The Medieval Review 10.03.21

Jansen, Katherine L., Joanna Drell, and Frances Andrews. Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. xxiii, 589. $69.95 ISBN 978-0-8122-4164-8. .

Reviewed by:

David Foote
University of St. Thomas

This collection of one-hundred and twenty primary sources in translation (just over five-hundred pages of sources), is intended to serve as a resource for teaching medieval Italy. The chronological range of sources is roughly 1000-1400. By incorporating a remarkable variety of documents and narrative sources, including wills, deeds, land leases, charters, commercial contracts, law codes, court records, chronicles, letters, sermons, travel logs, memoirs, and hagiographical texts (just to name a few!), the editors strike a nice balance in several areas. Geographically, the sources strike a balance between city and countryside and between northern, central, and southern Italy. Politically, the documents highlight the various spheres in which power was exercised--royal (Italian, German and Norman), papal, comital, episcopal and communal. The sources present a reasonable representation of gender and ethnic/religious identities (Italian, Jewish, Muslim, and Greek). Economically, the documents illuminate the practice of agriculture, craft, and commerce. Last, but not least, the sources offer an interesting variety of spiritualities, both lay and clerical, without losing sight of the institutional context in which these spiritualities were lived out. In sum, this book offers the best collection of translated sources for teaching upper division undergraduate and graduate-level courses in medieval Italy. It captures the rich, creative, polycentric character of medieval Italy. Equally important, since the sources contained in this collection represent the contributions of sixty scholars, the book also provides a good snapshot of the state of the field.

The book's one-hundred and twenty sources, which range in length from less than half of a page to twenty pages, are arranged into twelve chapters. Each chapter opens with a short, thoughtful reflection on the chapter's organizing theme. Additionally, each individual source is framed by an introductory comment by the scholar who translated the source. These chapter and source introductions are well done, providing students with the requisite level of pre-understanding for engaging the sources, many of which might otherwise strike an undergraduate as somewhat foreign and opaque.

The twelve chapters of the book are as follows. Chapter One, "The Countryside and its Dependencies," introduces students to various aspects of the agrarian economy, the life force of medieval Italian societies. Documents such as land leases illustrate agricultural techniques and the various forms that landlord/tenant relations could assume. Narrative sources, such as Giovanni Villani's description of the Florentine famine of 1329, highlight the importance of the rural economy for life in the cities. If Chapter One introduces the reader to the life force of Italian societies, Chapter Two, "Spheres and Structures of Power: Ecclesiastical and Secular," highlights the processes of generation to which this life force gave birth. The sources in this chapter document the emergence of the early communes from episcopal and imperial authority and the creation of institutional mechanisms that established the communes as secular spheres of authority and identity in their own right. Another passage from Giovanni Villani's chronicle describes how the early communes, in turn, gave birth to the popolo, who marked out their own autonomous sphere of power by creating their own statutes and institutions. Chapter Three, "The Commercial Revolution," builds nicely upon the themes of the first two chapters by drawing attention to the revival of Mediterranean trade, which accounts, in part, for the rise of the popolo and a shift in the balance of economic wealth and political power (in the larger urban centers, at least) from the traditional landed classes toward merchants and guild communities. Sources such as apprenticeship contracts, guild regulations, canon law, cargo manifests, and statutes regarding mints, exchange rates, and customs dues point to the economic, political, and religious concerns of the people and communities drawn into the network of the increasingly integrated Mediterranean economy.

The energies that gave birth to new forms of political, economic, and religious communities resulted in a more complex, differentiated, polycentric society, thus making the spaces/differences between individuals and communities more complex and polydimensional. Chapter Four, "Violence, Warfare, and Peace," and Chapter Five, "Law and Order," highlight ways in which individuals and communities sought to order these spaces. The narrative sources of Chapter Four (and various sources from other chapters) show that the factors influencing the trajectories of violence are as varied as the sources of human identity and desire: religious, ethnic, economic, class, political (national, city, faction), family, geographic--each of which can be broken into subcategories and each of which variously reinforce or deflect each other. The documents of legal theory and practice in Chapter Five (court records, imperial and civic statutes, law codes, legal commentary, and peace contracts) show how jurists and public officials brought legal theory--deeply infused with ethical-religious ideals--to bear upon legal structures and processes in an attempt to increase the potential for peace as individuals and groups ventured into the spaces of difference. Chapter Six, "The Built Environment," examines the material culture of city and countryside through sources such as incastellamento charters, civic statutes regulating towers and urban spaces, building contracts, and narrative sources describing prominent landmarks in urban landscapes. While Chapter Six may seem a far cry from the themes of the previous chapter, the sources themselves point to a fascinating analogy between the world of "law and order" and "the built environment." The wording of the documents pertaining to castles, urban towers and baptisteries leave no doubt that these structures were statements of identity. As episcopal statutes concerning the height of towers indicate, these statements of family identity could poison spaces between urban lineages with pride; thus regulating urban towers was more about the spiritual/moral space between identities as it was about the towers themselves. The chapter ends with a description of the city of Pavia, whose walls bear the inscription, "Hail, O Second Rome, Imperial head of the World" (267), providing a nice bridge into Chapter Seven, "Rome, the Papacy, and Papal Politics". The narrative, diplomatic, and epistolary sources in this chapter can be grouped into two categories. One group of sources document the papal patrimony, beginning with Countess Matilda's donation of her Tuscan lands to the papacy in the eleventh century and ending with a narrative account of Cardinal Albornoz's campaign to reconquer the patrimony in the fourteenth century. The second group of sources examines the fascinating way in which the multi-faceted ideal of Rome--Republican, Imperial, and Papal--functioned as a common symbol or metaphorical space where emperors, popes, counts, magnates, popolani, and reformers of various kinds, articulated and debated ideals of political and spiritual authority. Chapter Eight, "Disease and Medical Practice," which, arguably, would fit more comfortably in Chapter Eleven, "Education and Erudition," explores the unique role that southern Italy played in the integration of Arab medical knowledge and the development of medical education and practice (including pharmacology and surgery) in Europe.

The sources throughout this book, both secular and religious, demonstrate the fascinating ways in which Christianity had leavened the lump of Italian society. Chapter Nine, "Varieties of Religious Experience: The Christian Tradition," draws upon hagiographical texts, canonization proceedings, letters, chronicles, sermons, confraternity records, civic statutes, and memoirs to offer an interesting sample of the spiritualities that this leavening process could produce. The lives of clerics, artisans, lay professionals, magnates and women that populate this chapter demonstrate the fascinating ways in which religion could simultaneously reinforce and subvert the structures of public and private life. In Chapter Ten, "Marriage, Family, and Children," law codes (Lombard, Roman, and canon law), marriage contracts, letters, diaries, and libri di ricordi explore family and kinship as private spheres of identity, loyalty, and honor that undergirded and profoundly influenced public life. Together, Chapters Nine and Ten highlight the warp and woof of identities and relations that undergirded and shaped Italian public life.

The sources in Chapter Eleven, "Education and Erudition," explore the methods and uses of education from elementary schools to universities. The selection of sources include excerpts from manuals of grammar and arithmetic that were used in urban schools at the elementary level; papal bulls addressing quarrels between the university of Bologna and the commune; university statutes; and sources examining the ways in which kings valued learning and erudition. Finally, Chapter Twelve, "Social Memory, History, Commemoration," draws upon wills, inventories, Annals, foundation charters, and donations as instruments for creating social memory.

The editors have organized the book very effectively. The chapter themes offer a useful way to categorize the sources, without imposing too much order on the collection. It is often the case that a document included in one chapter could just as easily have been placed in another chapter. Thematic connections between chapters are not made explicit (in describing the contents of the chapters, I have imposed more order upon the organization than the editors intended). This relatively loose organization offers flexibility for teachers to adapt the sourcebook to a variety of textbooks. Equally important, it leaves room for students to wrestle with the task of pulling the sources together to create an integrative vision of medieval Italy. To facilitate these tasks, the editors have included several useful tools. Following the Table of Contents is an additional table that organizes the sources chronologically (by century) and geographically (northern and central Italy/southern Italy). The Appendices include a number of helpful tools, beginning with a timeline of important events from 1000-1447. References to sources are usefully integrated into the timeline. Following the timeline are two maps, genealogical charts of the Normans, Staufen, and Angevins, a chronological list of popes (946-1429), glossary of terms, bibliography, list of contributors, and index. Given the wonderful job that the editors have done on this volume, I would suggest that a companion volume of sources from early medieval Italy would be tremendously useful. Too often, Italy in the central and high Middle Ages is presented as if it leapt from the head of Zeus, fully formed and armed. Documents from the early Middle Ages would provide students with a greater sense of continuity.