Thursday, December 29, 2011

Genealogy software: A research tool?

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Old Man and His Grandson

I have an off-again, on-again interest in family history. All history fascinates me, but I am not a notoriously patient person, and once in a while when I am attempting to track my forebears I run up against a brick wall and get disgusted. (That's an odd mixed metaphor, chasing my forebears into brick walls, but never mind.) Usually it's when I hit a period when all the guys are named William, none of the women are named at all, somebody apparently got married at age 5, somebody else died two years before his first son was born, and yet another was born, lived, married, and died on one coast and is supposedly buried on the other. At those moments, I generally decide I'm going to be an ancestor, not a descendant, and I pack away the family history stuff and wait impatiently for my son to produce offspring, who can then (all in good time...) look me up.

During one of my descendant periods, my husband gave me some family history software. It's a sort of specialized database that allows researchers to enter facts about their family members and organize the information in a variety of ways: charts of descendants, charts of ancestors, reports of relationships, timelines, and many other useful things. I poked away at it for a while, found another of those irritating conundra, and quit. But I was working on my first novel, set in 1216, and I had a lot of people to keep track of, and it occurred to me that perhaps this software could be pressed into service to produce useful charts and reports about my characters.

So I entered them. But not without problems: although this software is remarkably openminded in many ways and will tolerate all manner of unusual relationships, not batting a cyber-eyelash at multiple simultaneous marriages, children born out of wedlock, or families with multiple surnames, it balked at what I was trying to do. It wasn't thrilled with the fact that in 1216 lots of people didn't have surnames (you have to list them somehow, it whined), and it certainly wasn't gruntled about names like Dino del fu Giovanni detto "Il Rosso". It kept throwing messages that gently suggested I might possibly not have been entirely circumspect about my capitalization, for example. And all those little extra words just farbled it more. I could (and did) override, but it was an uphill struggle.

If you want to try this, by the way, do profit from my errors: learn enough about your own software that you can figure out a way to code entries as to whether they are historically accurate or whether you made them up. This goes for specifics of names (all those unnamed wives...), or dates (not a whole lot of certainty about birthdates in the 13th century, for example), or entire people (my characters needed cousins; I made them up). You think you'll remember what's historical and what's your own invention, but if you're anything like me, you walk away from it for a week and suddenly you will have no clue as whether the afore-mentioned Dino really died in 1308, or whether you just decided that might be convenient.

What will this do for you? It will give you a visual output that makes certain things jump out and grab your attention, for one. Faced with all those birth and death dates in a family, you will see which children died young, you'll get a sense of the ages of the oldest children when the younger were born (or when specific incidents in your story occurred),
and the relative ages of people who may well be part of overlapping generations, given the large size of many medieval families (like the family of Martin Friedrich the Younger, a Northern Bohemian glassworks master, shown here in a painting probably done by Eltas Hille in 1596, showing the entire family present at the Crucifixion - not an unusual thing for art patrons to require of their artists).

If there are gaps - periods where no children are listed, although they were appearing fairly regularly before and after - it would not be unreasonable to guess that children were born but did not survive infancy, given the alarmingly high infant mortality rate. In the period I'm working with, such children often would not be mentioned in the surviving records. Also in this period, it is not unusual to find sons listed but no daughters. I have one character who has a dozen sons by three (sequential) wives, all dutifully documented. I am hard-pressed to believe that he never had daughters, so I gave him some.

If there are discrepancies, this will help you to see them. A historical figure often described as the grandmother of one of my characters would have to have had a child-bearing span of about fifty years, for example, so we're back to the drawing board on that one. You will also note naming patterns: Corso Donati, one of my historical characters, is often described as being called "Il Barone" by the people of Florence because of his pride and arrogance, but a look at his family history shows the recurrence of nicknames like Baruni, Baroncione, and other variants of "Barone". One could conclude that Corso wasn't being egotistical; he was just using a family nickname. And I've named characters whose names are not recorded (generally women) by looking carefully at the naming patterns in later generations of the family.

If you are tech-savvy (and I am the antithesis of this), you might find you do better with a powerful database program, not specifically configured for genealogy. It would, for example, enable you to run reports that state how old everyone is in a particular year, something I had to go to a spreadsheet to track. But for those of us who need something quick and fairly easy, the family history software has certain advantages. For writers working in periods where pictures are available, they can be included; links to documents can be made, and extensive information about individuals can be entered. Your reports and charts will probably never be as lovely (or as loopy - see the one with descendants perched on the tree branches) as some of the charts shown in this post, but they should be clear and informative.

So, is it a good tool? I find it to be, though like anything else it has its limits. What I like about it is that I can use it not only to see what's actually known, but to see where I may need to invent something. It's oddly satisfying to be able to churn out a genealogy chart for someone who lived hundreds of years ago. If it sounds like it might be useful, or even just be kind of fun, I'd say give it a try.

Family tree images, in order of appearance: Page from a Portuguese Renaissance songbook; Ahnentafel von Herzog Ludwig (1568-1593), painted by Joachim Lederlin nach Jakob Zuberlin in 1585, in a Stuttgart museum; page from a 15th century manuscript in Paris. All images in this post are US-Public Domain by reason of expired copyright.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Off Topic

Ho, ho, ho!
(from the Christmas Boar of San Gimignano)

I had the best of intentions. I was going to do the research and come up with a description of how Dante and his family would have celebrated Christmas. But - as some of you may have noticed - this does tend to be a rather busy time of year, so realistically I was forced to conclude that it wasn't going to happen, at least not this year. (What was I thinking?!)

Instead, let me veer off topic and wish all my readers a wonderful holiday, whichever day or days you celebrate, and share with you a couple of our traditions. For example, at our house Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Plato dropping his usually serious demeanor and becoming festive:

Plato, festive

There's one ornament that always has a place on our tree, in honor of the late lamented Robin.

And here's the original:

Robin (aka Brave Sir Robin, or Robbitybobs)
"I don't care what you do with it, I'm not chasing that string any more."

And here's Robs on the Italian peace banner we use as a tree skirt:

Music is always a big part of the holiday. I'm attaching a link to the Bukkene Bruse song whose title translates to "A Child Is Born in Bethlehem." This wonderful Norwegian group has absolutely zilch to do with Dante or my research or medieval music (though the words are translated from the 14th century Latin), but it has an ecstatic quality that I never tire of. We also provide our own music, though, and when we do, I am happiest playing my portative organ, a replica of a 15th century instrument, made by a brilliant Dutch organ maker named Winold van der Putten.

The instrument, which spans almost three octaves, sits on a table perpendicular to my body, my right hand on the keys and my left hand pumping the bellows. At first, it was sort of like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time, but I've gotten the hang of it now.

On our last trip to Italy, we spent much time sitting in front of the cathedral in Siena, waiting for those magical moments when the setting sun turns everything gold. Since our Christmas card is based on a detail from the facade of that cathedral, I thought you might like to see one of the sunset views as well.

Siena Cathedral, sunset shot

And finally, our Christmas card to you, from the Siena Cathedral:

Our very best wishes for the holidays and for the coming year!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why White? - A Puzzle, Part 4

We've made progress. As you may recall, in the first Puzzle installment I stated the problems (would Buondelmonte's opponents really have killed him on Easter in 1216, as some chroniclers suggest? Would he in fact have gotten married on Easter? And why does everyone state that he was wearing white?). In the second, I managed to convince myself that he would not have been killed precisely on Easter, partly because there was too much else going on, and partly because it was considered a time of peace and forgiveness. (As Augustine Thompson, O.P., writes, "Cities enforced peace pacts and truces with special rigor during this sacred time." And in the third installment I convinced myself that Buondelmonte was unlikely to have been married on this day, for logistical reasons. (In fairness I must mention Florentine historian Richard Trexler's comment that Gregorio Dati, born in 1362, wrote that marriages were often postponed so that they could coincide with major feast days of the church. But Easter? I still don't think so.)

So why would contemporary (or near-contemporary) chroniclers have written these things if they weren't so, you may ask. Trexler again: "On whatever date an important communal event might have occurred, the historians made it happen on the day of a saint near that event." In other words, liberties were taken. Mistakes were made. Stories were improved. And the murder of Buondelmonte was definitely an important event to the commune of Florence.

So. Why does practically everyone say that Buondelmonte was wearing white? Was it because it was Easter (or near Easter)? Probably not - I've seen mention that people in Florence switched to "lighter" clothing for Easter, but I do not know whether that means lighter in color or lighter in weight. Either way, it's not white. Was it because it was his wedding day? No - white was not a wedding color in Florence in the early 13th century.

In fact, the one mention of people wearing white that I had been able to find was the white-clad Courts of Love that occurred in the spring of 1283, where the Rossi family led Florence's nobles and wealthy families in a two-month-long series of parties, feasts, and dances, supposedly with everybody wearing white. (My current theory is that it was a plot on the part of Florence's laundresses, to drum up business.) But we're exploring 1216, not 1283.

(This white gown, on display in Boccaccio's house/museum in Certaldo and used for festivals, might have been appropriate for Buondelmonte's fateful day, given the blood-red streak down the middle. Perhaps his new bride could have worn something like it.)

But wait! There was an occasion where Florentines wore white, and that was baptism. The infants wore white, and so did their parents and godparents. And it just so happens that in Florence, mass baptisms occurred on Saturday, the day before Easter, at Florence's ancient and well-beloved Baptistery (Dante's "bel San Giovanni"). Here's a photo of the Baptistery from around 1897:

It doesn't look very different now; I just like this picture. (Photochrom print by Photoglob. Zurich, public domain; Flickr administrator or reviewer BotMultichillT verifies Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

My original plan was to digress here and discuss the interesting phenomenon of mass baptisms in Florence, but I've decided to save that for a later post, as it gets somewhat involved. I will indulge myself to this extent, however: though Florence's 13th century baptismal font is no longer in place, it was probably very like the octagonal font still found in the cathedral in Pisa, pictured here:

(Font by Guido Bigarelli da Como. Photo by Jojan, under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

This type of font accommodated several priests, standing inside. The font contains hollow columns of stone, impossible to see here, and there is some controvery over whether the priests stood inside the columns to stay dry and dunked the infants in the water which filled the rest of the font, or whether they stood in the dry center area and dunked the infants in the columns, which were filled with water.

Be that as it may, I had found my answer. Buondelmonte had only to be a godparent, and there he would be, close to Easter, wearing white. But what about the strict prohibition on violence in Easter week?

A little further reading gave me this: During the mass baptism, each infant's forehead would have been wrapped in a band of cloth (called the
corona) to protect the chrism, or sacred oil. And it would remain so, unwashed and unchanged, for eight days, at which time the godparents and parents would take the infant to church, where a priest would wash the child's forehead and also the cloth, which would then be returned to the parents.

Eight days. Which might, depending on how you looked at it, be far enough away from Easter itself to allow Buondelmonte's scheming enemies to carry out their plan and get away with it. And Buondelmonte, as a godparent, would have to be in Florence to complete the rites of baptism by returning the infant to church to have the chrism cloth removed. He's in the right place, at the right time, and now he's wearing white. Bingo.

All I needed to do, then, was to create a young widowed cousin of Buondelmonte's new wife, late in pregnancy when she's first introduced, and have her give birth in time for her infant to be part of the Holy Saturday baptisms. No problem; one's fictional characters are usually happy to cooperate.

Of course, in Florence at that time godparents were rarely chosen from among family members; rather, the very important godparent relationship more often cemented friendships or alliances, or recognized them. But I decided to let my characters be a little eccentric in this way. After all, if they had done everything "just so," I probably wouldn't be writing about them.

A convoluted puzzle, but one that had an answer. Not necessarily the One True Answer, possibly not even the possible answer, but a plausible answer, and one I could live with. In threading my way through to it, I learned more than I realized I needed to about life in Florence in the early 13th century, and you know what? I enjoyed every bit of it. May all our puzzles be as satisfying.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

He was only mostly married - A Puzzle, Part 3

Last time, as you may recall, I had managed to persuade myself that Buondelmonte's foes would probably not have murdered him on Easter day in Florence in the year 1216, for various religious and logistical reasons, though the attack probably did occur close enough to Easter to be associated with it in people's memories. But there are still those chroniclers who state that he was married on Easter (to the Donati girl, thus jilting the young lady of the Amidei to whom he had been betrothed as a peacemaking gesture). Was he?

I doubted whether all of the Easter ritual would have left any time to celebrate a wedding, especially a wedding between wealthy Florentine nobles, with all the pomp and circumstance such an occasion would have demanded. I had visions of wedding processions clashing with religious processions, mystery plays coexisting with shawm players, elaborate displays of trousseaus contrasting with freed prisoners in penitential garb. It just wasn't going to work.

The many paintings of the marriage of the Virgin and Joseph give us some idea of what medieval Florentines might have expected to see when a wedding was celebrated, as in this fresco by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

Even the Virgin, in all her holy simplicity, had a wedding procession, with attendants and musicians. And check out this Bolognese wedding - it must have been pretty noisy.

Just how binding was Buondelmonte's reluctant betrothal to the Amidei girl? There's no doubt that he committed a serious offence by failing to honor his contract, risking a city-wide conflict so he could marry a different woman. (My husband's pithy description of the good knight was, "He was a goofball of a major order.") Breaking the contract was enough to call forth a vendetta against him, and yet his marriage to the Donati girl was legal. Although he had made a legal contract with the family of the other girl, betrothal was not yet marriage. To paraphrase The Princess Bride, he was only mostly married. Maybe we need to understand some things about weddings and betrothals at this time and place.

Marriage in early 13th century Florence was seldom as simple as running down to the Palazzo Vecchio, grabbing a notary, and getting hitched, and yet its essential element boiled down to mutual consent. It was not even necessary to have a priest present. Speaking the words of consent, even without witnesses, could be interpreted as a legal wedding, though doing it in this way would have been very unusual. It was more likely to be a multi-step process, and those steps could span anywhere from days to years, sometimes leaving couples in legal limbo for an excruciatingly long time until a dowry could be paid in full, for example.

After the initial arrangements were made between the two families, probably through the efforts of intermediaries - and neither bride nor groom had to be present for this - the heads of the two families clasped hands (the impalmamento), and soon afterwards the prospective groom brought a gift to the home of his bride-to-be and was a guest of her family at dinner. The couple were now considered to be betrothed.

Next, usually fairly soon after the impalmamento, came the giure, also known as the giuramento grande or the sponsalia or sponsalitium. This was both solemn and public, and involved males only, with kinsmen of both spouses-to-be and male friends of their families. The woman's father (if living; otherwise whichever male kinsman spoke for her) promised to obtain her consent. (One wonders about the definition of "consent" under these circumstances...) The groom promised to take her within an agreed time period and according to any stated conditions. A notary recorded the details and the dowry, which had been agreed to during the impalmamento. The bride-to-be may not even have been named in this document; if she was listed simply as "daughter of X", it was legally possible for X to substitute a different daughter, under certain circumstances. If an impalmamento was binding, the giure was even more so.

Next came the anellamento (ring day). The festivities took place at the bride's home, this time there were women present, including
the bride. A notary would again be present to record the legal details, and it is he who posed the questions prescribed by the church to obtain consent from both parties. The husband gave his bride a ring. His gifts to his bride's household were distributed (often they included edibles for the feast to come), and a supper, hosted by the bride's family, followed. At this stage the couple was considered to be man and wife, but under normal circumstances the marriage would not yet be consummated or publicly celebrated. The anellamento could follow the giure by a long or a short time - days, months, even years, especially if the pair had been pledged to one another as children.

And finally, the nozze. This was the public aspect of the wedding, including a procession, in which the bride and her belongings were public transferred to her husband's home. The bride was said to be "led" by a group of her husband's friends. The nozze could take place a long time after the anellamento, and often, payment of the dowry was an issue. Thus, a woman could be technically married, yet still living in her father's home, for a long (and potentially awkward) time.

Note, in this Marriage of the Virgin by Nicciolo di Buonaccorso, from the late 14th century, the man standing behind Joseph, about to give him a good clap on the back. This gesture, complete with the blow, was repeated in medieval Florentine marriages, to bring luck - it represented the anger felt by Joseph's unsuccessful rivals for the hand of the Virgin, and was usually performed by the groom's close friend, a sort of early Best Man.

So, when the chroniclers suggest that Buondelmonte got married on Easter, exactly which part of the marriage were they talking about? It probably would have been the nozze, since a procession was involved, or it could have been all of them - however unusual, it was not impossible to combine all major stages into a single day. But I still find it hard to believe that all of this was going on while Florence was celebrating Easter.

Why did the chroniclers (some of them, anyway) say that Buondelmonte was killed and/or married on Easter? I'm a writer; I understand the urge to make a story a little more dramatic by tweaking a detail here and there. I believe that's what they did, especially since the chroniclers, in almost every case, were trying to make a political point by how they presented this story. Even writing two or three hundred years after the fact, those historians were living in a world shaped by the conflict which began with this incident, and their own Guelf or Ghibelline sentiments were reflected in how they allocated blame for what happened to Florence in 1216.

But it still leaves me with a problem. If I've decided that these things didn't happen exactly as related, what, then, did happen? Come back for Part 4, the final piece of the puzzle, in which we explore why Buondelmonte was consistently said to have been wearing white, and what conclusion that led me to draw about both his marriage and his murder.

All images are US-PD (public domain because of expired copyright).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Easter? Really? - A Puzzle, Part 2

In my last post, I briefly described the events surrounding the murder/assassination/honor killing of messer Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti in Florence in 1216, citing the reports of near-contemporary and later chroniclers. The earliest reports stated that the killing occurred on Easter, which makes for a dramatic story indeed, but something about it gave me pause.

Death of Buondelmonte

Would Buondelmonte's opponents really have enacted their vendetta on Easter, of all days? The Easter message stressed in those days was one of peace and forgiveness, so much so that I thought it unlikely that such a gesture would have gone down well with the Florentine people. Much less would it have resonated with the bishop, one Giovanni da Velletri, who was no slouch at controlling heretics, consolidating church property, and wrestling with Florence's powerful Calimala (cloth-merchants' guild) for tithe money, when the latter wanted the revenue from Florence's churches to go toward the maintenance of the cathedral, which the guild oversaw. I found it hard to believe that this redoubtable man, friend of popes and emperors, would have tolerated armed knights killing other knights in his city on the holiest day of the Christian year.
Sarcophagus of Giovanni da Velletri
Baptistery, Florence
Photo by Sailko

(And speaking of popes and emperors, here are the ones the bishop was dealing with at around that time: Otto IV and Pope Innocent III, shaking hands. By 1216, Otto was more or less on the way out, but Frederick II, his successor, had not yet been crowned in that year. Given the rather turbulent history of these two, which included things like excommunication, handshakes probably didn't happen too often, so think of it as a rare painting-op.)

Otto IV and Pope Innocent III

Bishop Giovanni also had the responsibility for enforcing the dictates of the recent Fourth Lateran Council, which reiterated that Christians must make their confession at least once a year. And Easter was the time to do it. Augustine Thompson, O.P., writes that "failure to confess at Easter brought automatic excommunication."

Fourth Lateran Council

Further, Easter was the time for pardoning prisoners, who would then walk in penitential processions, wearing special hats and carrying candles, to the Baptistery to rejoin the congregation in time for the Easter rites. Priests were enjoined to prevent usurers, withholders of tithes, criminals, known trouble-makers, and those who held hatred in their hearts from taking communion unless and until they confessed, did penance, and harmony had been restored.

Holy Week and the days leading up to it and following it were all-consuming in Florence. With vigils, processions, reenactments of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, mystery plays, special music, pardons, confessions, communion, veneration of the cross, the annual baptism of infants, sermons, blessing the lambs, the passage through the streets of the cart of holy fire, the silencing of the bells and later their triumphant pealing, fasts and then feasts, all the Christians in Florence took part in the celebration.

This processional banner, by Spinello Aretino from around 1395-1400, was commissioned by the Confraternity of Saint Mary Magdalene in Borgo San Sepolcro, and is an example of the elaborate preparations medieval Italians made for the major religious festivals.

With all of this emphasis on peacemaking, confession, and reconciliation, I couldn't convince myself that the chroniclers were right about the killing taking place on Easter day, or even in the days just before or after. It is true that "pasqua" could refer to any religious feast, not just Easter, at that time, but certain of the chronicles gave specific dates suggesting that the incident did indeed occur in the early spring.

However, when they spoke of Christmas, the early chroniclers were referring to an entire season, not to a single day. Could the same not be true of Easter? And if it was, how soon before or after Easter would the assailants have been willing and able to carry out their vendetta? And would the many public rituals in the city perhaps have even given them their opportunity? I thought it possible, and I could see how chroniclers could have legitimately described such an attack as occurring "on Easter."

Come back for Part 3 to answer the question, "Did Buondelmonte really marry the Donati girl on Easter?"

Images are all US-PD (public domain because copyright has expired), with the exception of the photo of Bishop Giovanni's tomb, which is by Sailko and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Historical Puzzle (and a Possible Solution) - Part 1

When I set out to write my first book, I didn't have much to go on. The story of Buondelmonte, the 13th-century knight whose hot temper and headstrong behavior set in motion the chain of events which resulted in the split between Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, existed only in fragments, in the works of medieval historians who were writing - at the earliest - seventy years after the fact. Yet this split had long-reaching implications for all of Italy. To this day, you can look at castles and public buildings and know instantly whether their builders were Guelf or Ghibelline: just look at the crenellations.
Squarish crenellations mean Guelf, and swallow-tail mean Ghibelline. (The short and oversimplified version is that the Guelfs supported the Pope and the Ghibellines supported the Emperor, but in point of fact, more often than not people simply sorted themselves out along the lines of local conflicts, and those labels were often rather arbitrary.)

The most detailed version of Buondelmonte's story we have was written by a chronicler known as the Pseudo-Brunetto Latini (because, as you may have guessed, for many years scholars believed it was written by the real Brunetto),
in the very early 13th century. In it we hear of how a jester, entertaining at a feast to celebrate a knighting, angered a knight by snatching away the knight's plate of food. The knight (messer Uberto degli Infangati) responded furiously, and was reproved by another knight (messer Oddo Arrigo de' Fifanti). The conflict escalated, turned into a fight, and finally messer Uberto's dining companion, messer Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, knifed Oddo in the arm.

In the ensuing hubbub, Oddo's family and friends decided that they would offer a niece of Oddo's as a bride for Buondelmonte, to restore peace. Buondelmonte agreed, but was later persuaded by a lady, monna Gualdrada Donati, to wed her lovely daughter instead. This he did, and the family of the jilted girl and their allies came together to decide what to do to restore honor. Finally they decided to declare a vendetta against Buondelmonte, and on Easter morning of the year 1215 they enacted it, slaying Buondelmonte on the Ponte Vecchio at the foot of the statue of Mars.

Other chroniclers took up this story, changing some details, leaving out others, adding still more. Most start with Buondelmonte's betrothal to Oddo's niece and omit the underlying reasons for that marriage contract. Some said that Buondelmonte was murdered on his wedding day, some said it was afterwards. Most mention Easter. Some say that Gualdrada simply flagged him down on the street and proffered her daughter, others say that she sent for him, still others suggest that there was already an informal arrangement in place between them. Some say that Gualdrada was the wife of Forteguerra Donati, others that she was a widow. Some say that Buondelmonte's Donati bride was with him when he died, some say he was alone. Some imply that the great rift was one side's fault, others attribute it to the other, depending on their own politics, for this conflict had a long half-life.

Dino Compagni, Dante's contemporary, wrote his version around 1310-1312 (and Dante also alluded to the story, though he assumed his audience already knew the tale well and gave no details). Giovanni Villani, writing around 1330-1340, gave a fairly detailed account. Marchionne di Coppo Stefani (aka Baldassare Bonaiuti) wrote about it in the mid-1380s, and the earliest brief mention (of the surviving chronicles, anyway) may have been that of Ricordano di Malispini, writing in the 1280s.

Machiavelli gave his version, too, writing in the 1520s. Later Florentine historians have included the tale, and it even crops up in a short-lived Donizetti opera (though the music was actually from his Maria Stuarda, refitted to a new libretto after the King of Naples decided he didn't want to see anybody royal getting beheaded on stage).
Donizetti was committed to his original story, so Buondelmonte only got one performance.

So what's the puzzle, you may wonder? Seems fairly simple. But certain things in the chronicles gave me pause, and to learn what they were and how I chose to resolve them, you'll need to come back for Parts 2 and 3 (and maybe 4) of this series. More soon, as we explore the question of "Easter? Really?"

Portraits, tombstone, statues, in order of appearance: Brunetto Latini (the real one), Dino Compagni's tombstone, Giovanni Villani, Niccolò Machiavelli, Gaetano Donizetti. Dino's tombstone and the statue of Villani are photographed by Sailko and available under Creative Commons license; all others are US-PD (public domain because copyright has expired).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's in a Surname?

Status, if you're a medieval Tuscan. As late as the catasto (tax records) of 1427, one historian estimates that only a third of the families listed (and those were just the property-owners) had surnames. Another historian, speaking of the same records, states that only about 16% of the surnames listed were "stable," i.e. consistent among generations and not still in flux. My research takes me back 100-200 years earlier than that, when surnames were even rarer. Men were more usually identified by adding their father's name (and, if necessary to avoid confusion, their grandfather's), like this: Giovanni di Ugo di Neri. If a man's father was deceased, he would be Giovanni del fu Ugo (absolute past tense: Ugo's finished and done). A woman was identified first by association with her father, and then, once married, with her husband.

It is fascinating to watch surnames emerge during a period of several hundred years, and to try to trace their derivation. Quite a lot of Florentine surnames were taken from the given name of an ancestor, often the ancestor considered to be the founder of the lineage. Thus, the Donati were descended from a Donato, the Gondi from a Gondo, and the Baldovinetti from a Baldovinetto.

Often the ancestor chosen by later generations to provide the family name was distinguished in some way: the Pazzi took their name from Pazzo di Ranieri, the first to enter Jerusalem in the first Crusade (1088); the Anselmi took theirs from Anselmo Fighineldi, who was knighted by Charlemagne (and who appears to have had a different surname of his own); and the Pandolfini from a notary named Pandolfino. The Pucci had a thirteenth century ancestor, Puccio di Benintendi, who was a cabinetmaker, but it appears that the name didn't stick as a surname until the more distinguished Puccio di Antonio, who served Florence as gonfaloniere di giustizia sometime later.

A family name could be derived from a nickname (the Canacci, from Lapo di Dino, known as Canaccio). It could stem from a profession or office, as the Visdomini, descended from one Davizo who had served as vicedominus, or episcopal caretaker, from 1009-1054. (An interesting sideline about this family is that Davizo's nephew Davizino married a woman called Tosa, and a future branch of the family adopted her name as their family name and called themselves the della Tosa, or the Tosinghi.)

The Pecori family took its name from Dino il Pecora (Dino "the Sheep"), the "Big Butcher" of Dante's day, a man prominent in the Butcher's Guild who was active in Florentine politics (and seems to have annoyed most of the contemporary chroniclers, who describe him in some unsavory ways).

A name could also be taken from a place: Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, the knight whose turbulent marital situation resulted in the split between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in the early 13th century (and in my first book), came from a family which took its name from its castle at Montebuoni.

The Buondelmonte device, sketched on a wall

Incidentally, their coat of arms reflects all this emphasis on "good" and on "mountains": it consists of a stylized mountain, which looks like a gumdrop stacked on top of two other gumdrops, with a cross on top.

Even a product or commodity associated with a family could result in a name. The Rucellai were originally known as the Oricellari, because they imported the dyestuff orchil (oricello in Italian) from the Levant.

Women of the upper classes in medieval Florence were considered part of their fathers' lineages, not their husbands'. Women widowed during their childbearing years often rejoined their birth families after the death of their husbands and were given to new husbands, as their fathers (or brothers, if the father was no longer living) chose; sadly, they often had to leave their children behind, because the children, in their turn, were part of their own father's lineage, and therefore they stayed with their father's family. These kinds of marital politics had much to do with dowries and property, but that will be a post for another day.

Many women married into prominent families were identified only by given name and husband's name, but others, like Gemma Donati, who married "down" socially when she married Dante, are always referred to by their birth surnames. The Blessed Umiliana dei Cerchi was born into the wealthy Cerchi family and returned to them after her husband's death, and is always known by the surname she was born into. It appears that if a woman's birth name was the more prominent, she continued to be associated with it during her married life.

Thus, medieval Italian surnames can hint at lots of other things: affiliations, social status, whether one's parents were living or dead. They can be colorful - were the Infangati really covered with mud? were the Pazzi really mad? - and they can point to what a family takes most pride in. And, when the politics got really nasty, they could be changed to sever one branch's ties with another. I enjoy studying a time in which families were beginning to define themselves according to their own sense of history, and their own familial pride.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Stalking the Wild Historian

There I was, face to face with one of my heroes. No, not a figure from the news of the day. Not a famous musician, actor, or artist. Not a respected statesman, not a wealthy philanthropist, but - a historian. The unassuming gentleman in question, who stood there blinking at me in alarm, is an expert on church history in the Italian communes in the 12th and 13th centuries, and I have found his work extremely lucid, insightful, and helpful for many years.

And there he was, clutching his briefcase, about to walk into a room where he would join a panel that included another of my heroes, the woman who wrote the definitive book on the Florentine magnates. To top it off, in the audience was a woman who has spent years studying domestic law in medieval Lucca.

Okay, so it's not exactly the equivalent of cornering Bono somewhere and getting your picture taken with him. For me, it was better. That one session alone would have been worth my trip to Kalamazoo for the International Medieval Conference, despite the dorm room and the cafeteria food.

And I couldn't stop babbling: "I have all your books! They're wonderful! You're wonderful! I should ask for your autograph!"

It was at that point I finally noticed the panicked expression on his face and realized I'd better back off. Note to self: historians tend not to think of themselves as rock stars. Many of them probably harbor a secret fear that not even their doctoral committees actually read their dissertations. They are simply not prepared for adulation from an aspiring historical novelist.

He mumbled something polite and scurried into the room, and I gave him a decent head start and then went in myself, sitting discreetly in the back. The session was every bit as absorbing as I had expected - my heroes did not disappoint. I spent the rest of the conference attending most of the same sessions he did, carefully avoiding eye contact. I didn't want the poor man to think I was stalking him.

Historians can be extraordinarily generous with their time and their knowledge, at least when one's approach is a little more sane than mine was on that occasion. I've had delightful email exchanges on topics ranging from doing laundry in the middle ages to how late the Cathar heresy survived in Florence (though that latter exchange was forwarded to the historian's graduate student under the heading "Best email of the year!", which I still wonder about). A woman who gave a presentation on medieval baptism rituals was gracious enough to field my questions afterwards and then to follow through with quite a bit of additional information via email, after the conference. A Dante expert, who was planning a Kalamazoo presentation in a year when I was unable to attend, was kind enough to send me a CD of his talk, complete with all illustrations.

Kalamazoo is a wonderful place to observe medievalists at work and at play. Kathleen Norris, in The Cloister Walk, describes the Conference's Saturday night dance thus: "... dances that provide a spectacle worthy of Chaucer--hundreds of tipsy medievalists, some of whom are evidently let out of the library once a year, abandoning themselves to a tape of 'Born to Run'..."

One year, while I was waiting with others for the bus to take us to the medieval concert, I watched an eager graduate student charge up to a distinguished professorial type. Pumping the older man's hand, the student rattled on familiarly for quite a while about an Anglo-Saxon manuscript he'd had the opportunity to examine. The older gentleman nodded, smiled, and murmured an occasional polite response. When at last the bus pulled up (its destination was proudly announced as "Medieval"), the graduate student said an effusive goodbye to the professor and moved on to his next target.

The older gentleman turned to his wife and asked mildly, "Who was that?"

I'll write more about the Kalamazoo conference another time. This post, though about modern historians, is illustrated with pictures of earlier historians, in this order: Herodotus and Thucydides (image released to public domain by the photographer); Bede (the Venerable Bede), Notker of St. Gall (Notker the Stammerer), Snorri Sturluson, and Matthew Paris (all U.S.-PD: expired copyright); and Niccolò Machiavelli (public domain in the U.S.).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dante's Offspring, or, The Internet Has Its Limitations

I enjoyed reading in Gillian Bagwell's guest post about how she used the internet to recreate a journey as part of her research for The September Queen. The internet is indeed a tremendous resource, but I find it has its risks and problems, too.

Often when I'm reading about a period I have not studied in depth, I'll do a quick Google search, or I'll glance at Wikipedia, and then I consider myself better informed than I was mere moments before. But once in a while, I test out the process by asking a question I know the answer to (or am pretty sure no one knows the answer to), and the results can be sobering.

Recently I decided to check with the all-wise aggregate intelligence and see if it could tell me how many children Dante had. Simple, right? How hard could it be? Well, harder than you might think, actually, for various reasons. But here's what my search turned up (first page of search results only):

1. Dante had four children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia.

2. Dante had five children, names and sexes not specified.

3. Dante had six children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Gabrielle, Alighieri, and Antonia.

4. Dante had three children: Iacopo, Pietro, and Antonia.

5. Dante had "several" children, including Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia.

6. Dante had four children: Pietro and Iacopo and two daughters, one of them named Beatrice.

7. Dante had three or four sons and a daughter (Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Gabrielle [maybe], and whoever the daughter was).

8. Dante had five children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Antonia, Gabrielle.

What struck me most forcefully about this search was that in each case, the answer given was presented as absolute truth. With the exception of the "three or four sons", not one indicated even the slightest uncertainty. (Although I suppose "several" does leave some wiggle room.)

Then I checked the Dante-related books on my shelves (and lo, they are many...). Still no definite agreement, but here, at least, people admit to doubt, lack of proof, or the existence of other possibilities. We have very little information about Giovanni; some speculate that he could have been an illegitimate son, possibly born prior to Dante's marriage. Or was he the son of a different Dante Alighieri, perhaps a cousin? And what about Gabrielle? Another cousin, or possibly a child of Dante's who died young? At least one writer seems to believe that Gabrielle (sometimes Gabriello) was female.

We do know that Iacopo, Pietro, and a daughter reached adulthood, and we have some information about their lives. We do not know birth years, birth order, whether other children were born and died early (which is statistically likely), whether other children lived to adulthood and left no historical record, or why exactly this fellow named Giovanni signed a legal document in Lucca in October of 1308, calling himself the son of Dante Alighieri, and was then never heard from again.

As for Dante's daughter, it's now widely believed that Antonia took the name Sister Beatrice when she entered a convent, which would account for some of the confusion over the number of daughters and their name(s).

Does the order in which names were listed suggest birth order, at least of Dante's sons? If so, who came first, Iacopo or Pietro? And where does Giovanni fit in?

Will we ever know for sure? Probably not, but you'd never know it from the internet.

(My thanks to Tim, my husband, for the slightly irreverent illustrations.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Next Best Thing to Being There - Recreating a Journey by Internet (Guest post by Gillian Bagwell)

I'm delighted to introduce a guest post by author Gillian Bagwell, whose acclaimed novel The Darling Strumpet is subtitled A Novel of Nell Gwynn, Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II. Her readers can attest that Gillian's warm and delightful Nell has captured our hearts, as well.

Now we also have her recently-published second novel, The September Queen, to enjoy, and Gillian has graciously offered to share with us some of her research, in the form of a recreation of the journey taken by King Charles II and Jane Lane in 1651.

The Next Best Thing to Being There - Recreating a Journey by Internet
I was thrilled that when my agent sold my first novel, The Darling Strumpet, she also sold my second book, as yet unwritten, and was very excited to have the opportunity to write the first fictional account of Jane Lane, an ordinary Staffordshire girl who risked her life to help the young Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651.
I wanted to retrace the path Jane had taken in her travels with Charles, and as some of the places associated with my story would be closing soon for the winter, and traveling around England wouldn’t get any easier as it got colder, wetter, and darker, I immediately planned a research trip. My friend Alice Northgreaves and I set out from London on October 26, 2009, making our way to Worcester, the site of the battle, from which Charles had fled to Staffordshire, where Jane became involved in his desperate flight.
Charles’s six-week odyssey covered more than 600 miles before he was finally able to sail from Shoreham near Brighton on October 15.
After he was restored to the throne in 1660, the story of his escape became known as the Royal Miracle, because of the numerous times he narrowly eluded capture. He told the story to Samuel Pepys, and others also recorded their parts in it, so that the route of his travels is well known. The Monarch’s Way footpath can still be followed.
Some of the sites associated with Charles’s adventures are well preserved. It was thrilling to visit Boscobel House and Moseley Hall and to see the actual priest holes into which the fugitive king curled his six-foot-two-inch frame when hiding from Cromwell’s cavalry patrols. These lovely houses are beautifully maintained by English Heritage and the National Trust respectively, and we enjoyed very informative tours. Whiteladies, where Charles arrived and was hidden at about three a.m. on the morning after the battle, is now a ruin, but is only a short walk from Boscobel, and easily found. Jane’s home, Bentley Hall, is unfortunately no longer standing, but thanks to directions from the staff at Moseley, we were able to find the site.
Following the path of Charles’s travels with Jane Lane, and in particular finding the places where some of the events on the journey had taken place – the inn and the smithy where Charles had to have a horse re-shod, for instance – was a little more complicated. Contemporary accounts provided their general route, through Bromsgrove, where Charles’s horse threw a shoe; to Stratford-Upon-Avon, where they had to ride among enemy soldiers crowding the street; and down to Long Marston, where they stayed at the home of Jane’s cousins John and Amy Tomes. They spent the next night in Cirencester, and reached Abbots Leigh near Bristol the following evening.
Finding that no ship would leave Bristol for France or Spain in less than a month, Charles and Jane then made their way southward to Castle Cary and then to Trent, in Dorset, where they stayed at the home of the Royalist Wyndham family.
When Alice and I weren’t sure about the location of some of we had very good success by popping into a pub to ask the locals, and in this way we were helped by the staff and patrons of the Red Lion in Bromsgrove, the Crown in Cirencester, and the George in Castle Cary.
Jane left Charles at Trent and returned home when it appeared that he would shortly be able to find passage on a boat from the southern coast of England. As it turned out, Charles spent another month in England before he was able to make his way to France, traveling to Charmouth, back to Trent in Dorset, then spending several days near Salisbury before sailing from Shoreham. But that part of his ordeal takes place offstage in The September Queen (titled The Royal Exile in the UK), which tells Jane’s story. Very little is known about what happened to her after she parted from Charles.
From the preliminary research I had done before embarking on my trip to England, I learned that when Jane’s part in helping Charles escape was discovered, she fled with her brother and walked to Yarmouth, hoping to reunite with Charles in France. As one book identified Yarmouth as a small town on the south coast near the Isle of Wight, I believed that her travels took her through much the same country through which she had journeyed with Charles.
It was only when I got home to California that I learned to my dismay that she probably sailed from another Yarmouth – on the east coast of England, and so in a completely different direction and through vastly different country than where I thought she had walked. This part of her story was very important, and I needed to know what she had experienced. But it just wasn’t possible for me to go back to England for a second trip.
I would have to reconstruct Jane’s journey some other way. From a book on historical maps, I learned that in 1686 John Ogilby had published a book of road maps of England – 35 years past Jane’s date, but close enough that not much would have changed.
I was overjoyed to find online and be able to buy a 1939 facsimile of the book, which shows the routes between major cities, laid out on parallel strips across the page. It’s a little hard to get used to looking at a map like that, but it gave me an idea of much of the route that Jane would likely have traveled to get from Staffordshire to Yarmouth, and just as wonderfully, depicted the roads and the country surrounding them in great detail, showing the kind of terrain, and features such as villages, bridges, and even large houses and windmills.
But the book didn’t provide guidance about some of the routes Jane must have taken. Another difficulty to surmount. Fortunately, a writer today is blessed with the vast resources of the internet, and I was able to accomplish forensic travel research in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago. Google Maps and Google Earth to the rescue! I used Google Maps to ask for directions from one major town on Jane’s route to the next, and then zoomed in close enough to discover the names of the roads, which provided major clues. Unlike many roads in the U.S., which are named somewhat haphazardly or fancifully, old roads in England are frequently still called simply by where they led. So, for instance, finding a road labeled Norwich Road let me know that it was likely that was the path Jane would have followed to reach Norwich. Then I could soar along above the road to see what the landscape was like – and again fortunately for me, even now much of England is rural, and the countryside hasn’t changed substantially from what it had been like in 1651.
So miraculously, I was able to write the long sequence in which Jane and her brother walk from Bentley to Yarmouth accurately describing what they would have seen on their travels.
I was able to use up-to-the-minute technology to help me with this very old story in another way, too. When Alice and I were where we thought should be the site of Jane’s home Bentley Hall, just off the Wolverhampton Road near Walsall, we weren’t sure we had found it. There was a muddy building site that we thought might be where the house had stood, but the area is sadly very run down and not at all like what it would have been in Jane’s time. We asked in a shop if anyone knew about Bentley Hall, and were directed to the home of a local lady, Pauline Gibson, who we were told knew a lot about the area’s history. But she wasn’t home, and the neighbor with whom we left a note didn’t know when she’d be back.
We had to press on in order to get to our appointment to tour Packington, where Jane lived in later life. But having come so close, I was reluctant to leave without knowing we were in the right place. On an inspiration, I pulled out my iPhone and Googled “Bentley Hall Staffordshire.” Bingo! Up popped Michael Shaw and Danny McAree’s article “The Rediscovery of Bentley Hall, Walsall,” originally published in West Midlands Archaeology Vol. 50 (2007), pages 2-5.
It told me that we were very near the site of Jane’s home. We still couldn’t find the cairn that was supposed to mark its location, and it wasn’t until I spoke by phone with Pauline Gibson later that I learned we should have continued another hundred yards or so south, but still, I had been able to find the place that Jane had lived, to see the horizon at which she would have gazed, and to feel the cool October breeze she would have known in that spot.
Still other parts of Jane’s story took place in Paris and The Hague, and to a lesser extent in Breda, Spa, Aix-la-Chapelle, Dusseldorf, and Cologne. It was just as impossible for me to visit those place in person as it had been for me to return to England. But once more I was fortunate in being able to find online old images and descriptions of these places, which, with modern images and descriptions, and help from my friend Kirsten Shepard, who was fortuitously in Paris at the time, I could conjure the backdrops for scenes from my book without ever leaving home.
Not as much fun as traveling for research, but as Jane might have said, “Needs must when the devil drives!”

Gillian, thank you so much for this glimpse into your research journey. May you make many more, each more fascinating than the last.
Gillian Bagwell’s second novel, The September Queen was released on November 1. Please visit her website,, to read more about her books and read her blog Jane Lane and the Royal Miracle, which recounts her research adventures and the daily episodes in Charles’s escape after Worcester.