Chivalry and Honor Violence
On Christmas Day 1301, Simone, the son of the famous Florentine knight Corso Donati, attacked and killed his uncle, Niccola dei Cerchi, who was on his way home after praying in the church of Santa Croce.1 The incident is described by the fourteenth-century Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, who recounts in his Nuova Cronica how Simone, “driven and encouraged to do evil, … followed on horseback the said Messer Niccola with his companions and other followers; and reaching him at the Ponte ad Africo, … attacked him; … the said Messer Niccola, without fault or cause, nor guarding himself against Simone, his said nephew, was killed and knocked down from his horse.”2 Villani’s words betray the author’s disbelief and outrage at Simone’s seemingly unprovoked and unjustified violence. After all Simone had attacked and killed his own uncle without cause on Christmas Day.3 This anger is subsequently tempered by a somewhat surprising lament, for Villani informs his readers that Simone, “wounded through his side by the said Messer Niccola, died that night. So that … it was considered a great loss, because the said Simone was the most accomplished and virtuous young nobleman of Florence, and he would have come to greater honor and state, and he was all the hope of his father, Messer Corso.”4
Simone’s act of brutal violence against his uncle surely elicited powerful reactions from contemporary Florentines. Villani’s reaction likely represents that of many popolani who, imbued with ideas about peace and stability in the name of the common good and possessing a healthy dose of fear, would have condemned the senselessness of Simone’s destructive violence that not only resulted in Niccola’s death, but also cost Simone his own life. Contemporary Florentines also would have understood the violence in political and social terms, noting that this incident took place during the height of the feud between the Donati and Cerchi lineages that pitted a lineage of great antiquity but diminished economic prosperity against a lineage of recent origin but significant wealth, in a contest for political power. This may have helped to explain why Simone, the son of the leader of the Donati lineage, would kill Niccola, a member of the Cerchi lineage, who was also his uncle.
And yet, these explanations do not fully account for Simone’s violence. This is because they do not take into consideration Simone’s mentalité and the ideas and values of the cultural community to which he belonged.5 Indeed, the powerful connection between honor and violence within chivalric ideology is key to understanding Simone’s behavior.6 Chivalry prioritized and valorized the deeply ingrained, almost visceral, need Florentine knights and men-at-arms felt to assert, defend, and vindicate their personal and familial honor (i.e., horizontal honor) through bloody violence. The pervasiveness of this type of violence in Florence during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries suggests that at least in the minds of its practitioners, such an important end more than justified the destructive means. Thus, when seen through this chivalric lens, the motivation behind Simone’s violence comes into focus: the need to assert and defend his personal and familial honor, whatever the cost.
The close connection between violence and honor was a dominant aspect of chivalric culture and identity in late medieval Florence and Tuscany, just as north of the Alps.7 Chivalry’s influence in Italy, however, has received comparatively little attention from scholars, who focus instead on political, social, and economic forces.8 Moreover, the recent scholarship on elite violence is dominated by a revisionist view that argues violent self-help, specifically the practice of vendetta, was commonplace in Florentine society and not limited to “noble” or traditional lineages. Proponents of this view contend that vendetta and feuding, well regulated by communal laws, were ultimately positive forces in Florentine society, helping to restore balance and end, rather than intensify, conflicts.9 In other words, far from being the product of a lifestyle or ethos associated with nobility or membership among a traditional warrior elite, violence related to honor was readily practiced by individuals at all levels of the social hierarchy.10
This chapter does not seek to reassert the now thoroughly disproven contention that violent responses to matters of honor were the exclusive preserve of nobles, the traditional elite, and other members of the chivalric cultural community. It is clear that Florentines at every level of the social hierarchy considered violence to be an option during conflicts, although the risks and costs associated with this course of action no doubt led many to choose force only after carefully considering other alternatives, especially the law courts and private peace pacts negotiated and recorded by notaries.11 This violence also tended to be characterized by proportionality.12 Less convincing, however, is the related argument that the explicit link between excessive violence and “noble” identity made by a number of prominent contemporary chroniclers was simply popolani propaganda intended to demonize certain members of the elite who refused to peacefully integrate into civic society. It seems much more likely that chroniclers were making this connection precisely because the honor-related violence of these men was different in a number of significant ways, not least in terms of its intensity and its deleterious impact on the city.13
These differences can be explained by a number of factors stemming from chivalric ideology. First, chivalry not only encouraged and valorized violence perpetrated in order to assert or defend honor, it created a clear expectation that challenges to honor would be met with force.14 As Thomas Kuehn has observed for fifteenth-century Florence, “honor was both an individual and group possession.”15 This was certainly the case in our period, when all male members of a lineage had to defend the group’s honor and ensure its dominance and interests. Any dishonor suffered, even by a single individual, impacted the entire lineage, requiring members to respond. To do otherwise risked suffering dishonor or shame.
Second, the cultural forces of honor and shame were arguably more precious to the chivalric elite than to the average Florentine. While this is impossible to precisely measure given the nature of the sources, surviving contemporary voices suggest that honor was worth more than life itself. Sometimes this sentiment was made explicit, as when Guittone d’Arezzo, a famous Tuscan poet who wrote for an aristocratic audience in thirteenth-century Tuscany, wrote that dishonor or shame “is more to be feared than death.”16 Giovanni Villani’s account of a likely apocryphal conversation between Messer Farinata degli Uberti and other Florentine Ghibelline exiles in 1260 suggests that Guittone’s point was a reality for historical chivalric practitioners. In this conversation Messer Farinata exhorts his fellow Ghibellines to fight, concluding that “for us death and defeat would be better than to crawl around the world any longer.”17
Given the high stakes, the failure to avenge slights to one’s honor through violence compounded an individual’s dishonor and challenged his chivalric identity. This potent combination of chivalry, honor-shame, and superior resources resulted in a level of violence among these knights and men-at-arms that was different enough in degree to be different in kind from the violence perpetrated by other members of Florentine society.18 A tell-tale characteristic of chivalric honor violence seems, in fact, to have been its transgressive nature that perpetuated and intensified conflicts rather than restoring parity and providing the conditions for peace.19 Not surprisingly given their desire to prevail rather than restore parity through proportional responses, the traditional (i.e., chivalric) elite seem to have rarely made use of alternative methods of dealing with conflict, especially notarial peace pacts.20
Limitations of the Sources
As noted in the introduction, the study of chivalry in late medieval Florence is made more difficult by the limitations of chronicle and archival evidence. This is particularly true for the historical practice of chivalric honor violence. Most contemporary chronicles were composed by popolani authors who were either unsympathetic or outright hostile toward the chivalric lifestyle and its justifications of violence.21 From their point of view, chivalric violence presented a serious threat to life in an orderly and prosperous civic society. As a result, they rarely offer the chivalric perspective or much insight into the mentality of the perpetrators of honor violence, instead usually offering only criticism and condemnation. Even authors who interacted closely with the chivalric cultural community, like the anonymous chronicler known as Pseudo-Brunetto Latini, often fail to satisfy the historian’s desire to know motivation and context.22 For example, when this anonymous author writes about a striking incident occurring in January 1296 that saw the podestà of Florence condemn the famous Florentine knight Corso Donati for wounding his cousin and fellow knight, Simone Galastrone Donati, he writes nothing about why Corso would attack and wound his own kin.23
In addition, contemporary chroniclers understandably wrote mostly about major incidents of honor violence, leaving historians in the dark about the more mundane conflicts that undoubtedly occurred. Normally the various document sets in the Florentine archives, especially those of the judicial archive, would serve as the natural complement to chronicles when studying violence. Unfortunately, the records for much of this period (before 1343) no longer exist, and the archival evidence that does survive often fails to offer insight into the motivation behind or even context of this violence. Illustrative is an example from March 1293, when Messer Rosso della Tosa, riding on horseback through the city, caught sight of two members of the Adimari lineage. Messer Rosso returned to his home and gathered three of his relatives, with whom he rode through the city streets with swords and lances at the ready. The group intercepted Messer Gozzo and Filigno Adimari and struck them repeatedly. During the investigation initiated by the podestà, a certain popolano of San Frediano named Vanni testified that he saw Rossellino, Baldo, and Odaldo, all members of the della Tosa lineage, assault Messer Gozzo and Filigno Adimari.24 The violence is readily apparent, but the record offers little information about the mentality or motivations of the aggressors.
Similarly lacking in context are the records of public rituals of peacemaking. When Cardinal Latino forced a peace upon the city of Florence in 1280, many chivalric individuals and lineages appear in the register, including the Uberti, Fifanti, Gangalandi, Amidei, Scolari, Mazzinghi, Caponsacchi, Lamberti, Mannelli, and Pazzi.25 Historians are left in the dark, however, about the exact nature and duration of the conflict between these individuals and lineages. Likewise, a significant number of chivalric lineages were forced to make peace pacts (numbering 250) by the Duke of Athens in 1342, including the Frescobaldi, Bordoni, Gangalandi, Nerli, Bardi, Buondelmonti, and Rossi, but with no insight into the violence between them.26 Thus, while this type of evidence confirms the pervasiveness of chivalric honor violence in Florentine society, it is of only limited value to the present chapter’s examination of the forces and ideas that underpinned it.
Due to the sparse nature of the chronicle evidence and the destruction of many of the archival records for the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the incidents known to historians likely represent only the tip of the iceberg of honor violence. While it is impossible to recover evidence for the significant violence now lost, some of the limitations can be mitigated by the insight provided by works of imaginative literature, especially the large corpus of romances that circulated in Tuscany during this period. As discussed in the introduction, these works offer essential evidence for traditional chivalric attitudes, ideals, and ideas about the practice of honor violence. In other words, they offer historians insight into the mentality of the men engaging in this type of violence. As such, they should be understood as both inspiring and reflecting a consistent set of prevailing ideals and behaviors among contemporary knights and men-at-arms.
Chivalric Honor Violence
The remainder of the chapter will examine these prevailing ideals and behaviors in order to reconstruct the ideological underpinnings of honor violence and examine its historical practice in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This will be done with two specific foci. The first will look at violence in pursuit of personal and familial honor that also offered more tangible benefits, such as political power. The second will look at violence in defense of personal and familial honor or to avenge dishonor, both of which were critical to the defense of chivalric identity.
Chivalric Violence and the Pursuit of Honor
In contemporary romance the desire of knights and men-at-arms to prove and enhance their honor through violence is pervasive and seemingly insatiable. Consequently, even the most cursory survey of these works makes clear that the authors lavished effusive and joyful praise on the violent assertion of honor. The violence is presented as both necessary to prove honor and a source of honor in its own right. These ideas both helped to form and were reflections of the mental framework behind honor violence.
If violence was the ultimate means of asserting and winning honor, the most active literary and historical participants in the battlefield of honor were young knights and donzelli, men-at-arms from noble or elite lineages who fully embraced the chivalric lifestyle and ideology but were not yet dubbed knights. Unlike the Provençal literary concept of youth as “the perfect realization of the courtly ideal,” however, these young warriors were characterized more by their violence and impetuousness than their courtesy and courtly behavior.27 This behavior was no doubt a result of both their limited economic opportunities, stemming above all from a circumscribed system of inheritance, and the considerable pressure the chivalric cultural community heaped on its youngest members to first establish and then continually enhance their honor through violence.28 This latter element has received comparatively little scholarly attention, not least because of the limitations of traditional historical sources. Once again, romances offer us the opportunity to understand not only the pressure heaped on young chivalric practitioners but also their resulting mindset as they sought to demonstrate their prowess and enhance their honor through public displays of violence.
The close connection between honor, prowess, and reputation meant that most literary knights were known primarily by their prowess, which could only be proven in armed combat. Tristan’s behavior in this regard is largely consistent across the Tuscan prose romances composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. When Tristan challenges King Morholt to battle in the Tristano Riccardiano, composed in the late thirteenth century, the latter offers to forgive Tristan’s challenge, believing that he has foolishly undertaken these actions because of his youth.29 Later in the same work, a young Tristan travels through a dense and dangerous forest with the express purpose of testing his prowess. When confronted by a knight who inquires why he is in the dangerous forest, he replies “I have come to these wilds to see whether I could find any adventure through which I could gain renown for some act of prowess.” Tristan’s desire to prove himself despite his impeccable royal lineage is notable, suggesting that the chivalric elite believed prowess was the true proof of nobility, as Tristan declares: “for I am a very young knight, and have never yet been known for any deed of prowess. So I set out adventuring, to see whether I would ever be valiant in arms.”30 One can imagine a similar impetus to prove themselves through violence burdened the scions of Florentine chivalric lineages and contributed to what seems to a modern audience like their perpetration of random and egregious acts of violence. Perhaps this sheds new light on the weight of expectation that rested on the shoulders of Simone Donati, the son of the most famous knight in Florence, expectations that led him to ultimately attack and kill his uncle, Niccola dei Cerchi, on Christmas Day 1301.
As with many elements of chivalric culture, the expectation to prove one’s honor through violence was not simply a case of ideas embedded in romance informing historical behavior. In fact, many romances likely reflected the already present insatiable desire of young Florentine knights and men-at-arms to demonstrate their prowess as soon as possible. For example, the anonymous author of La Tavola Ritonda, a late fourteenth-century Tuscan romance probably composed in Florence, reflects this desire in his description of a young Tristan, who refused to settle down before he had become properly “accustomed to handling arms.” Tristan, likely mirroring attitudes and behaviors of young Florentine knights and men-at-arms, explains that he wished to avoid “any other cares that might constrain [him], except those practices which might lead [him] to a life of chivalry.”31 This attitude allowed him to become “a knight resembling his father and all his kinsmen who had been the flowers of knighthood.”32 If this was indeed a reflection of the attitudes of young Florentine knights and men-at-arms, it would require us to consider that they may have seen their youth not as a period of economic uncertainty, but perhaps as an opportunity to establish their chivalric bona fides.
Tristan was not exceptional in this regard among the young literary knights and men-at-arms who appear in contemporary romance. Prodesagio, the hero of the anonymous fourteenth-century Florentine prose romance the Legenda e storia di messere Prodesagio, displays similar attitudes and confirms that this element of chivalric culture was not exclusive to the Matter of Britain (Arthurian romance). Prodesagio, at the tender age of twelve, demands to be both knighted and given command of the Christian army when Saracens invade the kingdom of Hungary. His primary motivation appears not to be the salvation of Christendom, but rather the desire to prove his prowess and win honor. Although he is only a young, freshly belted knight, Prodesagio immediately seeks out Balante, the king of the Saracens, who is a warrior of great prowess. Balante’s reputation only galvanizes Prodesagio’s desire to challenge him on the battlefield: “Now turn your horse and I will turn mine …, I want to test your strength against mine, and see who is the most valiant.”33 Prodesagio eventually kills Balante, proving his superiority and saving the kingdom of Hungary from a Saracen invasion in the process.34
Later in the same romance, the emperor challenges Prodesagio, who is still a young knight, to prove his prowess and thus his worth in front of the entire court by stopping a “Turkish” invasion of France. Prodesagio defeats the Turkish army, winning great honor in the process.35 When he returns to the emperor, he receives lavish praise for his deeds: “By my faith, messere Prodesagio, [now] I can praise and honor you as the best knight in the entire world.”36 Prodesagio strives constantly throughout the remainder of the romance not only to prove his honor and reputation but to enhance it. In one notable example, he personally challenges the king of the Turks, Brunforte, to single combat.37 Prodesagio is once again victorious and Brunforte flees, with the victor in hot pursuit.38 After catching and killing Brunforte, Prodesagio returns to the battlefield, where he defeats Carbone, the king of the Saracens.39 Prodesagio’s powerful desire to assert and enhance his honor through violence reflects the values presented to young knights and, especially, donzelli in late medieval Florence. Given this emphasis on constantly winning honor through the sharp edge and point of a sword, it is not surprising that contemporary chroniclers and modern scholars alike have readily noted this group’s proclivity for violence.
The literary models of Tristan and Prodesagio were not simply abstractions; the historical knights and men-at-arms who read and listened to these works behaved similarly. As noted previously, there was an expectation within Florentine chivalric culture that young knights and donzelli would seek to prove their worth, accumulate honor, and establish their reputation through the exercise of violence. Just as in literature, these young men were among the most enthusiastic participants in the battlefield of honor. They were characteristically rash, lacking wisdom and experience, and are often presented by contemporaries as more susceptible to their emotions than older, experienced warriors.40 The incident that began this chapter, Messer Simone di Corso Donati’s fatal attack on his uncle, Messer Niccola dei Cerchi, offers a chilling Florentine example. This violence should not, however, be explained away as simply the consequence of emotional immaturity or youthful impetuosity unmoored from the powerful motivating force of honor. For young knights and donzelli, as for all male members of chivalric society in Florence, their honor and precedence were constantly at stake, requiring hypervigilance and the willingness to quickly draw and use a sharp sword when the opportunity arose, regardless of the consequences. When viewed through this contemporary lens, however alien and offensive to our modern sensibilities, Simone’s violence no longer appears random and excessive.
The stakes were almost certainly highest in the skirmishes and occasional pitched battles waged by young chivalric practitioners in the city streets, as these often led to changes in the balance of power in the city. Giovanni Villani offers an illuminating case from May 1300, when during a “dance of ladies that was happening in the piazza of Santa Trinita,” two groups of young knights and men-at-arms, the Cerchi and their allies and the Donati and their allies, insulted and then eventually attacked one another on horseback.41 Although Villani does not explicitly identify honor as the catalyst of this violence, the progression from verbal to physical violence, both inextricably intertwined with honor, is clear. Dino Compagni’s account of the tumult offers more insight. He notes that the donzelli of the Donati faction “used to ride around together,” and motivated by typical noble arrogance, “they decided to confront the Cerchi band and use their fists and swords against them.”42 Leonardo Bruni, looking back from the fifteenth century, paints a similar picture, adding that there were upwards of three hundred men involved in the skirmish that involved the use of offensive weapons (swords), long processions of armed men on horseback, and wounds inflicted on both sides.43 Thus, when examined through a chivalric lens what seemed to contemporary chroniclers to be senseless violence fueled by noble arrogance and imperiousness is recast as armed conflict necessary to establish honor, precedence, and identity.44
This assertion is confirmed by events later that same year, when the two groups came to blows thanks once again to the instigation of the donzelli on both sides, this time after attending the funeral of a Florentine noblewoman. Bruni provides an elaborate account of the incident, although we must take the additional details with a grain of salt given Bruni’s reformative agenda, writing that “both parties attended the funeral of a noblewoman, armed, and they were barely able to contain their desire to draw swords and attack each other.”45 Villani, who lived in Florence during these turbulent times, offers fewer details, writing that the conflict within the confines of the city produced a pitched battle near San Piero Maggiore that the Donati faction won after they resisted and drove back the Cerchi, to the “dishonor and shame of the Cerchi and of their followers.”46 Giovanni Villani’s decision to choose shame and dishonor, rather than power or precedence, as the consequences for the Cerchi defeat is telling, especially given his familiarity with chivalric culture.47
Returning to Bruni’s account of the same battle, he attributes the Donati victory to Corso Donati’s “outstanding courage” and leadership, but it seems the main protagonists in this battle were donzelli and young knights.48 Bruni also adds details, such as the fact that the Donati and Cerchi marched veritable armies of armed men through the city streets, with the Cerchi proceeding to the Donati strongholds “as though marching to a real battle, mailed and on horseback, surrounded by infantry.”49 This, of course, was not the first time these two lineages had put on display their military might in the city center, for Bruni notes that some twenty years earlier (1279–80) they had “marched in long, armed cavalcades through the city streets,” “causing fear and disturbance throughout the city.”50 These two groups also fought each other in the contado near the town of Remole, where the Donati were once again victorious.51 In other words, this conflict was more of a war than a carefully choreographed sequence of proportional acts of violence intended to restore parity.
Historical knights and men-at-arms conceived of violence as a means not only to assert and enhance their honor but also to secure more tangible benefits they believed were their due. Honor and political power were closely connected in the minds of the chivalric elite, leading to violent competition not only between lineages and individuals, but also with social inferiors (see chapter 2 below). Dino Compagni provides the useful example of Baschiera della Tosa, “the young son of a [Guelf] Party member—a knight named messer Bindo del Baschiera who suffered many persecutions for the Guelf Party, [who] lost an eye to an arrow [during a battle] at the castle of Fucecchio, and was [later] wounded and killed in the battle [of Campaldino (1289)] with the Aretines.”52 Baschiera rightly expected to benefit from his father’s service and reputation by gaining access to political offices, among other rewards.
Indeed, pro patria mori was recognized and rewarded in fourteenth-century Florence, as in later centuries.53 Even a popolani author like Dino Compagni seems to recognize the close connection between honor and access to political power. He writes with obvious sympathy that the young man “should have held offices in the city since he was a young man who deserved them; but he was deprived of them because the elders of his house took the offices and their income for themselves and did not share them.” This denial was interpreted by Baschiera as an affront to his honor, forcing him to take action: “He was an ardent supporter of the Guelf Party … [but] when the city turned around at messer Charles’s [of Naples] arrival, he vigorously armed himself and fought his kinsmen and adversaries with fire and sword.”54 The connection between violence, honor, and political power is here explicit.
Although Compagni felt the need to defend Baschiera and reaffirm his loyalty to the Guelf Party, a chivalric audience would have readily understood his actions. Offices and income should have been his just reward for his father’s loyal military service, as well as his own qualities. By denying Baschiera, his kinsmen had impugned his personal honor, requiring Baschiera to resort to violent action in order to avoid the dreaded status of shame. Furthermore, hostility between members of the della Tosa lineage suggests that when honor was on the line the solidarity of a lineage did not preclude “divisiveness or outright hostility among people who otherwise share a common name, coat of arms, ancestry and even dwelling.”55 Of course, while political and economic concerns were always present and played an appreciable role, in such conflicts honor lurked beneath the surface, motivating the chivalric elite to use violence to solve their problems.
Richard Kaeuper has drawn this connection in the general European context, arguing “we cannot ignore the terrifying reality of feud and warfare fueled—or at least catalyzed—by strong emotions as well as close political calculation.”56 Illustrative for the Florentine context are the events of October 1308, when discord erupted between members of the Black Guelfs. Compagni identifies Messer Corso as the source, writing that “they [the other Blacks] feared his proud spirit and energy, and did not believe that he could be satisfied with [only] a share of power. So messer Corso gathered many sorts of people to his side… . When messer Corso had rebuilt his faction, they began to speak more arrogantly in the piazzas and in the councils.”57 The closer these men came to political power and thus the greater the honor at stake, the more likely they were to engage in a violent struggle for predominance. This type of conflict had the potential to destroy the entire city, as it nearly did in 1304 when a fire sparked during the fighting between the Cerchi and Donati burned entire neighborhoods.58 It is crucial to recognize that power politics, wealth, and the dictates of honor were all fused in the minds of the chivalric elite.59
Chivalric Violence and the Defense and Vindication of Honor
While violence was central to the pursuit of honor, chivalric ideology also strongly valorized violence in the defense and vindication of honor. Knights and men-at-arms showed by their actions that the view tirelessly purveyed in literature was certainly reflective, if not also instructive: their honor was constantly at stake, requiring hypervigilance and a willingness to engage in violence. Failure to defend one’s honor not only was a source of dishonor, but compounded the dishonor already suffered.60 Sharon Strocchia has observed for the general context of Renaissance Italian cities that “within the fray of everyday life one’s personal and family honour was subject to repeated attacks and might be won, lost or exchanged with remarkable speed.”61 Based on the commentary of contemporary Italians, including those who observed Florence from the outside, her observations are applicable to an earlier Florentine context. We need not look further than the contemporary suggestion that Tuscans, especially Florentines, were particularly sensitive about the health of their honor and prone to seeking violent vengeance.62 For example, the thirteenth-century Florentine intellectual Bono Giamboni (d. 1292) wrote that revenge is the “virtue by which everyone is allowed to vanquish his enemy.”63 Tuscan proverbs from the thirteenth century like “It is an insult in itself for those who are injured not to seek vengeance” and “Those who fear to seek vengeance will do much wrong” further confirm this sentiment and suggest the powerful aversion contemporaries felt for dishonor and shame.64 Likewise, Paolo Certaldo, another fourteenth-century Tuscan moralist (d. 1370), wrote, despite his personal objections to the practice, that “the first joy [in life] is making vendetta; sorrow is to be offended by one’s enemy.”65 Perhaps most striking is the observation of Benvenuto dei Rambaldi de Imola (d. 1390), the author of a celebrated commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy, who noted that “though all men naturally tend toward vendetta, the Florentines are especially ardent in this, both publicly and privately.”66 Chivalric ideas can only have intensified and valorized this almost visceral need to utilize violence in pursuit of vengeance.
Of course, our understanding of historical acts of honor violence in defense of individual and familial honor is limited by the nature of nonliterary sources. Though these works, especially chronicles, record intense violence, they predictably fail to shed light on chivalric attitudes. Understandably, popolani writers focus instead on the deleterious consequences for the city and Florentine citizens. Yet the fear of reactive chivalric violence is ever present and significant. Dino Compagni’s invective in the preface of book 2 of his chronicle betrays his anxiety about the violent and antagonistic culture that dominated the chivalric elite during his lifetime:
Arise, wicked citizens full of discord: grab sword and torch with your own hands and spread your wicked deeds. Unveil your iniquitous desires and your worst intentions… . Go and reduce to ruins the beauties of your city. Spill the blood of your brothers, strip yourselves of faith and love, deny one another aid and support… . Look at your ancestors: did they win merit through discord? Yet now you sell [the] honors which they acquired.67
As a popolani chronicler, he felt little sympathy for a chivalric culture based on the primacy of personal and familial honor. Such obsessions brought out the worst in men, encouraging violence between citizens, threatening the stability and prosperity of the city (i.e., the vita civile), and serving as an obstacle to Florentine grandezza (greatness).
This view is even more striking in the work of Chiaro Davanzati (ca. 1280s–1303), a Florentine poet, who lamented the consequences of factionalism and elite violence:
Giovanni Villani and Dante Alighieri likewise understood but were not overly sympathetic toward chivalric norms. In his Inferno (canto XIII), Dante connects the Florentine chivalric elite’s violence with worship of Mars, the Roman god of war, whose statue stood at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, when one of his characters laments that the city
Likewise, Villani seems to suggest that Mars exercised influence over these elite warriors, writing “for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the ancient pagan Florentines adored, that at the foot of his statue murder was committed, so that much evil followed in the city of Florence.”70
Both Villani and Compagni consequently provide plentiful evidence of elite violence and its deleterious effects for the second half of the thirteenth century, but these accounts never really offer more than cursory discussions of motivations. In his description of the events of 1248, Villani writes that the Florentine nobles in that year “often went to war among themselves because of their enmities.”71 Later, he laments that even during the comparatively uneventful year of 1277, members of the chivalric elite “having rest from wars abroad, with victory and honor, and enriched upon the goods of the exiled Ghibellines and through other procurements—due to pride and envy began to fight among themselves; so that there arose in Florence many quarrels and enmities between citizens, with death and wounds.”72 Likewise, Villani wrote that in 1292 “the magnates of Florence … were in many quarrels and discords among themselves.”73
A recently published manuscript of Giovanni Villani’s Nuova Cronica includes many striking miniatures that provide visual evidence to support his descriptions.74 One of these images depicts an act of honor violence that occurred during a skirmish, introduced briefly earlier in the chapter, between the Cerchi and Donati lineages following an exchange of words in the piazza Santa Trinita (figure 1). Front and center in the miniature is a young Florentine warrior of elite social status, Ricoverino dei Cerchi, who has just lost his nose to an enemy sword stroke. Ricoverino is portrayed charging into the fray with his sword held high in pursuit of vengeance.
Giovanni Villani describes the incident:
On the evening of the first of May in the year 1300, while [two groups of young knights and men-at-arms] were watching a dance of ladies that was happening in the piazza of Santa Trinita, they began to spurn one another, and to drive their horses against one another, so that there began a great conflict and melee … and, as ill-luck would have it, Ricoverino, son of M. Ricovero of the Cerchi, through misfortune had his nose cut off his face.75
Such demonstrations of bravery are quite common in imaginative literature, yet Ricoverino was a historical figure. Ricoverino’s actions as he sought to restore his honor and avoid shame through prowess, at the very real risk of his life, suggests that Florentine knights and men-at-arms, like their historical counterparts across the Alps and throughout the Italian peninsula, felt strongly enough about their honor to defend it with their lives. For many members of the Florentine chivalric elite, Guittone d’Arezzo’s powerful poem about honor and death, introduced in the introduction, splendidly articulates their fundamentally different approach to life:
Finally, in his description of the events of 1303, Villani says Florence was plagued by “dissension and urban warfare” and “much evil was committed in the city and in the countryside, of murders, and burnings, and robberies, as in a city uncontrolled and broken, without any rule from the government.”77 Villani adds that the Florentines would have destroyed themselves if the government had not asked the Lucchese to come and take guardianship of the city.78 The violence is readily recorded, but Villani’s account, unlike Guittone’s poem, does not help historians get into the minds of the men who perpetrated these acts.
Fortunately, the significant corpus of works of imaginative literature that circulated in Florence and Tuscany during this period offers scholars a more complete understanding of the mental framework behind this violence, especially the crucial connection between honor and violence. Since these works both reflected and informed historical behavior, the sheer consistency with which literary knights quickly employed force in order to restore personal or familial honor is telling. An incident drawn from the Historia destructionis troiae, a prose romance about the Trojan War composed in the 1280s by Sicilian Guido delle Colonne and well-known in Dante’s Florence, offers considerable insight.79 At one point in this work, King Priam expresses clearly to his sons and the members of his court the restorative quality of violence in chivalric ideology: “Wounds, which do not feel the benefits of medicine, must be cured by iron.”80
To contemporary knights and men-at-arms dishonor and shame could only be vindicated through honor violence; the failure to do so resulted in the loss of identity and membership in the chivalric cultural community. Later in the work, King Agamemnon advocates a striking attitude to his brother Menelaus, who is overcome with grief after Paris abducted Helen, that reinforces this message. Agamemnon asks “Why, brother, are you weighed down by such grief? … Neither honor nor vengeance is to be obtained by painful anxiety or rivers of tears. Revenge is therefore to be sought with the sword, not by murmurs of complaint.”81 A similarly powerful expression of this sentiment appears in the Tavola Ritonda, when Sir Oris replies to Tristan’s overtures of peace by declaring, “A sharp sword is all that can make peace between you and me.”82 The message in these two examples rings clear: bloody violence is the best, and perhaps only acceptable, way to defend and vindicate personal and familial honor.
This evidence is not exceptional; Florentine knights and men-at-arms were completely inundated with literary passages showing praiseworthy violence done in defense or vindication of honor. Moreover, voices expressing fear and anxiety about chivalric violence are for the most part drowned out in a flood of praise in these works. This imbalance is not surprising, because honor merited destructive violence that also served as a public demonstration of an individual’s right to be counted among the chivalric elite.
The sheer magnitude of the available evidence in contemporary prose romances is staggering. The earliest work, Rustichello (occasionally Rustichiano) da Pisa’s Romanzo Arturiano (ca. 1270–74), offers the example of a knight who justifies killing his enemy by explaining “if I killed him, I was obliged to do so [for] he killed my brother.”83 In this same work, Sir Kay (Keu) the Seneschal demonstrates a touchy sense of honor when he asserts that Tristan dishonored him by refusing, out of contempt, to respond to his challenge to engage in armed combat. In reality, Tristan is lost in his own thoughts and grief after being separated from Isolde, and does not realize Sir Kay desires to fight him until he is struck unawares by a mighty blow.84 Roughly contemporaneous is the anonymous late thirteenth-century Tuscan prose romance, the Tristano Riccardiano, in which Galehaut expresses an insatiable desire to go to the Island of Giants to fight Tristan, motivated by the need to avenge the death of his father and mother, whom Tristan had killed earlier in the work. When the two knights come face-to-face, Galehaut informs Tristan bluntly, “My name is Galehaut, lord of the Far Isles, whose father and mother [you] killed. Therefore I am here to take revenge upon [you].”85 The seeming obsession with vengeance achieved through bloody violence attests to the centrality of the defense of personal and familial honor to chivalric identity among both literary and historical knights and donzelli.
Similar sentiments were promoted in the romances composed in the fourteenth century. When in the Tristano Panciatichiano the king of Norgales wounds Lancelot’s honor by claiming that he is “not so valiant” and that he (the king) and his knights could defeat him in single combat, Lancelot shows an intense desire to avenge this slight to his prowess and honor.86 Later in the same work a group of knights demand that Tristan and Palamedes divulge the identity of the lady (Queen Iseut/Isolde) whom they are escorting. When they refuse, the knights accuse Tristan of being discourteous in his reply and prepare to force the issue through violence.87 Again the vindication and restoration of honor requires the use of deadly violence.
The evidence provided by these romances also makes clear that the expectation to quickly employ violence after suffering dishonor fell heavily on the shoulders of young knights and donzelli. In these works, young warriors demonstrate a steadfast and often uncontrollable desire to secure vengeance, that is, to use violence to vindicate honor or repair the damage inflicted by dishonor. One need only think back to the earlier example of Prodesagio, who at nine years of age attempts to wear his father’s armor and ride his father’s horse to track down and bring to justice his father’s murderer. Upon learning of his father’s death, Prodesagio instructed his valet to “Go and bring me my arms, because I do not want to linger any longer.”88 Prodesagio’s guardian and tutor, Leodicio, convinces the young hero to delay his vengeance, however, until he becomes a knight: “My boy, leave those arms: you are still too young to have the vendetta that you seek. Thanks to God you shall be a brave man, but you are not yet nine years old, and brave men and valiant knights are thirty-six years old before they can prove themselves.”89 When Prodesagio is finally knighted on the eve of battle only three years later, the prerogative of a literary hero, he draws an explicit connection between the ceremony and his ability to secure vengeance.90 His first words after the knighting ceremony are telling: “this blow against the traitors will be sweet vengeance.”91
Similarly, in Rustichello da Pisa’s Romanzo Arturiano the Vecchio Cavaliere (the Old Knight), Branor il Bruno, rescues a fellow knight who had been held prisoner by four evil men. The newly liberated knight tells Branor how he had made a trip to Camelot in order to be dubbed, before he was ready or worthy, so that he could take vengeance upon his father’s murderers.92 The knight recounted to Branor: “I was still a valet, and not being able, in that condition, to attack a knight, I went, still a very young man, to the court of King Arthur, where I had myself made a knight before I should have, so that I could avenge the death of my father. Once I became a knight, I did so much that I killed one of the three brothers.”93 These two examples suggest that just as with the necessary task of asserting or enhancing honor, there seems to have been a real concern among more experienced knights about the ability of these young men to be successful in the important charge of securing vengence. To fail, of course, meant to suffer even greater dishonor or even the possibility of dreaded shame (understood here to be a condition, rather than an emotional response to dishonor). This concern seems to have manifested in contemporary romance as an effort to connect successful vengeance with knighthood, more specifically the idea that an individual had the best chance of securing vengeance when he had acquired sufficient skill and experience to win the inevitable battle of prowess. Of course, in reality young knights and donzelli were joined in the practice of honor violence in pursuit of vengeance by historical chivalric practitioners of all ages.
Knights and men-at-arms who engaged in honor violence in order to defend personal and familial honor or to avenge dishonor suffered did so based on a set of assumptions and expectations informed by chivalric literature. These works emphasized the necessity and praiseworthiness of utilizing in such situations a degree of violence that can only be characterized as transgressive. In other words, the violent response far exceeded the initial offense. This is a key point because the transgressive violence valorized by chivalry was in sharp contrast to the proportionality promoted by the civic ethos of the popolo and the vendetta laws promulgated by the Florentine government. Unlike the latter, the former did not seek to end conflicts by restoring parity, but rather its goal was the defense and restoration of personal and familial honor at the expense of the other party. The failure to do so, as we shall see, risked shame and the loss of identity. It is important to note, however, that these works did not offer historical chivalric practitioners literal advice on the scale of destruction required to expunge the stain of dishonor and shame in their own lives, but rather a fervent endorsement of transgressive violence in such situations.
The transgressive nature of honor violence is readily and chillingly apparent in contemporary literary works. In the Tristano Riccardiano, when Tristan avenged the murder of his father by killing all of the knights directly responsible, the author lavished great praise on the hero for successfully defending and vindicating his personal and familial honor: the anonymous author writes that the hero “avenged his father very nobly, for he killed all eight of the knights who had been present at the king’s death.”94 Despite having secured what contemporary popolani might have considered proportional and thus appropriate revenge for his father’s murder, the author recounts that after killing the knights Tristan “still did not deem himself satisfied with this vengeance. So he rode to the city from which these knights came, which was called Brescia, and he killed all the men and women there, and destroyed the city and its walls down to the foundations.”95 Although a contemporary popolani audience, not to mention a modern reader, no doubt would have found Tristan’s second act of honor violence both unjustified and horrifying, the author’s approval of the hero’s conduct tells us a great deal about mentality and operating assumptions within the chivalric elite that are unfortunately not elaborated in contemporary chronicles and many literary sources: “All this Tristan did to avenge King Meliadus his father, and no greater revenge was ever taken by any knight, than the one Tristan took for his father’s death.”96
Equally striking in its praise of transgressive violence is the example provided in the Tavola Ritonda of the noblewoman, Escorducarla, who desired “high vendetta against King Artù and his knights” for the murder of her four sons and daughter.97 Escorducarla convinces her brother, Sir Lasancis, to attack and destroy the city of Camelot, killing the men, women, and children therein. She promises that such transgressive violence will be regarded as “the greatest vendetta in the world.”98 Likewise, a chivalric audience would not have been surprised that Prodesagio allowed his private pursuit of vengeance for the murder of his father to become a prolonged war with far-reaching and devastating consequences: entire lineages are destroyed, cities are ruined, and Christendom itself is nearly overrun by Saracens. In the face of these terrible consequences that the author unhesitatingly delineates, his positive judgment of Prodesagio’s vengeance at the end of the work is striking: “it seems to me that [Ciattivo, Prodesagio’s father] is well avenged.”99 In other words, the author stresses that Prodesagio, like Tristan, achieved a good and praiseworthy vengeance, and his extreme violence did not take away from this. In the intricacies of chivalric mentality, such an important end more than justified the bloody and excessive means.100
These examples are representative of a larger body of transgressive violence in contemporary chivalric literature. Tristan’s vengeance for his father’s murder appears not only in the version presented above—drawn from the Tristano Riccardiano—it also appears in the Tristano Panciatichiano and the Tavola Ritonda. Each version of the vengeance story takes on an increasingly more violent tenor. In the Tristano Panciatichiano we find a similar story, strongly suggesting that the author of this work was familiar with the Tristano Riccardiano. Once again King Meliadus is murdered by eight of his knights, Tristan is forced to wait until he becomes a knight to avenge his father, and his vengeance is achieved through the deaths of the murderous knights and the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children while the hero “tore apart the city.”101 The author of the Tristano Panciatichiano likewise valorizes Tristan’s violence, although perhaps not as effusively, stating matter-of-factly that “when Tristan had carried out this vendetta, he was very happy.”102 Absent is any criticism or condemnation for the slaughter of innocent bystanders or the destruction of an entire city.
The Tavola Ritonda recounts these events in a similar, if more verbose, fashion. The author describes how Tristan’s father went hunting with a large number of knights, all of whom were unarmed. In this particular version of the story, the king was attacked by “twelve armed knights, his mortal enemies even though they were his kin” who were holding a nearby castle. Since the king was alone and unarmed, they attacked and killed him. The author quickly reassures his audience that “when Tristan was grown and had become a knight, he made a great vendetta.”103 Sometime later the author elaborates on Tristan’s vengeance, describing the hero’s return to Cornovaglia (Cornwall) after training on the continent and his arrival outside of the walls of Bridoa, the castle controlled by the evil knights who had murdered his father. Tristan demands to joust the leader of the evil knights. Tristan subsequently defeats the knight and four of his companions. The other knights remain behind the castle’s walls, ostensibly out of fear. Rather than satiating his appetite for vengeance, Tristan escalates his violence: “At that point, Tristano unsheathed his sword, as did the good Governale (his tutor) and the two squires, and they went toward the gate, entering the castle by force, putting whomever they found to the sword. Then he took the five mortal enemies he had beaten, and put them, well-armed, into a single room. All alone he went in among them, his good sword in hand saying ‘Defend yourselves against me, knights, for I am that Tristano, son of King Meliadus whom you killed. Know now that you have reached the place where, God willing, I will take great vengeance for this. Defend yourself, for there is no other way to escape me, that is sure!’ ” The evil knights defend themselves bravely and skillfully, wounding Tristan in two places.
These wounds, however, serve only to intensify Tristan’s desire for vengeance; the author describes how Tristan “grew so angry against these traitors for the way they had attacked him that he cut them to pieces with his true sword, all except one, the youngest of the five,” who is granted mercy. Tristan’s “mercy” extends to those inhabitants of the castle who remained alive, as they are allowed to leave before the hero burns it to the ground.104 While the inclusion of mercy in this particular version of the storyline might lead some to conclude that the author intended to criticize Tristan’s excessive violence rather than praise it without qualification, we should remember that Tristan had earlier entered the castle through force and put whomever he found therein to the sword, and that he was greeted as a hero upon his return to Liones.105 The positive judgment, if not approbation, of Tristan’s conduct in all of these works is striking and crucially important: transgressive violence done in the name of personal and familial honor is not only licit and praiseworthy but expected.
The murder of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti on Easter Day 1216 evinces the presence of this concept, if on a more realistic scale, among members of the chivalric elite in late medieval Florence.106 Pseudo-Brunetto Latini provides crucial insight into the background of this infamous incident, allowing historians to observe the increasing levels of violence that eventually resulted in Buondelmonte’s brutal death. The animosity between Buondelmonte and his enemies began during a banquet held in 1216 to celebrate the knighting of a Florentine noble. The author writes that in that year,
messer Mazzingo Tegrimi de’ Mazinghi was made a knight; and all of the noblemen of Florence were invited. And the knights being seated at the table, a court jester came and lifted up a cut of meat from in front of messer Uberto dell’Infangati, who was in the company of messer Bondelmonte di Bondelmonti; who was greatly worried [by this]. And messer Oddo Arrighi de’ Fifanti, a valorous man, villainously rebuked messer Uberto; so that messer Uberto grabbed him by the throat and messer Oddo Arrighi threw a trencher full of meat in his face; so that the entire court was troubled; [and] when everyone got up from the table, messer Bondelmonte stabbed messer Oddo Arrighi in the arm with a knife and villainously wounded him.107
This violence was trumped a few weeks later on Easter Day, when the very same Buondelmonte was pulled from his horse and killed by Oddo Arrighi and his kinsmen, in broad daylight, at the foot of the statue of Mars, the Roman god of war that once stood near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Not surprisingly, Buondelmonte’s murder was answered with further violence. Pseudo-Brunetto Latini records the details of a skirmish between several Florentine knights during which Simone Donati killed Messer Iacopo di Schiatta degli Uberti. Also killed in this skirmish were Messer Oddo Arrighi dei Fifanti and several others, among them a certain Messer Guido dei Galli, whose nose and lips were cut off. This brutal violence was carried out by the Buondelmonti lineage and their allies as vengeance for Buondelmonte’s murder.108
Equally illuminating are the conversations and debates between the historical figures involved in these incidents that appear in contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles. Although the details are likely apocryphal, they confirm the centrality of honor and shame to chivalric violence. After Pseudo-Brunetto Latini describes the violent banquet, he recounts how Messer Oddo Arrighi dei Fifanti took counsel with his friends and kinsfolk, among whom were the powerful Uberti, Lamberti, and Amidei lineages of Florence. The chosen course of action was to negotiate a peace between the parties, to be cemented with the marriage of Buondelmonte and a lady of the Amidei lineage. This marriage, however, never took place, because Buondelmonte repudiated his bride in favor of another.
The rationale behind this fateful decision, at least in one version, is provided by the anonymous chronicler who writes that on the day of Buondelmonte’s wedding, he was accosted by a woman of the Donati lineage, Madonna Gualdrada, who disparaged him publicly in the streets, yelling “Vituperated knight, you have taken her [the niece of Oddo] through fear of the Uberti and Fifanti.” For men with a very touchy sense of honor, such a verbal assault approximated an accusation of cowardice, challenging Buondelmonte’s honor. The author claims that Madonna Gualdrada herself made this connection, exclaiming if Buondelmonte did not repudiate his bride-to-be, “he [would] be forever a dishonored knight.”109 Less important than the accuracy of this conversation is the fact that the chronicle makes clear that Buondelmonte gave precedence to the health of his personal and familial honor over civic peace.
When Buondelmonte repudiated his Amidei bride he greatly dishonored and shamed her lineage and allies in turn. Pseudo-Brunetto Latini writes that Messer Oddo degli Arrighi “was very distressed” because of “the shame that messer Bondelmonte had done to him.”110 Marchionne di Coppo Stefani’s account, composed more than a century and a half after the events took place, similarly highlights the connection between honor, shame, and violence. He bluntly states that Buondelmonte’s repudiation was a great affront done to the honor of the Amidei, the resulting dishonor and shame requiring “high vendetta.”111 This time when Messer Oddo consulted his friends and kinsfolk, rather than seeking a way to peacefully settle the dispute, Pseudo-Brunetto Latini instead centered the discussion on the degree of violence that was necessary to vindicate both Oddo’s personal honor and the collective honor of the group. Some of the men present advocated wounding Buondelmonte in the face, while others said that he should be beaten with a stick.112 Last to speak was Messer Mosca dei Lamberti who warned, “If you beat him or wound him, think first to make a hole where you can hide [from retribution]; [but I recommend] that you give him such [a blow] that it will seem that you have taken his head.”113 Mosca’s frank advice to employ deadly force highlights the stark reality of honor violence: the exercise of violence was, in the end, necessary to cleanse the stain of dishonor and shame. The great problem for honor cultures like that of the chivalric elite in late medieval Florence, of course, was that this action in turn transferred dishonor and shame to the victim and his lineage, requiring the aggrieved party to seek similar vengeance. Mosca’s advice to kill Buondelmonte likely reflects this concern, as well as the fact that Buondelmonte had twice dishonored the Amidei and their allies. As a result, half measures, such as peaceful mediation, were no longer deemed sufficient.
This lack of proportionality is alarmingly present in other historical acts of honor violence. In May 1292, an inquisitio trial proceeded against Giacotto, the illegitimate son of Ricco dei Mozzi, and an unnamed accomplice in the service of the Mozzi lineage. It was public knowledge (fama) that the two men, on horseback and brandishing both offensive and defensive weapons (lances, swords, etc.), had assaulted Becco di Bonaguida dei Bardi, brother of Vanni, knocking him from his horse and wounding him gravely, especially in the face.114 Even more illuminating is the testimony that Giacotto and his accomplice raged against Becco’s person repeatedly with lance and sword and that this was done so that Giacotto might avenge the wounds taken by his brother in that same year.115
A second miniature (figure 2) found in Giovanni Villani’s Nuova Cronica adds visual evidence to the author’s description of events that took place in October 1308, when Florentines feared that Corso Donati would install himself as lord (signore) of the city. This fear was no doubt fueled by Corso’s contemporary reputation as a powerful knight who believed he deserved power and was willing to use violence to secure it. In fact, Compagni seems to justify or at least excuse these claims and the use of force with what must have seemed to him a simple truth: “he was a most valiant knight in everything he undertook.”116 While Compagni seems to admire Corso, he also concludes, quite explicitly, that despite being “a man of great distinction, [he was] too turbulent to be a citizen in a good republic.”117 It is not surprising, then, that Corso Donati was eventually condemned as a rebel and traitor, and forced to flee the city after fighting a desperate battle in the streets. During this retreat, he was caught and killed by a Catalan knight in the service of the Florentine communal government.
Of particular importance to our present purpose, however, is a second contiguous incident of honor violence that appears in the same miniature. Alongside the depiction of Corso’s gory death is the portrayal of the demise of another knight, Gherardo dei Bordoni, Corso’s close friend. Although Gherardo participated in Corso’s desperate defense, he is the victim of an act of violence motivated by the dictates of personal honor, one not directly related to Donati’s uprising. In the miniature Boccaccio dei Cavicciuli, a Florentine knight, is shown cutting off Gherardo’s hand. Villani tells us that Boccaccio subsequently nailed the hand to the door of Messer Tedici degli Adimari’s palace. Tedici was Gherardo’s close companion, and Boccaccio did this “because of animosity” (per ministade) between Boccaccio and Tedici.118 These historical incidents of honor violence not only reinforce the assertion that honor formed a crucial part of the cultural fabric of Florence but also confirm that the transgressive nature of honor violence so apparent in romances seems to have had a basis in the historical reality of late medieval Florence. Many of these acts of honor violence, such as the vendetta between Tommasino dei Mandelli (Mannelli) and Fornaino del Rosso dei Rossi that continued under the cover of the larger Guelf-Ghibelline conflict in 1266, were regularly subsumed into larger hostilities serving to intensify the tension and violence already present in Florentine politics and society.119
Given the centrality of honor and violence to chivalric identity, it is not surprising that these elite warriors had long memories when it came to vengeance. Quick and bloody revenge was always preferable, of course, even if accomplished at great personal and familial cost, but if vengeance was not immediately possible, the aggrieved knight or elite man-at-arms could bide his time until the opportunity presented itself without risking further dishonor. This period of waiting had to be accompanied, however, by a clear and continuous demonstration of the aggrieved party’s desire and intention to secure vengeance. The failure to do so opened them up to suffering shame. Shame was both an emotion felt and a deleterious condition experienced when dishonor was not successfully cleansed. Shame challenged a warrior’s claim to membership in the chivalric community and damaged his honor, sometimes permanently. Shame was also difficult to overcome, often requiring public and bloody violence to cleanse its corrosive effects and to restore damaged honor.120
Literary examples abound of knights waiting to secure vengeance, with careful attention paid to making it clear to the larger chivalric community that their damaged honor remained at the forefront of their minds. In the Tristano Riccardiano, Sir Gedis and King Mark assemble all of the relatives of two knights killed by Tristan earlier in the work, knowing that they desired above all else to avenge their relatives, a desire only amplified by the passage of time.121 In the Tristano Panciatichiano, Palamedes takes it upon himself to seek vengeance for a dead knight after discovering that the knight’s brother was ambivalent about undertaking this sacred duty. Palamedes seems to have considerable difficulty understanding this attitude toward vengeance, which he believed was not in accord with the living brother’s reputation as a valiant knight.122 Indeed, even the dishonorable King Mark begrudgingly acknowledges on several occasions in the Tavola Ritonda an obligation to secure vengeance against Tristan in order to cleanse the disgrace and shame the hero had inflicted upon him.123
Likewise, in Giovanni Bocaccio’s romance Il Filocolo—composed during his time at the Angevin court in Naples and under the patronage of the Florentine knight Niccolò Acciaiuoli—Florio, the hero of the work, fears that the relatives of Lelio, killed by his father in battle many years before, would seek to exact vengeance upon him. His fear is based on the belief, one seemingly shared by historical figures like Charles of Valois (d. 1325), that “since these people have Tuscan blood: they never forget an offense without avenging it first.”124 In this way, Florio recognized as legitimate the obligation of Lelio’s relatives to pursue vengeance against his lineage, even well after the original offense was committed.125
Returning to an earlier example, that of Prodesagio’s reaction when he learns of his father’s treacherous murder, we see a young hero immediately request his arms and horse, not wanting to delay his pursuit of vengeance. Prodesagio is prevented from riding out, however, by his guardian, a wise old knight named Leodicio, who recognizes that Prodesagio is not only too small to fit into his father’s armor, but also too young to secure his revenge through the necessary violence.126 As a great literary hero destined to become a brave knight and exemplar of chivalric behavior, Prodesagio accepts that he must wait, but only after showing the required willingness to risk it all for vengeance. More importantly, he does not sit idly by over the twenty years it takes to avenge his father’s death, but rather he cultivates the martial skills necessary to secure vengeance when the time comes and demonstrates an active persistence in the pursuit of that vengeance. In other words, Prodesagio’s desire for vengeance and ability to secure it only increase over time.
Florentine knights and men-at-arms certainly felt a similar need to defend their precious honor through violence, a demand made all the more intense by the passage of time. The specter of dishonor and shame loomed if they, like their literary counterparts, waited too long or appeared uninterested in securing revenge.127 Perhaps even more so than in literature, however, historical chivalric practitioners could not always immediately secure vengeance, although the need to do so was kept alive by their peers, who constantly reminded them through the practice of “improperation” of an unavenged death or dishonor in order to provoke them into action.128 It is not surprising, therefore, that the available historical sources amply confirm the long-term memory of knights and men-at-arms in matters relating to honor. In 1304, the papal legate Cardinal Niccolo of Prato came to Florence in an attempt to pacify the factional warfare and violence that plagued the city. He invited many of the leaders of the exiles (White Guelfs and Ghibellines) to return to the city. Among those who returned was Lapo di Messer Azzolino, a member of the venerable Uberti lineage who had been in exile for several generations. Dino Compagni records that “old Ghibelline men and women kissed the Uberti arms” when the exiles entered the city. Less enthused were many “Guelf citizens” who bore “a mortal hatred” for the Uberti, resulting in Lapo being “closely guarded by [his] magnate friends.”129
Three years after the death of Corso Donati (1311), Messer Pazzino dei Pazzi, an erstwhile ally turned competitor of the former leader of the Black Guelfs, was murdered while out hunting. Passiera dei Cavalcanti, Pazzino’s falconer, along with Messer Betto di Brunello dei Brunelleschi, a powerful Florentine knight, carried out this act of honor violence. Villani tells us this was done as part of “a vendetta of Masino de’ Cavalcanti and of Messer Betto Brunelleschi” with the Pazzi dating back several years and that Betto “g[ave] a blow to the said Messer Pazzino which killed him.”130 The reaction of the Florentine government to this act highlights both the expectation among popolani that the Pazzi would seek violent vengeance, as well as the attempt of the popular government to provide public justice (i.e., public vengeance) as an alternative to honor violence, a topic discussed below in chapter 2. According to Villani, the government of Florence moved quickly to defuse the situation, as “the city was put into an uproar and to arms, and with the gonfalone of the people rushed in fury to the house of the Cavalcanti and set it on fire and from the top the Cavalcanti were driven out of Florence.”131 In addition, the Florentine government made four members of the Pazzi lineage knights, giving them an income from the commune.132 Despite the commune’s efforts, as in this case, to enact public vengeance and offer compensation thereby preempting the desire of the aggrieved to secure revenge, many members of the chivalric elite did not accept public justice as sufficient to cleanse the stain of dishonor and shame.133 Surely this attitude informed the decision of the Cerchi lineage to keep secret the identity of the donzello who had attacked Ricoverino in 1300, preferring instead to wait “to make a great vendetta.”134
The Pazzi also kept alive the desire for vengeance for Pazzino’s death despite the public remedies, biding their time until the opportunity for revenge presented itself. Later that same year (March 8, 1311) the Pazzi, determined enemies of the Cavalcanti and Brunelleschi, finally secured cleansing vengeance for the dishonor and shame. Villani writes that members of the Donati lineage and their friends, ostensibly the Pazzi numbering among them, “slew M[essere] Betto Brunelleschi” while he was at home playing chess, the very man who had struck down Pazzino.135 The greater significance of this act of vengeance, however, is made clear when the Donati and their kinsfolk and friends “a little while after [the slaying of Brunelleschi] … gathered at San Salvi and disinterred Messer Corso Donati, and made great lamentation, and held a service as if he was just dead, showing that through the death of Messer Betto vengeance had been done.”136 In other words, the close friendship of Pazzino and Corso during much of their lifetimes meant that Betto Brunelleschi’s death served as vengeance for Corso Donati as well.
Donato Velluti’s Cronica offers plentiful evidence of both the continued practice of honor violence in the fourteenth century and the long memories of knights and men-at-arms when it came to matters of honor.137 Although Donato was not a warrior himself, he was proud of his many ancestors who were, and his chronicle consequently includes a great deal of information about the acts of honor violence they committed. Many of these violent acts do not appear in other contemporary historical accounts.138 In one incident, occurring sometime before 1348, Sandro di Lippaccio dei Velluti made a vendetta on behalf of Simone di Taddeo dei Velluti against Simone di Messer Berto dei Frescobaldi, striking him a blow (with his sword) in the face.139 Velluti provides the background to Sandro’s act of honor violence, writing that Sandro’s father, Tommasso di Lippaccio, had previously assaulted Messer Filippo di Messer Berto with a lance at Montespertoli. Messer Filippo was on horseback, but the lance still struck his flesh.140 Messer Filippo subsequently returned to Florence where he rode into the Piazza dei Frescobaldi and found Simone di Taddeo, striking him in the head with his sword, but because Simone was wearing a helmet, he was not badly injured and began to flee. Messer Filippo pursued Simone, striking him a mortal blow in the side with a lance.141
Another example from Velluti’s Cronica illuminates a complex web of honor violence centering on the death of Dino, son of Lambertuccio, who was twenty years old when he was attacked and left to die at his house in Montelupo. Velluti tells us that members of the Bostichi lineage had entered Dino’s house to secure vengeance against him on behalf of the Frescobaldi lineage. Velluti again provides the context, explaining how Buco dei Bostichi had been killed earlier by Tomasso di Lippaccio di Messer Lambertuccio. Even more striking is the revelation that the decision to kill Dino was made by his own cousins, Napoleone and Sandro di Lippaccio, who bore him a mortal hatred.142 In 1348, Napoleone and Sandro were again involved in an act of honor violence, this time against Berto di Messer Giovanni, whom they wounded at nighttime. Velluti described this action as “a great act of treachery.”143 The negative judgment of this act of violence suggests that honor violence had to be done openly in public, rather than in secret.144 Of course, such ideal behavior was not always realized, given the pressing need to avenge dishonor through violence. Rather than seeking to kill Berto through treacherous means, these two men-at-arms may have been caught up by the powerful emotions of anger and the strong desire for immediate vengeance.145 The result is a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, with each victim’s response creating yet another victim and more dishonor to avenge.146
One need not have suffered the slight personally to take revenge. Given the exceptional importance of honor to members of the chivalric elite, literary and historical works alike suggest that even a deceased individual’s honor was also held dearly by his friends and lineage. If honor was decidedly personal, it also factored into the collective honor of the lineage. The resulting obligation extended to relatives or even friends. Florio, the hero of Boccaccio’s prose romance Il Filocolo, encapsulates the traditional chivalric attitude toward the necessity of avenging the death of a loved one when he argues that “a just revenge … will satisfy the souls of those who suffer[ed].”147 In the Tristano Panciatichiano, Tristan is forced to fight a man who claims that the hero killed his brother. The man is so determined to secure vengeance that he refuses Tristan’s apologies and requests for mercy. When Tristan knocks the man from his horse, he stands up and attacks Tristan with his sword, obsessed with killing him.148 This same insatiable desire for vengeance also animates Percival when he learns that his brother, Lamorat of Gaul, has been killed.149
In Rustichello da Pisa’s Romanzo Arturiano, Lancelot (Lancillotto) recognizes the obligation, as a chivalric knight, to secure vengeance for his companions, all of whom have been defeated by Branor il Bruno, the Old Knight (Vecchio Cavaliere), and now risk shame because they cannot avenge themselves. He also realizes that if he refuses to fulfill the obligation to avenge his kindred, he will be considered a coward and thus suffer the ignominy of dishonor and shame. Rustichello describes the scene:
Lancelot, after having seen his companions fall to the ground, and now also Tristan, his dear friend, he lay on the ground as if dead… . And he said that, although [Branor il Bruno] was the most powerful and formidable in the world, he would similarly expose himself to the risk, in order to vindicate the shame suffered by his companions; [realizing] that if he did not do everything possible, he could be considered [by his peers] a coward.150
In yet another incident later in this work a knight bluntly explains that he must kill a certain knight because that knight killed his brother.151 This simple and striking expression of a basic tenet of Florentine chivalry makes clear to a modern audience why the authors of chronicles and histories composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries express great concern and fear about unrestrained chivalric violence.
Meanwhile in the Tristano Panciatichiano, Hector warns Palamedes that if he kills Bliobleris, he will have to deal with the dead knight’s entire lineage.152 In preaching prudence and restraint Hector does not deny Palamedes’s right to seek vengeance against Bliobleris or suggest that he is a coward, but rather warns him of the serious consequences of attacking a member of his lineage: war with Lancelot and many other great knights. Palamedes’s response is typically chivalric, defending his honor while acknowledging the wisdom of Hector’s warning:
Now know that by my will I would never willingly fight with the knights of King Ban, except for Bliobleris, because he has wronged me in so many ways, as well he knows. And therefore I would willingly vindicate myself, but not for this reason do I want to put him to death, because he is too good a knight. But if fortune gives me the power, I would willingly dishonor him and thereupon I would then bear it. But since I see that this battle [with Bliobleris] is called off, I will bear it. But the great desire I have to fight with him moves me because he has unhorsed me just now, and I want to remove this shame from myself.153
While the desire to cleanse the stain of shame and dishonor is seemingly more important to Palamedes than his life, in the end he gives up this quest for vengeance, but only because of his respect for Hector and the knights of King Ban’s lineage.
It seems likely that Florentine knights and men-at-arms, like their literary counterparts, were more obstinate than Palamedes in their pursuit of vengeance. Honor violence remained an important characteristic of the chivalric lifestyle well into the fourteenth century, despite coming increasingly under attack because of the threat such violence posed to the vita civile and the increasingly centralized authority of the Florentine communal government.154 As we shall see in the epilogue, chivalric practitioners in the early fifteenth century continued to practice honor violence, although with certain modifications.
The substantial evidence found in both chronicles and imaginative literature suggests that chivalry, honor, and violence combined prominently in Florence during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This evidence strongly suggests that Florentine knights and men-at-arms believed their honor was constantly at stake, requiring vigilance and violence. After all, as Sharon Strocchia has observed, “one’s personal and family honour was subject to repeated attacks and might be won, lost or exchanged with remarkable speed.”155 These warriors also felt a correspondingly deep aversion to dishonor and shame that stained reputation and threatened identity, and regularly exercised public and bloody violence to cleanse its deleterious effects and restore their damaged honor. The violence of the chivalric elite was not only different enough in degree to be different in kind from the violence perpetrated by other Florentines, it was also underpinned by a fundamentally different ideology, one that praised and encouraged bloody, showy violence as central to identity.
The available evidence, drawn primarily from chivalric literature and chronicles, shows that the violent behavior of Florentine knights and men-at-arms was influenced by chivalric ideas. In fact, we can discern a chivalric mentalité that is consistent across both the literary world of romances and epics and the historical world of late medieval Florence. The significant popularity of imaginative chivalric literature in Florence and elsewhere in Italy raised the great danger that historical knights might follow suit, if on a more realistic scale.156 Tristan’s example in particular had power; he ranked as one of the great flowers of idealized chivalry in Italy, and his vengeance worked through bloody and exaggerated violence.157 Tristan and his fellow literary knights reinforced through their example time and time again that failure to avenge dishonor produced shame, a fate worse than death. Historical knights knew this as well as their literary counterparts, and as a result, in the minds of the chivalric elite, justified carnage could actually bring praise.