In late medieval and Renaissance Florence, many families kept curious ledgers, often multi-generational, listing a mixture of personal and business events.  These family diaries, called “ricordanze” (memory-books), might list a family’s births, deaths, and marriages, but also offices held, honors awarded, debtors and creditors and the amount of money owed, gifts given and received (with their values), business and political partnerships undertaken or dissolved, property changing hands, and vendettas – those interparty or interfamily feuds that were so inextricably woven into Tuscan society that civil law did not forbid them, but instead merely tried to codify their rules.  

The notoriously mercantile mindset of the Florentine of those times had no trouble merging all these disparate categories, for after all, there was – or could be – a commercial aspect to just about anything.  Francesco Datini, the famous and fabulously wealthy “Merchant of Prato,” left more than 500 ledgers when he died in 1410, and every ledger began with the words “ In the name of God and profit.”  

Here’s my take on what one fictional Florentine ricordanza might have told us.

by Tinney S. Heath

In the name of God and a decent profit, I begin this new volume of our history, it being a record of our family and business, on this third day of June in Christ’s year 1278. I, Gregorio di Ugo di Filippo, will continue faithfully to record those things that will be both useful and a source of wisdom for my descendants.  They will learn to take pride in their forebears and to behave in all ways with honor. This book will serve as a reminder to them, and I suspect some of them are going to need it.

At the end of the previous volume I recorded that my wife, Maddalena, was called to God after failing to bring my son living to the light. She travailed for almost two days and suffered much. I sent word into the birthing chamber to urge my wife to try harder, but she did not heed me. The child would have been only my second living son, had he survived, and his loss weighs heavily upon me.

By God’s grace, the midwife managed to thrust her hand in and baptize the babe in utero, so although he was dead when he finally emerged, he is happy in heaven now. May he rest in joy and peace and pray ceaselessly for his father’s soul. He was interred, with all due honor and many candles, in our family vault. His mother was interred in the parish churchyard, for the place of honor next to mine in the vault must be preserved for her successor, assuming that the latter manages to provide me with sons.

It is meet to record a family’s important occasions, such as the births of heirs, the settlement of debts of honor or of money, and the acquisition of property. Thus, I record that yesterday I, Gregorio, took to wife Lisa, daughter of the late ser Iacopo, who was given to me along with a dowry of 800 lire in cash. The girl’s uncle negotiated the contract on behalf of the girl and her mother, for I of course refused to do business with a woman. I took her because I was unable to make an arrangement with messer Rinaldo degli Alfani for his daughter, for she had taken a fever and died, and also because ser Paolo Rossi, my second choice, had experienced a recent business set back and could have provided only 500 lire in dowry for his girl, who was anyway already at least sixteen.

This girl appears to be capable of bearing, and in addition, she is a most agreeable bedfellow and fair to look upon. My son Biagio had some interest in her, but I deem him not yet ready for marriage, so I took her for myself. God willing, she will give me many sons.

The twentieth day of June. The Feast of San Giovanni is almost upon us, and my son and I are making our plans. We will march in procession with our brotherhood, near the standard-bearer, and so we must both have new robes and the things to go with them. I ordered my new wife some while ago to see to the making of the robes, and the silly woman began to weep. I showed forbearance, as I did not wish to be unkind to a woman not yet fifteen years of age and away from her mother for the first time. When after some time her weeping did not cease, I even kindly asked her what troubled her.

Her tears proved foolish, as with all the vain and frivolous members of her sex.  She said she was distressed because I had taken a particularly fine length of cloth from her trousseau for our robes, cloth which she was saving for a new gown for San Giovanni’s day.

I then patiently explained to her that she would merely be watching the procession from her window, whereas Biagio and I had important roles to play, and therefore we had need of the cloth and she did not. She seemed unable to understand this simple explanation, insisting that other women went about the streets in their finery on that holy day, for the honor of the city and the saint. I assured her that such display was completely unnecessary and she need not trouble herself about it, but she did not appear to be comforted. I left her to her foolish mourning; it was nothing to me.

The fifth of July. I am ill. Perhaps it was the heat as we made our procession on San Giovanni’s day, although I felt well enough at the time. After my son and I made our fine showing in the procession, we returned home and I called for my wife to bring us a cooling drink.

She told me I looked unwell, and she would bring me a concoction to restore me. I was pleased at this, as it was the first sign that she is coming to appreciate and accept her role as my wife. I have done her great honor, and it is high time that I see some indication of her gratitude and respect.

She went to the kitchen, and when she returned she gave me a cup of a specially prepared cooling drink. She also brought a cup of wine for Biagio.  The medicine she brought me tasted foul, but she assured me it would do me good and bring me sound rest.  I am content, for women know about such things.

The drink was indeed refreshing, if bitter, but soon afterwards my stomach began to pain me, and I remain in some discomfort even today. Both my wife and my son have been very solicitous.

The ninth of July. I am still ill. In truth, I am in more discomfort than I was when I wrote the previous entry. My wife continues to show great concern and to dose me with many and various unpleasant medicines. She now confides in me that she fears my illness will prevent my siring male children, which thought gives me much distress. She says she knows a woman who can tell her what to do to make me well again, so I gave her permission to leave the house and seek out this wise woman, and my young wife hurried off on her errand. It is the first time I have permitted her to go outside since I married her. Pray God she find the wise woman and a satisfactory remedy soon.

The twelfth of July. I grow weaker, and my stomach pains increase. My wife hovers over me with great concern, plying me with various medicines. Three days ago, she left the house and was gone for many hours before she returned with medical advice. I berated her for leaving me in a servant’s care for so many hours, for my son was nowhere to be found, but she insisted that she spent the whole time searching for the wise woman. To see her youthful devotion brought tears to my eyes.

However, not only am I in sore discomfort, but I am hungry. The wise woman, once found, instructed Lisa that I was to eat no meat, nor eggs, nor anything else that is the result of copulation. She says that this will prevent me from losing any more of my male strength, and I will mend. God will that it be so, and soon, for I cannot long subsist on turnips and bread.

The fourteenth of July. I am weakening. At Lisa’s suggestion, I have sent her to bring the wise woman to me. I can think of nothing else that might help. Pray God she returns soon.

The fifteenth of July. I have met the wise woman. My dutiful wife brought her to me this morning. The woman is very dignified, soberly dressed and modestly covered by mantle and hood, and about my own age. She seems oddly familiar; perhaps I have seen her betimes in church. She spent a long time examining a flask of my urine, and her expression was grave, which alarmed me. She advises me that my ability to sire male children is indeed threatened. She also advises me to refrain from touching any creature, human or animal, of the female sex. I do not understand how I am going to sire male children if I cannot touch a woman, but surely this is a temporary course of action, to last only until I am restored to health. I have given care of my hunting bitch to my son, as I can no longer risk touching her.

The eighteenth of July. I feel worse than ever this morning. I fear the business is languishing, as shown by the fact that I have made no business entries in this record since I became ill. My son assures me that he is well able to fill in for me, which gives me little comfort. I cannot do much to transact business in any case, as my medical adviser has enjoined me to swear no oaths. She tells me that to do so would use up vital spiritual forces I need in order to regain my health. And one cannot transact business without oaths.

Lisa was distraught, and she insisted on going to church to pray for me. My adviser has strictly forbidden me to utter the Paternoster, saying that for me to do so in my impaired state would greatly displease God, so I did not hesitate to let my wife go in my stead. My son expressed his wish to go as well and add his prayers to hers, so I let him go also. They were gone for many hours, so great is their devotion to me, which of course is nothing more than my due. I have not been to Mass for many days, for my wife and her adviser agree that to mingle with the people in church could do me great harm.

The twentieth of July. My stomach pains me so, I cannot write much. I hate medicines. And turnips.

The twenty-first of July. I, Biagio, take up this document in my turn, for I head the family now, and the business is mine. My father still lives, but he is in a pitiable state and can do but little. He can no longer run the business without me, despite his stubborn unwillingness, while he was still in health, to allow me even the smallest part of the profits.
The old man is mean-spirited and grasping, and none except his mysterious medical adviser feels any concern for him. His lovely young wife does her duty, but she spends ever more of her time with me, and she is merry company.

My father’s servant Becca–no, I should more rightly say my servant now–hesitantly expressed her suspicions that Lisa’s medicines are doing my father no good, and may in fact be doing him harm. I told her in no uncertain terms that if Lisa’s medicaments are not improving his health, it could not be the fault of one so young and well-meaning, and so the old man’s continued illness must be God’s will. Becca was silenced by the strength of my arguments, and I gave her a small cash gift to ensure that she remains so.

The twenty-seventh of July. I, Biagio, write hastily on this wax tablet, for these words must not appear in our formal ricordanza. I record them here to serve my memory, but they are not for others’ eyes.

We have serious trouble. I was not at home, but I heard the account from Becca. This morning a delegation came from the Inquisition to question my father. The old man was weak but perfectly coherent, so they asked their preliminary questions here at the house. There were three inquisitors, terrifying Becca with their official dress and manner. I am told that they were courteous but most serious in their demeanor. They explained to my father that they were investigating a report that he had–of all things–Cathar sympathies.
They said that neighbors had seen a cowled female “perfect” coming and going from our house, and that it had been noted that my father ate no meat, would not swear oaths, and did not attend Mass. My father tried to explain about his medical condition, but they were skeptical.

One of them stood next to him and called the hunting bitch, who had been sulking ever since my father ceased to attend to her. She bounded over, ready to jump up on the old man and lick his face, but he bellowed at her and threw his cup at her head, so that she slunk away back to her corner untouched.

Another, in a pathetically obvious attempt at deception, asked my father if he would not like a posset with eggs, as he was evidently in a weakened state. My foolish parent became quite agitated and insisted that neither eggs nor meat nor milk would touch his lips.

At that, the third inquisitor turned to Father and demanded that he pray the Paternoster. The stupid old man vigorously refused, and so of course they took him away, still squawking, for further questioning.

When Lisa and I returned late in the day–for we had passed a pleasant afternoon together–we learned of the disaster from Becca, who was frantic. Lisa rushed off in search of the wise woman to bear witness, and I came up here and read through the record, which clearly will exonerate my father and put an end to this unpleasant misunderstanding.

It is unimportant what happens to the old man, but if he were to be convicted of heresy, his property – my property – and the business will be forfeit. Also, it would not do our family’s honor any good to have a convicted heretic in our ranks. The record is what will save us, and I will take it round to the Inquisition office first thing in the morning. Thank God my father kept it!

Meanwhile Lisa returned downcast, having failed to locate the woman. She took a small sack and set about gathering up some items from around the house which she said would provide evidence to help my father. I left her to it, though now it seems unnecessary; I’m going to bed. The Inquisition can play host to my father for tonight, until it suits me to take the book to them in the morning. Perhaps this experience will teach him to treat me with the respect I deserve.

Next day, late. Again I write on wax, and with a sense of foreboding. It has been a difficult day. They came for me early this morning, with more questions about my father and also about my own activities. I was not alarmed; I invited them in and confidently bade them wait while I went to my father’s study to get proof of our innocence.

To my horror, I could not do it. The book is gone. It no longer rests on my father’s desk, as it always has.

I rushed downstairs to report this theft, but the inquisitors showed no sympathy for our catastrophic loss. Instead of doing anything to help, they questioned me relentlessly for hours. It was a terrifying experience, but, thank God, at least they did not put me to the torture. I willingly swore oaths, loudly prayed the Paternoster, ate meat greedily, and expressed my willingness, nay, eagerness, to touch anything female they cared to suggest. They seemed satisfied that I believed my father’s story, though they implied that I was foolish to do so. This was insulting, but I was afraid to say anything, and finally they let me go.

But there is no saving the old man without the book, or at least witnesses, and nothing and no one seems to be available to me. Thus there is also no saving our fortunes. Lisa is nowhere to be found. Doubtless she continues to search for the elusive medical adviser, and perhaps that may yet help us.

Later this same day: My father’s foul, treacherous wife is gone. The “evidence” that she collected seems to have consisted of all our jewels and other small items of value and, I begin to suspect, the book. Things have gone from bad to worse and it is now apparent that we will lose everything to the Inquisition. The old man is done for, and there is nothing left for me. We are undone.

I have no choice but to flee the city.

The sixteenth of August. I, Lisa, writing from my pleasantly-appointed cell in the convent of Santa Lucia, take up this record book, in the name of God and justice. I have fled to this place with the aid of my mother to escape the taint of heresy which a continued connection with my husband’s family would have brought upon me.

The nuns house their paying guests in comfort, and they feed us well. I lack for nothing here, neither companionship nor a soft bed nor fine clothes nor sweetmeats.

The nuns were grateful for the contents of my little bag, with which I offered to pay my upkeep. Abbess Isotta is most sympathetic, and she kindly assures me that all will be well. She will personally testify that my husband was the worst sort of heretic who refused to do his marital duty, and I am therefore a maid and no wife. She says I will get my dowry back, and that I am safe here and welcome to stay until such time as I choose to marry again, once Gregorio has met his fate.

I have no doubt of it, for I retained a key to the house. Upon Biagio’s hasty departure from the city I returned and collected three wax tablets. I keep them, with this book, in a safe place, hidden under the fine tiled floor of my comfortable quarters here at the convent.
If ever I should feel myself under any threat stemming from these unfortunate matters, I will hold the tablet over the fire until they return to their pristine state. Once the fire’s appetite is whetted by a taste of wax, it will glut itself on this fine, fat book.

Thus is God’s will done and all things returned to their original purity.