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?

We must all account for our souls – March 23, 1397 Monday, May 1 2006 

I was beginning to worry about our little contract labourer, the one not important enough to have his own name so they called him Montepulciano, because that's where he came from. Margherita was suggesting, on March 22, that he should be let go, because he ate too much and never finished his work on time. Florence and Pisa were rattling sabres and declaring that war was all but unavoidable. This had brought the mercenary soldiers out, so the "roads were teeming with brigands." The Datini took all steps to survive the crisis. The animals were in the stables, out of the fields. All the hay was harvested from the farms, and oil, grapes, flour and wheat stored. Francesco even ordered that the bridge over the stream at the villa Palcho be taken up and stored in Prato.

He had also ordered Margherita to save money, because there was a big war tax being demanded by the Podestà. So, she was firing the staff. She had already saved the jobs of those closest to her, and the slaves only cost their board, and in fact couldn't be let go. Free-lancers always go first. The abiding impression I have of Francesco from reading Iris Origo is of a shrewd, domineering and miserly rich man. I didn't hold out much hope for Montepulciano.

So, I was pleased to read the following, from March 23:

Montepulcano ought to have been there until Easter [April 22 in 1397, or more than a month away]; I want him to have what I promised him; do what you can, and do this for everybody.

Also, in the matter of Benedetto who had no bread or flour, being caught without resource in the preparations for war, Francesco said to Margherita:

Take care of him as you see fit: I will be happy with whatever you do. These are the times to earn our place in paradise, and I'm happy with any expense raised to meet this necessity. We must all account for our souls; we must do for everyone what we can…Go and learn where there is need, and do what you believe will be best; and if you learn that the monks or anyone is in need, do good for all: just see that the money is well spent.

The cynical view is that fear made him very generous, but there are many letters in which he orders the distribution of food and money to dependents and the needy. Granted, there was a quid pro quo, since he believed that the prayers of poor people were many times more valuable in the ears of God, than the prayers of the rich.

The cynical view does not take into account the sense of community and family that would make it second nature for the rich merchant, a father figure to them all, to look after his own.

The other abiding message of Iris Origo's is that of the determined but browbeaten wife, who had no respect from her husband. What can be farther from the truth in this instance? Trapped in Florence by fear- fear of the roads and fear of what would be taken from him by the "sweepers" of taxes if he were not there in person – Francesco has left everything in Margherita's hands to ensure the securing of his properties and the care of his dependents. And he will be happy with whatever she chooses to do.

But those who need the hard headed Francesco can take solace in the closing comments of his letter. He expects his lawyers, ser Naldo and Michele di Falchuco to come "at the trot", and tell him how much money they can collect. "I don't want it from those who cannot pay, but from the rich I want my money. Tell everyone this. May God pull me out of this tangle caused by the ingratitude of others."