For many, the word Tuscany conjures up images of olive trees, vineyards, Chianti and remarkable works of art. It’s a romantic place with picture perfect landscapes and ancient churches and villages. Tourists from all over the world visit Tuscany each year to take in the sights, tastes and sounds of its glorious culture. Their visit is enhanced if they are familiar with the area’s colorful history, which reaches far into the past and continues throughout many, many cultural changes that make up its present.
This essay employs political, religious, judicial and class stories from the region’s vivid history to help us form a picture of what family life in Tuscany may have been like from 1250 to 1500. It was, by all accounts, a great time to live in Tuscany. The region developed its own status after the Roman empire fell, when a series of rulers emerged to take control. By the twelfth century the Tuscan cities were gradually gaining their independence as republics and forcing the nobility to live in the cities (Van Helden 2).
The land was fertile and the opportunity for various businesses was great. Most importantly, a class system developed that valued hard work over noble birth. Those high in the hierarchy lived within the same communities as the working class. The elite families that did control the power over the next few hundred years made decisions that would ultimately dictate everything from family tradition to fine art and literature. In the late Middle Ages, just around the fourteenth century, a simple political system was in place.
In Italy, there was no political union, but the country was divided into many different town councils (www. greatdante. net, 2) As with many democratic societies of past and present, there were various political parties. Here in Italy, these were called the Guelfi and the Ghibellini. The Guelfi, a group held in favor of the Pope rather than the Emperor, held the majority of the power in the country. This party was especially popular in Florence, where it was separated into two subgroups: the whites (bianchi, in favor of the emperor) and the blacks (neri, in favor of the Pope).
The years around 1300 were the ones in which political fights between whites and blacks became stronger and more dramatic (www. greatdante. net 4). At this time, Italy was not culturally or politically unified, which led to a variety of subcultures within Tuscany. There were many different Italian dialects to choose from. A family’s language might have been based on their geographic location, their religion and their political views. For the most part, this diversity did not lead to violence. Instead, it seemed to benefit the region.
In addition to the renowned artwork of the time, some of the world’s best writers such as Dante, Petrarch, and Macchiavelli found inspiration in the conflicting viewpoints of the Tuscan communities. In a space of fifty years, during the lifetime of Dante, 1265-1321, Florence transformed itself from a political and economic backwater–scarcely keeping pace with its Tuscan neighbors–to one of the richest and most influential places on the continent (Dameron 12). It was one of the world’s most prominent cities for two industries that were necessary for civilized societies: wool and banking.
This was the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance that led to such legendary works by Michelangelo, Leonardo and Donatello, among others. We may be familiar with these names, but what about the cultural backdrop from which they prospered? What factors allowed them to flourish during this time period? Business people who were high in government made many decisions, but the Church was -2- also a major influence in the design of the times. In fact, religion, community and business often merged in the minds of Tuscans who placed emphasis in all three throughout their lives.
As one author describes it: A busy grain market on a site where a church once stood, for instance, remained a sacred place where many gathered to sing and pray before a painted image of the Virgin Mary, as well as to conduct business. At the same time, religious communities contributed directly to the economic development of the diocese in the areas of food production, fiscal affairs, and urban development, while they also provided institutional leadership and spiritual guidance during a time of profound uncertainty (Dameron 75).
Of course, diverse belief systems aren’t always the perfect utopia that history books make them out to be. There was some conflict throughout this age of historic prosperity. Many times community disputes over such things as property and status were settled in a court setting to help eliminate the use of violence. The court systems were relatively new to the Tuscan region in the twelfth century and procedures were quite experimental.
Whereas early medieval placita had become largely formulaic by the tenth century, twelfth-century courts and arbitrations generated a variety of documents, including sworn testimony of witnesses, the claims and counter-claims of the litigants, and the judgment of the arbitrators (Radding 3). The documents that remain from some of these cases help paint a picture of what life was like inside courtroom and out. By studying these conflicts, we are able to gain a new vision for the strategies used by families and communities to assert and defend claims.
Hearing their voices allows us -3- clues into their personalities, what was acceptable or offensive in that day and age. The documents sometimes provide enough direct speech to reveal how these often humble Tuscans saw the issues between them – the arguments offered by the opposing parties in support of their claims (Radding 4). While we must assume some of the holes in the story, one thing is for certain: the courtrooms of Tuscany were just as diverse as the beliefs of its people. The judicial process evolved over the years between 1250-1500.
Private courts, which handled complex arbitrations between parties, spawned more efficient communal courts. Different cities in Tuscany had their own particular systems to handle disputes, as Radding summarizes here: Pisa, a neighbour and traditional rival of Lucca, was quicker to develop urban institutions (starting in the 1080s) and to adopt Roman law, which appears rather suddenly in 1159. Florence was smaller than either Lucca or Pisa in the twelfth century and its institutions were less developed, leaving disputes in the contado largely outside the control of the city’s courts.
Ecclesiastical institutions, finally, had the option of recourse to church courts, including the papal courts, even for cases whose legal substance was no different from those that secular courts routinely dealt with (8). Despite these distinctive variations, a series of uniformities grew to help define the character of the culture and the communities. Documents could be used a proof, but in societies where land was not surveyed or registered and social relations often were undocumented, public behaviors could be almost as important (Radding 10).
Perhaps one -4- reason Tuscany prospered in the medieval times was because they had a civilized process in place to work out their disputes. Sometimes these conflicts were simpler than others; the reasoning by which a solution was reached was often much different than how we resolve conflict today. Such is the case of a boundary dispute with neighboring landowners Passavante di Sesto and Chianne di Ghiandoro. It mattered a great deal whether Passavante’s wife had cut down a certain tree secretly or openly: “Open, i. e.
, public, direct action was a claim to rights; people could see you doing it, and would conclude that, if you were not challenged, you had right on your side. ’(Wickham 83) This example provides evidence that simple claims were considered, even if the reasoning was a bit skewed by today’s standards. The study of Tuscan judicial development is an important point in the exploration of family life, especially considering the marriage rituals. Due to the fact that religion and government played an important role in the culture, both of these components were represented in the marriage process.
According to one author, weddings of the Italian Renaissance were different than those found in the rest of Western Europe (Thomas 4). This historian draws from her knowledge of fourteenth century Florence to describe each step of the tradition. If a Tuscan couple wanted to get married, they would first present the idea to both of their families. The first phase was the meeting of the men of both families to draw up the marriage contract (Thomas 5). At this meeting, members of the judicial system, guarantors and arbiters, would be present to help negotiate the dowry and other financial agreements.
To make it official in the eyes of the law, a notary was on hand to write up -5- the final contract. The second place took place in the bride’s home, where the bride and groom and their relatives were present, along with a notary (Thomas 6). This is the point where the Church enters the picture. The notary’s job was to ask questions that had been dictated by the Church in order to receive the couple’s statement of mutual consent. Once the couple agreed to the stipulations of the Church, the man placed a ring on the woman’s finger and they were considered husband and wife.
It is also worth noting that in Italy at this time the act of marrying was referred to as ‘giving someone the ring’ (Thomas 7). The bride’s family celebrated with a substantial banquet for all. Typically, the final phase of the ceremony concluded at the end of the ring day, when the bride joined her new husband at his home. Escorted by her husband’s friends and family, the bride rode a white palfrey through town to her new home, the way lit by torchlight. In Rome, the spouses met Sunday at church, where they attended Mass and received a blessing from the priest. In Florence, however, the entire ceremony remained secular (Thomas 8).
This entire practice eventually succumbed to more pressure from the Church, which required the mutual consent phase to happen within its doors, similar to the way we conduct our traditional marriages today. The marriage ceremony was very much the same throughout all class systems of medieval Tuscany. Of course, the level of pomp and circumstance was the main distinguishing factor between them, but not much else. Social intercourse in its highest and most perfect form now ignored all distinctions of caste, and was based simply on the existence of an educated class as we now understand the word (Burckhardt 2).
Due to a -6- flattened hierarchal structure, the birth and origin of a person did not influence their standing in society, with some exceptions. Members of truly elite families who inherited wealth and leisure through generations generally held decision making positions of power. These people worked in judicial systems, law or medicine but were just as respected as those who worked the fields. This was one of those rare times in history when classes were fused. It was a direct result of the dynamic built within city walls, where the nobles and burghlers dwelt together.
Here, the interests and pleasures of both classes were thus identified and the feudal lord learned to look at society from another point of view than that of his mountain castle (Burckhardt 4). Families benefited from this in many ways, sons and daughters could marry into a more wealthy family without much disagreement or societal stigmas associated with it. Parents were optimistic for their children, since there were more options than ever to move up and around within the system. This approach differed from the rest of Europe, where English and French chivalry reigned supreme.
Those who were knights and valiant warriors were placed on a pedestal and more valued than others, earning higher titles and more land with each adventure. To the Tuscans, the cultivation of the soil, as practiced by the ancients, would be much nobler than this senseless wandering through hills and woods, by which men make themselves like to the brutes than to the reasonable creatures (Burckhardt 8). These Italians respected hard work, family and community consciousness much more so than travel exploits and conquering. According to one early historian:
And, as time went on, the greater the influence of humanism on the Italian mind, -7- the firmer and more widespread became the conviction that birth decides nothing as to the goodness or badness of a man. In the fifteenth century, this was the prevailing opinion. There is no other nobility than that of personal merit. The cultivation of the soil, as practiced by the ancients, would be much nobler than this senseless wandering through hills and woods, by which men make themselves like to the brutes than to the reasonable creatures (Burckhardt 12).
This way of thinking was quite popular during the time of Dante, who addressed the culture in context with a more traditional hierarchy in some of his writings. Dante, for example, derives from Aristotle’s definition, ‘Nobility rests on excellence and inherited wealth,’ his own saying, ‘Nobility rests on personal excellence or on that of forefathers’ (Burckhardt 12). Even the rich families who prided themselves on wealth did not receive any special treatment in matters of law or politics due to such a strong cultural structure.
The Church, in more traditional societies of the time was used as a means to provide for the younger sons of noble families. This was not the case in Tuscany. Bishoprics, abbacies and canonries were often given from the most unworthy motives, but still not according to the pedigrees of the applicants. If the bishops in Italy were more numerous, poorer, and, as a rule, destitute of all sovereign rights, they still lived in the cities where their cathedrals stood and formed, together with their chapters, an important element in the cultivated society of the place (Burckhardt 12).
In the meantime, the government supported the humanistic movement. One leader, Cosimo, who lived during 1389-1464, ruled the city of Florence and spent much of his fortune on charitable acts. He fostered a climate of simple living while cultivating -8- literature and the arts. During his rule and that of his sons and grandson, Florence became the cultural center of Europe and the cradle of the new Humanism (galileo. rice. edu 3). This elite family enjoyed the support of the masses, who, for the most part, followed this example to work hard and become educated.
But the Tuscan people did more than work. They enjoyed many entertainment options that served as welcome distractions from business and intellectual life. Lorenzo de Medici, Cosimo’s grandson who was known as “The Magnificent,” influenced the types of entertainment held and often sponsored the activities. Mystery plays, based on the theme of the Passion (the sufferings of Jesus), were regularly staged for the enjoyment and edification of the citizens (www. learner. org 5). Festivals also served as a way to bring communities together, in addition to celebrating religious holidays.
Families brought children young and old to celebrate the feast day of Saint John, Florence’s patron saint. Horse races were held throughout the city and magnificent festivals were especially common in the late fifteenth century (www. learner. org 6). This allowed the populace to convene and relax in a fun setting. Contrary to much of the rest of the civilized world, some of Tuscany’s Church leaders applauded these efforts. The culture was very much steeped in a strong spiritual movement that veered from the traditional way of Christian thinking. A preacher named Savonarola helped to establish its roots among city citizens.
His thinking ultimately spread beyond Florence and throughout Tuscan households to change the thinking of many. The idea was simplicity within a time of prosperity. Savonarola was concerned about what he considered abuses by the church and -9- about people’s excessive interest in material goods. He preached against the accumulation of worldly possessions and called for a “bonfire of the vanities” in which people were to burn “immoral” paintings, cosmetics, and such entertainment-related items as musical instruments and playing cards (www. learner. org 9).
Although his philosophies found many avid listeners in Tuscany’s humanist culture, the Church ultimately condemned him for blasphemy against their beliefs. The Church, after all, was one of the most wealthy establishments in the country. Of course, all good things must come to an end. The Aragonese government, established by the middle of the fifteenth century, started in Naples what followed a hundred years later in the rest of Italy – a social transformation in obedience to Spanish ideas, of which the chief features were the contempt for work and the passion for titles (Burckhardt 15).
The caste-focused culture made its way through even the smallest towns by 1500 and what was once considered noble work was quickly sacrificed as Tuscans made a mad dash to find higher places in society within categories such as law, medicine, officer or knight. It is no wonder that the splendor and richness of the area declined steadily after a caste-system was put into place. Families were now forced to live a life that they were born into. Lower class parents would grow their families as large as possible for the main purpose sustaining their own household economy with parents employing children as sharecroppers to increase yield.
Some Marxist analyses assume that sharecropping is a form of surplus labor extraction based on increasing labor intensity, because of inherent tendencies of households to exploit the unpaid labor of its family members (Emigh 22). -10- In this way, parents were able to feed their children and participate in the local economy. The slow transition into a capitalist society affected families in different ways. The families who already had wealth in their bloodlines were typically more successful than others.
This still required a fair amount of enterprising creativity, but richer and larger families had a better chance to benefit from the system. Once Florentines entered local markets, however, they completely dominated them, because Florentines were much wealthier than local inhabitants and could generally outbid them. Florentines bought land from local inhabitants, who generally still sold land for the same reasons but were rarely able to purchase land (Emigh 17). As a result, local market structures, which might have been successful if they were able to compete locally, were largely eliminated.
A problematic economy meant many changes for households. A family who might have owned land for generations was suddenly forced to sell the land in marriage dowries that they couldn’t afford make with cash. Partible inheritance, dowries, and local markets were mutually reinforcing. These practices divided the land into relatively small pieces, which were frequently bought and sold to adjust for the size of a family, to recombine pieces of land split apart by inheritance, to dispose of land at inconvenient locations, and to pay off debts (Emigh 35).
The land that was once owned by many was beginning to be bought up by an elite few. Poverty became more rampant and, with it, the decline of education and culture. The change in economy was due to a number of various variables. The onset of the “Black Death” in 1348 contributed to the reduction of labor supply and increased the need for human capital. A new social norm, that came to prevail in the marriage market -11- with the demise of the feudal system, both contributed to the increase in urban dowries from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
In his famous Divina Commedia, the poet Dante Alighieri was the first to suggest that dowry values were increasing in Florence at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century (Botticini 1). By the mid-1430s, the average dowry in the city was 820 lire – eight times its value in the thirteenth century. At the same time, the rural dowry stayed constant, perhaps as a result of less class influence. Rural communes, as they were known, were slow to follow trends of the city, and by the fifteenth century they were still enjoying some benefits of a flattened hierarchal society.
Village living was still diverse and citizens depended on cooperative relationships between people to prosper, rather than clear-cut social levels. Families lived the simple life that Savonarola preached, not only because it strengthened their communities, but it also was a natural way of life. It’s interesting to note that, although there were more communes in Tuscany than urban cities, there has been little research done to analyze how these families were affected by urban changes. With the help of a humanistic culture and a flattened hierarchal structure, Tuscan families of all class levels flourished.
It was a remarkable time for prosperity. The children of this era had numerous opportunities to flourish in a diverse culture that encouraged creativity in all forms of life, especially the arts. The judicial system worked hand in hand with the church to preserve a society that valued hard work and community over greed and power. Once the latter two elements entered the picture, however, lower class households adapted to form self-supporting farms in order to survive the introduction of capitalism. -12- WORKS CITED Botticini, Maristella.
“Social Norms, Demographic Shocks, and Dowries in Florence, 1250-1450. ” Society for Economic Dynamics Meeting Papers. (2004): 1. Burckhardt, Jacob. “The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: Part 5, Society and festivals. ” Athenaeum Reading Room web site. 7 Mar. 2005. <http://evans-experientialism. freewebspace. com/burckhardt07. htm> Dameron, George. Florence and Its Church In The Age of Dante: Middle Ages Series. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. “Dante Alighieri on the Web. ” Dante Alighieri web site. 7 Mar. 2005 <http://greatdante.
net> Emigh, Rebecca Jean. “Economic interests and sectoral relations: the undevelopment of capitalism in fifteenth-century Tuscany. ” The American Journal of Sociology 108 (March 2003): 1075. Radding, Charles. “Review: Courts and Conflict in Twelfth-Century Tuscany. ” Rev. of Courts and Conflict in Twelfth-Century Tuscany, by Chris Wickham. Institute of Historical Research web site. 7 Mar. 2005. <http://www. history. ac. uk/reviews/paper/raddingC. html> -13- “Renaissance: What inspired this age of balance and order? ” Learner web site. 7 Mar. 2005. < http://www.
learner. org/exhibits/renaissance/florence_sub. html> “The Medici Family. ” The Galileo Project web site. 7. Mar. 2005. < http://galileo. rice. edu/gal/medici. html> Thomas, Kirsti. “Medieval and Renaissance Marrage: Theory and Customs. ” Author web site. 7 March, 2005. <http://www. drizzle. com/~celyn/mrwp/mrwed. html> Van Helden, Albert. “Florence and Tuscany. ” Connexions web site. 7 Mar. 2005 < http://cnx. rice. edu/content/m11936/latest/> Wickham, Chris. Courts and Conflict in Twelfth-Century Tuscany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003: 83. -14-
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