12.10.14, Thomas, Garrisoning the Borderlands of Medieval Siena

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Tommaso Casini

The Medieval Review 12.10.14

Thomas, Anabel. Garrisoning the Borderlands of Medieval Siena, Sant'Angelo in Colle: Frontier Castle under the Government of the Nine (1287-1355). Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. xxii, 421. ISBN: 978-1-4094-2603-5.

Reviewed by:
Tommaso Casini
Independent Scholar

Anabel Thomas's book on Sant'Angelo in Colle continues the long historiographical tradition of studies on Italian rural communes, a field that can still be profitably explored and would also deserve, after so many local, sub-regional and regional analyses, a comprehensive study carried out with a truly comparative approach. Mainly relying on the Tavola delle possessioni, the list of possessions drawn up for taxation purposes by order of the commune of Siena in the early fourteenth century, the author investigates some key issues in the social life of the village, with a special focus on its relations with the commune of Siena and the considerable importance of the role that Sienese citizens and institutions, like the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, played in the economic, political and social development of that community. Thomas's painstaking examination of the section of the Tavola delle possessioni regarding Sant'Angelo in Colle is in itself one of the most remarkable features of the book, and the exposition of the difficulties this source poses to historians provides a good introduction to its use.

Although the Tavola delle possessioni is obviously the main reason why Thomas chose to study the period of the Nine instead of any other in the village's medieval and early modern history, she notes that that was the period in which the village enjoyed its greatest prosperity, mostly due to the village's importance as a Sienese strategic military stronghold towards Montalcino. The establishment of a Sienese garrison and the large purchases of land and buildings by Sienese citizens and the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in the village and its district were part of a strategy aimed at strengthening city control at the southern border of its territory, which was, as Bowsky observed, one of the areas still open to Sienese expansion after 1268. Thus, according to Thomas, it was the end of this role after the definitive submission of Montalcino to Siena in 1361 resulting in a diminished importance of Sant'Angelo in Colle in the eyes of the Sienese government that, in connection with the pandemics and famines that ravaged Italy from the first half of the fourteenth century, marked the start of the decline of Sant'Angelo in Colle, which is clearly documented for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Taking as a starting point the 1318 agreement between Sant'Angelo in Colle and Montalcino, Thomas has conducted a careful survey of Sant'Angelo's district and borders, also investigating the natural and agricultural features of the castellany's territory and the ways in which it was exploited. She displays an exceptional interest in the topography and characters of the urban fabric, with its walls, gates, communal buildings, mills, sources of water and waterways, churches, hospitals and major private houses, trying to find out the position they occupied within the village, their look and dimensions. The fact that the author lives at Sant'Angelo in Colle obviously helped much, since she has been able to avail herself of a direct knowledge of the place and nearby countryside.

As for the study of society, after an overview of the economic stratification of the local population, Thomas chose to examine a small number of selected cases, focusing on some rather well- documented individuals and families. Her most interesting findings in this field are perhaps those regarding intra-familiar relationships, especially economic relations between siblings or next of kin. For example, on the basis of Thomas's investigation we can maintain that in the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth century even the most advanced form of agrarian contract, namely sharecropping (mezzadria), which is usually considered the tool of a landlord who aims at maximizing profits, was also sometimes employed with a view to the circumstances, and probably the needs, of family members who needed land to farm.

A further element of interest is the study of the testamentary legacies of some rich villagers; the author indeed highlights the family devotional traditions and the political and religious factors that influenced the testators. Taking one of those wills as a point of departure, the author also carries out a very detailed study of the artistic activity in Sant'Angelo in Colle, examining all extant works of art produced for the village's churches and hospitals and discussing the influence exerted by Sienese artists, which is rather uncommon in a monograph mostly devoted to the study of society.

Some linguistic flaws have to be pointed out for the benefit of all medievalists not familiar with north and central Italian sources. Thomas uses the word "mayor" to translate the Latin terms potestas (six occurrences) and sindicus (at least two occurrences). In both cases the English translation provided by the author is incorrect. Indeed, even in rural communes like Sant'Angelo in Colle the potestas had judicial powers that the word "mayor" does not convey, and in city communes like Siena he also had significant military and police powers. As for sindicus, this term can be better translated with the word "proxy." Some misprints and misspellings of Italian and Latin words (e.g. several occurrences of staio instead of staia) reveal a certain carelessness.

The rather limited use Thomas made of notarial registers should have required some explanation. Although the Tavola delle possessioni provides us with a description of the local society we could hardly draw from notarial drafts alone, the latter--when available--represent an invaluable source for several aspects of the social, economic and institutional life of a community. They often are our only source on non-agricultural economic activities and on money lending, and indeed the Tavola delle possessioni only recorded real estate holdings. The book by Andrea Barlucchi on the rural communes of the Scialenga, also in Sienese territory, is one example of a study that integrates both kinds of evidence. Possibly notarial records are almost completely lacking for Sant'Angelo in Colle, or possibly Thomas chose not to use them.

Social structures are deeply investigated here, but the institutional organization of the rural commune does not receive the same attention. Another issue that gives rise to perplexity is the way Thomas deals with the impact of the Black Death on Sant'Angelo in Colle, since there is no specific assessment of its consequences for the community. She apparently thinks that the loss of a key strategic role was the chief reason for the village's decline in the late Middle Ages, which is surely possible and a conclusion I would not question if supported by adequate documentary evidence. But the author does not make an explicit declaration to the effect that epidemics were not the driving force, and the issue is thus left hanging--a blank probably due to the lack or neglect of notarial registers.

Thomas's book provides interesting and detailed analyses of certain social dynamics and some aspects of the mentality connected to piety and devotion. Even though the book originated from the author's explicitly declared affection for the place, rather than from an interest in a specific historical problem, it represents a sound contribution to the history of late medieval Tuscan countryside. Future studies in this field will surely profit from it.

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Tommaso Casini

Independent Scholar