Predicting the Future with Beans

In The Zorzi Affair, Zaneta Lucia Zorzi visits a fortune teller, anxious to learn how an arranged marriage will change her life.

   “You don’t know about the beans? With these beans, I can see the future.” 
One of Zaneta Lucia’s eyebrows dipped.
   Signora Battaglia must have seen the skepticism written on her face. “You doubt the beans? Just watch.”
   The soothsayer shook the cup, the beans jumping wildly against the porcelain. With a flourish, the woman tossed the beans onto the table between them. They scattered, falling still on the velvet surface.
   “Ah,” Signora Battaglia breathed as she gazed at the beans. “See the pattern they make?”
   Zaneta Lucia looked down, but all she saw was beans.

This scene is based on a true practice in Renaissance Venice. It was called buttar fave—tossing dried fava beans. Soothsayers would throw the beans and read their pattern to predict the future, much like reading tea leaves. And fava beans had a long history in the Mediterranean. The Romans and Ancient Greeks enjoyed the beans. Fava beans were cheap, tasty, and always around, so why not use them to see into the future?

Fava beans, predicting a cold winter in 2017. 

Fava beans, predicting a cold winter in 2017. 

However, fortune-telling beans were considered improper by the Catholic Church. Theologians believed the practice called on demons to reveal the future. The Church did reprimand a number of women for relying on the beans. Ironically, those Inquisition records are our best historical source on bean tossing. The trials reveal a hidden side of the Renaissance.

For example, in 1612 Felicità Greca was accused of witchcraft by her roommate, Angela. Felicità had repeatedly invited a gypsy over to toss beans, in spite of Angela’s warnings. Then one day, Angela was dog-sitting the butcher’s dog. With no warning, the dog went crazy, galloping around the house. The dog knocked Angela’s elderly mother to the floor, injuring the old woman. 

Angela knew this calamity was a sign: Felicità was up to no good. Angela and a neighbor confronted Felicità, where they walked in on the gypsy, still tossing beans. Angela screamed at Felicità and then reported her to the Inquisition. (Monica Chojnacka tells the whole story in Working Women of Early Modern Venice.)

Multiple other Inquisition trial records prove that Venetian women frequently resorted to beans to deal with life’s uncertainties. When I read about predicting the future with beans back in graduate school, I knew I had to include it in a book—and now it’s in The Zorzi Affair!

So skip the horoscopes—the next time you’re curious about the future, toss some beans! (just watch out for crazy dogs.)

How a Snowball Fight led to the Divine Comedy

Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most magnificent pieces of writing in human history. Told in terza rima over 100 cantos, Dante relates a journey through hell, Purgatory, and heaven, where he gazes upon the face of God. In the epic poem, Dante coined a number of new words and some attribute the birth of modern Italian to Dante’s writing. 

But it might never have been written at all, if not for a snowball fight in the year 1300.

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

In the city of Pistoia, a few miles from Florence, a young man threw a snowball, and his uncle scolded him. A few days later, in revenge, the nephew struck his uncle for dishonoring him. But now the uncle was dishonored—so his son attacked the snowball-thrower and cut off his hands. As if this escalation wasn’t enough, the son then went after the snowball-thower’s father and killed him. 

This feud, between members of the Pistoian Cancellieri family, created a civil war in the city, as everyone took sides. The Florentines, trying to put an end to the bloodshed, arrested the leaders of both factions and imprisoned them in Florence.

However, the Pistoian feud then exacerbated the existing rivalry between two leading Florentine families, the Cerchi and the Donati. Although Dante was married to Gemma Donati, he sided more with the new-money Cerchi family, who were neighbors to the Alighieri. And in 1302, the war between the Donati and Cerchi factions resulted in the exile of a number of supporters of the Cerchi, including Dante.

Dante’s exile was traumatic—he was banned from ever returning to his hometown of Florence, and charged with a number of crimes, including embezzlement and disturbance of the peace. For the next two decades, Dante traveled across Italy, yearning to restore his reputation and return to Florence. 

During this long exile, Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, which contained his condemnation of the factional chaos that expelled him from Florence. In Inferno, Dante throws the leaders of the factions into hell, including members of the Donati faction and one of their allies, Pope Boniface VIII. The poem was the perfect vehicle for Dante to vent his frustration at the disorderly politics of late medieval Florence. And it almost certainly never would have been written if Dante had not been exiled.

And that’s how a snowball fight led to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465). 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465).