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.



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.