Slaves – keeping the workforce competitive Saturday, Apr 29 2006 

Did I mention slaves in that last post? I did. In our beloved Republican Florence, cradle of humanism? I'm afraid so. It was fully legal. On the 8th March, 1364, the Signori (usually 8 leaders of the government elected from among men who were members of guilds) agreed that provided the slave was not Catholic, any citizen of Florence or its surrounding countryside could buy a slave, and freely bring him or her into the city, sell the slave and control the slave's movements. The owner had all rights to retrieve a runaway, and not be obstructed. The argument was that the labour force, which had shrunk by 60% in the plague needed cost-effective reinforcements. Slaves were the answer. (By the way, they had hired consultants, 20 wise and learned men.)
There was only the proviso that the slaves must be treated the same as the servants. Oddly, this was a good thing. Servants, by law and custom, were part of the family, and so therefore were the slaves. Master and mistress of the household clothed, fed and instructed them. And, because, after the initial purchase, they cost only their board, they were cheaper than servants. At least among the Datini they seem to have been looked after as carefully as the animals. And the animals, at least the mules and horses, were essential for the business, constantly receiving food and medical attention.
The slaves came from North Africa or Eastern Europe, and were usually bought quite young. Francesco traded them, selecting them from the ships in Genoa. He had several slaves himself, of whom more in later posts, for we know many of them by name. How ironic it is that young women from the former Soviet Union still find their way into enslavement in western Europe. Their predecessors of 700 years ago also faced exploitation by the masters of a household, quite apart from having to work from dawn to dusk. But often this led to a way out. Francesco fathered a child of his slave Ghirigora, only 15 at the time. He openly acknowledged the child and gave Ghirigora a dowry and married her to one of his business associates. How she must have felt leaving that house, terrified yet triumphant, with money and freedom. Leonardo da Vinci's mother was a slave who, after she became pregnant was kept in the family, where her son was raised. Everything for children.
On March 22nd, Margherita was contemplating firing a contract worker, one Montepulciano, so insignificant he didn't even get a name apart from the place he came from. It was not her slaves or servants she would dispense with, but the poor, unskilled freeman who would step out onto the muddy road with no resources, and no safe place.


Fear, Famine and Faith _ March 22, 1397 Friday, Apr 28 2006 

In one breath Margherita dictated a recipe for green peas, and sent regards to everyone down in Florence. In the next, she confessed the need for some security. Freebooting mercenaries would soon be loose and they were always hungry and rarely paid. Francesco was still in Florence, and had no qualms about leaving her to get the crops in and hidden and the animals out of sight ,out of mind.

At Palcho, the farm in the countryside outside Prato, she had instructed Nanni to stay, and only abandon the villa when he saw crossbows in the distance. She suggested he hide in the hills. Francesco had wanted everyone to lock and go, but Margherita didn't like the idea, and Nanni's father was with him and would not go to any other village. (I know the story of a West Country farmer who, on returning from a trip to Ireland organised, paid for and chaperoned by his children, returned home and said placidly, "A day away from my own roof is hardly worth living"). So, after raising the bridge, they were staying put.

But, at least in the cool vaults under the Palazzo Datini she had flour, wine and oil. The mules and horses had straw. What, on the other hand, of Benedetto, her neighbour who came to say because his wife was giving birth to a child, they had found themselves with no bread or flour. He sent his regards to Francesco. Instead of her normal generous gesture of giving him food, Margherita sent to ask Francesco for his permission. "They always wish you well and it will be one of those things remembered for a long time." But in times like this the generosity was rationed, food might have to outlast a famine caused by famine or a siege. The food disappeared instantaneously, out of the markets and those not rich enough to have their own stores were starving soon enough.

And there is the poor workman called Montepulciano, presumably because he came from there. Expenses were high, he was eating food that they had enough trouble getting and he never finished his work on time. Margherita agreed with Francesco. Save money. Send Montepulciano away.

What chance for the slow workman on the road, with little money and nowhere to call home…

Fear agents

A recipe for green peas – March 22, 1397 Tuesday, Apr 25 2006 

Margherita - Kitchen, copyright Jacqueline KasemierFor the peas I follow the method which I will tell you:

I put them overnight in the pot, as I do the chick peas, and in the morning I put them on the fire, as the chick peas are done, and so I boil them until they are cooked, and then I boil savoury herbs and some onion in a saucepan , and so I mash it and then I put the peas in the larger pot and I add on top some of this water and these herbs, as are done the stems of fresh <?rubiale> (I'm not sure which fruit or vegetable this is yet, after a cursory look at my dictionaries. I'll update when I get more serious.)

NOTE: Erbuccia, savory herbs used in salads or to flavour meat. Tacuinum Sanitatis says that chick peas should be cooked with rosemary, sage, garlic and parsley roots.

Practicing History Friday, Apr 21 2006 

"It is laborious, slow, often painful, sometimes agony. It means rearrangment, revision, adding, cutting, rewriting. But it brings a sense of excitement, almost of rapture; a moment on Olympus. In short is an act of creation."

Said Barbara Tuchman, great popular historian. She certainly got the first part right. The downside of novice blogging is that the pain and agony is shared right away. The upside is that by the time any readership is built up the agony post may be so far down only the author ever needs to know it's there.

There are more than 700 letters written between Margherita and Francesco. I am translating each of them; on a bad day it feels completely useless, a frivolous waste of time, when I could be back as a corporate contender. On a good day, I pick up such a human nuance in what they tell each other about their days. Margherita on 16 March, 1397:

When you go to the Lenten service, pray God for me, who since you left has not been outside the house, and who is sadder than when you left two weeks ago and with a cold in the head.

I don't want to do anything else but to disinter these traces of basic human feeling, make them real, make them seem like something you would know and care about today. I want to do nothing else but make the places they lived echo in your minds, and cast ghostly reminders of the smell of the place around your home. I want you to be able to feel the frisson of alarm that Margherita feels when she hears that the road to Prato is "teeming with brigands", and Franceso bids her make sure that Nannino sleeps by the gate to the house, with a lamp at his side.

Most of my attempts have not leapt off the page. Those are the sad days, but when I have the whole story laid out in their own words, perhaps my friends will dictate the rest.

March 20, 1397 – Women, money and literacy Thursday, Apr 20 2006 

Paying my electricity bill today with an electronic transfer from my bank I began to think about relative cash movement in the Datini. Although my bank has a)my cash b)my creditor's details and c) electronic access to my creditor's bank, still, mysteriously, it will take three days for this transaction to clear.

On March 20 Francesco sent a letter of credit drawn on a Pisa firm to be signed off in Prato by Nicolaio Branchacci, promising to pay in two days, as was the practice in Pisa.

Margherita oversaw the transaction. She commented grumpily that Branchacci had not accepted the letter, so no money was forthcoming, but owing to the stupidity of Francesco's many letters (4 on the 20th alone) she had not written the news. So speed is not everything.
It is interesting to note that not only was Margherita expected to oversee transfer of credit, and as is clear from many letters, collection of debts, but also that Francesco's cashier in Florence for two years was a woman, Mona Ave. Rather embarrassingly at this moment in March, 1397 she has just been let go, because Francesco says he is closing the office in Florence. So when he has searched high and low for a silver signet ring in the Florence office and cannot find it he writes to Margherita suggesting a number of approaches she might make to Monna Ave to see if she knows where the ring might be. He can't help but instruct, but in the end leaves it up to her to come up with the emollient phrases. "Please God, it will be found and soon and put me out of this misery…"

According to A moral art, by Paul F. Gehl Florentine schools in the 1370's taught both boys and girls, although girls rarely learned Latin. But they did learn basic arithmetic. It seems strong evidence of a pragmatic need to make all the potential players in the creation of Florentine wealth sensible managers of it.

When we say that women were illiterate is it because we accept the standard of literacy as that defined by the literate castes who wrote the books, and got the "press coverage"? Latin and rhetoric are a different language from the day to day language of households and even of business. Just as today there is a literary written Arabic, and a perfectly correct, but non-literary spoken Arabic, the European vernacular languages occupied a lower plane.

Many women were able to read and write these languages. And somehow basic bookkeeping skills were available to women, who could work. Of course, one Mona Ave does not prove the existence of a whole city full of numerate women, but neither Margherita nor Francesco treat her as in any way unusual.

A few years earlier, Margherita had written triumphantly that her eight-year old niece, Tina, had learned her alphabet. It was time for Francesco to get "one of those little psalters with the big letters" for Tina. This, too, was not a mark of something strange, but rather expected.

It is dangerous to accept the standard of inflated literacy created by men who needed to create an elite space in academic and philosophical realms, and ignore the fundamental literacy of reading and writing in the vernacular in which businesses and households operated. Women ran the great families in that way. There is a danger in seeing that as of secondary value because in our times in Western countries, we have elevated loyalty to organisations and the creation of wealth over investment in family. Our rhetoric may suggest otherwise, but our actions certainly raise the question of what our priorities are.

A woman such as they only make in Florence Wednesday, Apr 19 2006 

However they were making women in Florence in 1376 (the year Francesco described Margherita that way), if Margherita is an example, they made themselves felt. She took over, from the base of a modest essay, an entire book to herself.

I started writing about women in medieval Europe because I wanted to tell the story of how they got the job done, even in a time held to be inhospitable to independent women. I come from a long line of matriarchs and I find it hard to picture even my great grandmothers standing still for a spot of victimisation. I lived in Lebanon for awhile, and I remember women there, sweetly restrained in public, who could bring a roomful of 6 foot tall masters of the universe to respectful attention at home by no more than a twitch of an eyebrow.

Lesson learned? Never assume that just because the rules say that a woman is subservient, that she is subservient. Just look at the way anyone wanting to make it to the top of the corporate heap works around an autocratic boss.

Margherita herself, in her forthright words in the letters to her husband, (and his careful replies), reminded me that her story is about living fully in all the corners of her mind, in the marriage; in the palazzo where she chided and coddled the servants and slaves; in the markets where she had to follow her husband's debtors, and collect; in the farms, where she oversaw the harvests, the planting of vines and the shoeing of the mules; in the neighbourhood where her goodwill and charm saw to it that Francesco had allies when it came to fighting the tax collector.

We are all in the debt of Iris Origo, who told the story so winningly in the Merchant of Prato. There Margherita stayed confined in her chapter. She deserves now to write her own book -to remind us of the spirit that carried her family, her husband and herself through war, plague, festivals and marriages to a good end in a great Charity.

March 20, 1397 – Paying for the War Tuesday, Apr 18 2006 

The trouble with wars is that someone has to pay for them. Yesterday Francesco thought he would be "all undone" because of the war on Pisa. Today he has been visited by the "bando dello sgombare", a sort of collection agency of the state who have collected a tax on everything but olive oil. Always needed in Italy. They are looking for 20,000 florins.
The tax is known as a voluntary "loan", but it is never paid back. In the meantime, Francesco is sending orders to Margherita and his clerks, Barzalone and Nicholò, to collect everything they can from the fields of the farms and lock them up safely in Prato, not to mention anything made of iron like tools and wine presses. Oh, and all the animals need to be fed straw – so they are not in the open fields, and susceptible to collecting.

Margherita is always up to the challenge – no fragile housewife, she. She has however expressed some suspicions about Francesco's recent need to stay in Florence while she is in Prato, and doesn't believe his colleagues are blameless. To which he replied:

"And I will tell you from my lips how things are going here, I will prove a prophet: But you don’t believe it, you never believed it, because you have little faith and are given to believing that black is white. … God keep you".

March 19, 1397 – War against Pisa declared Monday, Apr 17 2006 

In a letter to his wife, Francesco di Marco Datini, said that everywhere they were talking about declaring war on Pisa. "The other great merchants and I think we are all undone. May God provide us with whatever we need. We are not without stress." Indeed.

But, as he said, he was having guests to dinner in Florence. Perhaps reflecting that she was home alone in Prato he pointed out "we all ought to have a little pleasure or we'd die, and I want to live a little longer just to do some good, having done so much evil…" And Monna Margherita was sending 25 loaves of bread to help the feast.