Dark Age Ahead – how we lived through the dark ages past Thursday, Jun 22 2006 

Jane Jacobs' last published book, Dark Age Ahead, is not her best book. It shows the signs of having been written to get the ideas captured before the end. She died not long after it was published. So the rigorous editing which was part of her work never quite happened, and she didn't have the time to make her ideas bullet proof. Too many of her underlying premises are open to question, so they undermine the value of her arguments. For example, her more critical self would not have referred to the European Dark Ages, without acknowledging that current thinking suggests that the period so described by post-Renaissance historians was in fact lively, innovative and interesting. The Datini lived in those so-called Dark Ages, and it's true they had to face wars and pandemics (nothing new for us there, then). It is because the ways they chose to deal with these issues, and because their states of mind of mind are recognisable that they can still say something interesting to us.

It is sad that the book is not quite finished, because her argument, as usual, is stimulating and important. She issues a warning to those who take complacent comfort in the immutability of the benefits of "the culture conventionally known as the West." We can not only lose the benefits; we can also forget what they were and never recover them again. It is not a case of nostalgia for some good old days. Just as we know that our bodies and minds will carry us through longer and with less pain if, in addition to good genes, we moderate the damage with more vegetables, exercise and meditation, she argues that we need to be alert to the things that we must add to the body cultural if it is not to collapse and decay.

She chooses five pillar that support the cultural system that provides these benefits:

  • The family
  • Education
  • Science
  • Taxation to support the public good
  • Accountability among the powerful elites, i.e. law, medicine, etc.

Let us take the family, which she defines as a biological and economic unit – described as a household. The economic unit is often more adaptable than the biological one. Which is a good thing because our culture expects it to provide nearly everything to ensure that there are generations of wealth makers for the future. It is the household that provides shelter, food and basic nurture. It also educates the young, and in North America drives it to swimming classes, remedial French lessons, and school. More than 80% of its income goes on these expenses. No wonder both parents have to work.

If households can't take care of this, we face enormous problems of providing shelter and, in particular, effective education. The result is a generation of damaged individuals not readily available for earning taxable incomes. Getting the households looked after seems pretty important to the well being of a community.

The Datini were heads of a household that took care of more than 40 people "indoors" and innumerable relatives, friends and friends of friends. The whole ethos of the 14th Century Tuscan merchant class was that the family provided the only legitimate reason for creating wealth. If you had a family you needed money to support it, and you needed the family members to help create the wealth. It was in everyone's interests to provide the best support possible.

Over the next few weeks this blog will be describing that household and its members to you.


War – the old fashioned solution – October, 1397 Tuesday, Jun 20 2006 

Fear agentsIn the March of Folly that is our human engagement in fighting wars, we have rather forgotten the importance of climate. While British troops used to say that a place was "hotter than Basra" – and are no doubt saying so again in a week where daytime temperatures reached 60 degrees C – it is still possible to keep fighting. Logistics teams keep air conditioning operational, and machinery functioning. Although apparently sometimes only just.

600 years ago no commander dreamed of trying to keep an army in the field outside the regular fighting season, mostly spring and summer in Italy. Of course this effectively destroyed growing seasons and exerted huge pressure on the citizens of besieged cities. Nevertheless, when the rainy season hit our Datini in October, they at least could get out to the farms to gather chestnuts and repair walls. Money was flowing again, and merchandise. Thus you could maintain enough economic activity for a war to be sustained. And war was in fact a desirable profession, especially for the younger sons of noble families who would not inherit.

Withdrawing from the field at agreed times not only gives the revenue generating civilian population a chance to regroup. It also gives the power brokers a chance to negotiate a peace or a truce. So, war could seem like reasonable way to get an advantage.

But, in our own time, we commit ourselves to continuous battle with no rules for relief or release. War is an old-fashioned way to solve a problem.

Acts of God, April 5, 1397 Friday, May 26 2006 

Francecso Datini - Portrait, 20 years after his death

I had a dream tonight of a house fallen completely into pieces, in which were some members of my family…

The reason this dream gave me much to think upon is that there is a ship, which left Venice more than two months ago, which was going to Catalonia, and no news is known and I am up 300 florins, which are securities for my goods, as I guaranteed Domenico di Cambio’s ship, which sank the other day. I have learned that, in that ship,there was such merchandise from our company valued at 3000 florins and perhaps more, and even though that ship was insured in large part , it is not impossible that we will lose the value of 500 florins if she is lost,which is bad enough without a man having to plead his case with those assurors, since, when they made that insurance, it was a sweet thing for them to get their hands on some money, but when the disaster of a loss comes, it’s completely the opposite and each one plays the innocent and makes promises without paying; so we’ll see how we stand!

Francesco is referring to the insurors of his day – fellow merchants who take money (as he did himself for Domenico di Cambio) to cover the loss of cargo to storms or pirates. And it seems then as now, that there were many more reasons NOT to pay than to pay.

It has brought Francesco to a high state of anxiety, because there are four more forced loans, and he is pressed for cash. Like his fellow merchant Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, Francesco can be destroyed, along with his family. But he says

..bad as these things are they will seem like a fresh drink in the morning, if things continue to develop as they are.

I have told Nicholò …to send with our Nanni the mules on Sunday morning, and I will come the same day, if I can: I don’t know what I will do. On Saturday, I will tell you what there will be for you to do. I don’t know where I am.

For he will go to prison if he cannot pay the forced loan. His despair is real, and his disarray uncharacteristic.

He was not alone. For the second time in two days, grain inspectors had come to the house in Prato to assess howmuch grain they held. Malicious gossip in Florence had sent the inspectors back, because “not enough had been disclosed”. Monna Margherita pleads with him:

I ask you that you figure out a way to be back here by Easter [in 5 days time], because I am very worried by many things that have been said to me, and it is not enough that I have my own worries, but all your friends tell me nothing different, unless you involve yourself here in many pieces of business, which you know: you understand me!

God keep them!

La leche might be doubtful, April 4 and 5, 1397 Saturday, May 20 2006 

Margherita in the city

On April 4 Francesco wrote from Florence:


The purpose of this letter is that Lodovicho Marini has had a boy child and… a wet nurse cannot be found here; and therefore Manno has prayed me to write to you to see if there is any way there that you might be able to find a nurse, and that you let me know. And so see if you cannnot find one, and learn what she would like per month, and let me know at the first opportunity.

Margherita replied on April 5:





I sent to the wife of Cechatello our workman, who two months ago had a boy; I was there with Schiavo who ought to be here today with me and I will make myself understood to him, and I will have him understand clearly everything and, if he will decide to do what I ask, I think that Lodovicho will be well served, nevertheless I will have a search carried out here in Prato and the environs and see if I find anything better and I will let you know after of everything.


Nevertheless, to give you some advice in the meantime, the practice here is to give the wet nurse between four and four and a half lire per month salary, and also here it is customary to give other things appropriate to the women, and Nicholò can tell you what to give.

Wealthy women did not nurse their own babies. The babies were sent to the families of wet nurses, often for two or three years. Margherita, childless herself, (although she sought many remedies for this), often took commisssions to find wet nurses for Francesco's associates. Women were the important practitioners in gynecological matters even if men were leaders in medical treatments otherwise. There is even a famous writer, Trotula of Salerno who wrote on the diseases of women.

Her views on selecting a wet nurse recognise the need for the nurse to be relaxed and healthy for the benefit of the child:

The nurse ought to be young and have a pink and white complexion…Let her not be dirty. She should have neither weak nor heavy teats, butu breasts full and generous, and she should be moderately fat [no post natal miracle diets here, then]. …Especially have her avoid garlic. Let her avoid anxiety and guard herself during menstruation….

Chapter XVIII of The diseases of women, cited in Amt, Emilie, Women's Lives in Medieval Europe



The pay was good. If 6 florins a month could be enough for Margherita's household expenses, then 4 to 4 and a half is quite generous to a servant's family.

But there is poignancy in a later letter when Margherita notes that because no one could organise the nursing soon enough, "three of the best children were lost", that is the child to be nursed and the two of the potential wet nurse's. The potential for pain in both the separation from the birth mother and of the possible deprivation of the nurse's children is hard to understand. It is a place of great difference between our time and Margherita's, although the underlying psychological consequences would be familiar.


Test your credit rating, clear your debts, April 3,4 1397 Friday, May 19 2006 

Margherita Datini as Dominican lay sister, painted 20 years after Francecso Datini - Portrait, 20 years after his death

Margherita's husband was among the wealthiest of the citizens of Prato, and attracted attention from the tax officers of Florence as well. He was not born to this wealth. He built it up over 40 years, and like many a self-made man took his money very seriously.

The roads, teeming with mercenary soldiers, were becoming less attractive channels for the money from trade. In the meantime, to pay her own army, the Republic of Florence was demanding more "voluntary loans", from her citizens. Francesco needed to call in his own debts and outstanding payments. John Padgett and Paul McLean point out that casa in Italian means not only a seat of business, but also a family. And a family was very widely defined as relatives, friends and servants all linked in the support of a common enterprise.
Nowhere is this mingling clearer than in Margherita's role as debt collector. We will all be familiar with the credit rating distinctions below. Ser Naldo is a lawyer, who often acts for Francesco as a debt collector himself. Michele, may be a tenant farmer who owes Francesco the market value of a portion of his harvest. If Francesco is asking for cash, instead of kind, which was increasingly the practice as city dwellers began to take over farming estates, Michele may have been in trouble. Independent farmers in the UK supplying dairy products to supermarket chains at prices below their production costs know exactly how Michele was feeling.

So Francesco to Margherita, April 3, 1397

There is nothing more to say about ser Naldo. You tell me that you have £4½ and he owed me £4½; take that which he gave you,…; but have him make a note of the rest, and tell him that you need it for expenses and that I will be there and will account for everything as needed.


As for Michele who had nothing, have him called for and tell him that this is no good way to behave; and likewise have Barzalone speak to him in such a way as you think suitable.

And Margherita, April 3, 1397



I have had Michele sought as much I can, and also I will tell Barzalone what my mind is on this matter that he speak to him in such a way as he thinks fit. (Michele in effect is not answering the telephone when the collection agency calls.)


And Francesco, April 4, 1397



There is nothing more to say about Michele, except that you continue to call for him in the time of my absence, and say to him: <<Francesco will be here in a few days and he will want to be paid everything, and he won’t want excuses; and therefore you would do yourself a favour to pay the money before he is here, since it will not look good to him that you have broken your word to me as you have.>> And so on as seems best to you.

And there you have it, a particularly painful combination of owing money, not to any old impersonal bank, but to the "family", in the person of monna Margherita herself. Not nice.


Love means never having to send frogs – March 30,31 April 1, 1397 Tuesday, May 16 2006 

Datini-Bad It hadn't been easy that last week, what with managing excess staff, bringing in all the available crops from all the Datini farms, lifting bridges from roads that might see the passage of armed cavalry, (I mention in passing that ancestors of mine in a later war, were reputed to have made a nasty guerrilla weapon just for passing cavalry, that is horseshoe shaped devices, thrown into the road with triangular spikes facing up, which when trodden upon lamed the horses. It was the American War of Independence. My ancestors left for Nova Scotia…) seeing to the collection of outstanding debts, and generally doing all the things that historians six hundred years later (both men and women) would say that women didn't do.

So, when Margherita received a lengthy letter full of more instruction with the following button pushing line: "About that tunic you found, the one that has given me so much grief, your brain is so small that you would have found it if you'd looked where I told you, instead of following your own whims", her reply, also embedded in much businesslike discussion, was:

In the matter of the tunic, about which you say you are upset by my failure, to that specifically I have no wish to reply whether it was my fault or not, but I wish you to remember through your goodness, since I have so little brain, how the business of this tunic went. I remind you that you yourself had loaned it and it was you who had it returned and, remember, that you had all that straw mattress stuffing removed from the bed in the room on the ground floor and you said that you had put it here, and I remember that you looked for it two or three times in my bed and your own self that said while you were searching: “There is no need to search here, since I left it on the bed of the ground floor room”, and you said: “I put it on the bench, since I was removing the straw and I put it on the bench”. When the tunic was discovered, I was in the hall and was dictating to Guido who said to me: “We have found a tunic” and I said “Where?”, and they said: “On the bench on the edge of Francesco’s bed” and then I remembered, when you had been looking, that you said to me:"I left it on the bench” and I said “Then that must be that tunic that Francesco lost” because of the details you gave me; but you said it was in the room on the ground floor: I leave it to your discretion as to whose was the fault.

She also claimed to be unable to deal with some personnel issues around debt collecting because her brain was known to be too small.

Of course , when your husband is in Florence 60 km. away, and you've just had a fight, mediated unsatisfactorily through a scribe and a courier named Arghomento on a donkey (name not specified), advice about never going to sleep on a quarrel is pretty much useless.

So, I wondered as I translated Margherita's next letter, dictated immediately after, and before receiving a reply from Francesco, if I detected some anger management. First there was the slightly hopeful opening:

Today, through the brother of Benedetto’s wife, we wrote you a letter; Fattalbuio was here and said that you had not received it. (With luck some marauder picked it off…)

Then there is the following:

I am sending you through Arghomento a hamper in which are several mushrooms, which were sent to me last evening and several frogs, they are fresh, taken today at dusk, but I had them cooked to save you the trouble…I am baking 25 loaves of bread…Let me know if you decide not to come to Prato and I will send bread.

I frequently use food when trying to paper over the cracks…

Leave the worrying to me – March 29, 1397 Tuesday, May 9 2006 

You told Barzalone and Nicholò to buy you two stacks of wood; we’ve been able to find a way to buy the wood, but no way to deliver it to you, because it is not possible to hear tell of any oxen, (that would be owing to the Podesta's order to take them, so that there are many hidden here and there in the mountains), so that we have not so far found a way of getting the grain for the Commune sent; but if you need to have it there for you; I’ll engineer some way to get it to you; let me know and then leave the worrying to me.

In less than a week after the declaration of war Florence's citizens had snatched undercover thousands of bushels of grain, gallons of wine and barrels of oil, and it would appear whole teams of oxen. It was one of those rare moments when tax avoidance (collecting anything valuable for the coffers of the Republic of Florence) looked patriotic (keeping anything valuable out of the hands of the armed forces of the Duke of Milan.) It was also practical. With her trade slowly strangling in the hands of encircling armies, and her farmers at risk if they ventured in the countryside under fire, Florence faced disease and famine. Everyone knew this because this is what happened in 1395 when Visconti captured Bologna and began his first attempt to overrun the Florentine republic. (See Baghdad Burning for a contemporary view of the citizen caught inside a war not of her choosing).

Steadfast, Margherita in her stronghold in the walled city of Prato, did what was necessary for the family to prepare for war. Her husband, doubtful about whether he could safely leave the confines of Florence was not with her, but he relied on her – and made unthinking demands on her – to provide his needs within the city. And she did so – proudly. I'll make it work, don't you worry.

A friend of mine reading a draft of a biography of Margherita said she could understand Francesco, but not what motivated Margherita. I wonder if this is a reflection of the great shift in our culture from Margherita's time to ours.

Eric Rayner, a psychologist who is joint author of a book called Human Development, published by Routledge, 4th ed. 2005 says:

Self-esteem in women and men[in our contemporary Western culture] is so often linked to achievement in career, in activity, in effectiveness, in earning money…This is seen to be evident, observable and thus valued. What is less valued, less recognised, is the… steadfast capacity for the physical and emotional well-being of an infant, and the contribution that it makes to child and adult mental health. This is the unseen work of parents and the health of individuals and society relies on this unsung contribution.

In her time, Margherita's life may have been much restricted, according to our modern views, but she would not have seen herself as anything but an integral part of the most important part of society, the family. And her husband saw her so, too. His words and actions prove it.

In the path of war – March 1397 Saturday, May 6 2006 

 Margherita in the city

When Margherita was three years old, the Signory of Florence beheaded her father in the square in front of Palazzo Vecchio. He had backed the wrong side. In Florence they played politics for keeps. The family lost all its property and went into exile in Avignon. When Francesco says he understands how she would have been frightened, he said "it's what war is." He also says, of his lawyer who is staying in a village in the countryside:

"I think they’re able to stay safe, not having many goods, therfore it is country that the armed men will go through very unwillingly, after which it will be in some part safe; but I am not in raptures about the fact that the women are staying there because they are neither quick to flee nor to do what men are able to do."

I can imagine the kinds of thoughts that might go through the mind of a woman in charge of a house full of rich things, and food stored up against famine, in the possible path of armed men whose behaviour in the past inspired many a painting of the "Slaughter of the Innocents." Her husband was not with her. She had servants and friends. She was not isolated, but she was alone in her responsibility for the family.

The war in question was the second of three fought by republican Florence against the Visconti Dukes of Milan. Both states used mercenary armies. It was an army of Breton and English soldiers under the command of Sir John Hawkwood who over three nights murdered 6,000 people in the town of Cesena, tossing the bodies into ditches and wells to discourage the dogs who had been eating them. This had happened only 20 years before, with the acquiesance of the Pope, Gregory XI. It had been the year of Margherita and Francesco's marriage.

She had in one week gathered in all crops, animals and goods from two farms; she had seen to the care of the servants; she had arranged a loan to keep the household in Prato in cash; she was baking bread, and when she could find someone willing to risk the roads still sending it to Florence. And always she must have kept at bay the certain fear that at any time a violent end might strike her or her family.

Montepulciano – update – March 27, 1397 Thursday, May 4 2006 

Things are very scary right now. Armed soldiers (I'm not clear whose side they are on) are burning fields and houses. Francesco has still not come home from Florence. Margherita's letters appear to be missing from March 22 to March 30, so while we have ample examples (pages long) of Francesco's anxieties about the war, we are only able to understand Margherita's as they are mirrored in Francesco's letters.

Of the fear you have had, I am not surprised, since here [Florence] someone chattering that a wolf was within the walls, and a rogue running directly at the chains, tore open the gate and fled with those who were supposed to be guarding it: so you see what’s coming, so I am not at all surprised that you are fearful there, it is what war’s about!

In the meantime, fields are being put to the flame and the home of Stoldo di Lorenzo, Francesco's chief man of business in Florence has been burned in Marignolle.

I will deal more fully with the war in another post. But my little worker, Montepulciano exercises my sympathies greatly. I was relieved to see that Francesco wanted to be fair and keep him, as contracted until Easter. So he wouldn't after all have to wander out on to the dangerous brigand filled roads. But let Francesco spend a few days with no outlets because he can't get out of the house, and the general result is a stream of consciousness directive, to wit:

I am concerned that there was no letter from Stefano Guazaloti, because it was needed:… There will be with this one two other letters ; find a way to send them…. Send them when you can, either all or one; send Montepulciano, if you can’t find anyone else. He will not be robbed because he has nothing, and tell him to wait for a reply.

Followed by:

It seems to me that Montepulciano and Martino should sleep at Palcho [the farm just outside Prato], and that they bring the sacks under which Nanni and Domenicho ought to sleep, and stuff another one for them, and they can carry a mattress and a pair of sheets and a padded quilt and thus they will be perfectly well. And they have no need to be afraid, because as soon as anyone comes that way they would know and could hide in the woods; and so provide for these things as you think fit …

So, my little workman, while not facing a payment crisis is to be sent on the road to Stefano Guazaloti, protected by a cloak of poverty. At the same time, or sometime, he is also to leave the protective cover, and armed walls and gates of the Palazzo Datini in the walled city of Prato (by the way, when people buy big houses in expensive gated suburbs, are they really aware that they are returning to medieval conditions?), carrying two straw filled sleeping bags, a quilt and a mattress to join an unarmed few at Palcho. But they should be fine, because they will all see the armed forces and can run to the hills.


The critic Tuesday, May 2 2006 

Talking to my partner last night I suddenly understood the anemia depleting my writing. I start out every day imagining my friends settling down for a comfortable and engaging literary gossip. The facts are there somewhere, because they want to know that the story is as "true" as it can be. And there are seductive digressions into the analysis of slavery or jewellery or cooking. BUT IT IS POPULAR HISTORY.

Yet in the end I see pursing his lips the historical critic, finding each error and patronising the attempt. And in the end, I take out all the conjectures, and seductive digressions, and put in the facts, and how worthy and dull is that?

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