Living like the laity? The negotiation of religious status in the cities of late medieval Italy

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 Living like the laity? The negotiation of religious status in the cities of late medieval Italy

By Frances Andrews

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 20 (2010)

Anonymous, Bartolomeo, monk of San Galgano. Tavola di Biccherna, Siena, Archivio di Stato, 6 (January–June 1276).

Abstract: Framed by consideration of images of treasurers on the books of the treasury in thirteenth-century Siena, this article uses evidence for the employment of men of religion in city offices in central and northern Italy to show how religious status (treated as a subset of ‘clerical culture’) could become an important object of negotiation between city and churchmen, a tool in the repertoire of power relations. It focuses on the employment of men of religion as urban treasurers and takes Florence in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries as a principal case study, but also touches on the other tasks assigned to men of religion and, very briefly, on evidence from other cities (Bologna, Brescia, Como, Milan, Padua, Perugia and Siena). It outlines some of the possible arguments deployed for this use of men of religion in order to demonstrate that religious status was, like gender, more contingent and fluid than the norm-based models often relied on as a shorthand by historians. Despite the powerful rhetoric of lay–clerical separation in this period, the engagement of men of religion in paid, term-bound urban offices inevitably brought them closer to living like the laity.




Introduction: In the late 1250s, an anonymous Sienese painter produced a miniature of a now obscure monk, Ugo, from the major Cistercian abbey of San Galgano in southern Tuscany. He is portrayed with his white habit and tonsure, sitting at a desk or cathedra, presenting an open book. It is the conventional pose known to art historians as the author-portrait, used to present an Evangelist, a scribe or perhaps a Master. What makes this image unusual is that the book is not held open to reveal a biblical quote or an appropriate monastic text, but is furnished simply with dates: ‘i(n) a(nno) d(omini) mcclviii mense iulii’, confirming that this is not a book of the Bible or a monastic chronicle, nor even a text for classroom use. Instead, it is a representation of the author as treasurer (camerarius). Ugo’s image has been painted on what was originally the wooden cover of one of the books of the Biccherna, the treasury of the commune of Siena, about sixteen miles across the hills from his remote, rural monastery. The dates on the open book, combined with what remains of the larger inscription framing his depiction, identify this as the communal account book for which he had been responsible in the second semester of 1258.

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Sharan Newman