Francesco di Marco Datini, the 14th-century Tuscan merchant who forms the subject of the Marchesa Origo's study, has now probably become the most intimately accessible figure of the later-Middle Ages. In 1870 the whole astonishing cache, containing some 150,000 letters and great numbers of business documents, came to light. The Marchesa Origo has drawn on this material to paint, in detail, a picture of Italian domestic life on the eve of the Renaissance.
Iris Origo was a British-born biographer and writer. She lived in Italy and devoted much of her life to the improvement of the Tuscan estate at La Foce, which she purchased with her husband in the 1920s. During the Second World War, she sheltered refugee children and assisted many escaped Allied prisoners of war and partisans in defiance of Italy’s fascist regime and Nazi occupied forces. She is the author of Images and Shadows; A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939–1940 (NYRB Classics); Leopardi: A Study in Solitude; and The Merchant of Prato, among others.
This lovely study of mercantile life in northern Italy based on a chance find of a set of documents which turned out to be almost the complete archive of Francesco di Marco Datini (1335ish - 1410 ). Datini came from Prato in Tuscany, as a young man went to work in Avignon - at the time the seat of the Papacy and an important commercial centre - where he set up a shop which expanded over time into a far reaching network of companies and commercial activities. Datini's will left his house and most of his money as an endowment to his home town to be administered for the benefit of the poor. In 1870 during work on his former property, a huge archive of Datini's paperwork was discovered behind a wall. The documents included about 500 ledgers and account books, some 300 deeds of partnership, around 400 insurance policies, in the region of 120,000 letters personal and business related, and thousands of other documents such as bills of exchange, contracts, letters of credit, bills of lading and so on. Judging by the dates of the documents the archive isn't even complete, as it seems to cover only most of the last thirty years of his life, which gives some idea of the scale of his undertakings .
The scope of the archive opens up the possibility of any number of specialised detailed studies whether looking at Datini's business or personal life. Origo draws from some of these as well as from archive material to give an overview of his business and daily life. The book is divided into two parts, the first looking at the business side of his operations, the second at family and daily life. But really any one chapter could be expanded to become the subject of a book length study.
Datini was not one of the greatest merchants of his age, however the spread and scope of his undertakings appear striking. There was no specialisation, he traded in apparently anything: wool, cloth, salt, arms and armour, jewels, enamels, crucifixes and religious paintings, silks, lead, paper, cotton, woad, brass, spices, hides, soap, ivory, ceramics, ostrich feathers and eggs, maps, leather, sardines, rope, honey, sugar, alum and slaves were among the goods he bought and sold. Eventually he also moved into banking .
His business operated out of shops established in Florence, Valencia, Barcelona, Pisa, Majorca and Genoa. These were established as partnership companies, with different partners putting in capital and labour with one partner often based in the regional office with the profits shared in proportion to their investment. One interesting detail is the long time it took for the merchant to realise profits on transactions. Another the looseness of the form of operation. Datini had definite ideas about how his business should be transacted which led to him writing long, frustrated letters to his factors and partners.
Business wasn't straightforward. Wars closed markets and devastated regions, the plague interrupted trade, and there were shipwrecks, piracy and brigandage as well. At the same time outbreaks of peace and of royal weddings offered opportunities to sell luxury goods. Lending money to kings bankrupted the grander Italian merchants, Datini was too small to be involved in that kind of venture. However conditions of business seemed to have ground on Datini, Origo sees him as living in a state of angst. He was also penny pinching. A stone mason who worked on Datini's house wasn't paid for twenty-four years. Datini was outraged when the man eventually screwed up his courage and asked to be paid. Painters were turned out of his house mid way through their work leading to a court dispute, a friend told him that had he spent the time in prayer instead of dispute he would have found the road to Paradise (p243).
A striking feature of the description of the household is how Spartan it seems in contrast to the wealth of the business operations. A few beds and chests, a bare twelve silver forks, not much crockery. The clothes are lavish, the linen closet a source of pride but the impression is that fourteenth century Italy didn't produce a great range of household goods. By modern standards the great house seems sparely furnished. There are hardly any chairs for instance. Mirrors were important - as a way to reflect light on to the writing table. Datini owned a few books including a large volume of the Life of the Saints, the Divine Comedy is cited a few times in the letters, there is battered children's psalter, a copy of the little flowers of St Francis which is lent to a friend for him to read to his young sons at bedtime, and the letters of St Jerome and St Gregory.
Datini's wife, Margherita, was somewhere between fifteen and eighteen when she married the significantly older Datini. She learnt to read in her thirties. Until which time her husband's letters were read aloud to her. The couple had no children and Datini spent many years apart from her in Florence while she remained in Prato during which time he pursued serving women and slaves with sufficient assiduousness to become the father of several illegitimate children. One of whom, a daughter, was brought up by his wife and married off with a decent dowry, a Cardinal was among one of the godparents of a grandchild. But unsurprisingly the martial relationship was stressed. Origo compares the range of Datini's lengthy instructions to his wife (Wash the wine barrels! Make friends with the Podesta's wife! Give out a thousand oranges and some herring in charity!) to The Goodman of Paris, but that comes across as considerably gentler in tone than the nagging letters sent by Datini to his wife.
Her life was fairly circumscribed, while she had a circle of friends in Prato she didn't get to travel much beyond it. It is easy to see how as Huizinga describes in The Waning of the Middle Ages pilgrimages were rare opportunities of freedom from the round of daily life. Datini joined a penitential movement, inspired by fear of the plague, and with thousands of others spent nine days away from home having sworn not to sleep within stone walls or to take off their robes but apart from the business of scourging ourselves with a rod and accusing ourselves to Our Lord Jesus Christ of our sins despite the scourging, it seems to have been pleasant enough: I took with us two of my horses and the mule; and on those we placed two small saddle-chests, containing boxes of all kinds of comfits, and a great many small torches and candles, and cheeses of all kinds, and fresh bread and biscuits, and round cakes, sweet and unsweetened, and other things besides that belong to a man's life; so that the two horses were fully laden with our victuals; and besides these, I took a great sack of warm raiment to have at hand by day and night... (p323).
There are other details of daily life, the rare person who had breakfast - a slice of bread and a glass of white wine as fortification against the plague. The more usual habit was to have just two meals a day. A substantial cooked dinner at about nine in the morning followed by a supper around sunset. The couple probably slept naked apart from the nightcaps that they wore and when they woke up rather than having a wash they would rub their heads with a towel. This was considered very good for health and well being.
With the close of his life Datini was encouraged to amend his will to leave his wealth for charitable purposes and as a result the archive of materials that Origo draws upon for her book was sealed up behind a wall and accidentally preserved. The strength and the weakness of this book is the attempt to give an overview of all of Datini's activities, the businesses, his marriage, friendships, his house and household, the farms that he owned, the food and drink. As a result it is not as focused as some more recent micro-histories. There is so much material that Origo is generally summarising the source material rather than letting it speak for itself - which is a pity, however it is a rounded overview of one of Dante's readers and a medium sized cog in the economic life of his times, a big man in a small town.
A friend who knew of my interest in textiles recommended that I read this. Francesco Di Marco Datini was (among other things) a wool trader in 14th century Tuscany. The most interesting thing about the book is the raw materials the author uses to reconstruct Datini's life: he left unbelievably vast amounts of letters, business records, ledgers, all of which were discovered undisturbed and intact in the 1870s. Just the fact that all this material was left in a room under the stairs for over 400 years is mind-boggling. The sense I get from reading the book is that life for this citizen of Prato -- in its most basic form of human relationships -- was little different than it is today. Datini himself was not a very endearing character: he was a classic type-A, driven to make money, and worrying all the time that he would either lose it or not make enough. The fact that he was so obsessed with his businesses meant that he was rarely at home, and that fact actually helps us to get a glimpse of daily life because he wrote detailed, almost daily letters to his wife, obsessing about how she was conducting the business of running their home. She clearly had a sense of humor, because her letters in reply were patient but there was enough retort in them to show that she was definitely not just going to sit there and take it! Some of the book, particularly the part outlining Datini's business dealings, reads like a textbook, but once you get into daily life, the story comes to life. Medieval Italy never seemed so real before!
This is a well researched, very well written biography. Barbara Tuchman got it right when she wrote, "one of the great works of historical writing of the twentieth century." Having said that, it takes an unusual curiosity to want to read 389 pages of a biography of an obscure Merchant from the 13th and 14th century, dying in 1410. That curiosity is, however, well rewarded in a wide ranging description of life, religion and business in the 14th century France and Italy.
Written in 1957, this book will undoubtedly help historian for many centuries to come.
This work did not hold my attention as well as I hoped and expected; I think it has been a little over-sold by its admirers. This edition also suffers from a foreword by Charles Nicholl which is a complete waste of space. An additional problem is that some of the notes at the back are in fact annotations rather than mere references, and these would have been better placed as footnotes on the relevant page, thus avoiding a lot of tiresome to-ing and fro-ing. Looking past such qualms, looking directly at Origo’s text, this is nevertheless a competent and often interesting account of life in 14th century Italy’s commercial circles.
Read the paper book, on “recommendation” from the chief curator at The Frick Collection. An unexpectedly wonderful read - thoughtfully researched and written in an extremely readable way, this is a story of a man who came from nothing and became a prosperous merchant in the Middle Ages. I loved learning about everyday life of this period in Tuscany - the food, the houses, the clothing, the customs, all gleaned from a treasure trove of letters and business records of a single man who was wise (or vain) enough to decree them preserved for posterity. A perfect book for dreary winter days.
This is a remarkable book which really lets the reader into what life was like in the 14th Century. Francesco di Marco Datini was a successful merchant who rose from humble origins to a position of considerable wealth and stature. A compulsive guy, he left behind 140,000 letters and 500 ledgers from which Origo constructed this detailed depiction of daily life in Italy at that time.
When he was in his 40's, he married Margherita who was a teenager. The marriage never seems very joyful, though they stayed married until the end, and exchanged countless letters since Datini was often away from Prato. The letters are generally cranky, and one gets more of a sense of loyalty than of love. Perhaps some of the unfulfilled quality of this relationship was their failure to produce children. Italian culture was male-dominated, and Margherita had extensive duties for which Datini rarely seems grateful. Aside from nuns, women were not taught to read and write, though Margherita in her 30's did acquire these skills through lessons from a male friend of her husband's. Along with Datin's friend Ser Lapo, she is one of the few characters besides Datini himself who comes alive in the book.
There is an extensive discussion of trade, since Datini was a merchant, and it is surprising to know how extensive it was, even though shipping was done by mule or galley. Italy traded regularly with England and Asia, and depended on a surprising number of imported products like cloth and spices. On the one hand, life was more sophisticated than I expected; on the other, they lived with surprisingly few possessions like furniture and dishware (though they had rather a lot of clothes). Amazingly, their bed was twelve feet wide.
There were many aspects of Italy's culture then which surprised me. Slavery was prevalent (who knew?) and the victims were more from Central Asia than Africa. They seem to have been treated well for the most part, at least as well as free servants. The price of a slave boy was about the same as that for a mule. Fur was a big deal in apparel, and included squirrel and (!) cat. It was cheaper than cloth. Clothes cost more than jewels. In most cases, overhead costs were a lot greater than those for labor; thus, a painter was paid very little, but the paints etc. were surprisingly costly, probably because they had to be imported.
Food seemed abundant and had some variety. Recipes were very rich and usually sweet and had no relation to Italian food today. Sugar was seen as healthy. Provisions were bought in large amounts -- wine and fish by the barrel, for instance. They ate a lot of a fish called tench, which seems to have been a kind of carp (just a guess) with a lot of small bones. Breakfast did not exist. Beef was eaten rarely (though veal was esteemed) and was always only boiled.
The chapter on the Great Plague (really a series of epidemics which recurred periodically) brings to mind the current COVID pandemic, though the plague had a far higher mortality rate and people died more quickly.
The book is surprisingly readable, and the footnoting is user-friendly. But there are still struggles for a reader. There is often far too much detail (especially concerning trade). The cost of just about every item is relayed, but the values are not put into any context of another era, and it was hard to know what anything cost except relative to other items. There are also an astonishing number of words which are apparently English but unfamiliar to me (tench, mentioned above was one; there is an illness called "gravel" which perhaps was kidney stones). I spent a lot of time on my phone looking up words, which disrupted the flow of reading.
Still, this is an unusual and compelling book for anyone interested in other cultures. It reminds me of the work of Ruth Goodman, which I have enjoyed.
"Like a modern day Forrest Gumpp, Datini was an average person dealing with the everyday business of life but one where circumstances placed him at the center of great change. He lived at the time of transition from the middle ages to the modern era and was one of the many who were in the forefront of the march to modern times. He was a minor figure at the Papal Court in Avignon which was the center of a political and religious struggle. And, unlike the thousands of others in the same position, Datini kept his records which give us an insider's view of that world of a half a millennium ago." -Chuck Nugent
So much detailed info from the medieval daily life if you are into that, very interesting book. Some chapters less interesting than others (too much detail on less interesting topics like spices, weights or currencies). On the other side very detailed routine on food, religious, plague, and trading (among others).
Quite dry and full of facts, but an excellent book. Taken from correspondence and contemporary writings and literature. A fascinating insight into a family's life in the late 14th century in Avignon and Prato.
'De koopman uit Prato' is bijna een spreekwoordelijk beroemde middeleeuwer, beroemder dan vrijwel ieder ander willekeurige figuur van niet-aristocratische komaf - en dat is vrij opmerkelijk. Want hij was niet geïnteresseerd in politiek (speelde daarin ook geen noemenswaardige rol), schreef geen traktaten of gedichten, maakte geen kunst, en leidde in geen enkel opzicht een uitzonderlijk leven. Nee, in zekere zin valt hij juist op omdat hij zo normaal was.
Zijn reputatie is voor een groot deel te danken aan het succes van het boek van Iris Origo, dat in de jaren '50 verscheen. In haar boek bespreekt de auteur op toegankelijke wijze de meer dan 150.000 archiefstukken die van Francesco di Marco Datini, de koopman in kwestie, bewaard zijn gebleven. Het uitzonderlijke van zijn leven is, met andere woorden, te danken aan iets dat buiten zijn macht lag: de overlevering van zijn persoonlijke levensverhaal door middel van documenten. Het boek valt in twee delen uiteen. Deel 1 gaat over zijn leven als koopman, en deel 2 over zijn familieleven.
Beide delen zijn boeiend en beeldend beschreven. Uitgebreide aandacht gaat onder meer uit naar organisatie van werk, satellieten van zijn bedrijf in onder meer Avignon, Barcelona, en Florence; maar ook de offers die hij brengt ten koste van zijn vrouw, familie en vrienden. Voor mensen die nog niet bekend zijn met de middeleeuwen is dit een interessante introductie; zij die al wat beter op de hoogte zijn, missen wellicht de geopolitieke spanningsvelden die de geschiedenis at large wat beter inzichtelijk maken (ook al was Datini daarin zelf niet geïnteresseerd).
This is not my usual book, but at Randy's recommendation, I read it. This is the actual story of a man in the late 14th and early 15th centuries in Italy, Prato to be exact. Prato is near Florence. He was a businessman and spent much time in Avignon, France as well as Italy. He documented pretty much everything, and the author, Iris Origo, managed to put it into a form that reads easily. It is an amazing account of life in that time period and what people had to do to get along and how they dealt with everyday issues, even things like the plague. In many respects, this is a 'must' read.
Francesco di Marco Datini was a 14th-century merchant, born in Prato, and who ran businesses throughout Western Mediterranean. From a whole stache of letters and documents, this book brings him to life in such remarkable detail - it's really astonishing, considering he lived around 700 years ago and history - from its sheer wight - usually has a way of reducing and removing the nuance out of all but the most recent lives.
But Franceso is revealed here in all his miserly, nervy, grumbling self. His letters to his wife are strained and patronizing and they spent most of their lives apart and childless, only growing fond of each other in their old age. He sounds like the absolute worst boss - micro-managing every detail, prone to long lectures and demanding total devotion from his employees for minimal reward. And there's the touching, frank friendship he had with the devout Ser Lapo who was constantly appealing to Francesco to do good before it was too late, and who he shared a love of good wine with.
And it brings the world in which Franceso lived in to life too, so we get a better feel for the man himself. It was a hard world, constantly menaced by outbreaks of the plague which carried off so many of his relatives and friends so swiftly.
Francesco da Marco Datini died at the remarkable age of 75 in 1410. His achievements were no less remarkable - having lost his parents to the Black Death in his teens, he turned a modest inheritance into one of the biggest fortunes of his age through building a merchant empire over the Mediterranean. He never had a (legitimate) son and heir, so he vested his fortune in a foundation serving the needs of the poor of his native city of Prato, in Tuscany. The foundation continues to live on to this day in the palazzo built by him. This is where his business documents (500 account books and 150,000 papers in total) were found hidden in a stairway in 1870.
This book builds on this vast library of public and private documents to paint the most vivid picture of every day life in the late 14th and early 15th centuries: business dealings, politics, religion, cloths, art, food, drink, family quarrels, friendships, and the fear of death in an era where the plague could strike one dead any minute. Francesco as a person was probably not very pleasant, nor was he very remarkable; however, his life and legacy was thus preserved in this quite remarkable book for eternity.
Well-researched account of the 14th-century merchant, Francesco di Marco Datini. If you enjoy reading about the early history and commercial success of the Medici family of Florence, you'll discover many business details that contributed to the Medici prosperity found in the rich records left by Datini as revealed by Iris Origo.
I was prepared for this book to be quite dry, and a bit of a struggle to get through, but in actual fact it was a relatively easy read. I can't pretend the intricate details (the precise number of articles of furniture in the house, or count of linen in the linen chest) really interested me, but the overall image of 13th century Italian life is well captured in the book.
An absolutely fascinating insight into the life of a medieval Italian merchant, Francesco di Marco Datini. I have never read anything that brings the trecento to life like this does, and makes one think simultaneously how different things were then and yet how very similar in many ways. The first part deals with his business interests - after his parents died of the plague he travelled to Avignon where the Pope had his court and set up as a merchant, trading in a wide range of goods - arms and armour, cloth, artworks, spices, etc. - from across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Eventually he is persuaded to return to his home town of Prato with his new wife and joins the guild system in Florence, with offices in Catalonia, Genoa and Pisa. Letters between Datini and his agents across the Mediterranean attest to the dangers that beset trade - and travel in general - in the fourteenth century, and the time it took to relay messages and goods. The second part of the book focuses on domestic life: Francesco's building projects in Prato and in the countryside, how his house was furnished, what he ate and wore, how his household was organised, his religion and his health. These details come not only from the household accounts but also from letters between Francesco and his wife Margherita who were often separated while he was in Florence and she in Prato, and from his great friend the notary Ser Lapo Mazzei and others. These give an intimate insight into the character of Datini, his anxieties and close relationships.
The cache of letters and accounts that form the Datini archive are almost unique in their completeness, and though discovered in the 1850s their worth was not fully appreciated until Iris Origo gained permission to carry out this lengthy research. The resulting volume could, however, have been very heavy-going considering the meticulous detail of the account books, but in the hands of Origo, who lived most of her life in Tuscany and understood the traditions that still persisted (for instance the 'mezzadria' system of tenant farming), it is addictively readable, the fascinating facts of everyday life picked out and the characters brought to life with a lightness of touch and an innate understanding that is remarkable.
I alluded the other day to a biography shelf that I decided to dissolve and redistribute (everything could be moved into history, art history, British lit etc).
Aside from needing the space (for a liquor cabinet!), it held rather a lot of miscellany in the sense of books that I couldn't tell you where I got them or who they were about.
Glancing at this in an "I might read this and give it away" kind of mood, the opening sentence of Barbara Tuchman's 1986 foreword "Why is this book one of the great works of historical writing of the twentieth century?" made me wish not to be too hasty. (Whether Tuchman's star is what it once was when I was a kid is another matter).
Origo herself is a fascinating character: an Englishwoman who married an Italian aristocrat and wrote books of history entirely without any academic career (rather like Tuchman, I believe) and took a few years out in the 1940s to traffic Jewish refugees to safety.
The book itself is an amazing portrait of society and economy in 14th century Tuscany, southern France (Avignon having been important at the time as the center of the Church) and the east side of Spain from Catalonia to the Balearic islands. The amount of detail can be a bit mind-numbing, but there are some clear high points - to me the chapter on what they ate!
This book is so much, and it varies so greatly within it, that reviewing it is impossible. Some chapters (most notably 'The family friend') speak out to us and make centuries-dead people and concepts as alive as they were in their time. It is in this chapters that you can see that the author has read her Homer, her Shakespeare and her Dante: they fascinate not only because of what they tell but also because of how they tell it; the writing has a rhythm, a continuosness and a flow that are poetry-like. Other chapters (truth be told, most of them) are so dull that you dread having to read the book while you're going through them. Though Origo tried to make them less repellent by threading them with small anecdotes and general knowledge about the late middle ages, their true nature (inventories in the form of bullet lists of prices and jewels and clothes and donations) cannot be hidden from the reader. Perhaps these chapters are what makes this account one of the most reliable, but they also make this book so boring at times that i would only recommend reading it to middle ages nerds like myself and no one else.
As many books of this nature can do — I expected it to drag on a bit. Fortunately, this seemed to be an exception. Perhaps because the writer paints a portrait of Francesco di Marco that is as business-oriented as it is domestic. We learn of his strikingly Italian marriage. One could imagine a young Sophia Loren complaining that she lives like “an innkeeper’s wife” back home in Prato while her husband lives in 12 miles away in Florence.
The intricate world of 14th C finance, as discussed by a businessman & merchant with his hands in all sorts of enterprises in Italy & as far away as Romania & England, sheds a lot of light on how difficult trade was in the early days of banks. Three years to turn a profit on wool from England!
Letters maintained by the merchant, his wife, preparations made for illegitimate children, scoldings by more religious men he knew, & other personal details make this a book I wish was longer. I only give it four stars because this edition didn’t send a modern photographer to take pictures of his remaining items.
Een bijzonder boek met een ontzagwekkende hoeveelheid achtergrondinformatie samengesteld: alleen al van de koopman zelf, de ijdele maar vredelievende Francesco di Marco Datini, zijn 120.000+ brieven, bonnen en andere documenten overgeleverd. Daarnaast is het werk aangevuld met bronnenonderzoek uit Avignon, London en Florence, en daarbovenop nog eens met werken aangaande de sociaal-economische geschiedenis van Toscane. Stilistisch doet het denken aan Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, hetgeen ook geinspireerd is op een enkele bron, met de verhalen over niet alleen de koopman zelf, maar ook zijn familie, tijdgenoten, zeden en gebruiken van die tijd, en helaas tevens de vele herhalingen.
Het oorspronkelijke werk is uit 1957 en de Nederlandse vertaling van 2001 laat sporen zien van het engels waarin het werk is opgesteld.
Anyone curious about life in late medieval Italy will be enthralled by this rather charming account of the life of Francesco de Prato, a wealthy merchant based in Prato, a small Tuscan town not far from Florence. Much to our benefit, Francesco's papers--letters, journals, contracts, ledgers, bills, invoices, etc., both business and personal--survived, allowing for an intimate view of his life in the late 14th century. Each chapter focuses on certain aspects of his life, e.g., his marriage, his friends, his time in Avignon, etc. so it is not a strictly chronological biography. It does however omit any in-depth discussion of Italian politics primarily because Francesco stayed away from political activities in the interest of protecting his lucrative business. An excellent account of the period based on "real life" documentation which often shows the disconnect between what people actually did as opposed to what the law and government policy presumably allowed (or disallowed).
If you are interested in what life was like for an Italian merchant around the year 1400, this is the book for you. It's based on the letters of a real-life merchant and his wife, friends, and business partners, and contains a lot of interesting details, explaining both events in the life of Francesco di Marco Datini and the broader context.
The style is really good, especially given the length and subject matter. It reads like the setting description parts of a novel. Iris Origo honestly depicts Datini as a complex person, not hiding his flaws. She also devotes significant attention to his wife and to one of his friends.
Very interesting and informative. Reading as i was, however, for leisure it was at some parts very heavy (lists of inventories or descriptions of daily garments). If one is interested in such detail this book is a must-read. If you are simply looking for something to pass your time i would reserve it for a more concentrated read. The highlight of the whole book and the reason i started reading it was the correspondence between husband and wife which paints a rare and often amusing relationship between Francesco and Margarita
Carefully researched, exquisitely detailed and pleasantly narrated, this biography of an Italian merchant during the advent of capitalism is a goldmine of daily life minutiae for anyone interested in late medieval or early modern Europe. I particularly appreciated the attention that Origo paid to slaves and their role in Francesco Datini's household.