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“’So that they are not killed and robbed every day’”: The construction and use of popular discourse in Florentine Tuscany, c. 1250-1350


My project is a social history of the emergence and use of popular identity and popular discourse in late medieval Florence and its territory. Its central theme is the role that the Florentine popolo’s discursive identity-a set of norms and associational models based on the core values of social peace and the rule of law-played in the commune’s consolidation of its institutional power in city and countryside. My main sources are the voluminous records of medieval Florence’s foreign-staffed courts: the Executor of the Ordinances of Justice, the Capitano del Popolo, and the Podestà, in addition to the Notarile Antecosimiano, tax records (estimi), and the commune’s legislative corpus. The Italian Renaissance state is a venerable topic in medieval and early modern historiography, yet rarely has the question been asked: how did rural non-elites, the majority of the population, receive the categories of popular identity and solidarity that successive popular regimes elaborated over the period 1250-1350?

Recent scholarship on the topic has incorporated mountaineers and rural elites into the narrative, without moving beyond a conceptual binary of acceptance-resistance: later medieval states either deployed enough coercion and enticements to achieve their ends, or non-elites responded to these states in the most dramatic way possible, open rebellion. This schema does not reflect the complexity of mundane reality: case studies of urban non-elites’ and rural peoples’ interactions with Florentine popular institutions and their discursive imaginary reveal their provisional and tactical quality. Florentine public courts played an important role in legitimizing public power in city and countryside, and residents of Florence’s countryside used these courts in large numbers, deploying the language of the commune’s popular regime to initiate legal action and impugn their enemies. Non-elites’ assent to public power did not exclude a calculating, instrumentalist view of the Florentine courts as an ambiguous source of authority, able to improve or damage one’s standing in the community. The density and variety of the Florentine archives allows me to study the contradictions and evasions at the heart of the Florentine state’s relationship with rural society in some detail. I thus move beyond a binary in which premodern non-elites are either docile victims of hegemony, or are always already resisting their landlords and public officials. The project bridges Florentine historiography with wider questions surrounding the emergence of the Italian communes, rural life, and the intersection between society and the law in the late Middle Ages. More broadly, the project offers a socio-cultural approach to understanding premodern state formation, non-elite self-organization, and rural life and society in an exceptionally well-documented corner of Mediterranean Europe.

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