Blake Beattie

title.none: Milner, ed., Minority Groups in Premodern Italy (Blake Beattie)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.017 06.02.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Blake Beattie, University of Louisville,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Milner, Stephen J., ed. At the Margins: Minority Groups in Premodern Italy. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 39. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Pp. x, 283. $24.95 (pb). ISBN: 0-8166-3821-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.17

Milner, Stephen J., ed. At the Margins: Minority Groups in Premodern Italy. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 39. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Pp. x, 283. $24.95 (pb). ISBN: 0-8166-3821-7.

Reviewed by:

Blake Beattie
University of Louisville

This recent addition to the rapidly expanding body of scholarship on marginal and excluded groups in medieval and early modern Europe contains thirteen articles by twelve different scholars (with two by the editor, Stephen Milner). The articles, all by well-regarded scholars, are of a uniformly high quality; each one ventures into some aspect of social and cultural history that has received too little attention in traditional scholarship, and each one stands on its own as a scholarly endeavor. Taken as a whole, the collection is, like so many works in the field, both fascinating and a bit frustrating. If the book consistently and persuasively demonstrates the essential interplay between "centers" and "margins," it never really solves the historical (or historiographical) problem of defining them. Nor does it stray too often from the traditional great "centers" of late medieval and early modern Italy; in view of the subject matter, it is ironic, perhaps, that most of the articles concern themselves with Florence and, to a lesser extent, Venice. Even so, this is a book well worth reading.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I, "The Centrality of Margins," attempts to provide the essential context for the rest of the book by establishing the importance of "margins" in defining and affirming "the center." Herein lies one of the collection's principal problems: one cannot examine "the margins" without clearly establishing "the center"--and, as the three articles in this section clearly acknowledge, that is a very difficult thing to do, especially where the Renaissance is concerned. (Indeed, the concept of "Renaissance" is itself so hotly disputed that Milner has chosen, quite wisely, to speak of "premodern" Italy instead.) The articles--by Milner, Derek Duncan, and Peter Burke--do an excellent job of reviewing the historiography, underscoring the difficulty in making clear distinctions between the center and margins, and pointing up the importance of the latter in delineating the former. Burke in particular does yeoman's service in tracing the geographic, thematic, and social "decentering" of the Renaissance over the past thirty years or so. Still, the reader reaches the end of Part I without a clear sense of exactly what "the center" is. Is it, as Burckhardt suggested, "the Renaissance Man," as epitomized by Leon Battista Alberti--a brilliant polymath of aristocratic lineage yet illegitimate birth? If so, "the center" would have been restricted to a tiny group of people. Milner, of course, thinks not (and acknowledges that Burckhardt himself was open to the alternatives); along with Duncan and Burke, he is more concerned, perhaps, with describing the near impossibility of coming up with a clear identification of "the center." One can appreciate the intellectual honesty of this approach, which refuses to create artificial norms or to set up straw men. Nevertheless, it does create something of a conceptual problem for the work as a whole: if "the center" remains a moving target, itself informed by a constant and ever-changing dialogue with "the margins," then just how marginal are the various groups discussed, and on what exactly is their marginality predicated? The reader must, in a sense, take the authors' and the editor's word for it that they are.

Parts II through IV explore different groups who existed or acted on the social margins of later medieval and early modern Italian society; in the process, they demonstrate just how broad the margins could be. Some of the subjects can clearly be regarded as marginal, even in the absence of a well-delineated center; like art and pornography, they may be hard to define, but one knows them when one sees them. Kenneth Stow offers up an article, based on his continuing research into medieval Jewry, on Jews in early modern Italy. Michael Rocke examines the problem of sodomy in late medieval and early modern Florence. In both cases, the subjects clearly lie at or beyond the margins. The Jews were the eternal outsiders within, whose stubborn adherence to their ancestral faith both precluded membership in Christian societies and illuminated, as Stow observes, what Renaissance Christians "questioned or disliked in their own actions" (72). Sodomites placed themselves beyond the margins of respectable society through sexual practices that constituted a gross affront to prevailing sexual norms (though, as Rocke observes, premodern sodomites did not constitute a discrete sexual class, analogous to modern "gays"; they "were defined not by the biological sex of their erotic partner but strictly by the sexual acts they performed," p. 56). Philip Gavitt's article on female foundlings and charitable institutions in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century northern Italy looks at the experience of children who were cast out of their families (most often as a result of material exigency); significantly, many of these girls turned to prostitution, and thus continued to live "marginal" lives, when they reached adolescence and left the protective environs of the foundling hospitals where they were raised. Stephen Milner examines political exiles--a group that had marginality thrust upon it and formalized, in effect, by the rhetorical expressions and ritual activities of the state. Other articles look at groups that consciously and deliberately embraced a marginalization which the larger communities viewed as a wholesome corrective to the worldliness and materialism of urban society. It is here, perhaps, that the reader gets the clearest sense of the extent of the center's dependence on the margins. Mary Laven's piece on nuns in Counter-Reformation Venice reminds us that the tremendous influence of cloistered women was in large part contingent on their self-imposed social exile from the communities in which they lived. In this light, Anabel Thomas' article on the printing press of the Tertiary Dominican sisters of San Jacopo di Ripoli in late fifteenth-century Florence offers up valuable insights into the activities of a marginal group with a central place in the larger society.

Jews, sodomites, cast-off children, prostitutes, slaves (the subject of an article by Steven Epstein, reminding us of the persistence of that venerable and durable Mediterranean institution into early modern times): all of these clearly stood at or beyond the margins of society. Even religious women can be seen as marginal, though they achieved their marginality by means which contemporary society regarded as legitimate and admirable. Other groups, however, are rather more difficult to place at the margins in the absence of a well-defined center; one might even go so far as to say that their marginality was altogether more marginal. Indeed, these groups highlight the difficulty in making clear distinctions between margins and centers. Judith Bryce examines the distribution of devotional books to reconsider the phenomenon and extent of female literacy in fifteenth-century Florence. Samuel Cohn revisits the Apennine communities of rural Tuscany and the changing vicissitudes of their relations with Florence; Dennis Romano investigates old age and poverty in Renaissance Venice. Each author makes a compelling case for the marginality of the group in question, while simultaneously stressing its constant movement toward and away from the elusive center. A category as large and internally variegated as "women," for example, might justly be seen as precluding all but the most general observations; certainly, women cannot be considered a "minority group" (despite the book's subtitle), though literate women can. Bryce's subjects for the most part inhabited the middling or upper strata of urban Florentine society, and would have evinced a very different experience from their counterparts in the lower orders or the contado. Cohn's "mountaineers" had at least an ephemeral place among the Florentine contadini, until heavy Florentine taxation and the ravages of war with Milan devastated their communities and reduced them to the poverty and backwardness for which they became almost proverbial in the fifteenth century; their marginalization was thus a product of changes in Florentine policy (the deleterious effects of which were well known to Florentine policy-makers). Romano's subjects, of course, were pushed to the margins by the inexorable progress of time. In a society that placed great emphasis on youth and vitality, the elderly were often seen as objects of pity, reduced to poverty by physical debility and forced to seek support from charitable foundations. Even so, as Romano acknowledges, the elderly were not a monolithic group; their experience varied widely in accordance with professional activity and, of course, social status. In each case, the reader confronts the essential fluidity of a concept like "marginality"; it pressed upon, and receded from, the "center" almost constantly. But the reader is never entirely liberated from the suspicion that the "center" in question is at least as much a historiographical construction as it is a historical one, determined above all by the quantity of ink which historians have traditionally spilled on it.

Wide-ranging subject-matter is one of the pleasures of this book; readability is another. At a time when social historians have too enthusiastically embraced the jargon of the critical theorists, and given the variety of contributors to the collection, this is both surprising and welcome. Of course, there is a fair amount of "situating," "decentering" and "negotiating"; one cannot get too far without tripping over "liminality" or stumbling through short stretches of "contested space," and there is (to this reviewer's taste, at any rate) altogether too much "discourse" (both "hegemonic" and otherwise). The earlier pieces, which address themselves to theoretical and conceptual matters, are a bit more susceptible to jargon-mongering than the later ones; but none of the articles is so given over to it as to be impenetrable. As a whole, this collection proves that good social and cultural history does not hide its light under a bushel of hyper-specialized, pseudo-technical gobbledygook. At the Margins presents a fine collection of compelling and exceptionally well-researched articles on groups or activities that have attracted less scholarly attention than they deserve. It leaves the reader with a richer, fuller sense of premodern Italian society and the diversity of groups that comprised it; and it is hard to gainsay the merits of a work that does that.