Letter from Margherita Bandini to Datini 1407

Women’s Education in Medieval Italian Cities – Then and Now.

Tradition for women’s education above and beyond the customary in medieval commercial centres in Italy continued to set its mark 500 years later.

Women, medieval commerce, and the education gender gap
Graziella Bertocchi  and Monica Bozzano
In: Journal of Comparative Economics 2015
DOI: 10.1016/j.jce.2015.09.002


Between the end of the thirteenth century and the fourteenth century, Italy was at the center of an active process of expansion of trade, city growth, and economic and social development. This period was characterized by an intensification of international exchange throughout Europe and with the development of mercantile science and practices. These developments implied the necessity for merchants to acquire considerable skills in arithmetic, book-keeping, reading, and writing. In a context where women’s education was generally neglected, merchant communities were characterized by the fact that women, who were often in charge of business operations during their men’s year-long travels, needed to be economically active and, therefore, literate. The fact that in Italian commercial centers women enjoyed a privileged condition is put forward by a vast historical literature.

The authors of the present article is asking whether woman continued to be better educated in these Italian commercial centres, even after the Medieval commercial boom turned to bust. Recently published data concerning the educational level of the Italian population from 1861 – 1901 is explored to discover whether a long-term effect can be measured.

The main hypothesis tested is to what extent the educational gender gap was still influenced by the medieval pattern of commerce, along the routes that connected Italian cities at home as well as abroad. Did there exist a more favourable female position in the provinces that were commercial centres in the late Middle Ages.

The article is able to document robust evidence that in 1861, at Unification, gender equality in education was still positively associated with the medieval pattern of commerce. The beneficial effect of medieval commerce on female education relative to male persisted after having been controlled for a broader set of factors reflecting the geographic, economic, political, and cultural differentiation of medieval Italy. Controls included latitude, longitude, sea, river, plain, urban population density, university, family structure, political regimes, height, population density and industrialization. The main statistical correlation was however, the medieval tradition for teaching girls to read and write in order to be able to employ them in medieval commercial ventures.

The long-term influence of medieval commerce dissipated only gradually after national educational policies were implemented after Unification.

“We can therefore conclude that, at Unification, after controlling for a comprehensive set of longterm determinants reflecting geographic, economic, cultural, and political differences, gender inequality in education is significantly influenced by medieval commerce. As a result, the evidence so far collected, based on the available historical data, suggests that medieval commerce is a promising candidate explanation for the outcome at hand”, writes the authors.


Grazielle Bertocchi is orresponding author. University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, CEPR and IZA. Address:
Dipartimento di Economia Marco Biagi, Viale Berengario 51, 41121 Modena, Italy, e-mail: graziella.bertocchi@unimore.it, phone:  +390592056856, fax +390592056947.

Monica Bozzano works at University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Address: Dipartimento di Economia Marco Biagi,
Viale Berengario 51, 41121 Modena, Italy, e-mail monica.bozzano@unimore.it.


Letters by Margherita Dantini Margherita Bandini was married to the famous merchant from Prato, Francesco Datini are known for her widespread correspondence with her husband, while he was minding the business from Florence. The photo shows a letter from 1407. Her handwriting is not quite as proficient as that of her husband’s.

Letters to Francesco Datini
By Margherita Datini, Translated by Carolyn James and Antonio Pagliaro
University of Toronto Press 2012
ISBN 978-0-7727-2116-7








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