Farnesiano and was guaranteed by the Latian feuds of Castro and Ronciglione . In 1594, only a year after the end of the famine, the Duke had emanated new laws (called Constitutiones) regulating the relationship between government and intermediate institutions. Their purpose was to strengthen central government’s power whilst reducing feudal autonomy and municipal liberties. It was the consecration of the primacy of both ducal power and public law over institutions and legislative bodies representing medieval juridical particularism. The Constitutiones were an essential tool in undermining any surviving feudal privileges. A few years later, the Duke Ranuccio, Alessandro’s son, used an alleged plot, perhaps created by his own fantasy, as an excuse to sentence to death the most important noblemen of Parma and Piacenza, confiscating their feuds . The plot was organised in 1611 by the Duke’s police and all men involved, though innocent, confessed under torture. The old feudal nobility was definitely weakened and could no longer represent an opposition force against central power, whilst the confiscated feuds greatly enlarged State property. The Ducal court benefited most from land confiscations, and finally became the centre of life in the Duchy and an element of prestige for the ruling dynasty. The court became the living engine of urban economy. With the definitive loss of their castles, the aristocracy was compelled to adapt to the new situation, and started to gravitate around the court. Thus the Duke became the greatest landowner in the state. Part of the confiscated land was granted to officials and merchants loyal to the Duke, whose own land was reorganised in new state farms or integrated with other pre-existent property. In the new territories a lot of investments were made with the purpose of increasing their revenue. Part of the produce was used for court consumption, while the surplus was sold on the internal market or abroad. As a result of these measures, ducal power was never seriously challenged again. Table 5. Evolution of the revenues in the Parma territory (percentage rates) 1593 1600 1611 1622 Ordinary tax revenue 66,6 66,5 40,6 27,9 Extraordinary tax revenue 6,2 6,6 3,3 3,4 Incomes 5,9 9,3 0,1 1,9 Landed property and other possessions 18,6 17,6 38,5 48,9 Miscellaneous 2,7 - 17,5 17,9 Total 100,0 100,0 100,0 100,0 Source: Gian Luca Podestà, Dal delitto politico alla politica del delitto. Finanza pubblica e congiure contro i Farnese nel Ducato di Parma e Piacenza dal 1545 al 1622, Milano, EGEA, 1995, p. 243. After some early difficulties, the Farneses’ success was due to their ability to manoeuvre public finances in the Duchy, adapting taxation to necessity, and to their capacity to obtain loans from international bankers, also thanks to Alessandro’s prestige and to his close relationship with Philip II . Alessandro Farnese’s audacious policy succeeded in reaping benefits for the dynasty from the negative effects of the 1590 crisis. Public expenditure and public works were the instruments he used to mitigate the consequences of the crisis. If we compare it with contemporary recession, the paradox is that a terrible material crisis generated by the scarcity of foodstuffs was mitigated thanks to the use of financial measures, such as the subscription of loans with the great bankers, who in their turn earned their wealth, beside their involvement in international trade, especially from their capacity to use the most sophisticated financial tools available at the time (bills of exchange) in trade fairs organised for the purpose.|
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