Renaissance and Reformation Margherita Datini
Carolyn James
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0189


The 252 extant letters of Margherita Datini (b. 1360–d. 1423) to her husband, the merchant Francesco di Marco Datini (b. c. 1335–d. 1410), represent the largest collection of early Italian vernacular correspondence by a lay woman to have come to light. They are all the more unusual because Francesco’s letters to Margherita also survive, enabling us to follow a marital conversation that continued for almost three decades. The couple’s exchanges reveal a very different portrait of marriage than was envisaged by prescriptive texts of the period. Or rather, the letters provide evidence that Margherita and Francesco had a conventional enough view of how their relationship should be conducted, but the challenges of everyday life in an urban environment riven by factionalism and competitiveness forced them often to ignore the gender stereotypes of their day. Fourteenth-century advice manuals, such as Paola da Certaldo’s Libro di buoni costumi, described female virtue in narrow terms and demarcated the roles of husband and wife strictly, recommending that women be confined to the household and restrained from participating in men’s affairs. Margherita, however, collaborated in the supervision of Francesco’s building projects, even occasionally pursued the merchant’s debtors, and offered her husband shrewd advice, revealing the extent to which she was fully conversant with contemporary politics. She was cognizant of the need to participate in the social networking that was a fundamental feature of Florentine society and cultivated the magnate connections of her own aristocratic family to secure useful allies for the more humbly-born Francesco. Margherita’s inability to bear children was a source of bitter disappointment to the couple, but it indubitably facilitated her ability to take on a greater role in her husband’s affairs than was usual. The Datini couple’s letters also reveal many details about their households in Florence and Prato. The routines and experiences of the servants, neighbors, friends, and relatives with whom Margherita associated are documented in colloquial and evocative prose, providing a rare view of women’s social interactions and emotions in a period blighted by recurring outbreaks of plague, an unstable political climate, and difficult economic conditions.

General Overviews

The significance of Margherita’s letters as a historical source and the extent to which her experience and attitudes were shared by her contemporaries must be assessed in the light of scholarship on the political, social, and economic milieu of late medieval Tuscany. Brucker 1977, a study of Florentine politics; the essays on Tuscan women and their families in Klapisch-Zuber 1985; and Goldthwaite 2009 on Florence’s economy are all essential reading. Petrucci 1995 and Miglio 2008 introduce us to the history of women’s reading and writing practices in medieval Italy. The essays in Nigro 2010 focus mostly on Francesco Datini and his commercial empire but also contain much that is relevant to a study of Margherita. Origo 1957, a biography of Francesco Datini, provides an engaging, if not always accurate, account of the merchant’s life and marriage. Despite writing for a general rather than academic audience, Origo’s interpretation of her subjects’ lives has shaped much of the subsequent scholarship. Cherubini 1991 is the best history of late medieval Prato.

  • Brucker, Gene. The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

    Analyzes the evolution of the Florentine republic from a corporate to elitist polity in the aftermath of the Ciompi revolt of 1378 and explores the resulting civic tensions in Florence and its dependent towns during the following decades.

  • Cherubini, Giovanni, ed. Prato storia di una città. Vol. 1. Prato, Italy: Le Monnier, 1991.

    A history of the town in which the Datini couple spent much of their married life.

  • Goldthwaite, Richard. The Economy of Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

    The definitive study of Florence’s highly developed market economy; this book examines the business structures and relationships that underpinned local and international commerce, allowing us to understand the commercial world in which the Datini couple operated.

  • Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. Women, Family and Ritual in Renaissance Italy. Translated by Lydia Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Although women’s letters, and even men’s correspondence, were not much used in Klapisch-Zuber’s groundbreaking research, these essays offer an important basis for understanding women’s lives and how gendered and ritualized behavior impacted on individuals and families during the 15th century.

  • Miglio, Luisa. Governare l’alfabeto: Donne, scrittura e libri nel Medioevo. Rome: Viella, 2008.

    Examines the extent of women’s participation in written culture during the 14th and 15th centuries, their motivations for writing letters, and the role of scribal intermediaries. Includes transcriptions and photographic reproductions of sixty-six letters by women that survive in the state archive of Florence.

  • Nigro, Giampiero, ed. Francesco di Marco Datini: The Man, The Merchant. Florence: Firenze University Press, 2010.

    Brings together a comprehensive group of recent studies on Francesco Datini and his milieu. The volume includes essays on his companies and business associates, his building campaigns and artistic patronage, the daily life of the Datini household, and Margherita’s contributions to her husband’s commercial success.

  • Origo, Iris. The Merchant of Prato: Francesco di Marco Datini, 1335–1410. New York: Knopf, 1957.

    A lively and well-written biography of Francesco, although there is much more to be said about the Datini couple’s relationship and Margherita’s role in her husband’s enterprises than is related here.

  • Petrucci, Armando. Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

    Provides an essential context for understanding Italian women’s opportunities in relation to reading and writing in a period when male literacy was much higher in Italy than elsewhere.

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