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!


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."

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

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.

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.