The Corrupting Power of Money in late medieval Italy

In the fourteenth century, Italy was the wealthiest part of Europe. The common currency of the continent was the florin, minted in Florence; the most powerful banks were in Italy; and the peninsula was the crossroad for trade between Europe and the eastern Mediterreanean. The wealth pouring into late medieval Italy paid for building projects like town halls, civic squares, and towers to represent civic power. It lead to a rise in schools to train the sons of merchants in math and bookkeeping. And it altered the political landscape as “new money” merchants vied for political power.

But many found this new wealth troubling.

Italy was divided by war, factionalism, and upheaval, and many pointed to greed as a primary cause for Italian disfunction. Dante blamed “A new breed of people with their sudden wealth,” who had fueled Florentine pride and unrestraint (Inferno XVI, vv. 73-75). It was “the damned flower,” the florin, produced in Florence “that turns both sheep and lambs from the true course, for of the shepherd it has made a wolf” (Paradiso IX, v. 130-132).

On the heels of the growing religious poverty movements, secular Italians condemned the unholy bond between money and the church. The mid-fourteenth-century Italian poet Niccolò de Rossi made a similar argument when he pointed out how many things were for sale. 

Money makes the man,
Money makes the stupid pass for bright,
Money buys the treasury of sins,

Money brings your enemies down.
And every man seems down without it.
The world and fortune being ruled by it,
Which even opens, if you want, the doors of paradise.
-Niccolò de’ Rossi, mid-fourteenth century

Most disturbingly, to Rossi, money seemed to rule over heaven, as wealthy Italians tried to buy their way out of purgatory. A lifetime of religious devotion was worthless if salvation could be bought for a few coins. 

Another poet, Cecco Angiolieri, wrote about the dangers of money replacing blood ties. In a society where family was everything, the notion that florins might replace kin was disturbing. 

Preach what you will,
Florins are the best of kin:
Blood brothers and cousins true,
Father, mother, sons, and daughters too;
Kinfolk of the sort no one regrets
-Cecco Angiolieri, c. 1300

While wealth brought power and luxury, it came at a high price. Italians worried that money was replacing every important emotional bond, eclipsing devotion to religion, home-town, and even family. Money had the power to disrupt society and break communities apart, a terrifying prospect for an already divided peninsula. 

The Italian city-states were changing dramatically in the late medieval period: republics transformed into principalities; the boundaries of city-states expanded and shrunk in a series of never-ending battles for territory; and the most powerful institution on the peninsula, the Catholic Church, had been kidnapped by the French and relocated to Avignon. 

The influx of money was only one piece in a larger puzzle that convinced late medieval Italians that their society was crumbling, and all the bonds holding people together were failing. This breakdown of order drove many to question the very order of their society, and convinced them that they needed to remake their society along new lines—thus leading to the Renaissance.

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). 

The Coreys of Salem

Giles and Martha Corey were both executed in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. 

The witch panic that swept through the small village of Salem was driven by a small group of girls who claimed they had been “afflicted” by witches. These afflicted girls had enormous power during the Salem witch trials, both accusing their neighbors of witchcraft and then testifying publicly against them. Eventually over forty people in Salem claimed to be under attack by demonic forces, and they accused nearly two hundred people of being witches—at a time when Salem Village had a population of less than six hundred people.

When Martha Corey openly questioned if the afflicted girls were actually ill, she was accused of witchcraft. Martha was arrested. Her husband, Giles, defended her, and went a step further—he accused the afflicted girls of lying about their ailments. Giles, too, was accused of being a witch.

The Coreys spent the summer of 1692 in prison, as their fellow prisoners were questioned, put on trial, and executed. Over fifty people confessed to being witches—and of that group, none were killed. The nineteen people hung for witchcraft in Salem refused to confess and were found guilty at trial. 

Witches were hung in Salem rather than being burned, because under English law witchcraft was considered treason rather than heresy. 

Witches were hung in Salem rather than being burned, because under English law witchcraft was considered treason rather than heresy. 

The trials took place in a cloud of hysteria. The afflicted girls cried out that they were being attacked in the courthouse, stunning the judge, the jury, and other spectators. During one early trial, that of Sarah Good, one of the afflicted girls screamed that Good’s ghostly specter was attacking her with a knife. When she was examined for knife wounds in court, bloody gashes were found on her arm. Adding to the spectacle of the trials, a young man jumped up to claim that he had broken his knife the previous day and dropped the piece near the afflicted girl. To many, this was clear evidence that the girl had lied, but Sarah Good was still found guilty and executed.

An afflicted girl is "attacked" during the trial. 

An afflicted girl is "attacked" during the trial. 

The Coreys served as a stark example to others who might have questioned the afflicted girls. When Martha Corey was put on trial, she confidently proclaimed her innocence, but the afflicted girls cried out that the devil was whispering in Corey’s ear, and that a yellow bird was sucking on her hand. The jury sentenced Martha to death. 

Her husband, Giles, watched from prison. When it came time for his trial, he refused to plead guilty or not guilty. As an incentive to plea, the court decided to “press” Corey to speak, using a rare legal punishment to pressure recalcitrant defendants. Outside the jail, the sheriff placed boards on Corey’s chest and stomach. Heavy stones were piled on Giles, but still he refused to speak. 

This torture killed Giles very slowly. For two full days he was pressed under the weight of the stones. When Giles was asked to plead innocent or guilty, he only replied “more weight!”

On the third day, Giles Corey finally died. Three days later, his wife Martha was hung. 

The Coreys stood up against the witch trials, and paid a heavy price. But because Giles refused to enter a plea, his estate stayed in the Corey family instead of passing to the government. 

The hysteria in Salem died down nearly as fast as it began, and within a year of the last execution many of the jurors publicly apologized for the error of believing witches were attacking their community. During the high anxiety of 1692, when Puritans feared their community would crumble, it had been plausible for residents of Salem to believe that the Devil was assaulting their village. The jurors believed God was testing them, and the only response was to exterminate the witches. This dangerous combination of hysteria and righteousness cost many lives, including Giles and Martha Corey. 

(For more, keep an eye out for my novel Salem Mean Girls, which retells the Salem Witch Trials in the style of the movie “Mean Girls.”)

History versus Historical Fiction

I’m a history professor and an author of historical fiction, so some days it feels like I spend all my waking hours in the past. I’ve published academic works, including a book with a major university press and articles in scholarly journals. And soon I’ll publish my debut novel, The Lion and the Fox, set in sixteenth-century Florence.

We tend to think of history and historical fiction as two very different things: history is that dusty old stuff, the names and dates that you struggled to memorize in school, and historical fiction is fun, engaging, and entertaining. History is "dry," and historical fiction is sexy. Or, to put it another way, history is the image of Machiavelli on the left, which looks like a real person, and historical fiction is the version on the right, altered to be more pleasing to our eyes.

But there are more similarities between writing in the two genres than you might imagine.

First, both history and historical fiction have to contain a narrative. That’s no surprise for a novel, but we don’t often think of non-fiction history books as containing a narrative. Yet historians, faced with the reality of incomplete sources, have to create their own narratives to explain what happened in the past. And just like a fictional narrative, it has to be persuasive and logical. 

Both history and historical fiction have the power to surprise us, to transmit us to another era. Historians aren’t generally known for the rhetorical flourishes that make historical fiction so engaging, yet history can be just as exciting as historical fiction. If you still have any doubts, check out Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre, which tells the engaging and true story of Martin Guerre, a sixteenth-century French peasant who abandoned his wife and young child, but then reappeared after nearly a decade. Or was it an imposter? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

And both history and historical fiction require suspending our modern understanding of behavior, manners, beliefs, and assumptions, in order to immerse ourselves in another time and place. As novelist L.P. Hartley wrote in 1953, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” As authors, scholars, and readers of both history and historical fiction, we have to always remember that the past is not like the present. And that’s one reason I love writing both history and historical fiction—they have an amazing ability to teach us, and surprise us!