Preparing for an attack - a story from medieval Prato

We probably know more about Francesco and Margherita Datini than any other couple who lived in the Middle Ages This is because of a discovery in the Italian town of Prato from the year 1870: hiding behind a stairwell in one of their former homes was 500 account books and 150,000 papers belonging to the couple. It primarily dealt with their business dealings, but offered much about their personal and social lives as well.

This gold mine of information has captivated historians, with Iris Origo’s book, The Merchant of Prato, considered a classic work of medieval life. Francesco and Margherita married in 1376, and together established a very successful business in Prato and Florence, which included selling weapons and armour, and then luxury goods and art. The couple wrote to each other frequently, sometimes more than once a day.

In March of 1397 bad news had reached Tuscany - the Duke of Milan had hired a mercenary company named Compagnia di San Giorgio to raid the lands between Florence and Siena. The hiring of bands of mercenaries, known in Italy as condottieri, was common in fourteenth and fifteenth century Italy. This particular group was somewhat unique in that only Italians were allowed to be part of it, but as Origo notes, they were just as terrible as foreign mercenaries:

This company, in short, like every other band of free lances, lived on the land through which it passed, sometimes settling down, like a flock of locusts, in some prosperous district for several months, and leaving it a waste when it moved on. Wherever the soldiery had been, fields and vineyards were laid bare, farms looted and burned down, cattle slaughtered and the peasants killed or taken prisoner.

Therefore it is not surprising that many Italians, including the Datinis would have worried about the homes and goods (and their lives) when word arrived of mercenaries on the prowl. Like many others, they would look for the best ways they could protect themselves.

On March 19th, Francesco was in Florence when he heard that the mercenary army was coming towards Prato. He immediately sent a letter to his wife, telling her that they had to remove everything from Il Palco - a villa that they had bought a couple years earlier which overlooked Prato - and get the goods within the relative safety of the city’s walls:

See to it with Barzalone and Niccolo that all things in Il Palco are brought to Prato, and nothing remains there, not even pieces of iron, for all is in danger. For tonight they came within twelve miles from here. And also if you have time bring in the straw, and put it wherever you think best, for if the beasts cannot have oats, they must do with straw.

Margherita got the various servants and workers to carry out the movement of goods, until the only thing left in their villa was the doors. A letter from her on March 22nd reveals the situation:

We have stored all the hay in the house. We will give order that the bridge be removed after the many rocks that are there have been torn down. If we can, we will have it removed on Saturday evening, although there is not much time for them to do anything. It is not my intention to have Il Palco abandoned until the very last moment. Nanni has no intention of leaving until he is just out of crossbow shot and he can flee carrying only his cap. Nanni’s father is still there, and he never wanted to take shelter anywhere else. Schiavo went there this morning and took his things. I urged him to look after the place and told him what I thought was necessary. He says he will never leave, neither he nor his brother; and he has no intention of leaving the place unmanned until there is nothing else to be done. Nanni tells me they are looking after it carefully and doing well. Do not be anxious about these matters, as we well do everything to make you satisfied.

While Margherita was dealing with the situation in Prato, Francesco was thinking about leaving Florence and joining her. However, he feared making the journey, even though it was only about 25 kilometres - the mercenaries were now too close. He writes to his wife:

No one here knows what to do, and puts his trust in any remedy. I stay in the house and do not venture forth,; and I know not what to do, whether to come or go. There would be some jeopardy in going, for one of my standing.

However, soon the threat had subsided, as the company had moved on towards Siena. The merchant of Prato quickly turned back to business, asking his wife to quickly send flour and wheat to him, as the Florentine food supply was low and now was a chance to make some good money. He did, however, end his letter with some praise for how Margherita handled the situation: “That you have ordered the house in a fashion to do you honour, pleases me. The wise may be known in times of need.”

Florence and Tuscany in a 1482 map from Geographia by Francesco Berlinghieri

You can read more about the couple in books such as The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo (Jonathan Cape, 1957) and Letters to Francesco Datini, by Margherita Datini, translated by Carolyn James and Antonio Pagliaro (Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2012)

You can also read more about the condottieri in Issue VIII:1 of Medieval Warfare.

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