Chivalry and Public Disorder in Thirteenth-Century Florence

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 Chivalry and Public Disorder in Thirteenth-Century Florence

The murder of Corso Donati and Gherardo Bordoni (1308)

The murder of Corso Donati and Gherardo Bordoni (1308)

Session: “I just don’t want to die without a few scars”: Medieval Fight Clubs, Masculine Identity, and Public (Dis)order

Peter W. Sposato (University of Rochester)

The was the second of two fabulous papers given at the my first session on Medieval violence. Whereas the first paper in this series looked at violence in the university setting, this one tackled violence in an elite sphere – Florentine knights and their retinues. 

 “It is worth more than life itself…For the chivalric elite, shame was a fate worse than death”

In late Medieval Florence, violence was common place but the most violent acts were perpetrated by the city’s chivalric elite. It was very different in degree, threatened the common good, and its sheer intensity made it hard to believe that it was part of government sanctioned violence to carry out vendettas. This paper sought to answer: Why was the violence of the chivalric elite so different? The chivalric elite had more access to resources, manpower and fortifications. They constantly rose to the challenges of threats to their status and honour and regularly interfered in administration and government. For example, in 1286 a large groups of knights prevented an official from executing a member of the chivalric elite. The degree of violence was the profound difference in the chivalric reality where martial prowess and honour were central to their identity. “It is worth more than life itself…For the chivalric elite, shame was a fate worse than death”. Violence became the ultimate vindication of honour. “To a Florentine, life without honour is a living death…on the field of honour, might is right”. How did the chivalric elite interpret the relationship between honour and violence? Sposato shared some medieval prose romances to provide answers, “The Tristano Riccardiano“. In the story, as soon as Tristan became a knight, he avenged his father nobly, but he wasn’t satisfied with simple vengeance and went to Brescia (where the knights came from) and killed all the men and women. Practicioners of chivalry were obliged to avenge honour or face a fate worse than death. The exessive violence depicted in such tales, like Tristano Riccardiano, was not frowned down upon, but lauded. A chivalric end more than justified the bloody means.

The Cerchi seek vengeance - 1300 (Florence)

The Cerchi seek vengeance – 1300 (Florence)

The majority of the evidence about these activities was centred on the social class that was affected by the violence of the chivalric elite. Sposato examined several chronicles and showed how the chivalric violence between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the predecessor of  the later conflicts in Italy.  There was another spate of honour violence between two very powerful Florentine families, the Cerchi and the Donati, that lead to a bloody civil war in the early 14th century. A Florentine chronicler wrote about the attack of Nicola de Cherchi in 1301. Nicola was not part of the Cerchi faction and the chronicler lamented the senselessness of chivalric violence. The ambivalence to violence is drowned out by the word of praise as chivalric ideology reinforced the violent intensity. The chivalric elite overwhelmingly praised this bloody and showy violence. Due to the constant threat of attack, and that the smallest altercation could become a full on war, they travelled around the city fully armed with a large retinue to protect themselves. The chivalric elite were definitely paranoid  but this was also a way to show off.




Was there a reason for this scale of excessive violence as a means of preventing retribution? The problem with vendetta violence and feud is that it is cyclical and never ending. There was criticism of this violence across Europe but the shame and consequences for failing to defend their honour perpetuated this cycle. What role did women play, if any, in chivalric violence? Sposato looked at tran-Alpine continuity where women urged men to violence in chivalric culture. In the Buondelmonte feud, one of the matrons of the Donati family convinced Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti to marry a Donati instead of an Amidei and to take on this act of dishonour which resulted in his murder. What were some of the consequences of shaming? Honour is central to the identity of the chivalric elite and was termed a “horizontal honour” where there was recognition of mutal honour like a shared corporate identity. A member of he elite was forced to avenge this corporate honour or you lose your his. William Marshal’s uncle was murdered by Guy of Lusignan. Lusignan’s family is shamed because they attacked and an unarmed man. They were sent away to the Holy Land and their status was no longer recognised. Some individuals who were shamed had their tomb effigies defaced, some had their images painted on the city walls but the most common punishment was exile.

Was there a difference between Florentine elite versus other chivalric elite? Florentine magnates are associated by their violence, traditions of honour, and noble blood. However, the problem with using the magnates is that they are a political construct. In terms of how much was imported from outside Italy, it’s very difficult to tell but one can look at agents of cultural exchange in literature. There were French knights in residence in Florence as well as German and Hungarian knights and as a result, many outside ideas were circulating at the time.

~Sandra Alvarez

Sharan Newman