Chivalry and Social Violence
Dino Compagni and other Florentine authors spilled considerable ink forcefully condemning the pervasive violence committed by knights and men-at-arms during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They saved their harshest condemnations, however, for elite violence perpetrated against popolani (citizens of lower and middling status), whom members of the Florentine chivalric elite considered to be their social inferiors.1 Dino Compagni, an eyewitness to the events he recorded, wrote with obvious alarm that after the Florentine victory at the Battle of Campaldino in 1289 “the nobles and the great citizens, swollen with pride, did many injuries to the popolani, beating them and committing other offenses.”2 Similar rebukes of elite violence against the popolani appear in the fourteenth century, as when Marchionne di Coppo Stefani (d. 1385) blamed inexhaustible pride (superbia) for the acts of violence committed in the city and in the contado (countryside) in 1343.3 The continuity of this violence led Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444), a famous humanist who wrote a history of Florence in the first decades of the fifteenth century, to paint an equally negative picture of a group he describes as the “nobility.” In one example that can stand in for many spanning the period covered in this study, Bruni writes that in the late thirteenth century these nobles were “superior in wealth and arrogant in manner, [whose] haughtiness was unsuited to a free city, and [who] could be restrained from committing unjust acts only with the greatest of difficulty.” Bruni laments that “many were the men of modest fortune whom they attacked physically; and many were despoiled of their goods or expelled from their estates.”4
As these representative examples suggest, Florentine authors, especially popolani chroniclers, often explicitly connect elite violence against the popolani with pride (superbia) and arrogance (grandigia). They considered these vices to be inherent in the “noble” or “knightly” lifestyle, a lifestyle associated from the late thirteenth century with the grandi (magnates), but one that had actually been present among Tuscan aristocrats and knights since the late eleventh century.5 All of these terms, however, are problematic. Florence did not have a legally recognized nobility, and many of the elite warriors who displayed a penchant for violence fueled by pride and arrogance did not possess landed titles or the dignity of knighthood. The designation of grande or magnate was above all a political one, applied unevenly. As a result, it seems more appropriate to think of this as a chivalric rather than a “noble,” “knightly,” or “magnate” lifestyle.6 Indeed, Florentine descriptions of violent behavior and references to pride and arrogance are strikingly similar to what we find associated elsewhere in late medieval Europe with the chivalric lifestyle.7
This chapter will suggest that our current understanding of the violence committed by Florentine knights and men-at-arms against popolani can be enhanced by considering the role chivalric ideology played in promoting and valorizing this type of violent behavior. This approach, exemplified by Richard Kaeuper, differs markedly from that of the comparatively few studies of Florentine and Tuscan chivalry, which tend to subscribe to Maurice Keen’s conception of chivalry, one that treats violence against social inferiors as the antithesis of chivalric behavior.8 Such an understanding of the relationship between chivalry and violence is aptly illustrated by Franco Cardini’s discussion of “antiknights” (anticavalieri), knights whose violence violated the heavily Christianized and romanticized norms that supposedly underpinned their lifestyle.9 Other scholars of late medieval Florence and Tuscany focus instead on the political, social, and economic causes of elite violence during this period. In particular, they frame the conflict as one between the grandi (magnates) and the popolani (citizens of lower and middling status) and debate whether or not violence between the two groups was the result of conflicting class interests, mainly economic in nature, or if the stimulus was instead political competition.10 Political, economic, and social forces certainly encouraged elite violence against popolani. This approach does not adequately explain, however, why so many members of the Florentine chivalric elite acted against their self-interest by committing acts of social violence, especially after the promulgation of the Ordinances of Justice (1293) made it possible for the communal government to bring its burgeoning legal and military might down upon perpetrators.
This apparent contradiction brings into focus the crucial role played by chivalric ideology, which valorized the practice of social violence as honorable, in the sense that committing acts of social violence did not tarnish a perpetrator’s honor but actually enhanced it. Understanding the framework behind this relationship requires us to discuss the function of vertical honor in this context, as well as examine certain attitudes chivalric practitioners maintained toward those they perceived to be their social inferiors. Firstly, acts of social violence—including assault, mutilation, murder, rape, and the pillaging and burning of property—were not considered a source of dishonor, because the popolani were viewed as men without honor themselves and thus of little intrinsic value. Furthermore, knights and men-at-arms thought of the popolani not only as socially inferior, but also as dangerous interlopers, albeit uncouth, lazy, and cowardly ones. As a result, chivalric practitioners were encouraged to remind popolani of their proper place in the social hierarchy, a process known as “inferiorization,” through the enactment of physical acts of violence informed by a “culture of intimidation and brutality.”11 Violence of this kind had long been treated by rural lords and knights in north-central Italy as a “key element in … [their] aristocratic self-representation,” a point of pride and satisfaction, and chivalric ideology reinforced and valorized these same currents among members of the Florentine chivalric elite who readily followed suit in their own practice of violence against commoners.12 Committing acts of violence, often transgressive in degree and monstrous in nature, against men and women who were without honor or value was, at worst, honor-neutral and, at best, honorable.
Secondly, acts of social violence were indeed seen to enhance honor because in practice they often took the same form as honorable behavior utilized during warfare. War during this period continued to be characterized by what Jean-Claude Maire Vigueur identified as a “culture of predation” in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. This predation involved the pillaging and destruction of enemy property, as well as the assault and slaughter of enemy peasants.13 Richard Kaeuper has made clear that this behavior was widely considered to be honorable from a chivalric perspective, but what distinguished Florentine chivalry was the valorization of violence that intentionally targeted nonelite citizens.
Related to these aspects of social violence was the chivalric elite’s claim to the right to seek private justice, or justice determined not by judges based on the law, but rather through the prowess and valor of knights and men-at-arms during combat. This was both an assertion of chivalric autonomy from the authority of the communal government, as well as a claim that chivalric means of determining justice were superior. Congruent was the belief that violence employed to assert and defend their rights and privileges was both licit and praiseworthy. The result of the coming together of all of these currents was the practice of social violence of such a scope and degree that it greatly threatened public order and the stability of the Florentine government.
Establishing the Mental Framework of the Chivalric Elite
The chivalric lifestyle was quite different from that of the popolani, a difference stemming at least in part from the contrasting ideologies that underpinned, to varying degrees, each group’s mentality and lifestyle: chivalry and the nascent but powerful civic ideology of the popolani, which was in many ways antithetical to chivalric ideas and values.14 Although contemporary chroniclers and other writers began to observe and discuss at length the differences between these two groups in the second half of the thirteenth century, Silvia Diacciati argues persuasively that the milites and populares faced off over a variety of issues as early as the late twelfth century. These two groups were, likewise, divided by their very different systems of values and approaches to civic life.15
While the scarcity of sources for this period makes it difficult to discuss the early manifestations of these cultural communities, especially that of the milites, by the mid-thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the available evidence is much more voluminous and detailed, allowing for clear distinctions to be drawn. It is during this later period that proponents of civic ideology, like the Dominican preacher Remigio dei Girolami and the reform-minded intellectual Brunetto Latini,16 began to exhort Florentine citizens to embrace the common good and realize personal ambitions and the interests through service to the “state.”17 For these men service brought honor, wealth, social status, and political power, with “the state alone serving as the font of honor.”18 Moreover, Florentines were encouraged to settle their disputes peacefully through public courts and arbitration, although as we saw in chapter 1, proportional violence remained for all Florentines a possible option for dealing with conflict. The popolani desired more than anything else the stability and order at home that were essential to the peace-requiring occupations of trade and commerce.19 James Hankins ascribes to Leonardo Bruni the opinion, based on Bruni’s study of the history of the Florentine commune and colored by his republican leanings, that “the citizen who is interested in business rather than conflict [had proven himself] readier to put the good of the state ahead of private honor.”20 This opinion almost certainly reflects contemporary sentiments among popolani chroniclers, who levelled similarly powerful critiques of knights and men-at-arms who regularly placed personal and familial honor ahead of the common good.
Despite this trenchant criticism of their lifestyle, there can be little doubt that the chivalric elite cared about the honor of their native patria, which they believed was defended and augmented first and foremost through war. There exists clear evidence that Bruni and the popolani chroniclers who preceded him readily acknowledged, and occasionally exuberantly praised, Florentine knights and men-at-arms when they used their prowess and valor against Florence’s enemies, especially in defense of the city’s honor.21 Therefore, Bruni’s rebuke is based on the long history of deleterious violence against the popolani and imperiousness, both central elements of the chivalric lifestyle, that made these men in his eyes particularly ill-suited to exercise power in a republic. He considered this violence to be a threat to the city’s stability and prosperity and believed the perpetrators posed an existential threat to civic life itself.22
While these judgments accurately touch upon the antagonistic attitude of the chivalric elite toward both the popolani and Florentine governments under the leadership of the popolo, knights and men-at-arms were capable of controlling their emotions; they did not crave only chaos and war. They were also interested in wielding political power and enjoying economic prosperity, both of which they believed belonged to them thanks to their distinguished lineages and their ability to field private armies and perpetrate devastating violence. The problem, of course, was their means of acquiring, maintaining, and exercising that power. Dino Compagni and Leonardo Bruni both offer vivid descriptions of the famous Florentine knight Corso Donati (d. 1308) that highlight the incongruence between the chivalric and civic lifestyles.23 Dino Compagni described Donati, who was perhaps the most prominent knight in the city during Compagni’s lifetime, in the following terms:
A knight in the mold of Catiline the Roman, but more cruel; noble of blood, handsome of body, a charming speaker, adorned with good breeding, subtle of intellect, with his mind always set on evildoing; one who gathered many armed men and kept a great entourage, who ordered many arsons and robberies and did great damage to the Cerchi and their friends, who gained many possessions and rose to great heights: such was messer Corso Donati, who because of his pride was called the Baron. When he passed through he city many cried “long live the Baron,” and the city seemed to belong to him.24
The emphasis Compagni places on Donati’s cruelty, nobility, pride, and penchant for evildoing suggests a man motivated by very different values than those promoted by the civic ethos of the popolani, while his maintenance of a personal army and great entourage and his propensity for engaging in violence offer proof of comportment antithetical to civic life.
Bruni’s pithy description of Donati and his peers makes the same point, but from the perspective of a student of Florentine history looking back on this tumultuous period. Bruni writes that these great men were “conscious of their own virtue and merits and therefore possess[ed] the arrogance to demand public honors.” More importantly, when men like Donati did not receive what they perceived to be their due, they were “overwrought with indignation” and suffered from “restless pride.” This emotional reaction repeatedly led to “armed struggle, bloodshed, and civic turmoil.”25
Due to this violent and confrontational approach to civic life, Florentine knights and men-at-arms were not inclined to concede peacefully to the demands of popular governments, especially arguments promoting the interest of the collective good over that of the individual or lineage.26 The anonymous author of the Tavola Ritonda deftly reflects this attitude in the literary realm when he has King Meliadus respond to King Arthur’s demand that he swear allegiance by declaring, “In good faith, Sire, I would first have all my lands burnt and all my people killed before I would surrender to anyone through fear or cowardice; but if I myself choose it, I will serve you. For I am determined to live and die free, and after my death come what may!”27 In fact, the chivalric lifestyle, imbued with ideas of “proud self-assertive dominance,” made subservience to a centralized government controlled increasingly by the civic elite and other popular elements of Florentine society not only difficult, but also framed such acquiescence (i.e., loss of autonomy) as a source of dishonor that had to be met with violence.28
Chivalric Attitudes toward the Popolani
While popolani attitudes toward a violent elite, especially the Florentine grandi (magnates), have received significant scholarly attention, there has been comparatively little discussion of how knights and men-at-arms felt about the lower and middling classes. Moreover, the few insights provided by contemporary chronicles are filtered through social, political, and economic lenses and are colored by the popolani leanings of the authors.29 Missing are the voices of the knights and men-at-arms themselves. Unfortunately, chivalric texts, especially the large corpus of romances that circulated in Tuscany during this period and served as an important medium for the transmission of chivalric attitudes and ideas, do not spend much time discussing the popolani. This is because chivalry had very little to do with these men, an observation that reveals a great deal about the attitude of knights and men-at-arms toward those they perceived to be their social inferiors, namely that these men were deemed unworthy of attention or even subhuman.30 This assertion is also supported by occasional insights provided by chronicles—although the few “magnate” chronicles that have survived, namely those of Simone della Tosa and Neri degli Strinati, have little to say about the popolani—and archival documents.31 As Leonardo Bruni informs us, Walter of Brienne, the Duke of Athens and short-lived lord of Florence (1342–43), considered “common people” to be “almost slaves,” an attitude he surely shared with members of the Florentine chivalric elite.32
Since these knights and men-at-arms believed that their social and political superiority stemmed primarily from their membership in the ordo militum and thus their function as strenuous warriors (with strenuous again being used in the sense of the Latin strenuus or active) who provided military leadership and service abroad and exercised a privileged practice of violence at home, individuals ranging from farmers to merchants, bankers, and craftsmen are often depicted in a wide range of contemporary works as the opposite: base commoners, utterly lacking in martial vigor and skill and hampered by cowardice and sloth. The early romances of Giovanni Boccaccio provide useful evidence in this regard, for although he wrote these works while at the Angevin court in Naples, he did so under the patronage of Niccolò Acciaiuoli, a Florentine knight and royal seneschal of the kingdom, suggesting that the chivalric elite both in the regno as well as in Tuscany were his audience.33 A recent study of the military activities of other Florentine knights and men-at-arms in Acciaiuoli’s circle in Naples, especially members of the Buondelmonti lineage, lends further weight to this assertion.34
Boccaccio’s Filocolo, one of his earliest romances (1335–36), offers a general view of commoners as “disorderly and gross,” men who consistently incited their social superiors “to wrath” or imperiousness.35 Boccaccio provides an illuminating example, when the eponymous hero of the work and his knightly friends come across two groups of peasants. In this particular scene the knights go out of their way to incite the two groups of peasants to fight one another while the warriors watch and laugh. Boccaccio describes at great length the peasants’ lack of vigor and martial skill, a common theme in chivalric romances and a reflection of the attitudes of historical knights and men-at-arms, that he implicitly contrasts with the prowess and bravery of the noble heroes of his work:
Going to [the peasants], [Filocolo] stirred them up with words so that they became bold and undertook to cross the river… . But they were not arrived at the other bank when their armed adversaries attacked them, and they began their battle haphazardly in the midst of the river, severely lacerating their rough arms and backs with the heavy staves. Because of the close quarters, there was no room for bow or sling; and if there were any sword used, it either missed or was twisted as it struck. They were much impeded by the water … and at times it made the most cowardly into valiant combatants, holding their feet in the soft sand when they would have fled if they were on hard field. But after they had gone on fighting for a long time, and many from both sides had returned in bad shape, Filocolo and his companions had laughed enough at the bizarre behavior of these folks.36
Shortly thereafter, Filocolo sums up the traditional chivalric attitude, telling the peasants,
You unhappy people, poor in men and in wealth, why do you fight? … It should suffice you to follow the doctrine of Saturn [the Roman god of sowing and seed closely associated with farming], without wanting to usurp the office of Mars [the Roman god of war], since that it is silly for them to fight since dwells in you neither nobility of spirit, nor system, nor sense, nor skills at arms.37
In this way, Boccaccio captures one aspect of contemporary chivalric opinion about people of middling and lower social status, an opinion shared not only in Angevin Naples but also in Florence. In fact, this would have been particularly relevant to the experience of the Florentine chivalric elite who were by Boccaccio’s lifetime fighting a losing battle against the popular classes and suffering under the yoke of a civic ideology largely antithetical to chivalry.
Literary works also, on occasion, echo the view that elite men who did not embrace the chivalric lifestyle are greedy and discourteous, no doubt reflecting contemporary criticism of the lifestyle of wealthy merchants and bankers who often bore the trappings of chivalry but eschewed its core tenets. The Novellino, a late thirteenth-century collection of tales composed anonymously in Florence, is a particularly illuminating work in this regard, as it offers an “uncritical exaltation of the chivalric world, which the Florentine elite certainly read in forming their own collective identity.”38 In one of the tales, a poor knight and a jongleur both ask for a gift from Alexander the Great. The knight asks only for certain modest gifts that will allow him to return home with his honor intact. The jongleur, on the other hand, asks for the city of Gaza. Alexander grants the knight his request but rejects the commoner’s greedy demand. The author also praises the knight for his wisdom in recognizing that a commoner cannot possibly aspire to rule and that his true motivation thus must be the desire for wealth.39
No doubt this emphasis upon the evils of greed was motivated by the plight of some members of the chivalric elite who struggled to maintain their dignity in the face of legal and social troubles, declining economic fortunes, and changing attitudes toward wealth in the late thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth centuries.40 Illuminating in this regard is an incident from the fourteenth-century romance the Tavola Ritonda, when Tristan’s request for hospitality is rejected by “three churlish and villainous millers,” who only acquiesce when Tristan offers to pay them.41 This example would have affirmed a belief already held by historical knights and men-at-arms that their fellow citizens, especially members of the popolo grasso, cared more about accumulating wealth than about largesse and honor. Greed and a penchant for luxury in turn led to idleness or sloth, as wealthy individuals sought to enjoy their wealth by living leisurely, a lifestyle that was in many ways antithetical to chivalry.
Even when commoners avoided the infamy of cowardice and demonstrated a modicum of bravery and martial skill, chivalric authors found ways to distinguish these men from “true” knights and men-at-arms. The most striking example of this attempt to denigrate commoners who show chivalric qualities such as bravery and prowess comes from the mid-fourteenth-century romance the Tristano Panciatichiano. At one point in the work, Palamedes and Tristan learn of two peasants who had been raised to the dignity of knighthood by the King of Vermillion City thanks to their prowess and great renown. This, of course, would have engendered vigorous debate, if not indignation and outrage, among the chivalric audience of the work. We can almost sense the collective sigh of relief when later in the romance the two peasant knights treacherously kill their liege, the very man who raised them from poverty and obscurity to knighthood.42 The chivalric audience of this work would not have been surprised that these peasant-knights could commit such a dishonorable deed. Nor would they have been surprised that a great knight, Palamedes, would eventually succeed in securing vengeance on behalf of the murdered king.43 In other words, commoners who could not be impugned as cowards or as lacking martial skill were generally depicted as treacherous and wicked, a condition of their base origin.
The anonymous author of this work goes to great lengths to draw distinctions and to reinforce social boundaries, making the important point that while Palamedes’s enemies show great prowess, as commoners they fail to possess the other important tenets of chivalry, most notably loyalty and courtesy. This criticism is made explicit when the brother of the murdered king describes the peasant-knights as “valiant men and if they were such gentlemen in loyalty and goodness as they are in their physical abilities, they would be highly praised and esteemed, but [their] great disloyalty and wickedness and cruelty greatly hurts their chivalry.”44 Meanwhile, their lack of courtesy and treacherous conduct in battle no doubt confirmed, at least in the minds of the chivalric audience of this work, that they were not true knights.45
The author’s depiction of two peasant-knights as disloyal and discourteous accorded with the belief among some contemporaries that loyalty and courtesy were traditionally associated with men of distinguished lineage, if not nobility of the blood.46 This is reflected extensively in works of imaginative literature, and not only in chivalric romances. In one case drawn from the Tristano Riccardiano, Tristan is described as the “flower of all knights in prowess, in loyalty, and in courtesy.”47 In fact, the author of the Tavola Ritonda writes that “As the world is sustained by four columns, so Tristano [sic] had in himself four strengths, from which comes the honor and the great worthiness of chivalry …; that is, loyalty, prowess, love, and courtesy.”48 Likewise, Giovanni Boccaccio emphasized the centrality of courtesy to chivalric identity in his Teseida when he described Arcites, Palaemon, and Theseus as “display[ing] such courtesy that all the people were marveled.”49 In this way he recognized a contemporary attitude that such extreme and consistent courtesy in conjunction with prowess and valor was supposed to distinguish the chivalric elite from their social peers and inferiors. Thus, an honorable knight of distinguished (even if recent) origin who never, in theory, impugned his own honor through treacherous or discourteous conduct could contrast himself positively with pseudo-knights of inferior origin and commoners, all of whom failed to demonstrate one or all of these central tenets of chivalry: prowess, loyalty, and courtesy. The demonstration of all of the core tenets of chivalric ideology provided a measure of social distinction and prestige that could not be purchased, even with the fabulous wealth possessed by many new men among the popolo grasso.
Franco Sacchetti’s Trecentonovelle (ca. 1390), a collection of satirical novelle composed by a member of an ancient Florentine lineage that included many knights and men-at-arms, offers an illuminating example.50 In novella 63, a crude artisan (grossolano artefice) asks the famous Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (d. 1337) to design a coat of arms for him and to paint it on his buckler.51 The man has need of this potent symbol of elite social status because he has been elected to serve as a castellan, a military official charged with guarding a castle or other fortification in the Florentine territorial state. During Giotto’s lifetime, Florentine castellans overwhelmingly were military men, very often knights, who usually belonged to chivalric lineages. Few artisans were elected to the office of castellan who possessed neither military expertise nor a distinguished surname, especially during times of war. By Sacchetti’s lifetime, however, office-holding practices had shifted, resulting in men from the lesser guilds controlling castles and strategic fortifications. As a result, most scholars treat this episode as a biting social commentary on the degradation of knighthood and the military tradition in Florence at the end of the fourteenth century. It might also serve another purpose, however, for Sacchetti succeeds, even if unintentionally, in capturing powerful chivalric attitudes toward those they perceived to be social interlopers, attitudes that remained current throughout the lifetimes of Giotto and Sacchetti.
Indeed, Sacchetti makes clear that Giotto took great offense at the artisan’s audacity and pretensions, for an “upstart simpleton” (omicciatto semplice) had no business entering his workshop to demand a coat of arms be designed for him as if he were French royalty (“come se fosse de’ reali di Francia”). Although Giotto ultimately agrees to the artisan’s request, he does so only to teach the parvenu a lesson about propriety. Giotto’s subsequent design for the coat of arms features an array of armaments that although nonsensical in their placement, evokes the fundamentally martial nature of the office of castellan and serves to highlight the artisan’s sharp incongruence with that nature. Not surprisingly, the artisan is dismayed by the coat of arms and refuses to pay Giotto for the work, leading the artist to unleash a devastating criticism of the man’s audacity and impropriety, a harangue that no doubt reflected the underlying sentiments of Florentine knights and men-at-arms across the fourteenth century:
and you come here and say “Paint my arms.” If you were of the Bardi, that would be enough. What arms do you carry? Where are you from? Who were your ancestors? Oh please, aren’t you ashamed? It begins before you come into the world, that you think about arms as if you were the Duke of Bavaria.52
Giotto’s reference to the Bardi lineage, a distinguished chivalric lineage boasting ancient roots and many active knights and men-at-arms among its branches, is particularly telling, especially in contrast to the conclusion of the novella, when Giotto emphasizes the base origin of the crude artisan who “like every sad man wants to claim a coat of arms and a lineage,” even though his father was among those who “will have been found in the hospitals,” an indignity suffered only by the children of destitute families and orphans.53
This literary attempt and other efforts like it to erect boundaries and reinforce distinctions between the chivalrous and nonchivalrous at various levels of the Florentine social hierarchy reflect the challenges faced by knights and men-at-arms from roughly the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century. As we shall see, such intellectual and cultural efforts were coupled with more tangible measures, especially violent ones. Indeed, the chivalric elite eagerly and joyfully employed violence against social inferiors in order to defend and restore their superiority and autonomy, a practice that continued into the early fifteenth century.
The Historical Practice of Chivalric Social Violence
Giovanni Villani’s Nuova Cronica and Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People (almost certainly drawing heavily upon Villani) both include a striking incident involving Messer Tegghiaio Aldobrandi degli Adimari, a Florentine knight, and a commoner (popolano) by the name of Spedito (Bruni calls him Expeditus), who engaged in a tense debate in 1260 about a proposed military campaign against Siena and the Florentine Ghibellines in exile there. According to Giovanni Villani, when Tegghiaio cautioned prudence Spedito questioned his courage, telling him “to look at his pants if he was afraid” to go to war.54 In Bruni’s rendition, Spedito, whom the author describes as “a fierce and shameless fellow … the sort of person unrestrained liberty can sometimes produce,” lambasted Tegghiaio asking him: “What are you after Tegghiaio? Have you turned into a filthy coward? This magistracy isn’t going to pay any attention to your fears and quakings. It’s going to consider the dignity of the Florentine people. If you’re paralyzed with fear, we’ll let you off military service.”55
These attacks upon the courage, vigor, and military expertise of a knight like Tegghiaio, some of the most sensitive elements of chivalric identity, would seemingly warrant a violent response from the knight. And yet, according to Villani, Tegghiaio responded by pointing out that Spedito “would not dare to follow him into battle where he himself would go,” a sentiment seconded by a fellow warrior who was also present, Messer Cece dei Gherardini.56 Bruni’s version is similar, with Tegghiaio replying bluntly to Spedito that “he was sure that the man who had insulted him would never venture in battle where he himself would venture.”57 In both versions, Tegghiaio does not react with violence to Spedito’s provocations and insults.
Although likely apocryphal, this incident is important because it presents an ideal, that of the noble knight, whom Boccaccio referred to as a miles mavortis, who exercises restraint even in the face of insults and aspersions cast by a social inferior.58 The evidence provided by chronicles and histories, as well as archival documents, strongly suggests, however, that such an ideal was rarely met. Rather, the historical record demonstrates quite convincingly that the Florentine chivalric elite eagerly and joyfully employed violence, often transgressive in nature, against their fellow citizens, especially those below them in the social hierarchy who were perceived as challenging their social and political superiority, autonomy, and personal and collective honor.59
Various institutions, groups, and individuals took steps to deal with the problem of social violence, a danger made all the more serious by the chivalric elite’s prickly sense of honor and the significant private military power at their disposal.60 These measures involved the promulgation of punitive legislation, including the Ordinances of Justice (1293, 1295) and other antimagnate legislation, as well as sumptuary laws and restrictions on possessing offensive weapons.61 The overarching goal of these measures was to force knights and men-at-arms to abandon their violent lifestyles and to ensure the freedom of the popolani from the oppression of those who refuted the ways of civic life.62 The Ordinances were particularly far-reaching, restricting participation in politics and imposing heavy financial penalties in the form of sureties to ensure good behavior and harsh judicial punishments for violators. They also included provisions related to the creation of popular military companies in the city and contado to provide an independent military force capable of defending the Florentine government and popolani.63 Each new iteration of the Ordinances corresponded to a period of increased threats to the common good and civic peace.64 During the second half of the fourteenth century individuals were encouraged to disassociate themselves from the more violent members of their lineages and to reintegrate into the civic body.65
Despite these efforts, the practice of social violence remained pervasive in late medieval Florence. This can be attributed in part to chivalry’s valorization of this type of violence as honorable, although the comparatively rare appearances of commoners in romances—literary works that were not an exterior force but rather a powerful channeling medium—makes it more difficult to fully develop than the practice of honor violence. While there are a few exceptions, interactions between knights and commoners in these works overwhelmingly involve the threat or acts of violence. In one scene drawn from Rustichello da Pisa’s Romanzo Arturiano, composed in the mid-thirteenth century, two commoners—who are described as “minions” (sgherri)—viciously attack a knight. Perceval witnesses the assault and is overtaken by rage. He commands the commoners to stop attacking the knight, and when they do not comply, he drives them away.66 The continued valorization into the fourteenth century of chivalric violence against social inferiors is also present in the Tavola Ritonda, when Tristan, who has temporarily lost his mind, is mocked by a peasant who is leading a mule loaded with jugs of water through a city. Even though Tristan is insensate, he becomes angry and picks up the peasant and smashes him down onto the mule, killing both. This violence wins great praise from the king and barons who witness Tristan’s strength.67
These literary examples allow us to better understand the framework underpinning the practice of social violence, but they must be interpreted with care. Read prescriptively, they clearly encouraged knights to see this type of violence as the appropriate response to most interactions with, let alone challenges from, individuals from lower and middling social status. They should also be read as descriptive, a reflection of the pervasive historical practice of social violence. Is it any wonder that popolani referred to members of the chivalric elite as “rapacious wolves”?68
Before turning our attention to the historical practice of social violence, however, we need to first acknowledge the evidentiary obstacles historians of late medieval Florence face when attempting to study this category of chivalric violence. The primary obstacle is the lack of judicial records for the years before 1343, a casualty of the coup that toppled the Duke of Athens in that year. Much of the mundane violence perpetrated against the popolani before this year therefore remains lost to historians, although some sense of the scope of this violence can be ascertained from looking at the records from the remainder of the fourteenth century and from other historical sources, like chronicles and histories. These latter sources provide their own challenges for historians, most notably authorial bias due to the popolani origin and perspective of the majority of contemporary and near-contemporary chroniclers. Due to these two factors, the incidents of social violence recorded in contemporary chronicles and histories tend to be only the most egregious examples, while the discussion in these works of this violence and the motivation behind it is imbued with the popolani biases of the authors. Thus, while both the judicial records and popular chronicles provide useful evidence, historians must exercise caution when considering these sources.
Incidents of social violence varied in degree from isolated conflicts between individuals to massive pitched battles in the streets and piazzas of Florence that threatened on several occasions to engulf the entire city. Consequently, social violence posed a significant threat to peace, public order, and stability in late medieval Florence. The remainder of this chapter will explore three broad themes related to social violence: first, the chivalric elite’s claim to the right to private justice, determined through prowess and valor during combat that led to violent conflict with the Florentine government; second, violent resistance against popularly led and supported governments that the chivalric elite believed impinged upon their perceived rights and privileges; and third, a larger, more general body of acts of social violence against individual popolani that will help illustrate the violent nature of the larger struggle waged by the chivalric elite to assert and defend their social superiority.69
The Conflict over Private Justice
The use of violence to protect the traditional autonomy and superiority of the Florentine chivalric elite is perhaps most clear in the realm of justice. The popolani, who, according to Leonardo Bruni, “could not equal the greatness of the nobility and often suffered injury and insult,” sought instead to exact “public vengeance for private offenses.”70 The promotion of public justice was not only a central element of what Zorzi has called an “ideology of justice,” but was also political in nature, redoubling its importance to the popolani.71 In sharp contrast, the chivalric elite believed in their inalienable right to private justice, especially in matters relating to personal and familial honor, because private justice was determined ultimately by prowess, a gift bestowed by God.72 In their estimation, divine will in the form of prowess trumped the arbitrary judgment of public courts, especially courts staffed by social inferiors.
This prominent chivalric idea received plentiful support in the romances composed across our period. In the late thirteenth-century romance Tristano Riccardiano, Tristan challenges King Morholt on behalf of King Mark in order to prove through his prowess the justice of King Mark’s charge that Morholt had illegally forced the people of Cornwall to pay him a steep tribute. Not surprisingly, Tristan emerges victorious.73 Later, when Tristan is accused of killing Morholt through treacherous means, he swears before King Anguin and his court that he wounded Morholt fairly in combat and was justified in doing so. More importantly, he challenges anyone to prove him wrong in single combat.74 The king decides the case in Tristan’s favor, reinforcing once again the idea that justice and the truth should be proven through violence.75 Tristan would return the favor later in the same work, serving as King Anguin’s champion against charges that he treacherously killed an unnamed knight.76
The chivalric audience of the Tavola Ritonda in the second half of the fourteenth century would have been exposed to the same ideas. In one example drawn from this work, King Languis comes before King Arthur to defend himself against accusations of treachery, claiming that he will fight “as a knight who is not guilty.” In response, Sir Brunor (Brunoro) the Red, nephew of King Ban (Bando) of Benoich, insists that he will prove King Languis’s guilt through his prowess in combat. The author writes that
At these words a bold and eager knight came forward, Sir Brunoro the Red… . He said, “How can you say this, King Languis, and deny that you had killed, or killed yourself, a knight in your court who was our companion. I will prove by force of arms that you are guilty.” Sir Tristan, who had agreed to serve as King Languis’s champion, then stepped forward and replied, “My lords, I am a knight from a distant country who is very displeased to see one knight accusing another without just cause. Thus I will take King Languis’s battle upon myself and will show by force of arms that he is guilty of no treachery, and that he has been falsely accused.”
The author concludes by stating that “Thus the two knights came to accord, and exchanged gloves in front of the two kings. The kings then decreed that they should be on the field before Camellotto in three days, to decide the question by combat.”77 This extended exchange reaffirms the continued circulation of the ideas that justice should be decided through prowess.
Of course, this idea left plenty of room for elite warriors to transform the idea of justice into that of “might makes right,” a concept inextricably intertwined with honor.78 This idea certainly appears in the Tavola Ritonda during an exchange between Tristan and Amoroldo. Tristan, perhaps representing a reformed version of chivalry in this work, encourages Amoroldo to follow the rule of justice rather than force, saying “We would rather observe the law of God which rules not through force but justice and right, not through war and rapine.”79 Amoroldo’s forceful response, however, represents the traditional chivalric attitude toward justice: “Such words mean nothing to me. The good point of my sword will decide right and wrong.”80 This powerful sentiment nicely encapsulates both the chivalric belief about veracity of justice determined through violence and how easily the pursuit of justice could be transformed into “might makes right.”
These ideas about justice easily led to the operating assumption among knights and men-at-arms that public justice could be ignored or overruled through force. This appears in both imaginative literature and traditional historical sources. When King Mark catches Tristan red-handed in his illicit love affair with Isolde in the Tristano Riccardiano, the knights in the audience of this work would have agreed that Mark was quite justified to challenge the eponymous hero of the work to single combat. King Mark fulfills this obligation despite the fact that Tristan is a far superior knight. When Tristan handily defeats King Mark, the audience is left with little doubt that justice had not been done, even if historical knights would have appreciated Tristan’s ability to subvert justice through his prowess.81 Earlier in the same text, Tristan once again exploits his superior prowess to escape justice when he defeats Lambegues, the husband of the lady of Thornwood, with whom Tristan had recently slept, thus denying this knight his deserved vengeance.82 Rather than being punished for his adultery, Tristan escapes unscathed because of his prowess.
The version of chivalry presented in another work, the Tavola Ritonda, is entirely contradictory, much like chivalric ideology itself. On the one hand, this text more than any of the others examined in this chapter consistently promotes the idea that knights should be the strong arm of justice, upholding the rule of law and maintaining public order. Tristan’s prayers during his vigil the night before being made a knight include several references to justice and confirm that in the author’s estimation, one of the primary functions of knighthood was to uphold justice: Tristan prayed that “God might give him the grace to carry his knighthood with justice, loyalty, and prowess; a knight must be brave, bold and sure, loyal, courteous and just.” Likewise, King Mark wished Tristan “to have ardor, prowess, and courtesy, so that he can live according to right, with courtesy and justice, defending right from wrong.” Tristan, for the most part, lives up to the billing, being described at one point in the text as “the knight most well known for defending justice.”83
On the other hand, justice in the Tavola Ritonda is ultimately determined by private violence, violence that is often used to flaunt public justice. For example, Tristan is able to avoid punishment for his affair with Queen Isolde (Isotta) when “the good and faithful Governale and the four friendly knights errant armed themselves and went secretly to the edge of the sea to rescue Tristano from death.”84 Another literary flower of chivalry, Lancelot, likewise utilizes his prowess to subvert justice, escaping the clutches of King Arthur and saving the queen after their adulterous affair is discovered.85 Perhaps these contradictions are a reflection of the debate within the chivalric cultural community at this time about the issue of justice, particularly how to reconcile their assertion of the right to private justice in the face of a Florentine government struggling to impose its authority upon its most violent and unruly citizens.
Despite the ambiguity in the Tavola Ritonda, most romances strongly endorsed the validity of determining or avoiding justice through prowess. There are numerous examples of literary knights who are unable to avoid justice through their own prowess but are saved by friends or relatives. In the Tristano Riccardiano, just as in the Tavola Ritonda, Tristan’s friends plan to rescue him from King Mark’s justice through force after he is caught engaging in an adulterous affair with Isolde. According to the author, when Governal found out that Tristan had been condemned by King Mark, he assembled four of Tristan’s knightly companions, instructing them that “As soon as Tristan appears we will attack the men who are escorting him, so fiercely that we will rescue the lady Isolde and my lord Tristan. For it is better to die with honor than to live with shame”; all of the knights readily agreed.86 A similar incident can be found in the Tristano Panciatichiano, when Tristan once again resists arrest through his prowess. This particular version of the story is striking because the king and his knights are so amazed by Tristan’s great deeds of arms that they lavish praise upon the very prowess Tristan uses to subvert justice.87
The valorization in literary works, especially romances, of violence used to dispense private justice or to outright subvert the rule of law served a clarion call encouraging historical knights and men-at-arms to exploit their superior martial skills and resources in order to turn illicit actions into licit ones, to prove their innocence when their guilt was all but certain.88 As we shall see, these incidents also reflected actual historical behavior. We can find evidence of this type of violence from at least the middle of the thirteenth century. In 1258, it was discovered that the Uberti lineage were planning to attack and overthrow the Primo Popolo, a popular government that held power in Florence from 1250 to 1260. Prominent members of the lineage were summoned to appear before the magistrates, but rather than humble themselves to the authority of those they perceived to be their social inferiors, they used violence to subvert justice, “grievously wound[ing] and smit[ing]” the staff of the podestà. Not surprisingly, the popular government reacted to this challenge with force, as the popolani armed themselves and attacked the Uberti houses. Giovanni Villani writes that “they killed Schiattuzzo degli Uberti and many of their followers and retainers, and they took Uberto Caini degli Uberti and Mangia degli Infangati,” who were subsequently beheaded.89
Likewise, in 1287, Corso Donati and his retinue attempted to rescue through violence a certain Totto dei Mazzinghi da Campi, “a great warrior and commander,” who was condemned to be beheaded for murder.90 Although they failed, the readiness of the chivalric elite to use violence to subvert public justice is readily apparent. Leonardo Bruni, looking back from the early fifteenth century, wrote that in 1289, “the common people went in fear of the nobles with their retinues,” making the enforcement of the law difficult, even after the creation of popular military companies in the second half of the thirteenth century.91 On other occasions, the chivalric elite were more successful in subverting justice. In 1296, the Florentine exile Messer Tosolato degli Uberti cut off the head of the judge of Alborea in 1296, taking all of his wealth as his own. Rather than being condemned for his actions, however, he was made a knight shortly thereafter.92 Only a few years later, in November 1301, Corso Donati liberated through force all of the noble and knightly prisoners held in the city’s prison.93 Meanwhile, in 1304, a certain Talano di Messer Boccaccio Cavicciuli degli Adimari was condemned for evil committed (“per malificio commesso”), but before he could be delivered to justice, “his consorts assailed with arms the podestà who [was traveling] from the palace of the Priors with his family, and wounded them badly, and his family was put to death and severely wounded; and the said Cavicciuli [family] entered into the palace, and through force rescued the said Talano without any resistance.”94
Numerous additional examples confirm this practice continued into the fourteenth century. During the chaos following the removal of the Duke of Athens from power in 1343, Corso di Messer Amerigo dei Donati and many others broke into the prison (the Stinche), freeing the noble prisoners therein, before proceeding throughout the city burning and fighting.95 In this way Corso followed in the footsteps of his namesake who, as we have seen, had similarly attempted to subvert justice in 1287 and succeeded in doing so in 1301. Likewise, in August 1346, the Bardi lineage were accused of avoiding justice through their great arrogance (grandigia) and violence.96 Four years later in 1350, Carlo di Baldovinetto dei Gherardini killed the commander of the civic militia (gonfaloniere di compagnia), Banchello di ser Belcaro, whose office gave him the responsibility for maintaining public order and justice.97
While Giovanni Villani and his fellow popolani chroniclers lamented the lack or perversion of justice in the Florentine state, members of the chivalric elite would not have considered this resistance to a public authority enforced by those they perceived to be their social inferiors to be unjust or corrupt. Rather they would have understood this violence to be a licit assertion of their traditional right to seek private justice, a right predicated upon their perceived superiority as members of distinguished lineages with long traditions of military service and political leadership. In other words, social violence was a constitutive feature of the chivalric cultural community.
Violent Resistance against Civic Authority
Florentine chronicles are replete with incidents of social violence at the collective level, which commonly took the form of warfare between the chivalric elite and representatives of the government. Alessio Fiore has recently shown that this type of violence had been utilized by aristocrats and knights in north-central Italy since the late eleventh century as a form of political communication and that in an urban context it was specifically connected to the struggle for power.98 John Najemy, likewise, has argued that “much elite violence, whatever the specific origin in this or that quarrel, can … be seen as collective acts of defiance against the constraints imposed by the popolo: loud statements that the elite wanted no meddling from self-declared governments of guildsmen in what it considered its own internal affairs.”99 From the perspective of Florentine knights and men-at-arms, the denial of their perceived rights was a source of dishonor, doubly so because of the status of the resisting party, requiring the appropriate degree of violence to restore the lost honor.100
Historical examples confirm the prescriptive and descriptive value of the literary incidents. In 1250, when faced with a powerful challenge by the Primo Popolo (1250–60), the Florentine Ghibellines armed themselves and gathered at the house of the Uberti, an ancient and powerful Florentine lineage comprised of many knights and men-at-arms. These men, full of chivalric ideas about the praiseworthy and honorable exercise of violence when their collective rights and honor were challenged, prepared to make war on the popolani and Florentine government. Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, looking back at these events from the mid-fourteenth century, wrote that not even fear of an alliance between their Guelf enemies and the popolani could prevent these men from resorting to violence.101
Only five years later, the streets of Florence were once again the scene of pitched battles fought between the chivalric elite and popolani. This time the Uberti lineage, among others, was driven into exile.102 Following the defeat of King Manfred of Sicily at the Battle of Benevento (1266), the Florentine Ghibellines attacked the popolani in the city streets before fleeing the city. Chronicler Paolino Pieri, who was born in the second half of the thirteenth century, wrote baldly that “many skirmishes and great trouble was found in Florence in those days.”103 In another incident recounted this time by Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, the author makes explicit what was surely the case in previous examples, that collective social violence often involved commoners (whether from the city or countryside) fighting on behalf of members of the chivalric elite against other commoners and even the Florentine government. Marchionne writes that in 1279 the city of Florence was completely divided with nearly all of the citizens participating in the war between the Adimari and the Donati, Pazzi, and Tosinghi, each a prominent lineage of the chivalric elite.104 Meanwhile, in 1293, the chivalric elite “brought from Champagne a brave and bold knight named Messer Jean de Chalons, a man more powerful than loyal … [who] came to Tuscany allied with the magnates of Florence” to help them “crush the popolo of Florence.”105
The establishment of the Secondo Popolo and its promulgation of more stringent measures to control social violence succeeded in bringing the various factions of the chivalric elite together in 1295 in order to resist the popolani.106 Villani’s description of the subsequent conflict in the city streets is reminiscent of pitched battles on battlefields across Europe: “all the people in the city of Florence were in a clamor and in arms; the magnates themselves [were] on armored horses, and with their retainers from the countryside and other followers on foot in great numbers” attempted to take control of the city through violence.107 Extant sources claim that Corso Donati and his allies challenged Giano della Bella—a member of an elite Florentine lineage who had gained power through an alliance with the popolani and subsequently helped craft the Ordinances of Justice—and his supporters and eventually drove them from the city.108 Likewise, in June 1300, tensions between two of the leading Florentine lineages, the Donati and Cerchi, exploded into open warfare, resulting in significant violence against the popolani.109
Dino Compagni provides perhaps the most striking and illustrative example when he recounts a likely apocryphal conversation held between several members of the Florentine chivalric elite in 1293 about how best to restore their fortunes following the meteoric rise to power of new men as part of the Secondo Popolo and what they saw as the oppression of the traditional ruling lineages. According to Compagni, the first speaker, Messer Berto dei Frescobaldi (d. 1310), “spoke of how these dogs[, the popolani,] had stripped them of honors and offices, and how they did not dare to enter the public palace.” Frescobaldi’s solution to this affront to their honor and challenge to their social and political superiority is typically chivalric; he impassionedly exhorts his fellow knights and men-at-arms to employ extreme violence: “Let us take arms and run to the piazza. Let us kill as many of the popol[ani] as we find, whether friends or enemies, so that never again shall we or our sons be subjugated to them.”110 By associating the chivalric elite with transgressive, if not completely unconstrained violence (“Let us kill as many of the popol[ani] as we find, whether friends or enemies”), Compagni no doubt sought to critique the dark side of chivalric culture. Even if Compagni fabricated the details of the dialogue to serve this purpose, however, he also succeeds in highlighting an important element of chivalric mentality: the chivalric elite interpreted the loss of political power and social prestige as a source of dishonor, requiring knights and men-at-arms to use violence to cleanse the stain on their honor and restore their traditional superiority.111
Messer Baldo della Tosa, the second knight to speak, offers further confirmation that violence was considered the preferred solution to such challenges. Unlike Messer Berto dei Frescobaldi, Messer Baldo advocates an approach that combines violence with prudence and restraint to ensure not just vengeance in the short term, but also the destruction of the popolani and the permanent restoration of the chivalric elite’s superiority and autonomy. According to Compagni, Messer Baldo told the assembled crowd: “Lords, the advice of this wise knight is good—except that if our plan fell short we would all be killed. But let us first conquer them with cunning and sow discord among them with pious words… . And once they are divided, let us thrash them so that they will never rise again.”112 Compagni once again highlights, albeit unintentionally, an important aspect of chivalric mentality: knights and men-at-arms saw violence as central to any response, a necessary weapon in the struggle to restore the traditional and natural order of society. According to Compagni, Messer Baldo’s advice was very well received. Yet the pervasive violence delineated in this and other chronicles suggests that the promotion of reform virtues such as restraint and prudence seems to have been largely ignored or negated by powerful chivalric ideas about the necessity of answering challenges to autonomy and perceived superiority with violence. As a well-informed contemporary to these events it is possible that Compagni was privy to the details of the debate, but regardless of the accuracy of particular exchanges, the author succeeds in shedding light on the chivalric attitude toward their social superiority and perceived right to wield power.
There can be little doubt that the battle for political power played a role in engendering this violence. After all, Alessio Fiore’s work on the seigneurial elite in north-central Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries has demonstrated convincingly that violence was an important mode of political communication.113 This violence cannot be fully explained, however, by considering it to be simply the product of a battle to exercise power in the Florentine commune. If the chivalric elite only wished to exercise political power, they could have realized this goal more easily through accommodation with the popolani, especially members of the popolo grasso with whom they enjoyed marriage and business ties. The typical magnate, like other members of the chivalric elite, believed transgressive violence to be an appropriate and praiseworthy means of defending individual and collective honor.
As we shall see in chapter 4, the chivalric elite held positions of leadership in times of war, a right they claimed thanks to their long experience and training in war and social superiority. This leadership and service in turn provided Florentine knights and men-at-arms with honor and confirmed their exalted social standing. When their demands were not met, they reacted in a variety of ways, but all aimed at subverting or overcoming the authority claimed by men they perceived to be their social inferiors. In 1251, the Ghibellines of Florence refused to participate in an expedition against Pistoia that was under the authority of the broadly supported government of the Primo Popolo. Villani claimed that “in word and in deed [they] oppose[d] it.”114 Apposite also is the example from Dino Compagni introduced at the beginning of the chapter, who recounts that on the eve of the feast day of St. John (June 24) in 1289, the chivalric elite resorted to violence in order to express displeasure at their treatment following the leading role they played in the Florentine victory against the Aretines and Ghibelline exiles at Campaldino earlier that year.115 Compagni writes that while the guilds were going in a procession to make their customary offerings with their consuls “some magnates laid hands on them and struck them saying: ‘We are the ones who were responsible for the victory at Campaldino, yet you have taken from us the offices and honors of our city.’ ”116
Likewise, in 1310, Giovanni Villani blamed certain members of the chivalric elite for refusing to take the city of Arezzo after a long siege in 1310, because they wished for the war to continue.117 He also relates how during the siege of Prato over a decade later in 1323, the chivalric elite (he uses the term “nobility”) “through the[ir] vice … did not want to win the war for the honor and standing of the popolo.”118 The resulting conflict between the popolani and the chivalric elite within the Florentine army led to an ignominious retreat, to their “great dishonor and shame and that of the Commune of Florence.”119 To make matters worse, Florentine exiles attempted to take advantage of the political disorder that followed in order to force their way into the city with the assistance of some of the very same members of the chivalric elite whom Villani blamed for the failed siege. Although they were ultimately stopped, Villani claims that these exiles continued to plot with nobles in the city to make war against the popolani in order to secure their restoration.120 Less than a year later in February 1324, some members of the chivalric elite (Villani makes reference to a general group comprised of grandi and other powerful Florentine houses) formed an alliance “with twenty-five noble houses from the contado,” with the intention of returning to power through violence.121 Marchionne di Coppo Stefani offers more insight claiming that the chivalric elite had expressed considerable outrage before the campaign against Castruccio Castracani began because the popolo would not allow them to choose their own captain.122 This shows a clear and consistent effort by the chivalric elite to jealously guard their traditional role as the martial leaders of the Florentine commune—a primary source of honor for them—against those they considered their social inferiors who sought to control the prosecution of war. In other words, the efforts of the popolo challenged the collective honor of the chivalric elite, requiring violent resistance.
All of these examples occurred during a particularly contentious time in Florentine history when the chivalric elite were treated in a seemingly contradictory manner. As we have seen already, they received praise for leading Florence to victory at the Battle of Campaldino (1289), while at the same time they were subjected to the Ordinances of Justice in 1293. This treatment no doubt highlighted the challenge posed to the chivalric elite’s traditional modus operandi by the emergence and increasing dominance of the popolani. In the past, the chivalric elite were rewarded for successful military leadership and service with honor, as well as social prestige, political power, and wealth. The emergence of popular Florentine governments animated by civic ideology, however, saw military affairs come increasingly under the leadership of men who were not strenuous warriors, as well as the bestowal of honor and prestige on those who provided other forms of service, mostly administrative and juridical in nature. Resistance to these changes overwhelmingly took the form of violence.
The stakes involved in most incidents of collective social violence were obviously quite high, as the momentum and power gained or lost in these conflicts between the chivalric elite and the popolani could ultimately lead to significant changes in the city, the rise and fall of governments, and the exile or death of prominent Florentine citizens. Social violence had the potential to spiral out of control, engulfing the entire city.123 Even when the violence was more contained, the consequences were often extensive, as when the popolani armed themselves and destroyed the towers and palaces of the Tornaquinci lineage in 1303 in response to one of its members killing a popolano.124 Given the pervasiveness and intensity of this violence, the popolani lived in constant fear of a violent uprising by the chivalric elite. Leonardo Bruni, looking back on this tumultuous period, wrote that in 1289 “fear of the nobility was the one bond of harmony that united the people.”125
Giovanni Villani, who lived through these events, also notes this fear and the high level of distrust that existed between the popolani and the chivalric elite. This is clearest, perhaps, in his description of the events of November and December 1325. Earlier that year, Castruccio Castracani, the lord of Pisa and Lucca, had routed the Florentine army at the Battle of Altopascio, leaving many prominent Florentines in Lucchese prison. In November of that same year, Villani wrote that “the Florentines were very suspicious among themselves, fearing one another of treachery, especially certain grandi and powerful popolani [grassi], who had sons and brothers in prison in Lucca; they issued a decree under great penalty that no citizen who had someone in prison in Lucca could be castellan of any castle, or vicar of a league or of people.”126 In December, these fears still had not subsided, as the Florentines “liv[ed] in great fear of treachery, especially among those who had brothers and sons imprisoned in Lucca, who were powerful and great in the commune.”127
While many additional examples for the fourteenth century can be found in contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles, a few incidents drawn from the work of the Villani are representative of this larger body of evidence. Villani writes that in 1323 numerous knights and men-at-arms came together and shouted battle cries that included “Death, death to the commune and il popolo of Florence and to the [Party] Guelfa and long live the Ghibellines.”128 This was particularly concerning because in that same year members of the chivalric elite in exile had worked together with their counterparts in the city, most notably Amerigo dei Donati, Tegghia dei Frescobaldi, and Lotteringo dei Gherardini, in a failed attempt to overthrow the Florentine government.129 Less than a decade later, Ugolino di Tano degli Ubaldini, a member of a famous and powerful lineage from the Florentine contado, attempted, with the support of certain lesser men, to commit treachery in Florence in 1329. He planned to secretly place two hundred of his men in the city and then to set fire to houses in different parts of Florence in order to sow confusion. During the confusion, Florentine Ghibelline exiles, in conjunction with soldiers from various allies, including the emperor, would attack the city, taking control. Villani informs his reader with unmistakable relief that the plot was discovered and thwarted.130 Only a few years later (1333), certain members of the chivalric elite took advantage of flooding in the city to move once again against the popolani. This time they tried to block the bridges so that the civic militia could not cross the river but eventually backed down when the militia marched against a member of the elite Rossi lineage, who had attacked and wounded his popolano relative.131
As these examples demonstrate, the high stakes associated with social violence, especially collective social violence, meant that those members of the chivalric elite who played the game of power politics risked their property, exile, and even death.132 Perhaps the most famous example is the fall from grace of Messer Corso Donati, “the baron,” in 1308.133 In that year, after spending over a decade as one of the leading figures in Florence, Donati was accused of conspiring to take control of the city. When he refused to submit himself to the authority of the communal government, a typical assertion of chivalric autonomy, he was condemned in absentia. Corso and his allies, including the Bordoni lineage, prepared to defend themselves in Piazza San Piero Maggiore. Dino Compagni describes the events that followed:
Messer Corso was badly afflicted with gout and could not bear arms, but he urged his friends on with his tongue, praising and inspiring those who bore themselves valiantly. But he had few men… . The attackers were numerous, for all the banners of the popolo were there alongside the mercenaries and men at arms, attacking the barricades with crossbows, stones, and fire. Messer Corso’s few soldiers defended themselves vigorously with lances, crossbows, and stones, waiting for those in the conspiracy to come to their aid … but none of them showed any sign of coming… . Seeing that he could no longer defend himself, messer Corso decided to leave. The barricades were broken; his friends fled through the houses… . Messer Rosso [dei Rossi], messer Pazzino [dei Pazzi], messer Geri [dei Bordoni], and many others fought vigorously on foot and horse… . Messer Corso, ill with gout, fled towards the abbey of San Selvi… . The men at arms [of the commune] caught him and recognized him and wanted to lead him off; he defended himself with fine words like a wise knight. Meanwhile, the marshal’s young brother-in-law arrived. Though urged by the others to kill messer Corso, he refused to do it and turned back. He was sent again, this second time he struck messer Corso in the throat with a Catalan lance and another blow in the flank and knocked him to the ground. Some monks carried messer Corso to the abbey, and there he died.134
Compagni clearly admired the bravery and vigorous deeds of the Donati, Pazzi, and Bordoni in this battle, even if he lamented the fact that their prowess was used to inflict devastating violence on their fellow citizens, especially popolani.135 In contrast, the Donati, Pazzi, and Bordoni would have understood their violence to be not only licit and a source of honor but also a necessary assertion of chivalric autonomy.
While the nature of our historical sources means that acts of collective social violence were the most likely to be recorded in chronicles, the records of the criminal courts also provide evidence. The judicial archives contain particularly rich veins of evidence, especially the records of the executor of the Ordinances of Justice, the podestà, and the captain of the Popolo.136 These archives remain largely unexamined by most scholars, especially historians of chivalry, although they are not a panacea for the challenges facing historians of chivalry in late medieval Florence. Historians, consequently, are left largely in the dark about much of the violence that occurred in the second half of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in particular. In addition, the records for the years that do survive are complicated and incomplete, with the denunciation (tamburagione), inquisition, and sentencing related to one particular case found in three different sets of documents, if they have even survived the vicissitudes of time.137
The important work of scholars such as Claudia Caduff, Carol Lansing, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, and Joseph Figliulo-Rosswurm, among others, has made it possible for historians of chivalry to draw broad conclusions about identified incidents of social violence.138 Of course, these scholars also advise caution when utilizing accusations and denunciations as evidence of actual violence: sometimes men bore false witness, and often when an accusation was made the named witnesses failed to show up and testify. Occasionally accusations were declared without basis by relevant authorities and subsequently dismissed.139 Some scholars have suggested that denunciations were an important weapon utilized by the popolani and, by extension, the Florentine government to legitimate popular rule and agendas and to demonize and weaken the grandi.140 Vieri Mazzoni likewise makes a strong case that in the fourteenth century the mechanisms of the judicial system could be abused by the elite, especially members of the Parte Guelfa, in order to take down political enemies.141 Samuel K. Cohn Jr. meanwhile notes that the judicial records “track the state’s strategies of prosecution and social control as much as, if not more, than criminal behavior or violence.”142
Despite these limitations and concerns, the judicial records of the Florentine government do provide useful evidence for the practice of social violence in the second half of the fourteenth century, especially when considered in light of the mental framework of the chivalric practitioners who committed the violence. Indeed, Alessio Fiore has argued for the utility of examining querimoniae (pleas to a sovereign authority) in order to understand seigneurial violence in north-central Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, asserting that “regardless of their factual accuracy, the actions described [in the querimoniae] had to strike the addressee as likely and, more generally, be socially plausible; therefore, they had to be consistent with the actual behavioural models of their age, with respect to which they can serve as useful guides.”143 This certainly holds true for Florentine judicial records, especially the anonymous, written denunciations (tamburagioni) filed by popolani against magnates.
Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s discussion of several denunciations occurring in the year 1345 highlights the value of these archival documents in unearthing acts of collective social violence, especially efforts of members of the chivalric elite to resist, if not overthrow, the Florentine government. Some suggest high-level machinations with potentially far-reaching consequences. In July of that year three Adimari, one Tosinghi, and individuals from multiple other chivalric lineages were accused of plotting to restore the Duke of Athens and drive the Florentine Priors from their palace. Another denunciation in that same year accused two members of the Scali lineage of plotting several years earlier (1342) with the same Duke of Athens to take the palace of the Signoria. Other denunciations lay bare more mundane violence, as when Napoleone and Sandro di Lipaccio were accused of bombarding with rocks and bricks the guards of the commune who were stationed in the piazza upon which their palace stood in February 1347.144
Further outside the walls such acts of social violence often took on a more expansive form. For example, in 1349, a member of the Abati lineage was accused of attempting to take the castle of Incisa in the Florentine contado at the head of a group of armed followers. One witness testified that the group shouted “Death to the popolo and long live the grandi!” while storming the castle.145 A petition submitted by all of the members of the Tornaquinci lineage in 1352 reveals that two of its members, Attaviano di Messer Testa and Musino di Manetto, had both been condemned by the Esecutore to decapitation and the confiscation of their possessions for having forcibly taken over a small town (località) near Volterra and shouting “Death to the Guelf Party!” (Muora la parte guelfa).146 Meanwhile, Pazzino dei Donati was condemned by the podestà to death, the confiscation of his possessions, and for his likeness to be painted (“la pittura infamante”) for conspiracy in 1360.147 In October 1387, all members of the Strozzi were made magnates after the murder of Piero Lenzi, the gonfaloniere of the compagnia (an important official of the Florentine communal government), by Pagnozzino di Pagnozzo and his brother, Nofri, both members of the Strozzi lineage, who were subsequently declared rebels.148
General Violence against Popolani
Chivalric ideas, especially the need to assert and defend individual and collective honor, complemented and enhanced the more readily recognized economic, political, and social motivations behind elite violence against the popolani. Indeed, Richard Kaeuper has made clear for the larger European context that profit and politics were no strangers to honor and chivalry.149 If often social violence seems both random and transgressive in the Florentine context, chivalric ideology would have imbued it with an important purpose: to reassert their social superiority over the popolani, whom the chivalric elite thought had forgotten their natural place in the hierarchy, and to challenge the authority of a Florentine government that had usurped their traditional power and autonomy.150 Before turning to individual acts, which often escaped the attention of contemporary chroniclers, it is useful to first examine this violence at a macro level.
Lansing’s study of the criminal archives for the years 1343–48 identifies 143 criminal cases involving accusations that individuals identified as nobles, grandi, and magnati either threatened or committed acts of transgressive violence against popolani. These acts ranged from assault with defensive weapons to rape and the murder of priests.151 Likewise, Caduff concludes that a majority of the denunciations she examined for the period 1345–46 involved accusations of elite men attacking, wounding, or killing popolani.152 Even more extensive in its coverage is the work of Klapisch-Zuber, who analyzed 448 denunciations made during the years 1344–50, 1367–77, and 1400–1405.153 Of these, 225 involved elite violence against popolani, resulting in injuries. Twenty-seven denunciations involved charges of murder, and sixteen involved rape. If we take into consideration the violence that occurred during attacks on the property of popolani, we see at least another sixty incidents and possibly twice that number. Meanwhile, the most violent lineages, based on denunciations during the years studied by Klapisch-Zuber, were the Adimari, Bardi, Cavalcanti, Frescobaldi, and Rossi.154 Perhaps most importantly of all, roughly 72 percent of the total victims were popolani men.
The above assessment of the judicial archives suggests a significant number of incidents of social violence were committed in the second half of the fourteenth century. This type of violence undoubtedly regularly occurred in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries as well, although examples are comparatively difficult to identify because of the lack of archival documents for this period. Despite these evidentiary limitations, it is possible to identify a number of representative examples for the early fourteenth century. In August 1300, Regino di M. Ugholino dei Rossi (Rubei) attacked with a kitchen knife and killed Vane, a popolano from S. Felicita.155 In May 1305, Messer Andrea di Tommaso dei Mozzi was forced to surrender three farms to the Florentine government after his failure to pay a fine of 2,100 lire, imposed after he struck a popolano multiple times.156 In August 1308, the podestà of Florence condemned Baldo dei Frescobaldi and Lamberto, his son, for having assaulted and struck a popolano, Lando di Bernardo.157 Two of the few surviving documents from the judicial archives for the period before 1343 relate to the violent actions of Donato di M. Marsello dei Donati, who was required, on March 15, 1310, to restore a certain percentage of the goods he took from some popolani. He was also sentenced on December 5, 1310, for having occupied the farm of a popolano.158 Arnoldo Tani degli Amidei, meanwhile, was condemned to death a few months later (March 6, 1311) for having attacked and killed a popolano. A year later, two members of the Ricasoli lineage, Bindaccio di Albertuccio and Guicciardone di Micco, were initially condemned for killing a peasant in April 1312, although they avoided punishment.159
In contrast to the dearth of documents for the early fourteenth century, the judicial archives are replete with evidence for the years after 1343, even if these records, like chronicles, often fail to offer insight into the motivation and mentality behind chivalric social violence. What they do make clear, however, is the bloody and transgressive nature of chivalric social violence. The judicial archives for Florence are immense: Andrea Zorzi notes that there are over 12,000 registers for the years 1343–1502, while the records for the period 1343–60 alone comprise over 345 registers.160 As a result, only a representative sample of incidents will be examined below, drawn mostly from the middle decades of the century and chosen because they involve individuals who belong to one of the main chivalric lineages studied in this present book. They are organized chronologically in order to demonstrate the continuity and nature of the practice of social violence during the second half of the fourteenth century.
In December 1343, the podestà of Florence condemned to death in contumacy Bernardo, called “Pelagra,” son of Nerone dei Cavalcanti, for the murder of a popolano in July.161 A month later, in January 1344, Giovanni di Guelfo dei Pulci was denounced for having smashed Grasso di Guccio in the head with the pommel of his sword.162 Later that same year, four Gherardini men were forced to pay the Florentine government six thousand lire because one of their cousins murdered a popolano man who happened to be an ex-prior of the city.163
The following year brought violent incidents of a similar tenor. In February, Boccaccio di Rinaldo was accused of murdering Nuccio di Giovanni di Arrigo, a popolano from the contado, by hitting him with a lance (lancia).164 Other cases from 1345 include Migliore degli Abati’s assault on a popolano priest named Giovanni Bonaiuti of S. Michele di Bertelde and Francesco dei Bardi’s attack on Giorgio di Calandrino, a popolano from the contado, during which he beat Giorgio in the face and torso.165 In another striking case from 1345, a certain Angelo del fu Panziere dei Ricasoli was first accused in August of having approached Cennina and her husband, Vannuccio, on the piazza of a church. Angelo subsequently kidnapped and held Cennina at his house for days where he raped her, while also sending men to kill Vannuccio. According to the records of the case, Vannuccio was killed near Siena and his hand was brought back to Angelo, who allegedly threw it to his dogs to eat. He was convicted the following year (1346).166
In the early spring of 1346, Jacopo dei Bardi was accused of hitting Gualterino di Duccio Parenti over the head with a wine jug until he died.167 Similarly violent were the actions of Lotto di Messer Fornaio dei Rossi, who was denounced for having struck Lorenzo, resident of Santa Maria Impruneta, with a dog collar multiple times in the face until it was bloody, while Lotto’s associate (consorte) held his arms firmly behind his back. While Lotto beat Lorenzo, he allegedly taunted his father saying “go, help your son, you filthy popolano piece of shit” (va’, aiuta [il tuo] figliolo, sozzo popolano di merda).168 During that same year, Lotto di Lapo di Guerarduccio of the Buondelmonti was accused of breaking into the house of Guisca, a popolana from Castelfiorentino, and abducting her.169
The judicial records for 1347 and 1348 offer more of the same. A denunciation made in February 1347 claimed that a member of the Rossi lineage struck a woman, a popolana from San Iacopo a Trecento, in the head until she fell on the ground all bloody. This violence was occasioned by a verbal exchange, when the woman publicly repudiated the Rossi man in his own village.170 In July, Giovanni di Cipriano dei Tornaquinci was accused of assaulting a popolano of S. Donato Vicchietti, although nine of the eleven witnesses who gave testimony claimed no knowledge of the attack.171 It is important to note here, as Figliulo-Rosswurm argues convincingly in a recent study, that “witnesses’ silence was a pragmatic response to local power networks and the criminal court’s procedural regime. Typically, witnesses denied knowledge.” Due to these repeated denials, there was “a low conviction rate for magnate malefactors.”172 Thus, by extension, these denials do not signify that the violent incidents at the heart of popolani denunciations did not actually take place.
In September of that same year, Lambertuccio and Dino, his son, of the Frescobaldi lineage were accused of attacking Agostino, a popolano from S. Stefano in Pane. Four of the six witnesses listed in the records testified that they knew nothing about the incident, and thus Lambertuccio and Dino escaped punishment.173 In January 1348, Giovanni di Lotterio (called Bugliaffa) and Bartolo di Bertuccio (called Bara Chazza) assaulted, robbed, and then abducted Cino di Fave of Monte Ficalle. The government was unable to convict them, however, after the witnesses refused to testify.174 A month later (February), Bernardo dei Tosinghi was accused of assaulting Lapo di Mona Cosa, a popolano, but the case was dismissed after no witnesses were willing to come forward.175 Finally, in January (1348), Rainero di Acconte of the Pazzi was accused of having assaulted Francesco di Pettaccio a month earlier (December 1347), but Rainero was also able to avoid justice when the witnesses testified that they knew nothing about the attack.176
Vieri di Filipozzo dei Bardi was accused of assaulting Duzio del Sara, a popolano, in 1349, although once again none of the four of the witnesses called to testify could remember the incident.177 A similar outcome occurred in the case of Michele di Dugolto and Lotto di Simone, both members of the Agli lineage, who were accused of assaulting a popolano named Michele di Gudalotto, but remained free in part because the attack occurred at night.178 Geri dei Donati, meanwhile, was denounced in August 1349 for having wounded a man in his tavern where “as a great and powerful man he made peace through fear.”179 Other cases include Francesco degli Abati’s assault on Giolla di Morello, an agricultural laborer from the contado, Taddeo di Cantino and Antonio di Lotto of the Agli’s attack on Matteo di Giovanni, Panocchierio di M. Monte dei Buondelmonti’s violence against Niccolo di Butazo, a popolano from the contado, and Napoleone di Lipaccio dei Frescobaldi’s assault on yet another popolano, Martino di Perio.180 In a final striking case from that year, Ottaviano di M. Teste dei Tornaquinci assaulted Francesco di Sanza degli Strozzi, who rather than responding in kind, chose to utilize the judicial apparatus to secure justice.181
In July 1350, Stoldo di Nicolaio dei Frescobaldi was denounced for assaulting a popolano, but when two of the three witnesses testified that they had no knowledge of the incident, Stoldo escaped punishment.182 Several months later, in November, Durlino di Caleffo was similarly denounced for striking Guido di Lipaccio, a popolano, in the head.183 Talano di Capestro degli Adimari was similarly accused in that year of assaulting Domenico di Sandro di Dominico, a popolano, and stealing his horse (roncino/ronzino).184 Other cases from 1350 include the accusation against Jacopo di Cante dei Cavalcanti that he attacked Staggio, a popolano from the contado, and Bernardo di Giovanni di Sasso dei Tosinghi’s attack on Lapo di Mona Cosa of S. Lorenzo.185
The voluminous records of the judicial archive confirm that members of the Florentine chivalric elite continued to practice social violence in the 1350s and 1360s. For example, in 1351, Gino di M. Manetto dei Buondelmonti was accused of killing a popolano from the contado, but the accusation remained unproven when the witnesses testified that they were unaware of the murder.186 In November 1352, the podestà of Florence condemned in contumacy a member of the Rossi lineage, Simone di Messer Porcello, for the murder of a popolano.187 Two years later (1354), Cece, a consort of the Gherardini lineage, accused Luigi di Lottino dei Gherardini of having struck and wounded a popolano with the shaft (asta) of his lance.188 In 1364, Donato di Mino dei Ricasoli wounded a popolano with a sword and was required to pay a nine hundred lire fine or have his hand amputated.189 Several years later (1368), Bartolomeo di Rainaldo dei Donati was accused of assaulting a popolano in the parish church of Remole, but eleven of the thirteen cited witnesses could not confirm the attack and thus the case was dismissed.190 In that same year, Lorenzo di M. Simone dei Visdomini attacked and beat up a young popolano, but he was not convicted for nearly four years (1372).191 That social violence continued to be practiced through the end of the century is suggested by a striking example from 1394, when two “powerful and arrogant” Medici, Francesco di Bicci and his son Averardo, were denounced by a popolano whom they had beat up and chastised as if he were a baby. The victim even claimed that the Medici men had thrown away his pants in order to further humiliate him.192
On occasion the judicial archives offer insight into the alleged motivation behind an act of social violence. In many cases, the motivation is articulated as a desire to challenge the Florentine government. When a member of the Rossi lineage was denounced in September 1349 for having attacked and wounded a ward (pupillo), he was accused of having shouted at his victim “and I do this to you in order to intimidate and disrespect the Commune and the Popolo and the Signoria, go [to them] so that they can help you, if they can.”193 Similarly explicit is the challenge issued by a member of the Adimari lineage, who, according to a denunciation made in February 1349, attacked and raped a girl with several of his companions while shouting “Death to the Popolo and the Captain (of the Popolo).”194 Klapisch-Zuber likewise provides additional examples of verbal challenges to the popolo issued during violent assaults on popolani, including “Dog, I will make you repudiate your loyalty to/faith of the Popolo of Florence,” found in the denunciation of an attack made on May 18, 1347, and “what popolani shits they are,” found in two denunciations dating from March 23, 1347, and April 13, 1347.195 Likewise, an undated denunciation accused several members of the Cavalcanti lineage of wounding a certain popolano, Laveggio di Puccerello, and insulting him and the Florentine government.196
Giovanni Villani’s observation about the state of affairs in Florence in 1292 nicely sums up a second major motivation behind social violence against individual popolani: “the nobles called magnates and the powerful, used force and violence against the popolani and the impotent in the countryside as in the city taking possession of both persons and goods.”197 The chivalric elite regularly used violence to appropriate property, extort money, or demand service from a popolano. It is important to note before looking at specific examples from the judicial archives that although the evidence available is only from the second half of the fourteenth century, a 1286 law obliging magnates to buy, for a fair price, goods and structures that they possessed illegally, usually through force, suggests that similar incidents occurred in the second half of the thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth centuries.198 Occasional pieces of evidence, which survive in the city’s archives by happy accident, reinforce this argument. One such example is that of the undated petition made by Naddo and the heirs of Geri, his brother, against Corso Donati, who allegedly used his power and position, and by extension ostensibly a veiled threat of violence, to extort money from Naddo and his kin.199 Nearly fifty years later, in April 1338, two members of the della Tosa lineage, Francesco and Bigliardo, allegedly engaged in similarly motivated violence, that is, in order to take over the property and possessions of a defenseless popolana, Margherita, although no action was taken against the men.200
The work of Samuel Cohn Jr., Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, and William Caferro in particular have highlighted the violence of the Ubaldini, Squarcialupi, and other rural noble lineages who operated at the periphery of the Florentine contado. Their studies make clear that these lineages regularly engaged in violence against individual popolani, a practice Alessio Fiore has confirmed was also prevalent in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, as well as against agents of the Florentine government and ecclesiastical figures and properties.201 Particularly egregious offenders were the Monterinaldi, a branch of the Ubaldini, whom Klapisch-Zuber describes as having “a strong preference for armed aggression, with the lance, sword, or bludgeon” and whom “did not hesitate to take possession through force of other people’s goods.”202 Likewise, Caferro’s recent work on the Ubaldini makes clear that this lineage often took their violence to the next level, waging outright war against Florence.203
The judicial archives offer considerable evidence of this type of violence for both the contado as well as in and around the city. In July 1343, Niccolo di Nosso dei Buondelmonti went with a band of soldiers (fanti) to the house of Piero Chiano, which he threatened to burn down with him and his children inside if he did not pay ten gold florins.204 Likewise, in March 1345 Chele Nutini from San Godenzo in the Mugello accused Count Guido Domestico, of the Counts Guidi, of attacking his house with fifty men after Chele refused to perform guard service at one of the Guidi castles. He claims Guido was “driven by rage” and stole, along with his men, all of Chele’s grain, wine, household goods, and animals, before burning the house and the land around it.205 In that same year, Lapo dei Cavalcanti stole the personal possessions of the sons of Rosso di Bagnese, a popolano, and took control of their mill on the Pesa River.206 Jacopo del fu Francesco dei Pazzi, meanwhile, was denounced in April 1346 for having entered the house of a Florentine popolano at night with several other men, which he subsequently sacked, carrying away goods valued at one hundred gold florins.207 Similar were the actions of Mannolo dei Nerli, who was denounced in March 1346 for choking Ser Manecto nearly to death for refusing to pay his annual payment of grain, and two members of the da Grignano lineage, who were denounced in December 1346 for attacking a popolano near the border of Sienese territory and imposing a fine on him.208
In August 1347, Beltranio dei Pazzi was accused of taking control of a farm belonging to Zenobio, a popolano, but despite the testimony of five witnesses, Beltranio was not found guilty.209 A month later, Gerardo di Maro di M. Giano di Adimaro degli Adimari and his retainers were accused of stealing grain from Sagliano di Bonagio, a popolano.210 Multiple representative incidents can be identified for 1348 as well. In August, brothers Nero and Giovanni, sons of Jacobo Lambernardo degli Adimari, stole grain from the house of a popolano.211 Lapo degli Agli, meanwhile, took over the house of Nicolosa, a popolana widow, but he escaped justice when the witnesses all testified that they knew nothing.212 One year later (1349), Domenico di Jacopo di Domino Ruggiero dei Tornaquinci stole a pig from a popolano merchant at a meat market in the contado.213 And finally, in 1351, Cogetto di Giovanni di M. Donato di Travino dei Donati broke into the house of a popolano and stole grain and many other things.214 These examples suggest that chivalry valorized violence, often transgressive in nature, against popolani as honorable; indeed, this behavior “smear[ed] no blot on the cherished shield of honor.”215 Chivalric ideas also justified as licit and honorable the use of predatory behavior typically associated with war—the despoiling and destruction of property—on the home front.216
The sheer weight of evidence for the period covered by this study of elite violence against the popolani is staggering. Even with the destruction of the judicial archives for the period before 1343, a variety of different kinds of evidence, including surviving archival documents, chronicles, and civic legislation, strongly suggests the pervasive practice of social violence during that period. The extant records for the remainder of the fourteenth century confirm the continuity of the practice of this category of chivalric violence in these years. Social violence was underpinned by a chivalric ideology that emphasized social superiority by right of prowess. Because chivalric ideology promoted the idea that might made right, Florentine knights and men-at-arms believed that they could act with impunity against those they deemed their social inferiors. Nicolò Rodolico has concluded, based on an analysis of the judicial records for the late fourteenth century, especially oaths sworn before the podestà, that the magnates were still powerful at the end of this century.217 Perhaps even more apposite is Klapisch-Zuber’s conclusion that the Florentine government’s struggle to control magnate violence (a “culture of violence”) still had a long way to go in 1400.218
While violence was central to the identity and lifestyle of the Florentine chivalric elite, the violence perpetrated against social inferiors, the popolani, receives the most virulent condemnation in contemporary chronicles, archival records, and communal legislation. This is not surprising, as social violence posed a threat not only to public order and prosperity, but also to the very survival of the popolo. This social violence was not, however, simply a matter of lordship—that is, the attempt of an increasingly marginalized warrior elite to impose their fading authority over those they considered to be their inferiors, possibly even their subjects—or the result of political, economic, and social factors alone. Indeed, a much easier route to economic stability and political participation existed in the renunciation process, which allowed an individual, a family, or even an entire lineage to “return to the polis” as popolani after renouncing the practice of social violence, as well as their ancestral surname and coat of arms.219 That this violence continued into the fifteenth century strongly suggests that social violence was also promoted and valorized by powerful chivalric ideas that were shared by knights and men-at-arms in Florence and further abroad. As a result, social violence was understood to be a crucial means of asserting and defending not only personal and familial honor, but also the honor of the entire chivalric community.