Family honor

After the patriarchal and controlled domestic world of the Florentines of the Quattrocento, the medievalist historian Christiane Klapisch-Zuber makes us discover a new aspect, perhaps even more intimate, of the family life of the Florentines: their writings.

In Florence of the first Renaissance, the practice of writing was omnipresent among fathers of families. Following the model of the accounts that merchants, patricians and artisans keep meticulously, they record in their memory books, or ricordanze, the big scansions and the small jolts of the life of their family and their extended relative. Births, baptisms, funerals, and above all matrimonial alliances, punctuate the pages of these domestic scriptures. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber made it one of her favorite sources for studying the history of family ties and gender relations in Italy at the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

From numbers to individuals: journey of a family and gender historian

However, this choice was not obvious when the historian began to take an interest, at the beginning of the 1970s, in the Florentine demography and family structures of the XVe century. As the rich introductory presentation by Didier Lett, former doctoral student and heir to the work of Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, usefully reminds us, she first published in 1978 with David Herlihy Tuscans and their families: a monumental quantitative study drawn from the catasto (or campaign of tax declarations) of 1427, in which the one who is not yet a historian of women and gender, but rather of economics and demography, traces the contours of the systems of kinship and collective norms of behavior.

Early on, however, she showed dissatisfaction with this approach, which she considered to be not very attentive to family actors in their unique aspects. She wants fill the holes (p. 9), bring to light the conflicts, the emotions, the intimate obligations which animate individuals. She then leaves the tax declarations, which are too sparsely written, and begins the study of ricordanzewhich will notably give rise to the publication of The House and the name in 1990.

writings and memory: the ricordanze in the spotlight

Portrait of a man
Franciabigio (1522)

What does she discover in these sources? First of all, that these are very far from the diary that our contemporary gaze would hope to read there. On the contrary, the ricordanze are born from the penetration of the accounting spirit into domestic writing (p. 15): the Florentines drew inspiration from accounting techniques to record the events of family life. These accounts of the parent are, moreover, in no way intimate: written to inform male descendants about the past actions of the family and to advise them in their future political choices, they belong to the family patrimony and are transmitted from father to son, as land or jewelry. The authors, fathers of families to whom moralists recommend keeping their writings away from the female gaze, retrace the genelogy of their ancestors in a happy light. Their goal is first and foremost political: it is necessary to prove the communal roots of the lineage and its legitimacy to exercise public office even if it means falsifying, arranging, reinventing. This is why exclude or eliminate outside ricordi one of the parents having undermined the honor of the family is considered a punishment greater than revenge by blood.

To write their family books, the authors pull out all the stops: direct witnesses to contemporary events, they document the past by requesting family archives, but also those of the community, which they access when they hold political office. They also do not hesitate to use oral testimonies. One of the most exciting contributions of this book is to give the female voice its place in the writing process. Thus the notary Ser Lorenzo di Ser Tano da Lutiano appealed in 1366 to the memories of his own mother, the octogenarian monna Gemma.

The historian brings to light the double family memory (p. 47), transmitted concomitantly by men and women: the former pay attention to patrilineal succession (from father to son) and to agnatic lineage (from men in the male line), because they are the ones who transmit property family assets. Women, always moving between family groups through (re)marriages, preserve the memory of matrimonial alliances with other lineages. There is therefore indeed a memory of the specifically female parent: this cognatic memory (which includes both male and female line members) is broader than male memory and can prove to be a useful resource for forming judicious alliances. or avoid marrying a distant cousin, thus violating the Church's parental prohibitions.

Lives come alive: social variations on the theme of writing

One might have feared, before opening this book, that the collection of previous works would result in a simple juxtaposition of articles linked by a general theme. However, this is the complete opposite of the ambition of this book, whose fine editing work must be saluted here. The seams disappear and the volume finds a strong internal coherence, notably through the use of certain characters as red threads. Within a musical construction, the themes of the rich Florentine aristocrat Andrea Minerbetti or the Bolognese maon Gaspare Nadi return several times, in variations summoning sometimes their motivations or their writing techniques, sometimes their description of the parent or their perception of their honor .

These case studies spread throughout the work avoid drowning the reader in a crowd of examples: on the contrary, they give a feeling of familiarity. The comparison between these two men also allows a systematic comparison of the social differences that separate them: the patrician Andrea Minerbetti writes day by day, transcribing an immediate (although incomplete) memory transmitted to his male descendants. Knowledge of their ancestors, however reconstituted they may be, and of matrimonial alliances plays a key role, particularly around the issue of the dowry: this sum of money brought by the bride's family manifests in the eyes of all the legitimacy of the union and, consequently, that of future citizens who will be born from it. When Minerbetti considers his honor damaged, he is not the only one to blame: a stain on his reputation affects all members of his wider family and jeopardizes the possibility for all men to exercise public office, crucial for their maintenance among the elites of an oligarchic city.

On the contrary, the artisan Gaspare Nadi articulates in his Diary personal and general information, composed and reorganized a posteriori, expresses his misfortunes in a true work of authorship. What matters for him in marriage is first of all the cohabitation agreement, ensuring him a female presence to run the house and watch over his old age even if this bet proves unsuccessful during his last union. As for the attacks on his honor, they do not involve a vast aristocratic relative like that of Minerbetti, but rather affect his individual authority as head of the family, quite undermined by the desertion of his wife from the marital home and his tribulations with his in-laws. son. There, one does not fear the judgment of parents or municipal institutions, but rather that of the neighborhood, of work colleagues and of the corporation of masons, the management of which he takes an active part.

The painter and letter writer

Neri di Bicci, Virgin and Child on a Throne
Znobe, François and Miniato. Around 1450-1452.

Skillfully handling the case study, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber inserts in several of the major movements of her book chapters dedicated to very singular lives: that of the painter Neri di Bicci, who keeps a book from 1453 to 1475, and of the tough monna Dora, wife of the rich banker Francesco di Jacopo del Bene. From the study of the first, she concludes that this book is far from the exceptionality that historiography has too often wanted to attribute to ricordanze of painters: on the contrary, it reflects the perspectives and values ​​of the Florentine middle classes to which Neri, who is first and foremost an artisan, belongs. From the correspondence of the second, she notes how rare its existence, as much as its archival survival, is: writing (or having someone write) the Renaissance is a male privilege, which women rarely seize and not without difficulty. Monna Dora herself takes up the pen to write letters to her husband, who is away from his business affairs. She keeps him informed of her management of the household, but also vigorously expresses her disagreement with the paterfamilias' choices of matrimonial alliances for her daughters.

In a few words, this book, of which neither the format nor the style is likely to frighten the novices, takes an ordinarily impossible challenge: with writing full of enthusiasm, to synthesize knowledge, but also to bring new ideas, in historiographies as burning and diverse as the history of written culture and scriptural practices, the history of women and gender, or even the history of emotions, such as this sense of honor which permeates every page of the book. A treat to read, this book is one of those which keeps company as, one can guess, these Florentines of the past knew how to keep the historian company.

Solne MiningMarch 13, 2023

To quote this article:

Solne Minier, The honor of the family,

The Life of Ideas

, March 13, 2023. ISSN: 2105-3030. URL:

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