Apocalypse Now: Portraying the Plague and the Breakdown of Civiltà
I say, then, that there had passed 1348 years after the incarnation of the Son of God, when in the famous city of Florence … there struck the deadly plague (mortifera pestilenza). Whether caused by the stars or the wrath of God to correct the sins of humanity, it had appeared a few years earlier in the East, killing an infinite number. Moving terribly to the West …. [when it arrived in Florence] it appeared in a different form. In the East if anyone had blood coming from their nose, it was a sure sign of death; but [in Florence] instead in both men and women it began either in the groin or under the armpits with certain swellings, some of which grew to approximately the size of an apple, others to that of an egg. They were called by common people gavòccioli (plague sores). From those two parts of the body quickly they grew and spread over the whole body.
After a while, however, the nature of this disease changed with black spots or livid patches which appeared in great number on the arms, the thighs and all over the body, some were large and distant from each other, others small and close together. As the plague sores were a certain sign of death, so were these later symptoms…. Actually virtually everyone within about three days of the appearance of these signs died and most without a fever or other symptoms…. Oh how many great palaces, beautiful houses, noble residences once full of families, of lords and ladies became vacant…. Oh how many important families, very rich inheritances, famous fortunes, were left without their just heirs!
[Boccaccio, Decameron, Day I Introduction]
If some people had thought the world was coming to an end in 1250, many more thought that the end had arrived in 1347–1348, when the first wave of the plague, often referred to today as the Black Death, carried off from one-half to two-thirds of the population of Europe. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), in The Decameron, began his storytelling with this account of the earthshaking event. It hardly seems a fitting way to begin a collection of at times rather racy and playful tales, and Boccaccio actually apologized for doing so. Yet it was such a powerful moment of social dislocation and disorientation that for him it provided the virtually required temporal setting for his tales, which were offered to women and lovers, as noted in Chapter 2, to raise their spirits and alleviate the somber sense of mourning and loss in the wake of that tragic event.
His account is one of the more detailed and oft-cited eyewitness reports of the plague’s devastating impact on one of the leading cities of fourteenth-century Italy. Large urban centers like Florence, Venice, Genoa, and Milan, whose populations before the plague had hovered around 100,000, were reduced to 30–40,000 souls or fewer, leaving the survivors in once-flourishing cities camped among Boccaccio’s hauntingly empty palaces, mass graves, and corpses. It must have seemed to many that the apocalypse had arrived. In reality, however, the first half of the fourteenth century had been punctuated by a series of famines and natural disasters that, following the economic expansion and prosperity of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had prepared the ground for such dark thoughts and fears. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani (c. 1276–1348), who died in the plague, reflecting on those earlier disasters, warned: “Note, reader, that the aforementioned calamities and earthshaking disasters are great signs and judgments of God and have not happened without divine judgment and permission. These were the signs and miracles that Jesus Christ prophesized to his disciplines that would appear at the end of time.” To many, the arrival of the plague and its terrible slaughter following those earlier dark signs signaled that fears of the end of time had finally been realized.
Certainly the economic and social order of an earlier prosperous age appeared to have broken down completely in its aftermath. In addition, the very rules of social life and traditional values seemed to have been overthrown by the cruel die-off, almost as if the new civiltà of the Rinascimento had already come to an end at the hands of a vengeful God. Boccaccio was particularly struck by this. His long introductory description of the plague and its impact repeatedly returns, with a haunting obsession, to this breakdown: “With the city so beset and miserable, the sacred authority of the laws was virtually totally lost and destroyed. [This was] because the magistrates and enforcers of them, like other men, were either all dead, ill or left without agents, so that they were not able to carry out their responsibilities. This meant that everyone was free to do as they pleased.” But perhaps more important than the breakdown of law and government, in Boccaccio’s vision, was the breakdown of what most at the time considered the centralinstitution that bound society together and ordered its functioning – the family, the primary measurer of consensus realities. He lamented: “such great fear had captured the hearts of men and women, that brothers abandoned each other, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and often wives their husbands. And what is even worse and hardly believable, fathers and mothers [abandoned] their children almost as if they were not theirs.” Governments could break down, but families ceasing to function signaled the ultimate collapse of society and was a sure sign of the end.
Yet, in apparent contradiction to this devastating psychological, demographic, and economic disaster and in the face of this tremendous human tragedy, the Rinascimento did not just continue, it rose like a phoenix from the ashes, and in many ways its urban life and civiltà flourished. And, significantly, the social and political order of the popolo grosso came through the crisis if anything more firmly in place, triumphant, and confident. Even Boccaccio’s stories, which begin with the grim devastation of the plague, quickly turn to laughter, the pleasures of life, and sex. More telling yet, they present a largely confident picture of a society that was dominated by the popolo grosso and their vision of an urban civiltà where their virtù remained the measure and in many ways ruled via consensus realities. For, as we shall see, in Italy, unlike the situation in much of the rest of Europe, after a relatively short period of fear and gloom following the plague, an optimism and a self-confidence returned that continued to set off the early Rinascimento from the rest of Europe. The urban leaders of Italy seemed, if anything, ever-more confident that they had that special virtù that made them better than others and capable of leading and dominating not just their land but the larger world as well. How and why that happened is probably ultimately an unanswerable question, but one worth considering, as it is crucial for understanding the Rinascimento, its culture, and its economic and social order. But to set the stage, first a word is necessary about the plague, its victims, and its purported culprits.
Bubonic Plague? A Defense of Rats and Fleas
Once historians were quite certain what the plague of 1347–1348 was. In 1894 the Swiss scientist Alexandre Yersin, a student of Louis Pasteur, studying a bubonic plague outbreak in China, identified the plague bacillus that had caused it and that would eventually be named Yersinus pestis in his honor. While he did not understand how the bacillus was transmitted and misunderstood many things about the disease itself, he was convinced that he had discovered the bacteria that had caused the great plague of 1348 – asuggestive reminder of how deeply the memory and fear of that great plague had lodged in the Western imagination. His conviction quickly won wide support among doctors and historians, becoming the accepted vision of the Black Death. The Black Death at the turn of the twentieth century had for all extents and purposes become the bubonic plague.
As research on the modern bubonic plague progressed, this vision influenced in many ways what historians saw and did not see in Rinascimento descriptions of the plague, as the historian Samuel Cohn has shown in a series of revisionist studies. And as he has argued, in a curious reversal, what historians thought they knew about the plague in that distant time had a significant impact on modern research on the bubonic plague. For instance, although the modern bubonic plague moves quite slowly across space, it is not highly contagious and does not involve large population losses; many modern researchers studying it well into the twentieth century tended to assume that the reverse was true notwithstanding the contrary evidence, in part because that was how the plague was reported to have spread in accounts from the fourteenth century. In fact, one reason why so much time and money was spent on studying the bubonic plague at the turn of the twentieth century was because scientists and, perhaps more importantly, governments feared it would take off, spreading rapidly around the world, creating massive mortality as it had in the Rinascimento.
At the same time, following the progressive discoveries of the etiology of the modern bubonic plague, historians reread the accounts of the fourteenth century and saw working there the signs and symptoms discovered by modern medicine. Thus the standard account became that the plague was actually three closely interrelated diseases. The most famous was the bubonic, which is spread by fleas from infected rodents, usually rats, to people. As the bacteria proliferates in the human host, buboes or swellings appear, usually in the groin area or the armpits, a high fever develops, and the victim either dies within a few days or recovers. Clearly there are strong similarities between these symptoms and those reported by Boccaccio and others in his day. Moreover, as scientists gained an understanding of the rat-flea-human vector of the disease, the devastating spread of the disease from the east to the west seemed to confirm that it was the bubonic plague. Rats and fleas following the lines of trade, so the account ran, carried the disease from the east to the west in a type of deadly biological exchange similar to that which the Americas would suffer in the sixteenth century with the arrival of European explorers and their diseases.
Historians tied the plague to the growing current of international trade – the very growth that made the popolo grosso truly grosso. Briefly stated, the argument was that as the European population peaked in the fourteenth century, the ever-present partner of human civilization, the rat population, also peaked. The trigger, however, was international trade with Asia, which created a new biological zone that slowly but surely integrated Asia and Europe. As medical and social historians pointed out cogently, even bacteria and diseases have a history and historical movements of their own, and this seemed a perfect case in point. With the right level of trade and with rats traveling on ships from areas of Asia where the bubonic plague was endemic, such as the Caucuses (where it is still endemic), they, along with their fleas, brought the disease to the port cities of Europe. There the disease-carrying fleas found a rat population dense enough that they could pass on the bacillus, and it rapidly flourished in rat populations across Europe. In turn, fleas infected humans, and the plague spread like wildfire – a deadly biological exchange that turned into a demographic nightmare.
There were, however, problems with this scenario. One that historians noticed early on was that in the accounts of the fourteenth-century plague many, including Boccaccio, reported that it seemed to spread directly from one human to another, something that was simply not possible for bubonic plague, where a rat flea had to infect a human. Moreover, many accounts stressed that when one human passed the disease to another, death came quickly, often almost immediately, without the formation of buboes, the patient losing blood from the nose or coughing up blood. That too could not happen with bubonic plague. But researchers on the modern plague came to the rescue and seemed to resolve this apparent anomaly. They discovered that there were two secondary infections associated with the modern plague that were much more deadly than the plague itself: septicaemic and pneumonic infections. The former is rarely seen today and did not seem to fit the bill. But the latter, the pneumonic, although fairly rare, has an etiology that appeared to fit perfectly fourteenth-century descriptions like that of Boccaccio. Pneumonic plague infections piggyback on bubonic plague infections in a population, and when they get going, the disease is passed directly from person to person, with pneumonia-like symptoms that include coughing blood and high fever, followed by rapid death. All this seemed to match so well the accounts of the plague that both historians and doctors were satisfied that they had discovered yet another proof that the great plague was triggered by new biological contacts, intercontinental trade, and perhaps even a darker side of a proto-worldwide capitalist economy – with rats, fleas, and Yersinus pestis being the distasteful culprits. Most historians and doctors still agree that the case is settled and that the plague of 1348 was the bubonic plague and its related pneumonic plague.
Yet for once rats and their fleas may have been unjustly maligned. And world economies have probably more than enough to answer for without being responsible for the Black Death. Recently scholars have begun to undercut this virtual certainty about the plague, pointing out several additional problems. A number of them, for example, have noted that in modern bubonic plague epidemics, rats die in great numbers before the plague gets started in any significant way in humans. The reason for this is that the flea that passes on the bacteria much prefers rats to humans – de gustibus non disputandum est. It will leave a rat host only when it is dead and no longer capable of supporting it to move on to a human body, and then only until it can find another rat host. Thus rats must die in large numbers in order for humans to die in any number. But troublingly, when historians looked for accounts of rats dying before this great epidemic, they found silence. In fact, the animals that were reported as dying in conjunction with the plague were usually large farm animals such as sheep and pigs, frequently reported to have caught the disease from humans, not the other way around. Many dismissed this troubling lacuna in the sources, suggesting that the death of so many people caused observers to miss what was happening to rats, or that rats were so unimportant in the worldview of the time that their deaths went unnoticed. Still, modern populations in India and China have regularly noted the dying off of rats and associated it with the bubonic plague, actually well before medical researchers identified the rat-flea-human vector of the disease. It is perhaps more troubling that while Rinascimento observers correlated an impressively wide range of phenomena with the appearance of the plague, no one thought to mention hundreds of thousands of dying rats.
Equally troubling was the reportedly rapid spread of the plague. That could not be so easily blamed on the panic of the victims. Either people were dying or they were not. The problem is that the bubonic plague moves very slowly geographically in modern outbreaks. It can take years for it to travel fairly short distances, and it has never raced around the world, as it was feared it would in the late nineteenth century based on fourteenth-century accounts. Also, modern bubonic plague is not very infectious. It actually moves quite slowly. Pneumonic plague is more infectious, but, as noted earlier, it is relatively rare. Moreover, this latter form usually occurs in cold, damp seasons, whereas the great waves of plague, at least in Italy, focused on the summer months and usually ceased in the fall. But, as we have seen, pneumonic plague was necessary to explain human-to-human infection and the massive mortality.
At least two other problems are even harder to ignore. Recently, as part of his ongoing study of the plague, examining a large number of accounts of the disease from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Cohn has noted that many do not mention buboes at all. Moreover, even many of those that do, tend to stress another set of symptoms, reporting that the victim’s body was covered with spots, often black or red, of various sizes. These were more often seen as the sign of impending death. Boccaccio, it will be remembered, noted: “After a while, however, the nature of this disease changed with black spots or livid patches which appeared in great number on the arms, the thighs and all over the body, some were large and distant from each other, others small and close together.” Such symptoms, however, are not associated with either bubonic or pneumonic infections.
Finally, and most significantly, modern human populations seem to have no natural resistance to bubonic plague, which means that each time the plague hits a population, deaths are relatively evenly spread across that population, and the plague can continue for years in one region. In the Rinascimento, however, the plague came back only at intervals of ten to fifteen years. Moreover, after the first outbreak, which killed people of all ages, genders, and social ranks, when it returned it hit hardest the young. This appears to indicate that there was a natural resistance in the population to whatever caused the plague, impeding its return until a new generation of nonresistant victims had been born. Such a pattern is observable with many infectious diseases, but tellingly, it is not true of the modern bubonic plague.
One thing militates against this apparently overwhelming evidence: recent DNA studies of apparent plague victims from the Rinascimento seem to show that they have traces of the same DNA as the modern plague virus. If such findings turn out to be accurate, we are faced with an even greater apparent anomaly, a virus with the same DNA as the modern bubonic plague with a different set of symptoms and manner of spreading. In the end, then, perhaps the only thing that is clear is that there are too many things that do not fit to make any confident claim about what disease the great plagues of the Rinascimento were; and, as some have cogently suggested, maybe they were not one disease at all but several different ones. Perhaps in this there is another and more secure lesson about the history of disease, rats, fleas, and even microbes – they too have their history, and a very important one at that, even if it is hard to know. We see today that microbes and diseases can mutate quite rapidly. In light of this it is becoming harder to imagine that any disease of several centuries ago is the same disease we know today, even when the symptoms do seem to match. In fact, the same lesson is crucial for the history of biology and of nature itself. We tend to assume that both are unchanging, the same in the past as they are today, but virtually every time we look more closely at either we find that things are not so simple or fixed. Not just microbes but plants, animals, even rats and fleas have changed in a myriad of ways over the last six hundred years, in part through mutation and apparently “natural” processes and also, crucially, in interaction with humans and their economic, social, and cultural attempts to control and transform the world to meet human needs. Simply put, the biological and natural world we live in today is not the same as the one that people of the Rinascimento lived in, and we are just beginning to explore the ramifications of that history.
Economy versus Culture: The Plague as a Malthusian Check
It may be that we will never know what exactly the plague was, but one thing is clear: it killed off massive numbers of people, and that has led to the claim that it had a devastating effect on the economic, social, and even psychological world of its day. In fact, some have labeled it the crucial turning point on the road to the modern world, ending the Middle Ages and inaugurating the modern era. Such large claims, however, seldom work when looked at more closely, and the plague provides a good example of the danger of proclaiming firsts and beginnings of the modern world. First, of course, such a dramatic die-off of friends, relatives, and neighbors must have been immediately devastating, as virtually all contemporary accounts agreed. In a world where life expectancy was relatively short, infant mortality high, and medical care not particularly effective, death was a common and virtually everyday experience. But the plague brought death on an unprecedented scale, so much so that contemporaries broke down and actually called it something “new,” a term that the age was loathe to adopt for any change, aside from the most negative. The survivors, however, found that there were positive signs even in such a great mortality. First off, of course, they were the survivors, and that was no small thing in the face of such terrible devastation. Moreover, as Boccaccio and others noted, once the momentary breakdown in society was righted, the survivors stood to inherit the wealth that was untouched by the plague. Although it would be difficult to calculate exactly how much wealth remained, it was a considerable pie to be divided among a much smaller population.
We can be more certain about the fact that the population loss in the cities of northern Italy may not have had as devastating a short-term effect as once thought. Although, as noted, the first wave of the plague struck the population without preference for age, class, or gender, it returned periodically, and in those regular reappearances it struck mainly the young. This was a tragic reality that may have made society cherish children even more and see them as an even more valuable asset to the family than previously. At the same time, however, it was a reality that in economic terms was less devastating, because children were more quickly and easily replaced than adult workers. In fact, after each wave of the plague demographers note that birth rates jumped dramatically, suggesting that families that had lost children quickly moved to replace them, in both the city and the countryside. Moreover, after the first wave of the plague and subsequent returns, city governments repeatedly passed legislation designed to attract laborers to the city, making it easier to join guilds and even to become citizens. As many in the countryside suddenly found themselves without family or family ties and thus free to move to the city, many, it seems, did just that, especially the young.
In turn, although the urban population was smaller, the productive working population quickly recouped a significant part of its losses thanks to immigration from the countryside. This also helps to explain why land rents in the countryside and food prices in the city did not decrease as significantly as might be expected. What appears to have happened instead is that marginally productive land in the countryside was abandoned, because there was no longer a glut of agricultural laborers available as there had been in the more densely populated days of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thus only richer terrain continued to be farmed, and poorer land was allowed to go fallow. Those peasants who had not died or been lured off to the city continued, then, to pay higher rents for the more limited amount of highly productive land that remained in cultivation. And significantly, this seems to have meant that although rents were high, and less was produced overall, what was produced was produced more efficiently and easily, perhaps with those who remained to farm the land garnering more for their labor and living better than before. The same appears to have been true in the cities, where the need for labor tended to make laborers more valuable and their working conditions better. Local variations could alter this general picture significantly, however; for example, recent contested studies of Tuscany suggest that an especially aggressive Florentine policy of exploiting the countryside seriously reduced agricultural production and the quality of life of peasants there, even after the plague.
Still, from a macroeconomic perspective this population loss created a significant decrease in markets. There was no way around the fact that fewer people meant fewer consumers. This in turn meant greater competition for those markets that remained and smaller profits. In fact, the level of international trade probably did not return to the levels of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries until the very nature of the European economy changed with the “discovery” of the “New World” and the development of a much broader economic base that built on a budding Atlantic and world economy. In northern Italy, in many ways, the increased competitions and smaller levels of profit at the macro level also help to explain the startling failure of cities to survive independently across the second half of the fourteenth and the first half of the fifteenth century . By the mid-fifteenth century there were essentially only three major urban powers dominating the northern half of the peninsula: Venice, Milan, and Florence, along with the administrative center of the Church, Rome. Smaller courtly centers survived, but the real urban economic motors of the period had been largely reduced to the big three. Economically the little fish had been cannibalized by the big, which had been able to recover more competitively and to dominate international and regional markets. Thus, while from a macroeconomic perspective the decline caused by the plague is evident in area after area, both in the big cities and at the local rural level its impact was less negative than the macro picture might seem to suggest. In fact, those members of the popolo grosso who survived and their workers in the great cities may have found their situation better and generally improving. This may help to explain the optimism and self-confidence of the cultural flourishing that typified Italy in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, even in the face of returning waves of plague and less-than-impressive macroeconomic figures.
But, of course, this is the typical history of the winners and survivors. There were no lack of losers as well, and a look at their situation is also instructive. Fortunately, one of the most important economic historians of the last century, David Herlihy, studied in detail the impact of the plague on the little city of Pistoia. Near Florence, at the foot of one of the secondary passes that connect Tuscany and the center of Italy with the Lombard plain, Modena, and Milan, it was a small but vital urban center in the thirteenth century. One of the things that led Herlihy to study the city was its excellent archival records, which allowed him to construct long-term profiles of population change and the impact of recurring waves of the plague. Somewhat surprisingly, he found that the population of Pistoia and the rural areas immediately around the city peaked well before the first wave of the plague. In 1244 the population there was approximately 31,000 souls, making it a modest-sized city, not all that much smaller than Florence had been just a few generations earlier. By 1344 the population had declined by about a third, to 24,000; tellingly, this was before the first wave of the plague struck in 1348. In 1383 the population had dropped further, to 14,000, reflecting the mortality of the plague along with, presumably, some recovery of population afterward. Yet in 1404 the population had declined still further, to 9,000. Only in 1427 was there a slight increase in the population, to 12,000 inhabitants.
Evidently these figures demonstrate a tremendous population loss in Pistoia. It had declined by two-thirds from the mid-thirteenth century to the early fifteenth century, from 31,000 to 9,000 at its lowest point. But clearly this was not entirely due to the plague, as the data reveals that the population decline was well under way before it hit and continued afterward, although progressive returns of the plague undoubtedly played a role in the continued decline. Herlihy asked, then, what these figures meant. First, he noted that this massive die-off occurred in an unusually densely populated area. Looking at the broader territory around Pistoia, he calculated that there were approximately 44,000 people living in a 600-square-mile area that included the city, which meant that there were about 66 people per square mile. Although the area around Pistoia was probably somewhat less densely populated than most of Tuscany, Herlihy used these figures to calculate a minimal population density for all of Tuscany, concluding that it was well over a million people. That level of population, he noted, was not reached again in the area until the nineteenth century, when health care, food production, and life expectancy were all more favorable to sustaining such numbers. Struck by these figures, he argued that in the fourteenth century in Pistoia and Tuscany there was a catastrophic population collapse that ended an era of population growth and very high population densities.
Did this reflect a basic Malthusian check on population, he wondered. The eighteenth-century economic theorist Thomas Malthus had argued, in what was labeled at the time the “dismal science,” that it was unfortunate but necessary to keep the working classes at a subsistence level, for if they were paid too much and lived too comfortably, they would overreproduce and create a population density that was unsustainable. Higher wages meant more reproduction, and that meant eventually disaster: famines, plagues, and diseases – what became known as Malthusian checks on the population that would return it to sustainable levels. To avoid such “natural” disasters for humanity, Malthus recommended that employers restrain their altruism and keep pay low: subsistence wages actually protected and were best for the laboring classes in the long run. This vision was clearly popular with many employers and had a significant influence on the budding new social science disciplines, especially economics.
Actually, at the time when Herlihy developed this data, the idea of a Malthusian check was already popular among economic historians and often used to explain the demographic losses of the fourteenth century. And it still has proponents today. Herlihy, however, was unconvinced. On the one hand, his figures clearly showed a catastrophic population loss following an era of very high population density. Moreover, there was plenty of information to suggest that this dense population had been living on the margins of subsistence, both in the cities of Tuscany and in the countryside. Our very numerically oriented fourteenth-century Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Villani, for example, was deeply troubled to report that in 1330 the poor living at or below the level of subsistence in Florence made up about a quarter of the population. It may be that Villani exaggerated for effect, but it is clear that across northern Italy population densities and poverty levels were unusually high before the plague struck. From a Malthusian perspective it seemed self-evident that the main victims of the plague were those people literally on the margins of society and of life itself.
Herlihy, however, felt that his data did not fit a Malthusian model. Tellingly, he asked: if Pistoia was overpopulated in 1344 at 24,000 souls before the plague struck, was it still overpopulated in 1392 when the population had fallen to 11,000? That would be hard to imagine, especially in light of the fact that it had a population of 31,000, almost three times greater, in 1244. Yet its population continued to decline, reaching a mere 9,000 in 1404. And if 9,000 was the “natural” base level of the population, Herlihy wondered how it had ever reached 31,000 a little more than a century and a half earlier. Moreover, he pointed out that the plague did not hit a rapidly expanding population, as a Malthusian model required; rather, the population of Pistoia had been declining, and rather dramatically, for some time before the plague hit. In addition, although the data was not as good for other areas, it seemed that similar declines had been under way across Tuscany, northern Italy, and much of Europe well before the plague. Herlihy thus felt forced to conclude that the plague was not a Malthusian check.
The question then became: if it was not a Malthusian check, and the plague was not enough to explain the ongoing population decline, what had happened? Herlihy found his answer in a most unlikely place – the customs and everyday culture of society, especially the strategies regarding the basic economy of the family and its reproductive practices. It is often assumed that the reproductive rate of premodern societies was uniformly high, approaching the biological maximum, especially in Catholic countries. Without birth control, and under the dictates of a Church that saw sexual intercourse as licit only when it was aimed at reproduction, such birth rates seemed almost inevitable. But when Herlihy began to examine the Catasto records of Florence and Florentine Tuscany, he found again some suggestive surprises. The Catasto was essentially an inventory made in 1427 of all the people and wealth of the territory in Tuscany, including Pistoia, under Florentine control at the time. This massive survey was created in order to apply more effectively the forced loans based on wealth that were needed to finance the city’s ongoing wars. These records provided Herlihy with a statistical snapshot of Florence and its territories in the early fifteenth century.
Significantly, the Catasto listed not just family assets, but also the children of each family and their ages. This allowed Herlihy to compare the number of children per family to that family’s estimated wealth. Clearly such figures need to be treated with caution, as families were not anxious to reveal their wealth when those figures were to be used to assess forced loans to the government. Still, even assuming that wealth was underreported, the figures seriously challenged the assumption that people were reproducing at or near a biologically maximum rate. Herlihy found that at the lowest assessments – those families that had less than fifty florins of assets, by far the greatest number of households in Pistoia and its surrounding countryside – the number of children in the household averaged only 1.43. Families that had no reported wealth in the Catasto actually did a little better, with 1.47 children per household. But significantly, even families with up to 100 florins of wealth averaged only 1.85 children. Evidently those at the bottom of society were not reproducing at anywhere near their biological potential, and, tellingly, they were not even reproducing at the level needed to replace their parents. Moreover, Herlihy noted that as the wealth of a family increased, the number of children increased in a direct correlation to wealth: families with wealth that totaled 101–150 florins had 2.14 children; 151–200 florins, 2.44 children; 201–250 florins, 2.46 children; and over 250 florins, 3.21 children.
Things clearly were not working as common assumptions about premodern populations required, and it seemed evident to Herlihy that these figures, especially the strong correlation between wealth and birth rates, required an admission that members of this population were limiting their birth rates in a way that reflected their perceived ability to sustain children. The question was how. Herlihy turned to culture and custom over nature and biological necessity for his answers and in the process rejected Malthus’s “dismal science.” First, he noted that marriage was highly contingent on being able to offer a dowry, and, of course, being able to offer a dowry was in turn contingent on the wealth of a family. Even at lower social levels it was difficult to marry a daughter without a dowry, and thus – at a statistical level, at least – the cost of dowries created a form of birth control for poorer families. Even the Church recognized this. In 1425, for example, the famous preacher and eventual saint Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444) attributed the still-dwindling populations of Siena and Milan to the failure of thousands of young people to marry for lack of a dowry.
This alone, however, would not have been enough to create the dramatically low and economically sensitive birth rates the Catasto reveals. It seems clear that a lack of economic resources was also leading families to limit the number of children they had. One gets an inkling of this in the observation of the Pistoian chronicler Luca Dominici, who noted after yet another wave of the plague in 1399–1400: “In this time many women became pregnant, which was good because there were many that had been barren for a long time and some had never made children.” What he seems to be describing is a situation in which families that had been limiting births “for a long time” suddenly found themselves able to choose to have children again – a conscious limiting of births, then, followed by an equally conscious decision to have them in order to replace those who had died in the plague. Such family planning would have helped make possible the close correlation between wealth and family size that Herlihy discovered.
Some have claimed, in the face of Herlihy’s statistics and analysis, that these figures were caused by sexual abstinence, arguing that there were no other means available to lower-class people to limit births. But this seems to seriously underestimate the everyday culture of the day and the intelligence of peasants and lower-class urban populations. If we speak of controlling births rather than birth control, there was a wide range of options open to families for limiting the number of children they had. First, as already discussed, dowries often delayed or blocked marriage. Beyond that, however, criminal records that deal with sex crimes and ecclesiastical records that deal with family problems reveal that various forms of birth control were well known. The most obvious form wascoitus interruptus, a technique apparently widely known and practiced. Of course, this practice was not totally secure, but if extensively used it would have had a statistically significant impact on births. Contemporary reports suggest that many believed it was highly effective and used it as part of their strategy to limit births. Also, although the Church frowned upon this and other nonreproductive sexual practices, such as anal intercourse and masturbation (and although preachers railed against both with increasing vociferousness), literature, criminal documents, and the continuing refrain of condemnation from ecclesiastical sources suggest that such practices were understood and used.
It seems likely that many families also used abortion to limit their children, especially when it was clear another child could not be supported. It may be, however, that the practice was often not viewed as abortion. Midwives and women healers, it appears, often induced menstruation in women who were suffering from late periods – a fairly common problem in societies where malnutrition is high and physical labor for women heavy and demanding. The remedies used by women to induce late periods – often poisons or rudimentary forms of herbal abortifacients – indicate that the treatment in reality frequently terminated a pregnancy, whether or not the patient or the healer realized it. Male doctors and surgeons also understood and administered abortifacients to terminate pregnancies. Usually these abortions, recognized as such, were done at the behest of husbands or the males responsible for single women. I have argued elsewhere that this created a significant divide in medical culture between women’s healing networks that cured late periods and men’s medical networks that procured abortions. In both cases, however, fewer pregnancies came to term, and fewer children were born.
Many poor families were also forced by their economic position to abandon children whom they felt they could not support. There was, in fact, a long tradition in medieval Europe of abandoning children in the hope that a more prosperous family would discover the abandoned child, take it in, and raise it. Although many historians are loathe to consider it, the abandonment of female babies may account, in fact, for the unbalanced sex ratios found in records of the time, where males frequently significantly outnumber females. Usually this imbalance is explained in terms of the underreportage of females because of their perceived lack of importance or by the higher death rates of women in pregnancy. It may well be, however, that these figures also reflect a society that still abandoned unwanted or unsupportable female children. In addition, the noted Rinascimento charitable institution, the foundling home, seems almost certainly to have been a response to the ongoing abandonment of unsupportable children. Most cities had one or more foundling homes where children could be left to be raised by the institution rather than simply abandoned.
Unfortunately, however, the survival chances of children left in foundling homes were often low. Where human milk was unavailable, many babies died because there was no adequate substitute for it at the time. Moreover, in the close and often unhealthy quarters of the foundling homes, contagious diseases regularly swept through the children, to deadly effect. In the best of foundling homes, like the famous Innocenti in Florence, reported survival rates could be relatively high, but in poorer houses abandonment tended to be a delayed death sentence. It should be noted, however, that families that left children at foundling homes often hoped to be able to reclaim them at a later date when their financial situation permitted it – frequently they identified the baby left in such a way that it could later be reclaimed, even recommending special treatment or promising to return for the child when things got better. Significantly, a large proportion of the babies left were female, indicating again the negative vision of females and their cost to the families that had to rear them and eventually provide them with dowries.
A more subtle form of postpartum birth control that also seems to have affected girls more than boys grew out of the institution of the balia. The term is frequently translated as “wet nurse” – in other words, a woman who was paid to nurse a child – but it usually involved more. At the upper levels of society hiring a balia to nurse a family’s children was a common practice, in part because if a mother was incapable of nursing, a substitute was necessary to provide milk for her baby. More often, however, a balia was used because it had become customary to pass on this time-consuming task to menials if a family could afford to do so. The Church, preachers, and even some civic leaders preached against this, but balie were widely employed nonetheless. In fact, if one looks at the literature of the period, balie are often important maternal figures, especially in sixteenth-century comedies, where, suggestively, they regularly played a much more visible and maternal role than mothers.
What, one might well ask, did balie have to do with birth control? At times too much. First, while breast feeding, a woman usually cannot become pregnant. That meant that lower-class women who breast-fed the children of others in order to earn money tended to have fewer children. In turn, upper-class and more well-to-do women, who did not breast-feed, could return to reproducing more rapidly. It might be tempting to jump to the conclusion that this had a significant impact on the perceived correlation between wealth and the number of children per family, but upper-class women did not produce anywhere near enough children to confirm such a hypothesis, and, of course, not enough lower-class women worked as balie either. More significantly, hiring a balia could be costly. To save money, many families, rather than bringing a balia into their household, sent their newborn child out into the countryside to the home of a peasant woman who fed and raised the child until it was weaned, usually quite late, at about three.
The problem with this was that infant mortality rates were normally high, and balie, far away from the control of their employers, could cut corners; so a distant child’s death could be written off as normal. Studies of the contracts made to hire balie reveal that families tried to make sure that their child would be well cared for and that only the child paid for would be fed, but the very repetition of such clauses in contracts suggests that this was not always the case. We also see a troubling gender bias in such contracts. Female children, especially second and later-born females, tended to be sent farther away into the countryside, or at least to have contracts in which the balia was paid less. Males, and especially first-born males, tended to have balie who were much better paid and lived either in the home of the child’s family or nearby, where their feeding could be controlled and the baby’s health monitored. All this suggests that hiring cheaper balie farther from the city meant that a number of children would not return, swelling the statistics of infant mortality, a fate that almost certainly befell more girls than boys. Thus, as was the case with the foundling home, the institution of the balia had a negative impact on survival rates for children less desired.
Although we have almost no evidence on this, it is also probably necessary to ask how those peasant women who were being paid to nurse the children of the urban well-to-do were able to have the milk available to do so. A traditional explanation is that when they had weaned their own children, they simply continued to feed others as balie, never interrupting the flow of their milk. Usually the hiring of a balia was carried out by men: the husband or father of a woman who still had milk would contract with the father of the child to be fed, and the negotiations often included an examination of the women and the milk involved. Needless to say, fathers could be quite aggressive, especially when important male children were involved, making sure that the balia was capable of feeding and caring for their child. Thus younger, healthier women with a good supply of milk were preferred and commanded higher prices. In fact, such women were a considerable asset for a peasant household and in the best of cases could become not only an important source of income, but also an important connection to the rich and powerful.
A peasant baby that died unexpectedly (or conveniently) or was sent to the foundling home must have seemed a great boon to some families. How often such events occurred, particularly when there was an opportunity to earn a handsome stipend and to build ties with a powerful urban family, or when a family’s need was great, we cannot know; but there were strong economic incentives involved, and many upper-class children were well fed by healthy young balie without children of their own to feed. At the lower level of the trade, poor mothers may have been tempted to feed their own child along with the child they were being paid to care for – at times openly, at times surreptitiously. This may have led to trying to feed a peasant child with substitutes – often a bread and cow or goat milk mixture, referred to as pappa, was used – but if overdone this could be deadly, and it tended to produce malnourished and weaker children, less likely to survive. Of course, the child paid for could also fall victim to such treatment, but as those children produced an income, they had an economic advantage in the competition for survival. When all is said and done, as noted earlier, a significant number of children nursed in the countryside did not return to their urban families.
In sum, there was a wide range of practices that help to explain why poorer families had fewer children, which makes Herlihy’s data showing a virtually perfect correlation between wealth and family size an eloquent, and often sad, testimony to the way families controlled their own destiny. Simply put, in the face of the high rents and overpopulation in the countryside and the problems making ends meet in the city, well before the plague struck, peasants and the urban poor were making hard decisions about how to limit their family size and survive. This meant that a general population decline was under way in Italy from the last decades of the thirteenth century, well before the plague struck – as the data confirms. And in turn, it meant that although there may have been momentary reversals of this downward trend – immediately after the plague, for example, when poor families felt they could replace lost children – over the longer run the downward trend continued, because it had become customary to limit births, and the survival of children, in response to economic needs. Thus, even when the Malthusian reasons for population decline had long since disappeared, the population of Italy continued to decline.
Herlihy, in the face of this decidedly wider and more complex reality, returned to the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, that noted counter of people and things who tried to make sense of this in his own way. Villani asked whether the suffering of Florence and Tuscany in the 1330s, well before the plague, was the result of natural causes or the sins of Florentines, especially their avarice, greed, and economic oppression of the poor in the countryside and the city. And, for all his modern-seeming counting and social analysis, he opted for sin. At first, this might seem like a typical medieval point of view and a rather moralistic one at that. But, as Herlihy pointed out, if we rephrase Villani’s choice as one between natural and economic forces (Malthus) on the one hand, and people, culture, and custom on the other, we have a cultural claim that is less easily dismissed. Although it is largely irrelevant to Herlihy’s path-breaking cultural analysis, it would be unfair to him not to point out that later in his career, he became quite unhappy with what he and others perceived as the “fuzziness” of such cultural explanations; yet his own early forays into the area revealed that cultural analysis opened important new vistas and moved historical analysis well beyond the sometimes too narrow vision of the supposedly “hard” social sciences.
Simply put, the economic and natural imperatives of the fourteenth century did not overwhelm the culture of survival, which was already well established in the face of earlier overpopulation and the general impoverishment of the lower classes. People, rather than submitting to nature, in Villani’s terms, made their decisions – Villani’s sins – and in the end continued to live in a complex dialogue with natural and economic forces – a central part of the developing and dynamic civiltà of the first Rinascimento. This helps to explain why, on the one hand, the population declined much further than would have been required by Malthusian models in order to rebalance natural resources and the number of people living in Tuscany and in northern Italy more generally, and why, on the other, the few who remained found that in the short run their survival strategies often allowed them to live, after the disasters of the fourteenth century, with a certain optimism and even at times better than before. In the end the traditional dichotomies of nature versus nurture, economy versus culture, and even material reality versus the human spirit, from a historical perspective are all too simplistic; rather, what we see at work in the travails of fourteenth-century Italy is the complex interaction between culture, biology, and nature that makes human society and makes it at once so fascinating and rich with potential, and also so sad and troubling.
The Wealth of the Rinascimento: The Example of Florence
To understand how this worked, however, we need to look more closely at the economic world of the day, a world in many ways shaped by the popolo grosso’s vision of how the economy might best function. This was no small matter, obviously, for the popolo grosso saw the production of wealth as crucial for their power and status. Speaking very generally, there were four great motors of economic growth that created wealth in the cities of the day: banking, both international and local; trade, again both international and local; the production of luxury goods, especially woolen cloth; and, often overlooked but crucial, a more aggressive, capital-intensive agriculture. To a great extent these were the sources of wealth that made the popolo grosso/grasso, big and fat, providing the wealth that underpinned the vital urban society of the period and its flourishing culture and distinguishing the cities of the north and center of Italy from most of the rest of Europe and from the south of Italy as well.
Right from the start, however, two popular myths should be laid to rest. First, for all the triumph of the popolo grosso and all the wealth that they controlled and displayed, the fourteenth century was not a particularly prosperous time. In fact, many have argued that it was a time of economic decline or at best stasis. Second, the popolo grosso were not in favor of “hands-off” unlimited economic development. Rather than “free markets” and “free trade,” which are often assumed to be crucial for the first stages of a market economy and premodern proto-capitalist development, the Rinascimento was a period when one of the primary purposes of the corporate organizations of society, in the form of both guilds and governments, was to control and regulate the economy, at best in the name of creating a prosperous civiltà and, more realistically, with an eye to creating a more controlled and predictable economic environment tilted in favor of the popolo grosso. After all, they had fought too hard, and often bloodily, to gain political power not to use it to further their interests – even if, not surprisingly, they frequently saw and virtually always expressed their interests in terms of what was good for their city as a whole, and in terms of a return to better first times modeled on the successes of imperial Rome and the values of the Church Fathers and Christ himself.
Florence is often seen as one of the leading cities of the time in terms of its economy. In reality, however, its economic growth came relatively late. In the thirteenth century it found itself in competition with neighboring cities that seemed to have a more prosperous future than the largely landlocked city in the center of Tuscany. The Arno River, which bisected it, was for much of the year too shallow to support shipping of any significant proportions, and the city lay in a valley surrounded by mountains on two sides, north and east, and by rolling hills not easily traversed with heavy goods to the south. The hinterland to the west and south did offer some potentially rich but often contested farm land. Little of this seemed to augur well for the city’s economic success. Perhaps its biggest economic advantage was that it stood on one of the main north-south roads and near the southern base of a mountain pass over the Apennines. The northern side of the pass was controlled by a much more important city, Bologna, famous for its university and especially its faculty of law (so central in the popolo grosso vision of creating a just and ordered civic world). Nearer at hand, and apparently more competitive economically, were Pisa and Siena. Pisa was a port city that controlled access to Tuscany for international trade and had been one of the leading international trading cities in the West for much of the Middle Ages; Siena, if anything even more landlocked than Florence, sitting on top of hills, was an important banking city in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and for much of that period one of the richest and largest cities in Italy. With such competition and its evident geographic liabilities, Florence’s economic future was not bright.
Like many smaller cities in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Florence focused on building wealth by investing in the countryside around the city – the contado, as it was called. Central to this was the gradual replacement of long-term leases for peasant farmers with shorter ones. In the early Middle Ages, as a result of the devastations of barbarian invasions, incessant local warfare, and perhaps even a mini–ice age, the countryside had become severely underpopulated. This meant that local lords who controlled the land found that their primary problem was securing labor to farm it; thus, they offered long-term rents in order to bind peasants to the land. These leases were called libelli (libellus singular), following ancient Roman usage, and were normally for a lifetime, usually defined as thirty-three years, the theoretical life expectancy of a peasant. (Actually, it appears that the average medieval peasant lived slightly less than thirty years.) In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, Europe saw an impressive demographic growth, with many areas of Italy, including Tuscany, becoming densely populated. The reasons for this growth are debated, but undoubtedly better nutrition based on cultivation of a wider range of foods that enriched the bread and gruel of the traditional peasant diet, a warmer climate, and a relatively more peaceful and settled society all played significant roles. This more densely populated countryside allowed landlords to slowly change the nature of leases, moving to shorter ones that required peasants to pay higher rents for land to farm and playing a significant role in the peasant impoverishment discussed earlier. Eventually, short-term leases were replaced in many areas by a system of leasing called mezzadria. Mezzadria contracts required the peasant to give a portion of the agricultural production to the landlord – often half, thus the mezza or half of mezzadria. All this meant that landlords progressively realized greater profits from the farming of their land; they thus had more wealth and could live a life of greater luxury, creating growing markets for luxury goods.
This growing wealth and interest in a more luxurious lifestyle for the upper classes, however, helped foment a second motor of economic expansion, lending money. As local lords began to live a more expensive life, they often found that their immediate income did not match the costs of the products and services that they desired. In turn, the building capital base extracted from peasant labor meant that some could use that capital to lend money at interest to those temporarily short of funds. This helped build a limited proto-banking business based on loans made primarily to locals. Needless to say, in the long run it also impoverished and destroyed many noble families, who fell into debt and often lost their lands, and at times even their noble status. This contributed in turn to a noble reputation for violence; for not only did their traditional military roles and social values tend to make them violent, the progressive deterioration of their economic status at the hands of non-noble city dwellers encouraged violent displays and violent retribution against those same people. This frequently involved what might be politely termed direct forms of wealth redistribution – more aptly labeled, from the perspective of the popolo, noble robbery and banditry.
Finally, interconnected with all of this, there grew up a more significant local trade to supply the luxury goods that this growing wealth made possible. Luxury cloth was an important driving factor in this trade. Light, relatively easy to transport, and particularly useful for demonstrating one’s wealth via expensive clothing, luxury cloth was virtually an essential luxury. Spices and perfumes were also seen as increasingly necessary. And they were very expensive, as the most sought-after came from the Middle East or more distant lands. Local trade, however, primarily involved basic staples, such as the salt and grain that Florence, like other cities, tried to monopolize. All three of these economic developments – more intensive, profit-oriented agriculture; the growth of local banking; and the rise of a local luxury and staples trade – made Florence in the early thirteenth century just another growing town like dozens of others.
What changed all that was a series of political and economic conflicts that jumped Florence ahead of its rivals in the middle years of the thirteenth century. And in the thick of it all was our old friend the Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250), who, while he did not live up to his destiny of becoming the Antichrist, did play a significant role in the rise to economic prominence of Florence. Briefly put, Frederick, in his wars with the papacy and the Guelph cities of Italy, was so successful that in city after city the Guelph party was driven out and replaced by his Ghibelline supporters. Even Guelph cities that survived were afraid to cross him too openly for fear that they would suffer his wrath. This had serious repercussions for papal finances. In the past, cities like Siena had been leaders in handling the pope’s banking needs, which were many, as the wealth of the papacy was drawn from across Europe and required international banking experts both to collect revenues and to transfer them to Rome. Also, of course, such banks were quite willing to lend the pope money when he needed it for the daily operation of his court and expensive lifestyle, another source of impressive profits. Frederick’s success meant, however, that cities like Siena became reluctant to offer these services to the pope, forcing him to seek new bankers.
Florence was one of the primary Guelph cities that stepped into the breach, risking imperial wrath for papal wealth. When Frederick died suddenly in 1250, his Ghibelline plans to dominate Italy died with him, and the papacy and Guelphs in many cities quickly reclaimed much of their lost power. But the resurgent papacy did not forget Florence’s loyalty, nor did the Florentines allow it to do so, and by the 1270s papal banking was largely in Florentine hands. Using the city’s central role in papal finances while also piggybacking on the papacy’s international administrative network of bishops located in the major cities of Europe, Florentine bankers became international financial leaders, lending large sums to kings and nobles across Europe. The resultant rapid financial growth of the city in the second half of the thirteenth century transformed Florence. No longer was its wealth based on exploiting the surplus production of peasants in its hinterland. Suddenly it was drawing wealth from the whole of Europe.
Crucially, its ability to draw wealth from a European-wide base was one of the key underpinnings of Florence’s economic power and its amazing intellectual and cultural flourishing during the Rinascimento. Like ancient Athens, which drew the wealth of the eastern Mediterranean into one city; ancient Rome, which drew the wealth of that whole sea into one city; late sixteenth and seventeenth-century Madrid, which drew the wealth of a large part of the Atlantic world into one city; eighteenth-century Paris, which drew the wealth of a major nation-state into one city; nineteenth-century London, which drew the wealth of a world-spanning empire into one city; and twentieth-century New York, which drew the wealth of a rich nation-state and an incipient world economy into one city, Florence drew a significant portion of the wealth of Europe into an unlikely landlocked city in the back corner of the Tuscan plain to create its flourishing Rinascimento civiltà. This great pooling of wealth allowed a large number of people there to commit their efforts and lives to the artistic, cultural, and intellectual endeavors that are often seen today as the essence of the Rinascimento.
Papal banking offered many opportunities for profit beyond simply skimming papal revenues or lending money to the pope at interest. There were handsome profits to be made in both, of course, but being papal bankers meant that Florentine banks established branches throughout Europe to collect papal revenues. Where their people were not actually in place, they frequently worked through the administrative structure of the Church itself. Though obviously not a modern bureaucracy or particularly effective by modern measure, it was by the standards of the day, nonetheless, quite impressive, with administrative officials in major towns and cities across Europe gathered around the bishops established there. These officials were able to read and write, keep records, and thus organize and keep track of the Church’s complex operations locally while at the same time responding to directives from Rome. The Church also had highly organized monastic establishments sprinkled through the countryside, where it played an important role in the more rural life of the north. Thus in both cities and countryside the Church was often the point of reference for and well connected to the most powerful people in Europe. In sum, it provided an ideal entry into the local society and economy for bankers eager to extend their reach beyond Italy.
Being able to piggyback on this extensive network of connections that blanketed Europe made Florentine banking houses like the Bardi and Peruzzi much more than banking houses. It made them international financial companies in what was for them, in a way, a first European common market. Through their contacts they learned the needs and possibilities of local markets as far away as the north of England and the principalities of eastern Europe – a tremendous advantage not just for banking but also for international trade. For Florentine development, one of the most important advantages gained was the ability to purchase the raw materials necessary for improving Florentine luxury cloth production. In the thirteenth century Florence had developed a small luxury-cloth-producing industry. This production, guided by the Calimala guild (the “evil-smelling street” guild, probably referring to the odor of the chemicals used in its shops on that street), was based on refinishing cheap cloth bought at the Champagne fairs in France into a higher-quality cloth, primarily for local consumption. There was little chance of penetrating larger markets, because the cloth produced was not of a high enough quality to compete with luxury cloth produced elsewhere.
What changed this was the access to superior raw materials that became available via the international networks built up by Florentine bankers. In that context, the banking houses, when collecting papal revenues in the wool-producing regions of northern England, the Low Countries, and Spain (where the finest wools were to be found), instead of collecting money, which was often still scarce in those regions, offered to accept wool instead, which was relatively cheap there. This fine wool was then shipped back to Florence, where it was much more valuable as the raw material for developing a true luxury-cloth-producing industry dominated by the Lana (wool) guild. Florentine merchants then shipped this superior product throughout Europe, following the market advice and networks of their banks, perhaps even selling it to the same raw-wool-producing lords of Spain and England who wanted a more refined cloth than that produced locally. To make the whole process more profitable yet, if those locals did not have the cash on hand to pay for the luxury goods, local Florentine bankers were willing to give them credit and make still greater profits. This was virtually a vertical monopoly Rinascimento-style, where Florentine bankers in conjunction with Florentine guilds controlled the production of wool all the way from the fields to the fashionable dress of a northern noble.
Things could be considerably less neat and favorable to Florentine bankers, merchants, and cloth producers, however, for they dealt regularly with rich and powerful nobles and monarchs in the north, who often felt less bound by the laws and contracts of the Italian popolo grosso. Still, once they became papal bankers, the way was clear for Florentine investors to become major entrepreneurs in three of the major profit-producing areas of the day: luxury cloth production, international trade, and banking itself. Significantly, this meant that although we use terms like “bankers,” “merchants,” and “cloth producers,” they are somewhat misleading: the reality at the highest level of finance was that men of wealth tended to invest in all three areas. In Florence the three were so closely intertwined that it would sometimes be hard to distinguish which area was responsible for a person’s wealth. All three endeavors, however, enriched an increasingly powerful and wealthy group of men who on the whole were the leaders of the popolo grossoeconomically, socially, and politically.
Turning to the Florentine cloth industry, our Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Villani, again counting in a way typical of his popolo grosso peers, estimated that by the 1330s more than 30,000 of Florence’s approximately 90,000 inhabitants were employed in the cloth “industry.” Calling this large-scale production an industry, however, is somewhat misleading, for while large number of workers, often low-paid and living at the margins of survival, were employed, making up what some have even labeled the first proletariat, most of the production was done at home. Both the spinning of the thread from wool (often done by women) and the weaving of cloth (usually done by highly skilled artisans, both men and women) took place at home in a system similar to what would later be dubbed in England a cottage industry. In Florence there were few cottages, but the practice was similar, with the raw material put out by factors to local homes, where the thread and cloth were produced.
But there was much more to the production of luxury cloth in Florence and other cities. To produce yarn and woven fabric required sophisticated treatment involving expensive chemicals and dies, usually done in large factorylike buildings by day laborers, who were not considered artisans. Early on in Florence these large buildings were clustered along the Calimala and near the Arno, as many of the chemical processes involved required a large amount of water. Thus, while this system of production cannot be equated to modern industrial production, it had some significant parallels: a large, relatively unskilled, and low-paid workforce; often dangerous and polluting manufacturing processes; and a portion of the labor carried out in large buildings dedicated to the industry. At the same time, however, it maintained more traditional modes of production: farming out work to homes, where it was done at times by women and families; employing highly skilled artisans for the crucial procedures; and placing an emphasis on a luxury product rather than mass production.
The emphasis on luxury production was an especially important difference between what we might call Rinascimento neo-industrial production and modern industrial capitalism. In England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what drove the cloth industry and the industrial revolution there, beyond the opening of new worldwide markets and the invention of new technologies of production, was the development of new technologies of transport that made both possible. Larger, more oceanworthy ships; a system of canals in Europe, and to a lesser degree elsewhere, that allowed heavy barge traffic; and eventually the railroad, all allowed the relatively inexpensive transport of large quantities of cheaper cloth and other materials, which when sold in quantity produced small returns per unit but high overall profits.
In the Rinascimento, lacking those technologies of transport, trade had to be carried out on a smaller scale, and that meant that luxury, high-quality products were the key to profitability. Spices, a mainstay of medieval long-distance trade for cities like Venice and Genoa, are a perfect example. Light and relatively inexpensive at their source, their price could be greatly marked up after their long journey to Europe, where they were otherwise unavailable and seen as a luxury. This produced large profits on relatively small quantities of goods. The same was true for luxury cloth, where quality, not quantity, ruled. This may help to explain why, although the period arguably had the mechanical and technical skills to construct complex geared machines such as clocks and mills, it did not see an industrial revolution. Its luxury-based economy and more limited transportation potential meant that large-scale production of products at low cost was generally not profitable or perhaps even conceivable. And actually, in those few areas where machinery was suited to luxury production, it was widely adopted and perfected.
It is easy to underestimate the importance of luxury cloth today, when a wide range of clothing is available at relatively modest cost. In the Rinascimento, however, luxury cloth was much less simple than modern cloth, involving elaborate weaves and dying procedures, creating a product much richer and finer. In fact, high-quality cloth and clothing for most upper-class people across Europe were the main discretionary expenses, often requiring as much as a quarter of a family’s disposable income. In many ways the luxury cloth industry functioned like the modern luxury car industry. And like luxury cars today, fine clothing was an important social and economic marker – clothing literally did make the man and the woman. Indicative of this is the fact that throughout this period Italian cities passed over and over again sumptuary legislation limiting the cost of clothing that might be worn legally. Such legislation, officially touted as a means of conserving wealth because of the high cost of clothing, was often more concerned with enforcing the social distinctions that dress marked for society. Upper-class people like the popolo grosso could display their wealth within limits via their clothing, but lower-class people were not to attempt to confuse the issue by aping their superiors in their dress.
One thing that made this a potential danger was the fact that cloth and clothing were so well made that there was a lively trade in used clothing. In Florence, as in many other cities, there was even a guild of used clothing merchants, the Rigattieri. Thus lower-class people, especially those on the rise who were trying to claim a place among the popolo grosso by demonstrating via their clothing their growing wealth and status, could do so by buying cheaper used clothes. Interestingly, as mature males tended to dress soberly in order to stress their modesty and virtù – even if with expensive fabrics – the most visible display of upper-class wealth and status in clothing focused on the dress of women and to a lesser degree on that of youths, both male and female. In a way,popolo grosso women via their dress, became advertisements for the wealth and power of their families when they appeared in public, often in costumes featuring the newest styles or made with fabrics that showcased the most expensive dies or interwoven threads of gold and silver. In this context women’s bodies were used to establish family standing: they were literally clothes horses, wearing clothing often invested in and owned by their husbands to show family power and status. All of which meant that the luxury cloth that Florence produced found a highly profitable market across the cities of northern Italy, as well as throughout much of Europe, where dressing expensively was also required of the nobility. It also meant that in Florence and other luxury-cloth-producing cities a number of skilled artisans earned substantial wages – almost certainly not enough to enter the ranks of the popolo grosso, but enough to give perhaps a greater weight to the popolo minuto there.
Historians usually see the guilds of Florence and other cities of the day as structuring economic life. In many ways that is true, especially if we mean by this that they disciplined the quotidian activities of work. At the highest levels of commerce, banking, and even cloth production, however, in most cities the guilds followed the lead of the most powerful popolo grosso families in a symbiotic relationship in which guilds were empowered by those families and in turn normally served their interests. At the lower levels of economic activity the interference of the popolo grosso in guilds was often more indirect and less clear. A closer look at the hierarchy of guilds in Florence provides a better sense of this dichotomy. The number of guilds in the city fluctuated throughout the period, but a representative sample is provided by the list of twenty-one guilds officially recognized by the Florentine Ordinances of Justice in 1293. Three levels of guilds were listed: the arti maggiori (major guilds), including Lawyers and Notaries, Calimala (merchants, dyers, and finishers of foreign cloth), Cambio (bankers and moneylenders), Lana (wool producers and merchants), Por Santa Maria (silk weavers and merchants), Medici e Speziali (doctors and apothecaries), and Furriers; the arti medie (middling guilds), including Butchers, Shoemakers, Blacksmiths, Builders, and Rigattieri (used clothing dealers); and the arti minori (minor guilds): Retail Wine Dealers, Inn Keepers, Sellers of Salt, Oil and Cheese, Tanners, Armorers, Ironworkers, Girdle Makers, Woodcutters, and Bakers.
Several things stand out in this ranking of guilds. First, the major guilds clearly were the domain of the popolo grosso. The large-scale wealth they produced is what fueled their economic, social, and political prominence. Lawyers and notaries might not seem to fit the mold, but a university degree and the ability to serve a crucial role in the legal and record-keeping regime of the popolo grosso meant that the leaders in this guild were often leaders in the city – their skills provided in a way both the technology of rule and commerce as well as the social and political ideology that went hand and hand with it. On the other end of the scale, furriers might seem to be relatively low-level craftsmen working with animal skins, but that actually was more the activity of the tanners (in the minor guilds), whereas the furriers focused on the international trade in luxury furs, a business that required a large capital investment and dealt with many of the same issues as the luxury cloth guilds.
At the middle level it might seem surprising to see butchers, as their craft involved rather bloody manual labor, but meat too was a luxury item, and thus butchers, with a more expensive product – and with a reputation for the violent defense of their place in society – found themselves ranked higher than bakers, whose craft supplied a basic everyday staple of life, the price of which was intentionally kept low. Shoes were also a relative luxury, as the poor usually wore wooden clogs; thus the shoemaker’s higher status. At the lower levels clustered guilds that supplied everyday necessities, including wine, salt, oil, and cheese, along with the humble innkeepers who dotted Florence serving wine by the glass (or usually the cup), cheap food, cheap lodgings, and frequently cheap prostitution. Again it might seem strange to see armor makers and ironworkers in this group, but in Florence, both were minor industries making rather modest products for a largely local market. In other cities, where such production was more central to the economy, such as Milan, armor makers were a much more important craft and guild. Still, in this guild hierarchy one can see a general reflection of the economic, social, and political order of the city, and the popolo already dividing into grosso and minuto.
In its apparent clarity, however, this image of the guild world is deceptive. In Florence, for example, as was the case in most cities, the number of guilds misrepresents the number and range of craft activities in the city as well as the social divisions within the guilds themselves. Many no longer really involved craftsmanship in the traditional sense of the term, most notably the guilds of notaries and lawyers, bankers, and used clothing merchants. Moreover, many included multiple crafts. A good example of this is the guild to which Dante belonged, the guild of the Medici e Speziali (doctors and apothecaries), which included at the time of the Ordinances not only doctors and apothecaries, but also small-scale retail merchants, saddle makers, purse makers, and painters. Perhaps the most misleading thing about this guild hierarchy is the way in which, at the higher levels of wealth in the city, investors moved beyond guild structures by financing cloth production, investing in trade, or becoming partners in banking and credit operations. Thus, someone who was officially a member of the Cambio guild might actually be heavily involved in trade or cloth production, while an apparently humble butcher or even baker might have invested some surplus wealth in international trade or in land in the countryside. But such messiness at the individual level always undermines historical generalizations. On the whole, the key to understanding the upper levels of the system is to recognize that large investors or investing families from the popolo grosso worked through guilds at the same time that they also used government and informal networks of powerful families to control and drive the economy in their interests.
It is also important not to confuse these guilds with modern craft unions. Most of Villani’s 30,000 workers in the cloth industry were disciplined by the Lana and Calimala guilds, but had no say in their operation. Many of them actually saw these guilds as their oppressor. To the extent that the guild set their low wages, ordered and defined their often difficult or even dangerous working conditions, and sternly disciplined resistance to those conditions, they were probably correct. Most guilds were actually dominated by the masters of the craft, and from their perspective the goal of the guild was to discipline those below, secure a monopoly of production for themselves, and assure a product that would be competitive in terms of price and quality. Guilds, like government, therefore saw nothing positive in higher wages or free markets; rather, they sought to corner markets, control workers, direct production, and organize trade to protect profits and assure the ultimate authority of masters.
Actually things were more complex yet. In many ways the operation of guilds during the period is still unclear, waiting for the patient study of scholars willing to work through the voluminous records that the guilds maintained, even if the impressive studies of scholars like John Najemy working on Florence have taken our understanding to new levels. More humble craft guilds appear to have been organized in a way that fits fairly well the ideal vision of a medieval guild. If we look at the baker’s guild, for example, we find master craftsmen on top and apprentices learning the trade below them. The masters – those who had mastered the trade – had full voting rights in the guild and set the standards for the product, the levels of production, and the rules and disciplinary procedures for the guild and its members. The apprentices, usually younger men, who were learning the profession from the masters, had no voting rights in the guild, but were under its jurisdiction and largely at its mercy.
Yet even in such guilds, by the fourteenth century, things were no longer so simple, if they ever had been. Many apprentices, although they had mastered the craft, never became masters to open shops of their own. Because part of the goal of the guild was to control levels of production in order to maintain prices, keeping a constant level of masters and shops was important. Too many apprentices becoming masters and opening shops of their own was not seen as positive and was not encouraged. Moreover, low-paid apprentices had trouble saving the money to open a shop on their own and become a master. The result was that many apprentices remained apprentices long after they were qualified to become masters. A significant side effect of this was that the daughters and widows of masters (who inherited shops) often became highly sought-after marital partners for apprentices, as such marriages offered the possibility of gaining master status. In this way lower crafts leaned toward becoming virtually hereditary castes, at times through matriarchal lines. Also complicating the picture was the fact that much of an artisan’s work – for example, a baker’s craft – could be done by family members, especially wives and children. Thus, although women were officially excluded from most guilds, it appears that they could at times play a significant role in various crafts, both as workers and as the conduit through which some apprentices gained shops and master status.
When we look at the major guilds, things are even more complex and unclear. The Lana guild, for example, was run by “masters” who, rather than being master craftsmen, were usually the large-scale investors who dominated wool production. At the same time their guild included master craftsmen and apprentices who had mastered or were mastering the several craft skills involved in producing luxury cloth. The interrelationships among these groups within the guild is unclear, aside from the fact that the investors at the top controlled the guild, and the apprentices at the bottom had no say in running it. Moreover, even at the craft level of the guild, its activities were divided among various specialized skills organized around spinning, weaving, dyeing, and finishing the cloth. Finally, much of the actual labor was performed by unskilled laborers called sottoposti (literally, “those at the bottom”). Moreover, much of the work carried out for the guilds in homes, especially spinning, but also some weaving, was done by women and even children, who were often prized for their smaller, quicker hands. All of these people were in one way or another under the control of the guild, but had no say in its operation. Even if it is unclear how all this went together, we are evidently light years away from a craft guild of masters and apprentices working together in one trade.
Examining how the guilds were run reveals that these corporations were quite similar to the many other corporate bodies that typified the period and competed with each other for power. Normally guilds were run by an elected executive committee of the most powerful members, much like most governments. In addition, they usually had a large council made up of all masters or an elected body representing them that discussed and approved the suggestions of the executive committee or passed legislation on its own. This legislation not only regulated the practice of the craft, it also often regulated the life of those under the guild’s control, imposing fines for misbehavior or requiring brotherly behavior. There were also guild courts that dealt with everything from economic disputes between guild members and infractions of guild regulations concerning production to the odd brawl, punch, or stabbing. They even had small magistracies concerned with internal finances, dues, fines, guild charities (including poor relief for workers), and, with growing significance, artistic commissions.
If this seems all rather like a government, it is because in many ways, as corporations, guilds were just another corporation competing for power, like government itself. As time passed governments would attempt to assert their superiority over other corporations and in the process transform themselves into the state – the corporation that dominated all the others in the name of the well-being of society. But that discovery of the state still lay largely in the future – an ideal of how government should be understood that developed during the Rinascimento and slowly became more powerful and dominant, as we shall see. In the early fourteenth century, in Florence and elsewhere, it seemed to many – and it was regularly claimed – that the guilds actually ruled the city, both in terms of controlling their own membership and in terms of their power over government. Officially, in fact, Florence was a guild republic, as the great guilds dominated elections and the formal structure of government, even if they themselves were largely dominated by the powerful rich of the city, the popolo grosso.
There was yet another competitor for power in Florence and in the Rinascimento more generally, and that was the often unrecognized elephant in the room, money. Needless to say, money was one of the central concerns of the popolo grosso, the guilds, and the government. But for all its importance, money in Florence, in other Italian cities, and across Europe was in its own right an extremely complex, often contested, and difficult-to-understand cultural creation. Virtually every city, principality, and kingdom in Europe had its own culture of money, its own monetary system and often coins in multiple forms composed of silver, copper, and (as time went on) gold, along with multiple levels of fictive (and thus culturally created and sustained) wealth as well. These various monetary systems made international trade especially difficult, and once again this was a situation that placed Florentine bankers working for the papacy at a considerable advantage over their rivals. With their networks of agents and allies spread across Europe dealing with local currencies and monetary cultures, Florentine bankers could make informed decisions at a level that most of their competitors simply could not match.
In the Middle Ages coinage was limited, with the larger coins used for trade being made with silver, primarily because silver was fairly widely available in Europe. The monetary system according to which these trading coins were conceptualized was based on the ancient Roman system of money, where twelve denari (denarius singular) equaled one solidus, and in turn twenty solidi equaled one liber or pound. This meant that one pound equaled 240 denari. These divisions, however, were essentially theoretical as most trade was carried out with silver coins usually described as multiples of a denarius; and local exchange, when it was not done in kind, often used copper coins or even more base metals that were conceived of as fractions of a denarius. In 1235 Florence began making a silver solidus, giving rebirth to a long dead form of Roman coinage. This was a move well suited to the expanding volume of trade in that century, as attested to by the fact that the move was quickly copied by other cities involved in trade and banking.
Shortly after the death of Frederick II, and as its banking firms were becoming established as papal bankers, the city began issuing a radically new coin in gold, the Florin, which was originally valued at one liber. By making the value of their Florin equivalent to the ancient Roman liber, they cleverly made their new coin once again safely old – a rebirth, a rinascita, not a dangerous novelty, even if (of course), it was new. The gold Florin rapidly became one of the most important trading coins in circulation, because it was ideally suited to the larger sums needed for international banking and trade. And the city jealously protected the reputation and honor of its new/old coin, almost as is if it were a fictitious person, and a special citizen of Florence at that. Protecting its physical identity was extremely important because cutting off pieces of a coin, “clipping” or “shaving” (sanding off the edges) was widely practiced. Florence, like other cities, however, imposed stern penalties on clippers and shavers, including cutting off their hands, branding, and even death for repeat offenders, very similar penalties to those for assault and murder of actual citizens.
Protecting the honor of the Florin paid handsome dividends for trade and banking, but it also added complexity to the monetary system, which created the possibility for additional profits. For with the gold Florin, Italy and Europe went on a bimetallic system, especially as other major trading and banking cities began minting gold super-coins of their own. At the simplest level, with smaller coins in silver and larger coins in gold, the relationship between the value of silver coins and gold coins did not remain stable. As silver was regularly being mined in Europe, the supply of the metal was increasing steadily, which meant that its intrinsic worth was declining. At the same time the supply of gold in Europe was quite limited – hence its relatively stable, higher value – with only small amounts of new gold coming in, primarily from Africa and the Middle East. This meant that gold coins tended to hold stable or increase in value as silver coins slowly decreased in worth. In turn, the relationship between silver and gold coins and the olddenarius/solidus/liber system broke down as silver coins decreased in worth and gold coins gained. For example, after 100 years in circulation a gold Florin that had originally been worth one liber or 240 silver denari was actually worth approximately 720 silverdenari or three libri. Florentine bankers and moneymen recognized the advantage of this system, paying their workers and their daily expenses in depreciating silver coins while carrying on their own business in gold Florins. Thus they kept their profits steady, stable, and, perhaps most importantly, calculable in a fairly constant currency, while at the same time they allowed the real wages of their workers and their daily living expenses to slowly decline.
Not content with this advantage, and in an attempt to rationalize the complexity of the wide range of coinage that they encountered throughout Italy and Europe, Italian merchants and bankers saved the ancient Roman denarius/solidus/liber monetary system as an ideal money or, as it became known, a “money of account.” Money of account was essentially a fictitious currency whose value was held constant against real coins of all types and metals. Bankers with international connections, like the Florentines, pegged individual coins and currencies to this theoretical money, regularly adjusting the exchange rate to reflect changing values in local currencies. This was even better than using gold coins, because if bankers were well informed, contracts could be written and trading carried out using this fictitious money, guaranteeing that a constant value would be maintained. Thus, for example, if a merchant signed a contract to deliver a shipment of wool cloth in London for 1,000 libri in money of account, he would know that whatever real local coin he would be paid in, it would be worth 1,000 libri in the end. As a result, if he bought that cloth in Florence with gold Florins worth 500 libri in money of account, and his shipping costs were paid, say, in Venetian ducats (another important gold coin) worth 200 libri in money of account, he could calculate that his real profit would be 300 libri in money of account, no matter what currency he was paid in. Not only did this system guarantee an ability to clearly calculate profits and avoid inflating or deflating real currency, it greatly increased the significance of bankers like the Florentines, who, with their network of agents and contacts spread across Europe, could best calculate the exchange rates that were key to the functioning of this system.
But money of account had another and even more significant impact. For as long as everyone involved had faith that real value stood behind it, it actually did not have to be retranslated into coin. Instead, this fictitious cultural construct was traded on its own as if it were real hard coin. Florentine merchant X who was owed 1,000 libri in money of account in London was credited with that 1,000 libri in his bank in Florence. He could in turn use that credited sum to buy 1,000 libri worth of cloth to ship to London to sell there at a price of 1,500 libri, and continue to repeat the cycle, slowly building up a larger and larger supply of wealth in his Florentine account without converting it back into gold Florins. After all, although one gold Florin was easier to cart around than 240 silverdenari, converting them into actual coins was a problem when large sums were involved. Clearly it was much easier to move paper between banks than to move large hordes of metal coins. But, significantly, trading with money of account, as if it were real metal coins meant that Italy and Europe were no longer operating with the metallic and material wealth they actually had. Money of account essentially increased the wealth of Europe, making it extend as far as people’s faith in money of account extended – culture in this case dramatically extending and transforming the material world.
There was one serious problem with this system of expanding European wealth, however – it required that those who believed in the fictitious value of money of account continue to believe. If they stopped believing and demanded their money in gold or silver coins, there simply was not enough gold or silver in Europe to cover the fictitious wealth. Unfortunately for Florentine bankers, that is exactly what happened in the early 1340s. Big banking firms had lent large amounts of money to the rulers of Europe, especially the king of England, and apparently at the same time had overextended their investments in land in Tuscany. Although there is debate about whether the problem ultimately hinged on loans to European rulers or a dangerous overinvestment in land, when in 1342 the king of England reneged on his debts, major players in Florence began to demand that the money of account that the banks held for them be transformed into hard coin. But it simply did not exist. In fact, it could not have existed, since money of account had expanded the culturally created wealth of Europe well beyond its metallic or tangible wealth – nature, it might be said, finally had its revenge on culture. Without the resources to meet the demand, the banks collapsed; many fortunes were lost, and Florence entered a period of crisis that seemed to threaten popolo grosso power in the city. But in the end Florence revived, in part perhaps thanks to the great die-off and economic dislocation created by the plague in 1348. Florentine banking did so as well, with new banks replacing the old and once again drawing on the wealth and connections of the papacy.
But such reneging on debts, which brought many low, raises the issue of credit and the profits that Florentine banks made from loaning money. Credit had a special problem of its own in the Middle Ages and Rinascimento, for loaning money at interest was seen as the sin of usury, which, in theory, was highly frowned upon by the Catholic Church. Of course, the pope was quite willing to leave his money in Florentine banks, allowing it to accrue interest, and also quite capable of asking for loans that required interest payments. But this was actually not quite as hypocritical as it might sound, as bankers had worked out a number of ways to get around the sin of usury, lending money in ways that theoretically returned a profit without charging interest. The most widespread and successful strategy turned on exchanging currencies; thus the name used for banks and banking during the period (and still today in Italian) was cambio or exchange. Such exchange turned on the changing of one currency into another at a distance and over time in such a way that a profit could be made on the money originally paid out.
The most common form of fictitious exchange that covered a hidden loan was the letter of credit. Essentially, a branch of a bank issued a letter of credit worth x amount in a local currency in another city. Ideally, the person then went to that city and collected the money stipulated in the letter and used it for his business there. He then returned to the place where he had originally received the letter of credit and repaid the value of the original letter in the currency of the city where it had been issued. In theory, then, this was a simple exchange of money over time and distance that put the banker’s own money at risk. But the key to the real nature of the arrangement was the time and distance involved and the rate of exchange, all of which could be manipulated to make a hidden loan. As it took time to go from the original city of the loan to the city where the money was to be delivered, carry out the transactions and return, the letters could set a future date for repayment that in reality was the period of the loan. The exchange rate could be set in such a way that when the loan was repaid in another coinage, there was a hidden interest included, and this could be defended by the risk factor involved in exchange rates potentially changing over the time involved in the travel and trading. Thus a letter of exchange drawn up in Florence might call for x number of Florins to be paid out in London as y number of English pounds, which would then be repaid as x Florins plus the hidden rate of interest in Florence six months later. In the end no one actually had to go anywhere, as it was possible to merely return after the contracted period to the Florentine bank where the letter had been drawn up and pay the contracted amount, the distant city and the foreign currency becoming just convenient fictions.
This was a truly ingenious way of lending money at interest. But because there was actually some risk involved, as exchange rates could and did fluctuate, bankers built a higher rate of interest into the exchange to try to assure that they would make a profit whatever happened. As a result, the system tended to mean that money that might have been lent at a straight return of, say, 7 percent was lent at a higher rate of, say, 10 percent in order to assure a profit. Also, because it was a very theoretical exchange, a convenient fiction, it created considerable worry about its sinful nature, even among bankers. Many, in fact, attempted to pay off their ultimate debt to God by admitting their usurious practices in their wills and donating a portion of their sinful gains to the Church or charitable causes, a practice that helped to enrich churches and support their building and art patronage – sin nicely fueling art and culture, as is surprisingly often the case. But it was a doubly costly system in terms of higher rates of interest and higher rates of sin – a curiously unmodern combination that reminds us how different the period was, for all its seeming familiarity at times.
While the letter of credit was the most common form of loan at interest, many other ways of escaping the sin of usury were devised. In Venice and other maritime cities, the sea loan or variations on the theme were also popular. Basically, this employed a fiction whereby one partner was credited with a greater portion of the investment in a trading venture than had actually been contributed, because that partner was, in fact, covering via hidden loans one or some of the other investors’ contributions. The larger return on that partner’s investment actually repaid the hidden loan at a rate of interest that could be roughly calculated and would assure a profit on the money loaned. Again, however, because of the risk involved, that rate of interest was higher than it would probably have been with a straight loan.
Virtually from the first these papers of hidden credit also began to be traded as if they were money. For example, a bank did not need to hold a letter of credit for the full term of the loan, but could immediately turn around and sell it to someone else for a portion of the profit, or the person who owed money via a letter of credit could exchange it for another letter that matured later and at a higher rate of interest in order to extend the period of the loan. In this way what we might call an early form of commercial paper circulated and, much like money of account, expanded the pool of wealth available in Italy well beyond the amount available in the form of coins or material goods. Once again, however, this required that everyone accept the fiction that the wealth was really there, that the paper was actually redeemable at some time in the future. Not surprisingly – even if this is not a prevalent part of the myth of entrepreneurial economies – right from the start failures of nerve and faith in the culturally agreed-upon fictions of the economy meant that there would be repeated cracks and crises punctuated by bank failures and financial collapses.
From money to banking, merchant endeavors to luxury cloth manufacture, artisan production to grand entrepreneurs, Florence was a major player in the economic world of the early Rinascimetno, and the wealth the city gained in many ways pooled a significant portion of the wealth of the rest of Europe and the Mediterranean into the city, transforming it from a not-very-promising competitor in Tuscany at the beginning of the thirteenth century into one of the leading cities of Italy by the end of the fourteenth. This in turn helped to make it one of the leading cultural and artistic centers of Italy in the fifteenth century. Wealth perhaps did not directly produce its culture and art. But it certainly helped to make it possible in a number of ways that extended from simply freeing up human labor to pursue both, to creating the means to pay for it, and on to fomenting the social competition that used culture, art, and display to confirm social and economic status. But, perhaps most importantly, it helped draw the best and brightest to Florence and other rich Italian cities to pursue their dreams of fame and fortune. And in many ways it served, even with its all-too-fictitious nature at times, as the real catalyst that allowed greatness to blossom in the aftermath of one of the worst demographic disasters Europe ever faced. In the end the world did not end with the Black Death, whatever it really was – instead, the Rinascimento and its unique civiltà flourished.