According to “the energy balance mechanism” theory, female ovarian function is strongly hindered by even a modest negative energy balance (the difference between calorie intake and calorie consumption). Agriculture-based economies were characterized by periods of extremely intense workload (especially in summer when grain was harvested) without sufficient nutrition. We analyze the role of the intensity of agricultural workload (proxied by marriage seasonality) on seasonal oscillations in births. Using data at the regional level, from Italian Unification to the eve of the World War I, we find some empirical support for the energy balance theory. In particular, we find the strength of the relationship between marriage seasonality and birth seasonality to be lower in the more developed Northern part of the Italian country, in which some signs of industrialization had already been present.
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The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on receipt of a reasonable request.
Data on miscarriages for the epoch are not available. For stillbirths, Breschi et al. (2012) noted that, especially in the South, the presence of biases in the registration of stillbirths was clear. However, it might be argued that if the public officials had misclassified stillbirths, they will have done this all the year around, so the absence of summer peaks in stillbirths cannot be attributed to their errors. See also Derosas (2009) for an interesting discussion about the combined effect of malnutrition in late gestation and cold temperatures on neonatal mortality.
With high temperatures, female work in summer may have led to more miscarriages and/or stillbirths. Unfortunately, we do not have statistics for miscarriages for the period under analysis. For stillbirths, the reader is referred to the comments in Table 3.
Another possible effect of religious beliefs on marriage seasonality comes in May. Given that this month was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, some scholars sustain that marriages were avoided in the Catholic World as an act of respect for the Holy Virgin. It should be noted that if religious considerations are at the basis of the decision to not marry in May, then it would be reasonable to expect a depressive effect on sexual activity. This should imply a reduction in births approximately in February of the subsequent year. As we will show in the section of results, this seems not to have been true for the Italian regions. February was in fact a month of maximum concentration for live births.
The main problem highlighted by Somogyi was associated with the first decade of the marriage time series: the 1866 marriage law reform, which revoked the legal validity of religious marriages. This law entered force 1 January 1866 causing an overwhelming concentration of celebrations in December 1865 to avoid the application of the new law. As far as births are considered, Livi (1929) discussed the postponement of the registration of home births in the last days of December 1865. This custom was due to parents’ attempts to delay compulsory military service for their sons. However, Crisafulli et al. (2000) observed that the number of births in January continued to be higher than those in December, even in the second part of the twentieth century when the hospitalization of births was common and when the postponement of registration was impossible.
July, August and September were months of high workload in the agricultural economy, and we are estimating workload using a seasonal marriage index. At the same time, there are also other possible factors (for instance, hot temperatures) that might determine a trough in the conceptions and thus a depression in the number of births 9 months later. The inclusion of month dummies gives a partial control for this possible unobserved confounding effect.
Ruiu and Breschi (2017) argued that during dramatic events like wars or epidemics, there is a huge decrease in fertility levels due to the dramatic increase of marriage dissolution caused in turn by rising mortality. Furthermore, even when the event is ended, only after several lags do, we observe a rebound in fertility to higher levels than pre-crisis times.
In northern Italy, 1884 and the 1889 were also characterized by heavy production losses due to vine mildew (Matta and Alma 2010).
The reader is referred to Daniele and Malanima (2014) for more details on the economic development of Italian regions from unification onwards.
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The research activity carried out by Gabriele Ruiu has been in part financed by the “Fondo per il finanziamento dei dipartimenti universitari di eccellenza” (Law nr. 232/2016).
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Ruiu, G., Breschi, M. Intensity of Agricultural Workload and the Seasonality of Births in Italy. Eur J Population 36, 141–169 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10680-019-09524-1
- Seasonality of births
- Seasonality of marriages
- Energy balance
- Economic development
- Agricultural calendar