contributor.author: Joanne Craig

title.none: Haas, Renaissance Man and His Children (Craig)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.014 99.02.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joanne Craig, Bishop's University, jcraig@ubishops.ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Haas, Louis. The Renaissance Man And His Children: Childbirth and Early Childhood in Florence, 1300-1600. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 319. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-17563-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.14

Haas, Louis. The Renaissance Man And His Children: Childbirth and Early Childhood in Florence, 1300-1600. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 319. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-17563-9.

Reviewed by:

Joanne Craig
Bishop's University
jcraig@ubishops.ca

This book presents a detailed record of pregnancy, childbirth, and the first six years of life among the Florentine elite during the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Early Modern period. Although of course he takes mothers into consideration, Haas is particularly interested in the relationships between fathers and their young children, and he has based his work substantially on the personal accounts that those fathers kept of their families in their ricordi and ricordanze. One of his avowed purposes in writing the book is to refute the idea, associated with Philippe Aries, Lawrence Stone, and other influential historians of domestic life, that before the seventeenth century parents felt little affection for their offspring, perhaps because the high rate of infant mortality meant that any emotional investment in such ephemeral creatures would only have made their survivors vulnerable to intolerable grief and pain. Haas proposes that this belief, and the underlying belief that human attitudes toward our children can change radically from one historical period to another, is favorable to feminism, which in turn supports it. If, he argues, people were indifferent to their children for centuries, then feminists have cause to hope that at some time in the future women will be able to discard the illusions that compel the devotion of mothers to their children (p. 3). Haas, on the other hand, makes the argument that love of one's children is natural and therefore characteristic of all historical periods (pp.8-9). His thesis then is that the Florentines about whom he writes merely by virtue of their humanity wanted children, loved them, provided them with conscientious care, and mourned them when, all too often, they died in infancy, childhood, or youth.

Haas makes a strong argument for the philoprogenitive character of Florentine culture. His theory, which is fortunately limited to his introductory chapter, bothers me more than his practice does. For one thing, feminism encompasses at least as much conflict as consensus. Thus when Haas mentions the need for a feminist treatment of his subject in the future, what he has in mind isn't clear. The context of the statement suggests a book based on documents written by women, although Haas points out that the documents written by men, on which he has based his book, are much more numerous (p. 13).

Another problem is the danger of assuming that at any given time and place all parents are alike in their thinking and behavior. We live now in a society that at least officially values and cherishes children, but we know that large numbers of children are poor; that large numbers of children, who are not necessarily poor, must endure neglect or abuse; and that sometimes parents express their anxiety or even guilt about failure to give their children enough time and attention by indulging them with possessions and making private and public announcements of their affection. It is as difficult to believe that Florentine parents were uniformly and consistently devoted and tender as it is to believe that English parents were as selfish and indifferent as Stone suggests. Perhaps Florentine fathers with their humanist consciousness of the longevity of written documents recorded those attitudes toward parenthood that would reflect favorably on them.

Haas begins with a letter from Boccaccio to Petrarch and ends with one from Petrarch to Donato Albanzani. Both letters describe the writer's exquisite grief for the loss of a child. In between he examines with copious documentation from manuscript and printed sources the cultural responses to pregnancy and childbirth; the baptism of children, with the accompanying festivities and extension and strengthening of social and economic bonds; the care of infants by wet nurses; and the return of children to their homes. The book ends at the point at which schooling began.

Wetnursing, to which Haas refers as an industry, gets two detailed chapters. His book does as much as anything I've read to explain how the practice of wetnursing worked and why families would have wanted to engage in this widespread and persistent activity, which now seems altogether bizarre. Haas points out that the Church condemned wetnursing because of its contraceptive effect (p. 241, n. 53) and that the employment by the elite of nurses from the working class had the effect of raising the birthrate of the elite and lowering that of the class from which the nurses came (pp. 95-96, 99; cf. pp. 22-23). The view of Florentine life that emerges from The Renaissance Man and His Children is predominantly cheerful, and the cheer extends to Haas's account of wetnursing. The nurses of the Mugello, the Casentino, and the countryside around Prato and Florence were dedicated souls with plenty of milk to offer their charges. There is relatively little here about nurses whose insufficient milk resulted in malnutrition or whose slovenly habits resulted in disease, if not in suffocation. Was Florence simply ahead of the rest of Europe in its attitudes toward the care of children, as in so many other respects? Are stereotypical ideas about the relative warmth and chilliness of southern and northern Europeans relevant here? Might the truth be somewhere between the extremes of academic controversy?

The book is rich in fascinating details and celebrity anecdotes: Michelangelo attributed his calling to the fact that his nurse's husband had been a stonecutter (91), and the very young Savonarola entertained himself by playing with the little altars that he had set up around the house (p. 150). Haas includes a charming letter from Machiavelli's wife to the great humanist after the birth of their first son: "He is as white as snow, but his head is like a bit of black velvet and he is hairy as you are. His resemblance to you makes me think him beautiful, and he is as lively as though he were a year old, and he opened his eyes before he was quite born and made his voice heard all over the house" (57). Most of the detailed information concerns "the structures of everyday life" (p. 9) of less illustrious Florentines, whose ricordi and ricordanze keep track of their paternal preoccupations.

The book is a pleasure to read, at least in part because of its brightness and optimism, although the writing isn't as felicitous as its subject and tone deserve. There are numerous awkward sentences like: "In many of the birth paintings of the Renaissance, wine is always shown being brought to the new mother" (p. 46), and "Between 1531 and 1540 only 14 of the 128 children supposedly accidentally smothered were done so by their natural parents" (p. 93). There are also typographical errors like "complemented" for "complimented" (p. 94) and vice versa (p.168). Haas praises his editor for the freedom he allowed him (viii): perhaps one or the other should have blotted a few more lines. The notes, which take up almost half as much space as the text, would have been more accessible if the numbers of the pages to which they refer had appeared at the tops of the pages on which they appear. The book is full of comparative references, and with its extensive bibliography of secondary works it will interest and serve scholars and students of the history of childhood and the family in all periods and places, not only medieval and early modern Florence.