Dark Age Ahead – how we lived through the dark ages past Thursday, Jun 22 2006 

Jane Jacobs' last published book, Dark Age Ahead, is not her best book. It shows the signs of having been written to get the ideas captured before the end. She died not long after it was published. So the rigorous editing which was part of her work never quite happened, and she didn't have the time to make her ideas bullet proof. Too many of her underlying premises are open to question, so they undermine the value of her arguments. For example, her more critical self would not have referred to the European Dark Ages, without acknowledging that current thinking suggests that the period so described by post-Renaissance historians was in fact lively, innovative and interesting. The Datini lived in those so-called Dark Ages, and it's true they had to face wars and pandemics (nothing new for us there, then). It is because the ways they chose to deal with these issues, and because their states of mind of mind are recognisable that they can still say something interesting to us.

It is sad that the book is not quite finished, because her argument, as usual, is stimulating and important. She issues a warning to those who take complacent comfort in the immutability of the benefits of "the culture conventionally known as the West." We can not only lose the benefits; we can also forget what they were and never recover them again. It is not a case of nostalgia for some good old days. Just as we know that our bodies and minds will carry us through longer and with less pain if, in addition to good genes, we moderate the damage with more vegetables, exercise and meditation, she argues that we need to be alert to the things that we must add to the body cultural if it is not to collapse and decay.

She chooses five pillar that support the cultural system that provides these benefits:

  • The family
  • Education
  • Science
  • Taxation to support the public good
  • Accountability among the powerful elites, i.e. law, medicine, etc.

Let us take the family, which she defines as a biological and economic unit – described as a household. The economic unit is often more adaptable than the biological one. Which is a good thing because our culture expects it to provide nearly everything to ensure that there are generations of wealth makers for the future. It is the household that provides shelter, food and basic nurture. It also educates the young, and in North America drives it to swimming classes, remedial French lessons, and school. More than 80% of its income goes on these expenses. No wonder both parents have to work.

If households can't take care of this, we face enormous problems of providing shelter and, in particular, effective education. The result is a generation of damaged individuals not readily available for earning taxable incomes. Getting the households looked after seems pretty important to the well being of a community.

The Datini were heads of a household that took care of more than 40 people "indoors" and innumerable relatives, friends and friends of friends. The whole ethos of the 14th Century Tuscan merchant class was that the family provided the only legitimate reason for creating wealth. If you had a family you needed money to support it, and you needed the family members to help create the wealth. It was in everyone's interests to provide the best support possible.

Over the next few weeks this blog will be describing that household and its members to you.


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.

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?

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.