Sunday, November 30, 2014

Snapshot: Florence, 1338

In my last post I promised a look at Florence's medieval population figures, with at least a cursory glance at our sources for that information and the processes historians use to figure out how many people lived in a given place at a given time.

But before we go into generalities, I'd like to take a look at one specific -- and extraordinary -- source for Florence, circa 1338.

In 1338, the ravages of the Black Death are still ten years in the future, though other pestilences have recently wrought havoc on a smaller scale, as have natural disasters and food shortages.  Dante has been dead for 17 years.  Florence's extraordinary century of growth -- the 13th century -- is over, and Florence is now the dominant military and commercial power in Tuscany.  She is a wealthy city, and much of her wealth comes from the wool industry.  Her merchants and bankers are famous throughout the world.

And one proud Florentine, the chronicler Giovanni Villani, elected to give us a detailed portrait of his city, including numbers.  Lots of numbers.  There is, of course, no way to verify his every claim, but modern historians have generally been impressed with how closely his figures tally with those they've arrived at after much forensic work.   

Giovanni Villani

Villani was in a good position to give us this snapshot of his city in the year 1338.  Born into a prosperous merchant family, he was a banker and a public servant as well as a historian.  He was an agent, a shareholder, and eventually a partner in the famous Peruzzi banking company; a member and sometime officer of the powerful Arte di Calimala (wool-finishers guild); and he served his city as one of its  priors (the nine-member elected government) on several different occasions.  In addition to that, he was deputized in 1324 to oversee the rebuilding of the city's walls, and after the famine of 1328 he served as a magistrate in charge of provisioning the city and distributing grain to the citizens of Florence. He also served in the Florentine army.

He knew Florence, knew her physical properties, her politics, her business ventures, her military activities, her people.

Here are a few of the things he has told us about Florence in 1338:

First, based on the consumption of grain, he calculated that Florence had about 90,000 mouths to feed.   Modern scholars believe the total population to have been somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 at that time; however, Villani explicitly says that he did not include members of religious orders or foreigners (foreigners being non-citizens, and there would have been a lot of them because of the influx of people from the countryside during the recent famine, people who wanted to take advantage of Florence's grain provisions).  Allowing for those two categories, Villani's figures appear to be fairly accurate.

Distribution of grain

He tells us that about 25,000 men between the ages of 15 and 70 were capable of bearing arms, and in time of war they would be joined by another 80,000 men from the surrounding countryside (the contado).

Between 5,500 and 6,000 infant baptisms were performed in Florence's Baptistery that year.

Three views, old and new, of the Baptistery

Some 8,000 to 10,000 children, both boys and girls, were learning to read in elementary schools.  Six hundred boys were enrolled in higher level schools to learn grammar and logic.

The city housed 110 churches,  of which 57 were parish churches and the rest belonged to the various religious orders.

Over 200 workshops associated with the wool trade employed some 30,000 people, producing 70,000 to 80,000 bolts of cloth with a total value of more than one million two hundred thousand gold florins, a third of which was paid out as wages.

Florence had 80 banks, 600 notaries, 60 physicians and surgeons, and 100 apothecaries to serve its populace.


In a year the city went through enough grain and wine and meat animals to allow us to say that each individual in the city consumed, on average, 530 pounds of grain, 54 gallons of wine, and 88 pounds of meat, according to the calculations in Gene Brucker's book Florence: The Golden Age, 1138-1737. That meant a total of 4,000 cows and calves per year, as well as 60,000 geldings and sheep, 20,000 goats, and 30,000 pigs.

Brucker also has an interesting diagram that illustrates the population breakdown.  Out of 500 people representing a cross-section of the entire population of Florence, he tells us, the distribution includes the following:
  • 1 moneylender or judge
  • 2 priests
  • 1 monk
  • 3 nuns
  • 60 scholars: 3 studying grammar, 7 studying the abacus, and 50 learning to read
  • 3 notaries
  • 1 doctor or apothecary
  • 1 baker
  • 139 (potential) soldiers
  • 8 noblemen
  • 2 merchants traveling outside the city
  • 8 foreigners (visitors or soldiers) 
  •  168 earning their living from the wool trade (one of whom actually owned a wool workshop)
There's more, but that should be enough to give you an overview of the bustling  metropolis of Florence in that long-ago year.  Next time I'd like to discuss a few of the potential pitfalls in trying to calculate population from the two main figures typically used for that purpose (grain consumption and baptisms), and also to find ways to visualize exactly how populous Florence was at various times in her history.

 Images in this post are in the public domain.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Medieval Italian City

Herewith I want to start a new thrust to this blog.  For a long time I've described myself as interested in Italy in the middle ages, as Dantecentric, as someone who wants to understand what came before the Renaissance.  All of that is still true, but when I think about the settings I choose when I write, I've realized that they all have one thing in common.

All my work takes place in medieval cities.

True, they were crowded, dirty, noisy, chaotic, malodorous, pestilential, dangerous, and politically volatile.  But they were where the action was. They were teeming with life and color and creativity and passion and ambition – in short, with all things human.  When Florence's population quadrupled over the course of the thirteenth century, it wasn't the birthrate that did it – it was immigration from the hinterlands.  There were reasons all those people wanted to try their luck in the city.

I've read  some wonderful medieval stories set in rural areas, in villages (one that comes to mind is Ann Baer's Down the Commons: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Woman, which is somewhere between a rural setting and a village), in some noble guy's castle, on the road (a wonderful new “on the road” book is Lucy Pick's Pilgrimage, much of which unfolds along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela).  There's nothing wrong with any of that, much that's right, and much that I need to know and understand about those settings to be able to make sense of urban life.  But for me, it's all about the cities.

When we go to Italy you'll never find us in some agriturismo place, some picturesque villa out among the cypress trees.  Not that it wouldn't be fun to be there, but knowing me, I'd just keep heading into the nearest city anyway, so we might as well stay there.  And not just in the city, but smack dab in the middle of the historic center, as medieval and as urban as we can get.  And in an ancient and historic building, if at all possible (and if they can get internet signal through those thick walls...).

Sometimes at night, or in the rain or snow, or at sunrise, it's possible to glimpse the city as it was, if only briefly.  And for me, those moments are worth traveling for. 

Of course, once in a while things go awry.  This, for example, was supposed to be the most beautiful piazza in Italy:

Obviously our timing was a little off.

My first novel, A Thing Done, takes place in Florence in the early 13th century.  It unfolds in the palazzos, the towers, the churches, the narrow and winding streets of the middle ages.  The story it tells is drawn from the ancient chronicles (and fleshed out a bit), and it traces the development of a pivotal incident in the history of this extraordinary city.  Today's Florence is at once modern, baroque, and Renaissance; if you want to find the middle ages, they're still there, but you have to work at it.  And I have. 

Here is a tower that was the scene of a major event in my novel. 

Today it houses a jewelry store, and it's a fraction of its former height – the government of Florence, during the brief period when it was controlled by neither the Guelfs nor the Ghibellines but by the popolo, required the nobles to reduce the height of their formidable defensive towers, in an effort to contain the lawlessness and the sheer military might of those powerful families.  Thus, the vertiginously scary balcony which so terrified my protagonist is long gone, but the base of the tower remains.  (See here for more on medieval towers.)

And here is a church where another major scene takes place.  It's now a library.

Here are a few links to earlier blog posts in which I've discussed some aspects of medieval Florence:
Was There a Florence Before the Renaissance?

Exercising Your Imagination, Part 1 and Part 2

So - What's It About?

What Building Most Defines Medieval Florence?

My work in progress alternates between two cities, Assisi and Rome, in the same time period.  Assisi is still very medieval in its aspect, and it's easy to walk down those ancient streets and let your imagination wander.  You don't have to work very hard at all, in Assisi, to go medieval.  (See here, here, and here for a few pictures of this lovely city.)

Rome, on the other hand, presents some challenges.  It is now a big, noisy, aggressive, modern city.  I wouldn't even bother with it, except – well, it's Rome.  What can you say?  Stuff happened there.

Rome presents the tourist/researcher with some truly bizarre contradictions.  Like this one:

The traffic is fierce.  You take your life in your hands crossing a street.  It's not quite the worst I've seen.  (That would be Naples, where the traffic is so gonzo it's almost fun, in a suicidal sort of way.)  But it's plenty bad enough. In Rome, we discovered that the only way you can cross a street in relative safety is to attach yourself firmly to one of the following:

  • a nun
  • an old woman
  • someone pushing a baby carriage

In fact, I'd only feel really safe in the company of an elderly nun pushing a baby carriage. 

Romans, thinking about crossing the street

And Rome keeps changing.  Giacoma, the main character in my WIP, lived in a fortified palace that incorporated the ancient ruin of the Septizonium.  Here's what would have been left for me to see if I had been in Rome in the 16th century:

And here's what's there now:

Despite the difficulties and frustrations, I do love learning about medieval Italian cities.  In my next post, I will be discussing population – specifically, the population of Florence.  This may, in fact, turn into two posts, one on how the population figures are derived (it's not as simple as glancing at a census), and a second on the actual figures, put into context, and on how they shifted over the medieval time period.  Hope you'll join me for this excursion into medieval demographics.

Images in this post are our own, or in the public domain.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sturm: One of Charlemagne's Lieutenants in Spiritual Warfare (guest post by Kim Rendfeld)

I'm delighted to introduce guest blogger Kim Rendfeld, who has recently released her second novel set in Carolingian times. The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar (Fireship Press) has been garnering praise for its unusual setting, its depth of characterization, and for the author's meticulous research and vast knowledge of this time period. Reviewers have called it "...a sweeping story of family and hope," and described it as "...filled with rich detail, compelling characters, and a well-paced plot that keeps the pages turning to its very satisfying end" and "...absorbing from start to finish." I certainly found it so! Read my review here.

Here's the blurb:

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.

In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion – but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

Now Kim brings us a post on Saint Sturm, a remarkable man living in turbulent times.

Kim Rendfeld

Sturm: One of Charlemagne's

Lieutenants in Spiritual Warfare

by Kim Rendfeld

When Charlemagne decided to invade Saxony in 772, he took spiritual warriors in addition to those guys with the spears and swords. Whether St. Sturm, the abbot of Fulda, was with Charles during those battles is not clear, but the king of the Franks put him in charge of the Christian mission in a large part of the conquered territory.

Charles’s wars against Saxony were different than those his ancestors had fought. It was the first time religion was part of the conflict. Perhaps, Charles wanted to protect Church interests. Perhaps he thought Saxons were more likely to keep their oaths if they put their souls on the line. Treaties were secured with vows that invoked deities. To Charles, only one was valid.

Whatever his reasons, Charles put his trust in Sturm, who had been a priest for about 40 years. He had grown up near Saxon territory in the monastery at Fritzlar, where he was an eager student. With the exception of a trip to Rome and two years in exile, he had lived in the region most of his life and had advised Charles on his relationship with the king’s first cousin Tassilo, the duke of Sturm’s native Bavaria.

The most influential person in Sturm’s life was St. Boniface, who had also tried to covert pagan peoples. At Boniface’s urging, Sturm and two companions spent nine years in forested wilderness seeking a suitable spot to start a new monastery. Medieval folk depended on the forest for survival, but it was also the home of predators, both beasts and evil spirits.

Boniface, then the archbishop of Mainz, had rejected their first choice, which Sturm’s hagiographer, Eigil, described as “a wild and uninhabited spot and [they] could see nothing except earth and sky and enormous trees.” The reason, ironically, was it was too close to pagan Saxons to be safe.

So Sturm tried again, and he finally found the right place on the Fulda River. His contemporaries probably saw it as the middle of nowhere. However, Boniface believed God had picked the place and successfully appealed to Frankish Mayor of the Palace Carloman to donate the land. Boniface later visited the site to give it his blessing.

The year was 744, when the Franks, under the rule of Carloman and his brother Pepin, were at war with the Saxons. Again. Despite the battles in Saxony, some of which involved Carloman and Pepin’s troublesome half-brother Grifo, the monastery at Fulda thrived, and Sturm visited Rome to better learned the Benedictine way of life.

Tangling over Relics

In 754, Boniface was martyred while trying to convert pagans in Frisia, and his body taken back to Francia. That was the beginning of Sturm’s political troubles.

When the relics reached Mainz, its archbishop, St. Lull, also a disciple of Boniface, wanted the martyr’s body to remain in his city. Sturm insisted that Boniface be taken to Fulda, a wish his mentor had expressed while still alive. Martyr’s relics were treasured in the Middle Ages, and they were attributed with miraculous powers. Pilgrims would flock to those relics, which meant alms for the church housing them.

St. Boniface baptizing a convert/Martyrdom of St. Boniface (11th c. image)

According to Eigil, Boniface himself weighed in by appearing to a deacon in a dream and asking why he wasn’t being taken to Fulda. Lull was not convinced until the deacon swore at the altar. The relics went to Fulda, but Lull retaliated in a distinctly medieval way.

Lull accused Sturm of disloyalty to Pepin, now king and sole ruler of Francia. Sturm made no effort to defend himself and placed his trust in God. Believing the accusers, Pepin sent Sturm and some companions to the Abbey of Jumièges, where they were treated well.

In the meantime, Lull had managed to get Fulda placed under his jurisdiction and appointed a new abbot, but the monks at Fulda refused to accept the bishop’s puppet. So Lull caved and let them elect one of their own. They choose a monk whom Sturm had mentored and, along with nuns in convents and the faithful at other churches, prayed for Sturm to be restored to Fulda.

The prayers worked. Pepin sent for Sturm and in a chapel told him he had forgotten what they were quarreling over. Sturm replied he wasn’t perfect but has never committed any crime against Pepin. To signify the reconciliation, the king pulled a thread from his own cloak and let it fall to the floor.

So Sturm went back to Fulda, and the monastery would claim Pepin as its sole protector, making it independent of Mainz.

Fulda (1850)

A New King and New Missions

When Pepin died in 768, he split the kingdom between sons Charles and Carloman (the Franks were fond of recycling names). Seeking divine favor and earthly alliances, Charles gave donations to Fulda. He also made Sturm an emissary between him and the duke of Bavaria.

Eigil says Sturm established friendly relations between the royal cousins for several years. Well, not exactly. In fairness to Sturm, even the most gifted diplomat would have difficulty with those two. Relations might have been good while Charles was married to a Lombard princess, the sister of Tassilo’s influential wife. When he assumed sole rule of Francia, Charles divorced the Lombard after only a year and then overthrew his ex-father-in-law. The duchess of Bavaria never forgave the Frankish king.

Sturm had other affairs to deal with when Charles invaded Saxony four years into his reign and destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples, the same way Boniface had felled a tree sacred to pagans. The message: My God is stronger than those devils you worship.

Sturm embraced his new mission. He preached to the Saxon converts and exhorted them to destroy pagan groves and temples and build churches instead.

But as soon as Charles was occupied elsewhere, pagan Saxons attacked Christian sites. Then Charles would send Frankish warriors to put down the rebellion. This cycle would repeat itself for decades.

While Charles was in Spain in 778, the Saxons devastated Christian holdings and killed indiscriminately all the way to the Rhine. When Charles got word, he sent soldiers to put down the rebellion, and the Saxons retreated. But the monks at Fulda feared an attack and fled with Boniface’s relics. They spent three days in tents in the forest until they learned that the locals had fended the Saxons off.

Charles still wanted Sturm to lead the Christian mission, but the aged man was ill. The king assigned the royal physician to attend to him. One day, the physician gave Sturm a potion to make him feel better, but the patient got worse and realized he was going to die. He asked his brothers for forgiveness and in turn forgave those who wronged him, including Lull.

Sturm died December 17, 779. The monks had no doubt that Sturm was going to heaven and would have a special relationship with God.


Eigil’s Life of Sturm []

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Pierre Riché’s The Carolingians: The Family Who Forged Europe, translated by Michael Idomir Allen

Sturm makes a brief appearance in Kim Rendfeld’s latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014 Fireship Press), a story of a Saxon mother and the lengths she will go to protect her children. To read the first chapters of Kim’s novels or learn more about her, visit You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, like her on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Illustrations in this post are in the public domain.