Gerhard Jaritz

title.none: Squatriti and Merideth, trans., The Renaissance in the Fields (Gerhard Jaritz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0004.001 00.04.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gerhard Jaritz, Central European University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Balestracci, Duccio. Squatriti, Paolo and Betsy Merideth, trans. The Renaissance in the Fields: Family Memoirs of a Fifteenth-Century Tuscan Peasant. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 146. 14.95. ISBN: 0-217-001879-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.04.01

Balestracci, Duccio. Squatriti, Paolo and Betsy Merideth, trans. The Renaissance in the Fields: Family Memoirs of a Fifteenth-Century Tuscan Peasant. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 146. 14.95. ISBN: 0-217-001879-8.

Reviewed by:

Gerhard Jaritz
Central European University

It took fifteen years for Duccio Balestracci's Zappa e la retorica. Memorie familiari di un contadino toscano del Quattrocento (Firenze: Libreria Salimbeni, 1984) to find its way to anglophone readers. This rather long timespan can be clearly recognized in the author's introduction. There, he emphasizes the new interest of historians in the subaltern classes of society and their modes of life in the rather 'antiquated' way that was very typical for the eighties and the trends of historiography of twenty years ago.

Balestracci tries to reconstruct Quattrocento Tuscan peasant life and mentality based on two surviving account-books of members of the Massarizia family which cover the years 1450 to 1502 and 1461 to 1485. The Massarizias lived in villages west of Siena, in the country of the Masse that surrounded the town for five miles around. Their main representative and principal character in the period of the composition of the sources was Benedetto del Massarizia, who can be seen as their 'author' from 1453 until his death, a bit before 1502. The sources contain the economic transactions of this rather well- off peasant family. Thus, they served as proof of their dealings and were supposed to protect them from any kind of deceit, discord, and conflict. The keepers of the accounts were unable to write themselves; they had perhaps only some education in the ability to read, at least the entries in their account-books. Therefore, others had to be asked to write down the confirmations of their transactions. The remarkable differences in handwriting show that professional notaries, officials and clerics, but also probably bankers, aristocrats, school teachers, doctors, or urban craftsmen acted as clerks. By keeping the records in their account books, the 'illiterate' Massarizias, moreover, obviously tried to "break the bonds of illiteracy", and to use literacy as a kind of weapon in an "attempt to escape the restrictions of a subaltern status" (E. Muir in his introduction, p. xiv f.). The written confirmations of their contracts led them, at least to some extent, to a greater equality in rights in the hierarchically determined Renaissance society. The decisive influence of the nearby urban businessmen class and their culture of writing ("the urban Tuscan writing fever", p. 1) appear obvious. The two volumes are very similar to urban notarial notebooks.

The sources offer very good examples of a type of agrarian agreement that had been typical for Central Italian areas since about the mid-thirteenth century: the mezzadria or sharecropping. In sharecropping contracts, landowners provided the farmland and half of the necessary 'supplies', like tools and their repair, seed grain, and work animals, while the peasants were responsible for the other half of the 'supplies' and the necessary agricultural labor. The crops were to be equally divided between peasant and landowner. The Massarizias did not keep to this one land-use possibility; they moved between sharecropping, smallholding, and renting land. They grew grain, fruit and olives, cultivated gardens and vineyards, produced wine, cut and sold wood, carried out animal husbandry (cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens), and operated a lime kiln. In their economic connections the family kept up business relations with other peasants, but also with nobles and, particularly due to their proximity to Siena, with urban merchants. In this manner, they regularly moved between countryside and town. This may also have been the reason that they tried to obtain a number of 'urban luxury goods' (e.g., " a belt and buckles of gilt silver" that Benedetto bought from a goldsmith, p. 110) to be used to fulfill their wish to impose through outer appearance and self-representation. The burden on the family in taxes and forced loans to Siena was quite remarkable, particularly as they also possessed more goods than many other peasants did. Additionally, they had to pay the tithe to the local parish church. The author deals with all these economic, agricultural and fiscal components of peasant life in a number of instructive shorter chapters.

Beside his treatment of the economic activities of the Massarizias, Balestracci also tries to reconstruct the biographies of the known members of the family, and particularly of Benedetto, the principal character in the account-books. The family first appears in records from the early 1400s, while the last signs of it can still be traced in 1580. These biographies have had per force to concentrate again on economic activities, as any kind of other surviving source material on the Massarizias is very scarce.

Although the two account-books do not contain much adequate information, the author also makes an effort to deal with the role of females in the life and household of the peasant family. There, however, he is only successful in respect to listing and providing basic information on the female members of the Massarizias, and particularly on the composition of the dowries that are mentioned in the two booklets.

The account-books were written in Tuscan Italian. The Renaissance in the Fields presents the English translation of one of them, the book containing entries from 1450 to 1502. Anybody who would like to use the sources for further analyses will regret that the second book was not included; Balestracci does not offer any reason for this decision. Moreover, it certainly would have been welcome if the Tuscan Italian transcriptions and the English translation of the sources were made available. It is obvious that the higher printing-costs prevented the realization of this option.

Nevertheless, the study may be seen as a nice introduction into some aspects of Tuscan peasant life and peasant mentality of the Quattrocento, as well as into the further possibilities that the 'literacy of the illiterates' and its analysis are offering to historians of the period. Sometimes, it is not really easy to distinguish whether Balestracci's given statements rest upon the entries in the two account books or on comparative material. In other cases, the author's generalizations seem to be a bit too bold (e. g., "Country people won a 'victory' with the written contract, for it placed them on an equal level with the landowners", p. 5). However, already the examination of the contents of the one booklet that has now been published in English translation makes it clear that Balestracci has not only presented very valuable sources and their analysis, but that further studies into this material and into similar account-books (see p. 5) will prove very worthwhile.