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.