VoxEU Column Economic history Education Gender

Girls’ education and medieval commerce

To what extent can historical and cultural factors explain the reversal of the gender gap? Using a new comprehensive dataset from Italy, this column explores the long-term determinants of the education gender gap. The evidence suggests that cultural values can persist for centuries, but that there have also been critical evolutionary turning points on the road towards equality.

The reversal of the education gender gap, to the advantage of women, has been part of a quiet revolution that has gradually transformed women’s lives in the vast majority of OECD countries, as documented by Goldin (2006). Even over a broader sample of countries, the 2012 Gender Gap Report compiled by the World Economic Forum shows that 93% of the gap in educational attainment has now been closed. However, the education gender gap is still significant and hard to eradicate in many countries of the world, with the lowest-ranking ones closing only 50% of it.

Cultural factors rooted in history have been invoked as determinants of the observed cross-sectional variations. For instance, Becker and Wößmann (2008) find that Protestantism decreased the gender gap in basic education across Prussian regions in the 19th century. Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn (2013) show that societies characterised by plough agriculture increased the gender gap in related realms such as employment, entrepreneurship, and political participation.

New research

In a recent paper (Bertocchi and Bozzano 2013) we explore the long-term determinants of the education gender gap using a comprehensive newly assembled dataset of Italian provinces covering the 1861-1901 period – that is, the period immediately following the country’s unification. We find that the primary-school gap is strongly influenced by the medieval pattern of commerce, along the routes that connected Italian cities among themselves and with the rest of the world. The effect of medieval commerce is particularly strong for enrolment at the non-compulsory two-year upper primary level following the initial compulsory three-year level. This is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows that, for each year in the sample, those provinces that hosted commercial hubs display a more advantageous condition for women than those that did not.

Figure 1. Female over male enrolment in upper primary schools, 1861-1901

Girls’ medieval education

Which are the potential channels involved in the transmission of cultural values favourable to girls’ education and how can be shaped by events occurred over six centuries earlier? Between the end of the 13th century and the 14th century, Italy was at the centre of an active process of expansion of trade, city growth, and economic and social development. The intensification of international exchange throughout Europe came with a progress of mercantile science and practices, which forced merchants to acquire considerable skills in arithmetic, bookkeeping, reading, and writing. In merchant communities women played a special role, since they were often in charge of business operations, especially during their men’s year-lasting travels: therefore, women needed to be literate. Accordingly they received more (and better) education, both formally and informally, as documented by a vast historical literature on abacus schools open to girls and on female epistolary writing. The fact that commerce, contrary to other occupations, did not require physical strength reinforced this pattern. Moreover, the fact that women found themselves entrusted not only with trade, but also with children’s education, resulted into an intergenerational transmission of the acquired role models and beliefs, which induced their persistence up to the 1861-1901 period.

Regression analysis confirms that medieval commerce is a robust determinant of the education gender gap during the initial decades following unification, even after controlling for a wide set of long-term, and potentially confounding, factors, including the geographic characteristics of the provincial territories, proxies for the level of prosperity, the establishment of an ancient university, the 14th-century political regimes, and the prevailing medieval family types. To be noticed is also the fact that medieval commerce exerts no significant influence on the level of schooling itself, which underscores its peculiar influence only through gendered human capital accumulation.

Even though the influence of medieval commerce persists throughout the sample period, we also find evidence of its relatively rapid decline during the initial four decades following unification. As shown in Figure 1, female over male enrolment grows both in the provinces involved in trade and in those that were not, with a gradual closing of their disparity over the three 20-year sub-samples. This pattern suggests that new and countervailing forces must have been at work after 1861. The single most important event occurring at this critical juncture is indeed the political unification of the country and the associated adoption and implementation of national educational policies. The imposition of free compulsory education for boys and girls is the crucial driver of the closing of the gender gap in schooling.


Over a century and a half after unification, gender equality in education is firmly established in Italy at the primary and secondary schooling levels, and the gender hap has even reversed for the younger cohorts at the college level. Therefore, our findings show that cultural values can persist for centuries but also that they can evolve at critical junctures.


Alesina, A, Giuliano, P, Nunn, N (2013), “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, forthcoming.

Becker, S O, Wößmann, L (2008), “Luther and the Girls: Religious Denomination and the Female Education Gap in Nineteenth-century Prussia”, Scandinavian Journal of Economics 110, 777-805.

Bertocchi, G, Bozzano, M (2013), “Women, Medieval Commerce, and the Education Gender Gap”, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 9359.

Goldin, C (2006), “The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women's Employment, Education, and Family”, The American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 96, 1-21.

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