Margherita Datini—The Wisdom and Faith of an Ordinary Medieval Woman

Margherita Datini—The Wisdom and Faith of an Ordinary Medieval Woman

Margherita couldn’t have imagined that, 447 years after her death, her letters would be discovered and studied. And she couldn’t have imagined that, about 150 years after that, readers could sympathize with her challenges and draw from her wisdom.

Church history books are beginning to devote more space to women. Treatments of Medieval Christian women, however, is usually limited to a few queens and nuns – those who could express themselves at a time when most women’s voices were dismissed.

Recently, scholars have turned their attention to the correspondence, discovered in 1870 behind a staircase, of an Italian merchant and his wife – a collection comprising over 150,000 letters and 500 account books.

To historians, this is a rich documentation of how both trade and daily lives were conducted in fourteenth-century Italy. The wife’s letters in particular (over 250) afford the unique opportunity to hear the voice of an ordinary Medieval businesswoman and wife. To Christians, they represent an interesting account on how she met her daily challenges with faith.

Becoming a Merchant’s Wife

Margherita was born in 1360 to the noble Bandini family, who had moved from Florence to Avignon, France, following political exile (both Margherita’s father and her mother’s family had been accused of plotting against the republic). By that time, the papacy had also moved to Avignon, bringing further prosperity to the city.

In 1376, at age 16, Margherita was given in marriage to Francesco Datini, a wealthy merchant from Prato, Italy, who was 25 year her senior. Taking advantage of the papal move, Francesco was thriving in the new papal seat by selling luxury goods and art to cardinals and other clerics who lived there.

The age difference between Margherita and Francesco was not uncommon. In reality, Francesco had been so absorbed by his business that he would have gladly avoided marriage altogether. He had lovers, and had even fathered a son in 1374.

But it was his Prato neighbor Niccolozzo Binducchi, a father figure after Francesco’s parents died of the plague, who insisted that he should marry. A marriage, Niccolozzo expected, would produce legitimate children who could take over Francesco’s business and benefit from his work. As happy as Niccolozzo and his wife Piera had been about the birth of Francesco’s son, “having a legitimate son will bring you more honor before God and the world,”[1] Niccolozzo reminded him. Sadly, Margherita proved to be unable to conceive – a source of great sorrow for the couple.

In 1383, Francesco and Margherita moved back to Prato, where he traded in clothes, weapons, iron and salt, extending his business to other Italian and even Spanish cities and dealing in international commerce. In later years, he dabbled in the banking and insurance business. In reality, charging interest was still forbidden by canon law, but Francesco eased his conscience by saying he would leave his money to the poor when he died.

Francesco’s work caused him to travel for long periods of time, but he stayed in touch with his wife to receive news from home and reports about his business. He also sent her seemingly incessant instructions and reminders, to the point of becoming annoying.

From 1384 till his death in 1410, they corresponded about every two or three days. At first, Margherita, who had only learned to read (mostly her prayer books, typically written with the Gothic alphabet) had to dictate her letters. In her late thirties, she surprised Francesco by learning to read and write in the current “commercial” alphabet. This new ability allowed her to write whenever needed (without having to look for a scribe) and to be more honest in her letters.

Daily Challenges

As most women at that time, Margherita suffered from her husband’s repeated absences, which left her alone with her servants. Apparently, after marriage Francesco continued to be as work-driven as he had always been, so much that Niccolozzo had to exhort him, “You are rich enough, thanks be to God. Don’t want it all, don’t want it all, don’t want it all.”[2]

She was also distressed by Francesco’s extramarital affairs, which he carried on as usual. The birth of her husband’s second son with a sixteen-year-old servant troubled Margherita so deeply that she became seriously ill. Francesco found a husband for the girl, but the baby died after a few months.

Francesco was not irreligious. He often worried about his sins, interpreted contrarieties as God’s punishment, and kept promising to become “a new Francesco.” He never mentioned any sin in particular, and adultery and infidelity might have been low in his concerns, since they were not considered as serious in men as they were in women – something most wives had learned to accept.

While accepting the traditional position of submission to her husband, Margherita felt free to advise (and even reprove) him when it came to religion and morals. This was included, at that time, in the wife’s duties toward her husband, and was encouraged by preachers.

And Margherita had many pearls of wisdom to share – most likely, pearls she had gathered as she juggled the many responsibilities Francesco had placed on her shoulders, and as she persevered in spite of her loneliness, infertility, and chronic illness (which caused her debilitating pain with each menstruation).

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