By Isabelle Chabot
Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Sandra Cavallo and Lyndan Warner (Longman, 1999)
Introduction: ‘God send her a hundred years of misery to repay her for her madness!’: this was how Francesco Davizzi cursed his sister – whom he also referred to as a ‘beast’ and ‘ungracious female’ – when he came to know what sort of life she had chosen. After her husband’s death, Lena ‘decided to live in poverty with the nuns of Foligno’, and even if those around her tried to discourage her, arguing that ‘she would have better served God taking care of her family’, she still ‘wanted to follow her own way’.
The biography of this Florentine widow who, in 1422, decided, against the will of her family, to dedicate herself to God, has come to us through three letters sent from London to Florence between June and October 1422. Lena’s three brothers were international Florentine bankers and merchants who lived and practiced their trade in London. In the course of the winter and spring of 1422, Simone Strozzi wrote to them from Florence to announce the ‘foolish’ intentions of Lena, who had recently been widowed. In the first remaining letter, dated the 16th of June 1422, Francesco Davizzi answered a letter from Simone which informed him of his sister’s immovable resolution to enter a convent.
Pinaccio Strozzi, who also lived in London, had certainly had the opportunity to comment on these events with the Davizzi brothers. The letter he wrote to his brother Simone in July indirectly echoes their London conversations; conversations between men who, because of the distance from their sister, were powerless to act, and for whom invective was the only recourse. The last letter that Francesco Davizzi addressed again to Simone Strozzi in the autumn of 1422 ends this extraordinary documentation on a note of anger. This brief correspondence echoes with rare intensity how a patrician family could react when faced with a choice like Lena’s and casts light on the way in which men of this time conceived the property and devolution of female patrimony.