Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. $20.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8018-5309-8; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-5308-1.
Reviewed by Carole Collier Frick (Department of Historical Studies, Southern Illinois University) Published on H-Italy (June, 2000) DEMOGRAPHIC This impressive collection, organized into seven essays on women in Renaissance Italy by one of the most prolific American historians working in the field, provides specialists with a plethora of new demographic data on the vicissitudes of the female experience in the late fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in Italy.
While property values rose and population was stabilized, the human cost was dear indeed. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online.
One valuable habit of mind in Cohn's writing is his continual suggestions for new areas in which historical inquiry could be fruitfully focused. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at [email protected]
The statistics upon which this book's conclusions rest have been painstakingly culled from the archival records of six northern Italian communes: Arezzo, Assisi, Florence, Perugia, Pisa and Siena.
Cohn's book, however, does have a misleading title, taken from his first essay here, and readers should not be led to believe that this book will demonstrate female agency in Renaissance Italy.The first two essays concentrate on the city of Florence, which Cohn labels as "one of the worst places to have been born a woman in the Italian Renaissance." (p.15) While overtly suspicious of the anecdotal nature of microhistory, his first essay, "Women in the Streets, Women in the Courts, in Early Renaissance Florence," does begin with just such an account, from 1375, of a mouthy artisan-class Fiorentina named Filippa, who successfully challenges one Piero di Cianchino in court over an alleged public slander.Instead, this demographic data predictably charts the radical diminution of women's rights over time. 20, "these records chronicle the deterioration of women's status and power....", which he ties ultimately to the "...development of the Renaissance state during the fifteenth century." (p.The unsurprising conclusion of all but one of these essays is that women in and around the northern Italian communes between the late 1300s and the mid 1500s, lost considerable voice in the public records. 21) What is lacking here then, is a fundamentally new conclusion; what Cohn plummets the reader into that new, are masses of bleak statistics of legal constriction.To deal with increased taxation, from 1402, some inhabitants simply fled, some participated in peasant uprisings, older women were forced to "out-migrate," and, ultimately desperate to limit family size and survive, many households practiced female infanticide.Cohn's sophisticated reading of the statistics suggests that from the early 1400's onward, an extremely skewed sex ratio is evident in tax records, peaking in 1427 at 100 female infants to 180 male, but still hovering at 100 female to 145 male as late as 1460. id=4219 Copyright © 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved.They ceased being "simple cogs in the transmission of property down male family lineages, and instead, could dispose of their patrimonies more fully and freely..." (p.75) He calls for a reassessment of what he terms the "supposed analogous developments" of the age of authoritarianism ushered in by the Counter Reformation, and a more sensitive reading of what he sees as a more multifaceted era (p.74). In essay number four, entitled "Nuns and Dowry Funds" and arguably his most complex, Cohn stays with last wills and testaments, but again shifts time and space, this time moving backward to 1362-63, after the first return of the Black Death of 1348.He widens his scope from Siena to include the five other northern Italian towns noted above.But one could also point to Brucker's Lusanna in 1455 as an instance where, even well into the Quattrocento, there were woman like Filippa who did still actively challenge "the system," when seriously provoked. Specific instances aside however, Cohn's findings overwhelmingly suggest a general trend of enveloping patriarchy, which eventually silenced the feminine voice in Florentine tribunals.The second essay, titled simply "Last Wills," comes to a similar conclusion.