History Thursday · It's History

It’s History: Marriage in Medieval Florence

Currently Listening To: Collective Soul – “Shine”
Currently Reading: The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

Once upon a time, when I was in college studying medieval history, I was totally fascinated by the women of the period. This led to me writing for almost every single one of my papers about some aspect of medieval womanhood, meaning that I now possess the completely useful ability to discuss things like the ideal traits of a medieval queen and the nuances of marriage in late medieval Florence. (And people wonder why I’m so bad at making small talk.)

So, what were the nuances of marriage in late medieval Florence? I’m so glad you asked.

At the surface, it looked like women were more or less powerless. In fact, they were worse than powerless; they were possessions to be bought and sold. Looking at the 15th century in particular, we can see that there was actually a public dowry fund set up, so that if families needed help paying dowries for their daughters, the state would actually help them with this. This tells us a couple of things: first, that dowries were Really Important – no dowry, no marriage! – and second, that the public had a stake in marriage alliances, meaning that your marriage was Public Business. And then, after a father paid some poor sucker to take his daughter off his hands, all responsibility for the girl passed from her father to her husband.

Once you look past all of that, though, women actually had a lot of power in the domestic sphere. For example, women were expected to know the ins and outs of their family’s finances and work with their husbands to manage them. Another example is when Alessandra Strozzi‘s husband died, she had to take over as matriarch of the family, which included such responsibilities as arranging marriages for her daughters (which she took care of instead of having one of her sons do it) and deciding whether to have one of her sons sent away to be apprenticed (which, again, she decided instead of having the decision made by one of her older sons).

So, while it appeared that Florentine women were powerless chattel, they actually were able to exert a lot of influence within their marriages.

Sources:
Selected Letters of Alessandra Strozzi, trans. Heather Gregory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)*

Anthony Molho, Marriage Alliance in Late Medieval Florence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994)

Julius Kirshner, “Materials for a Gilded Cage: Non-Dotal Assets in Florence, 1300-1500,” in The Family in Italy from Antiquity to the Present, ed. David Kertzer and Richard Saller, 184-207 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991)

“Marriage, Family, and Children in the Datini Family,” trans. Eleanor A. Congdon, in Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation, ed. Katherine Jansen, Joanna Drell, and Frances Andrews, 441-445

*A lot of Alessandra Strozzi’s letters survived, and have since been translated into English and published in a BOOK. Which you can READ. /nerdery

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