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"If I could write": Margherita Datini and letter writing, 1385-1410.


In Avignon in 1376, Margherita Bandini, a sixteen-year-old Florentine, married Francesco Datini, aged forty-one. (1) Margherita came from an elite family of Florentine political refugees. Francesco, a native of Prato, was a self-made man who had become the extremely wealthy "merchant of Prato" by trading in armor, salt, wine, and cloth in Avignon, the seat of the papacy throughout most of the fourteenth century. (2) At first the marriage seems to have been happy, but the couple's relations deteriorated once they returned to Italy seven years later. Neither of them had easy personalities: Francesco was obsessive about his work, irritable, and suspicious, and Margherita was impatient, emotional, and easily offended. However, their core problem was that they had no children. Everyone, including Margherita, saw it as her fault (although also as God's will). She had severe and debilitating menstrual pains each month, almost certainly the result of endometriosis, a condition that inhibits fertility. On the other hand, Francesco proved his fertility by fathering three illegitimate children, one before the marriage and two during it (which did not help the relationship). (3)

Margherita and Francesco wrote to each other frequently as they moved separately between Prato, where Francesco had his principal home and some businesses, and Florence, where he had his principal merchant banking companies and a smaller home. Although letter writing was an important concern for all international merchants, it was especially so for Francesco in business and in personal life. Wherever he was, he directed by letter a network of companies in Italy, France, and Spain, spending his days (and often his nights) writing, sometimes hardly leaving the house. He saved all letters coming to him and his household, kept copies of his outgoing letters, and insisted that his employees and partners in Italy, France, and Spain do the same. Lacking heirs, Francesco bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to a charitable institute he founded in Prato, which preserved his already-carefully-saved papers, creating an exceptionally inclusive archive of more than 150,000 letters and 500 account books. (4)

Most of the documents in the Datini archive focus on mercantile activities. However, there are 244 surviving letters from Margherita to Francesco, written between 1385 and his death in 1410, and 181 from Francesco to Margherita: a total of 425 letters between them, dealing with household, family, business, and politics, some letters long, some short, some personal, some not. (5) Florence and Prato are less than ten miles apart, and looking at the couple's communications carefully, it becomes apparent that Francesco often spent Sundays and other short periods with Margherita, so they were not as distant as the number of letters might make it appear. Some couples would not have bothered to write when apart for only a few days, but Francesco was a micromanager, wanting to know about and control everything that went on in his business and in his domestic life.

Margherita and Francesco's letters were not entirely private documents: a drawback for sources about personal life, although useful for finding out about epistolary habits. Francesco's employees often penned or recopied his letters; Margherita mostly dictated hers to scribes, usually Francesco's employees; and these same employees read Francesco's letters aloud to her for many years, until she improved her reading. Therefore, Francesco and Margherita were inhibited by the knowledge that their words would be read by others. They occasionally mention that some things are not suitable for letters, and that they will fill in details face-to-face. (6) They also sometimes communicated through an intermediary. In 1385 Francesco, who was spending time in Pisa and asked Margherita to join him there, wrote to a friend and associate, Monte Angiolini: "Tell Margherita that, no matter that she is as she is and let anyone say what they wish, I have no intention of either going to or staying in any place unless she is with me; and, let anyone say what they wish ... I don't feel a man without her. It seems to me to be 100 years since I have been without her; it won't help me more to gain 1,000 florins--if knowing this does not make her conceited." (7) Readers of Francesco's letters might wonder why he did not make loving comments directly to Margherita in his letters of the same period, which are businesslike rather than affectionate, until they realize that Francesco was passing on a private message out of sight of his clerks, with whom his relationship was that of employer and superior, unlike his more confidential relationship with Angiolini.

In spite of lack of privacy, the letters give a clear idea of Margherita and Francesco's relationship, necessary background information for analyzing her letter writing. In the year or two after Francesco wrote this letter, a perusal of the Datini correspondence shows the marriage to have been souring, with resentment overtaking--although not completely eradicating--affection. Francesco's message above had already included words that boded ill for the future: "no matter that she is as she is" (infertile and frequently ill) and "let anyone say what they wish" (indicating that some people thought he was willing enough to be without her). Nonetheless, this passage is effusive by Francesco's standards.

The letters' sense of emotional immediacy mostly comes from expressions of anger by both husband and wife, or from Francesco's description of his depressed moods and Margherita's responses, both sympathetic and unsympathetic. In such exchanges, Margherita and Francesco deal with each other with considerable equality, but often Francesco demonstrates his superior position by continual instructions and peevish criticisms. While Margherita accepted that men should rule and, usually, that women were inferior to men, it did not please her. She could imagine a situation in which she ruled Francesco, if only in matters of his health: "If I had ... power over you as you do over me, I would give you a guardian," and when she disagrees with him, she writes caustically, "but it is for you to command and mine always to obey," and "you can do as you wish, since you are the master, which is a fine office, but should be used with discretion." (8) She nagged him about what she perceived as his shortcomings--his ceaseless and unhealthy preoccupation with business and the building of his palace--all in the name of the irritated love she had for him. As for things the letters omit (such as the birth of the illegitimate children) or mention indirectly (such as the childlessness that led to defensiveness on her part and dissatisfaction on his), these can be filled in from other letters and documents in the archive. (9)

Taking the sources' advantages and limitations into account, this essay discusses Margherita Datini's use of scribes, her reading, and her autograph writing. Scholars have come to realize that there is no firm dividing line between literacy and illiteracy, putting forward the concept of semi-literacy or partial literacy, and Margherita provides a good example. (10) The term partial literacy encompasses a hierarchy of skills: the ability to read a little but not to write; the ability to read well but not to write; the ability to sign one's name but to write nothing more; and the ability to write whole sentences inexpertly. Since knowledge of reading was more widespread than of writing, most of those who could write at all could read at least a little. (11)

Margherita Datini lived in a world where letter writing was a dominant consideration for merchants and for her, too, even though her reading and writing skills were limited. An argument moralists gave against women's literacy was that it would take them away from their household tasks. (12) In Margherita's case, letters were an integral part of her household tasks, perhaps more than if she had had children to make other demands on her time. Francesco expected her to send frequent reports about her activities and to oversee the letter writing and account keeping of young employees. Nonetheless, only twenty-two of Margherita Datini's 285 letters are autograph. It was previously thought that she learned to write only in 1396 at the age of thirty-six, but a few years ago a scrawled autograph letter penned in 1388--when Margherita was age twenty-eight--was found and authenticated. (13) This early letter suggests that Margherita was partially literate throughout her marriage. Margherita's mother's literacy backs up this supposition, since it indicates that Margherita came from a background in which women were literate--fairly uncommon in this period. (14)

Margherita began by priding herself on her dictation, turned in the mid-1390s to improving her reading, and soon afterward worked on her writing. She improved her skills partly for the convenience of not depending on scribes, but also as another way to demonstrate her abilities, which she was always (somewhat defensively) eager to do. In learning to write literate autograph letters, Margherita Datini was building on a combination of existing low-level skills and on many years experience dictating letters. She was just taking literacy to the next level, moving from partial literacy to full. Nonetheless, for much of her life Margherita dictated her letters to scribes, not only before she wrote the bulk of her autograph letters, but also afterwards, when she returned to using them.


In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, an inability to carry on an autograph correspondence did not mean an inability to send letters, since people often had others write for them, with the autograph writing and the dictation (composing) of letters seen as separate skills. (15) Evidence of the distinction between the physical act of writing and the mental-oral act of composing can be seen in two comments: Margherita describes someone's writing as bad and his dictation worse, and, a couple of generations later, Ginevra Alessandri, wife of Giovanni di Cosimo de' Medici, comments, "I write badly and dictate worse." (16) Terminology could become blurred, with people using dettare (to dictate) for autograph writing as well as for dictation, but the two were normally conceptually and functionally independent. Even the name of the medieval ars dictaminis, or art of letter writing, which provided rules for composing good letters, implies that it was dictating or composition that was important, not penmanship. (17)

Until the sixteenth century, autograph writing was considered a mechanical and professional procedure, beneath the dignity of nobles and unnecessary for most laywomen. (18) However, not only lack of skill led to the use of scribes: those who were adept at writing used scribes to cope with the voluminous correspondence demanded by government and business. While good letter writing was a basic requirement for merchants, Francesco Datini, like other merchants, used clerks for routine writing, and many of Francesco's letters to Margherita about domestic matters can be called routine. Only forty-three of Francesco's 181 surviving letters to his wife are autograph, with the rest often copied by employees from messy originals, dictated, or even composed by an employee from a list of subjects. (19)

Margherita used scribes mainly because of her poor writing ability, but she set value on her ability to dictate well, as will be seen. It should be kept in mind that the degree to which the person dictating a letter--whom I will call the author--expected the scribe to intervene varied: the author might expect word-for-word reproduction of his or her words, or might provide ideas for the scribe to put in written form, and Margherita's attitude was closer to the former. That women usually dictated their letters to male scribes has raised the issue of the degree to which scribes shaped women's letters: that is, the degree to which women were the true authors of their letters. This question, which no one asks about the men who normally used scribes, implies an underlying assumption that women were malleable, lacking firm intentions of their own, an assumption contradicted by Margherita's case and that of other women letter writers. (20)

On the other hand, no one questions the essential authorship of Saint Catherine of Siena's scribal letters, considered literary and religious masterpieces. (21) While Margherita was no Catherine, she, like Catherine, had a firm will of her own. She expected her scribe to write down her words as she spoke them rather than supplying his own, as some scribes did, and, judging by her letters, she apparently spoke her words in an uninhibited and fluent fashion. It has been suggested that Saint Catherine wrote powerful letters not only because she felt validated by God, but because she lived in a world in which oral culture was more developed than literary culture, and in which this oral culture sharpened capacity for speech and rapid thought. (22) The Datinis' milieu, close in time and place to Catherine's, could be said to have had a similar impact. Francesco wrote merchant-style autograph letters, which are considered non-literary and close to everyday speech, and Margherita's dictated and autograph letters were even closer to everyday speech. (23)

Margherita's desire to have her talent for composition recognized can be seen in a 1386 dialogue between her, aged twenty-six, and Francesco. When Francesco suggests that letters Margherita sent him are too well composed for her to have done them by herself, Margherita fires back: "You said in your letter ... that I could not have dictated these letters, but that Piero di Filippo must have done it. Pleasing your grace, I have never had anyone compose my letters, neither Piero nor anyone. You must consider me a poor creature if you think I would have him compose my letters. When Simone [the apprentice and her usual scribe] is not here, I go to Niccolo dell'Amanato [her brother-in-law], who seems to me more suitable than Piero di Filippo, or to Lorenzo: I'll tell my secrets to these two and to no one else." (24) This passage provides important evidence about Margherita's character, showing her pride in her intellect, which would later contribute to her learning to write. It also shows her willingness to stand up to Francesco. Meanwhile, Francesco replied, perhaps intending a jocular tone, but with a sting to his words that would have discouraged Margherita rather than encouraged her: "I have had one of your letters, and if the other one was well composed, this one is even better. I am now certain that you have dictated them yourself. And I tell you that I am very pleased that God has given you the ability to speak so well; on the other hand, I have a great fear that he may be planning for you to die young, because it is commonly held that when a child does or says things beyond his age, that the child will die young. And since this letter is outside the norm for a young female like yourself, who has had little practice, I fear your coming death leads you to outstanding deeds." (25)

Francesco always calls Margherita by the intimate tu, but in early 1386 Margherita still calls Francesco by the respectful second person singular voi. Later in the same year she mixes tu and voi, and in years following she mostly uses tu in letters with a personal emphasis and voi in letters with a group emphasis. She also begins her early letters with a relatively formal salutation, "Francesco, Margherita salutes you": later, following the usual custom of merchants, she omits the salutation. As time went on, the Datinis wrote each other so often that Margherita composed her scribal letters less carefully than in 1386, and these subsequent letters allow insight into the mechanics of composition. The scribe would occasionally write, "monna Margherita says," rather than transcribing her words directly, and, to emphasize a point Margherita might state, "I, Margherita, say"; but if the scribe intervened in his own person, as he did occasionally, he would be sure to write, "I Guido say," or to add a postscript. One time, when the clerk Guido wrote a letter to Francesco in Guido's own name, Margherita inserted "I Margherita" comments into Guido's letter and Guido wrote "monna Margherita says" so often that it became almost a letter dictated by her. One letter from Margherita was composed entirely by a clerk, who, however, explained that he was writing it himself because Margherita had gone to bed. (26)

The correspondence between Margherita and Francesco includes intimate passages, but its basic purpose was utilitarian. Especially when in Prato, Margherita managed a large household containing apprentices, servants, and visitors, and oversaw household accounts, building, and harvests, in spite of frequent bouts of poor health, with Francesco expecting her to keep him informed about everything. (27) (He also had the male employees report to him, but with a business emphasis.) Francesco retained overall authority, but Margherita had considerable discretion in her activities, and gained honor and self-esteem from carrying out her duties well.

In his letters to Margherita, Francesco often gives instructions to all the employees about a broad range of household matters, sometimes addressing them by name; about eleven of his 181 letters to her are purely group letters, written not only to Margherita, but to the employees as well. In the same way, many of Margherita's letters made varying degrees of use of the word noi, or "we," rather than io, or "I," with the "we" letters always calling Francesco voi, and the letter's contents indicating that she was writing to the household group. (28) Margherita's letters usually had an earnest tone--whether informative, sympathetic, or angry--whereas Francesco often rather jauntily used aphorisms and quotations. This difference can at least partly be related to Jerome Hayez's observation that proverbs and quotations serve to buttress the authority of the person uttering them, and that Margherita's failure to use them suggests a lack of authority in relation to Francesco. (29)

As time went on, Margherita oversaw a scribal correspondence on behalf of Francesco. Thus, she told Francesco in 1394 that "The quality of my secretary's writing gets worse each day, but he doesn't care because a woman is in charge. You have left me so much to do that it would be too much if I were a man and had the secretary of a lord." (30) Margherita's comment "it would be too much if I were a man" is an example of her pride in being the best sort of woman, while at the same time accepting that women were inferior to men. As for her comment about the secretary or scribe's attitude about writing for a woman, it should be noted that she was here carrying on a conversation with the scribe as well as with Francesco. Her complaint about the scribe's handwriting was a warning to the scribe--who was sitting beside her taking down her words--that if he did not improve, he would hear about it from the ultimate employer, Francesco. (Indeed, her previous letter, written by the same scribe earlier the same day, had been very carelessly done.) The handwriting indicates that the scribe was the young employee Nanni di Luca, called Fattorino: Margherita would have disagreements with him the next year, and perhaps there were already underlying bad feelings between them. In any case (if the scribe were indeed Fattorino), the warning to improve his writing was effective, because subsequent letters Fattorino wrote for Margherita were very competent. (31)

Much of the correspondence that needed the "secretary of a lord" was sent in Francesco's name, and involved Margherita's organizing the recopying of rough drafts as much as organizing the composing of original letters. (32) However, just over 110 letters to and from Margherita herself survive, in addition to the correspondence with Francesco and in addition to a number of letters addressed to both Francesco and Margherita. This personal correspondence includes eighteen letters from her and ninety-six letters to her (keeping in mind that the latter were much more likely to have been preserved than the former). (33) Taking these letters together, because of a similar mix of correspondents there are fifty-one to and from the domestic circle of friendly business associates, employees, and their wives; thirty-one to and from close relatives; and twenty-one from social contacts met through Francesco; the rest are too hard to classify. Forty-seven of these letters are to or from women, both friends and employees. The preservation of so many relatively unimportant letters by relatively unimportant women, aimed at keeping in touch or dealing with minor practical matters, is evidence of the exceptionally full nature of the Datini archive and is also evidence of an active correspondence among women, whether or not they could write in their own hand. One would never know that such a correspondence existed among women from the large Strozzi collection in the Archivio di stato in Florence, because there letters considered insignificant were culled by the successive generations of Strozzi that collected the manuscripts. (34)

About twenty of Margherita's letters are to and from the wives of Florentine patrician men whom Francesco was cultivating as social contacts and allies. According to Hayez, three of these letters were actually composed by Francesco in Margherita's name, probably because Francesco wanted the letters written in a style that would appeal to the husbands. (35) From one point of view, Francesco's control over these letters is a sign of the subordination of Margherita's social life to her husband; on the other hand, Margherita indeed acted in the events described in the letters Francesco drafted. These and other letters in the Datini sources show women to have been expected to participate in social networks outside the kinship sphere, serving an important function in lubricating social and even economic relations (although in environments that did not put honor at risk). (36)

Although Margherita corresponded with a range of women, her most important correspondent (besides Francesco and her own immediate relatives) was a man, ser Lapo Mazzei, with two of her letters to him remaining and twelve of his to her. Ser Lapo, a notary who carried out legal business for Francesco, also acted as friend and advisor, mediating between the couple and telling them that God had given them to each other so they had better make the best of it. (37) While, as Trexler notes, the friendship between Francesco and ser Lapo had a utilitarian aspect, it went beyond utility. (38) Ser Lapo was extremely religious and relished the role of religious counselor, trying to raise Francesco from a rather low spiritual level and encouraging Margherita to develop greater patience in this life by concentrating on the next.

In spite of his piety, ser Lapo was deeply involved in worldly affairs through his career and through his many contacts, and he praised Margherita for her talents even while encouraging her to live a life of prayer. A letter Margherita dictated and sent to ser Lapo in 1394 (which no longer survives) received particular attention because of its semi-political implications. Francesco was trying to gain the support of the influential Florentine, Guido del Palagio, as part of Francesco's quest for tax relief in Florence, and Margherita sent a letter to ser Lapo, a close friend of Guido's, asking ser Lapo to pass on an invitation to Guido and his wife to visit the Datinis in Prato. The reaction to Margherita's polite and gracious letter shows her reputation for good composition. It also indicates that Francesco and ser Lapo were aware of her pleasure at hearing her dictation praised. The year 1394 was a good one in the Datinis' relationship and Francesco showed himself more willing than usual to compliment her. As for ser Lapo, in praising Margherita he also cemented his ties to Francesco, which he valued.

Margherita in Prato sent the letter to Francesco in Florence so that the letter could be delivered to ser Lapo. Margherita's sister Francesca, who lived in Florence, was at Francesco's when the letter to ser Lapo arrived. Francesco reported "Francesca complained because I would not open the letter so that she could see whether you are as good at dictation as I have led them to believe. You would do well, when you can, to do one for her, so as to say 'I am not a country bumpkin just because I am staying in the countryside away from Florence.'" (39) Ser Lapo described the reception of the letter when it arrived at his house, while he was at the dinner table: "And monna Tessa my wife was there. Between my laughter and my delight, I was so transformed that my wife was consumed by the wish to hear what you had written and, after I read it to her, she was amazed at the talent God has given you. And I went immediately to Guido and put it in his hand, as that seemed the most affectionate way to recommend your and my Francesco to him." (40) Margherita wanted to do more than dictate good letters, and soon after this episode she began working to improve her reading and writing skills.


There were a few highly educated women, experts at humanist Latin, in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, but they were the daughters of nobles or of learned men, not members of the mercantile patriciate. (41) Ordinary women were more likely to know how to read than write, since reading in this era was taught separately from and before writing, when writing was taught at all. (Margherita, perhaps unusually, apparently read no better than she wrote until the 1390s.) (42) Although conservative moralists worried that female readers would read scandalous literature and that female writers would write illicit love letters, in practice most people accepted women's reading and writing without criticism, and even admired it. What limited women's skills more than moral opposition was the idea that reading and writing had no practical purpose for the housewife and mother. However, even conservatives came to recognize reading's merits for devotional purposes, and the Datini correspondence indicates that the ability to read, while not universal, was reasonably widespread in their circle. (43)

Female reading specifically mentioned in the Datini sources, aside from letters, was limited to the psalter for children's instruction and the Book of the Hours, referred to as The Book of Our Lady, the Little Book of Our Lady, or Book of the Office of the Virgin. The Book of Our Lady served both educational and devotional purposes. Thus, when Margherita's niece Tina (Caterina) had finished the psalter, Margherita mentions that the girl would need an Office of the Virgin to read next, one with clear lettering. Margherita also mentions that the Book of Our Lady that the Datinis gave her sister Francesca should have good lettering, easy legibility being particularly important for those with imperfect reading abilities. (44) In 1395, Margherita received her own fine copy after having used borrowed copies, including one from a woman friend. Ser Lapo, instrumental in obtaining the book, wanted her to have a fine cover made for it to honor the Virgin, just as she would have a fine gown made for herself, showing an attitude that has led some to see Books of Hours as valuable objects more than as reading matter. However, there is no doubt that Margherita used it to say the Hours and for reading practice, sometimes reading by candlelight. (45)

Because Margherita was trying to improve her reading, but had not yet progressed very far, ser Lapo used legible printing in his letter to Margherita about the book cover. She wanted to read not only books, but also letters, which until that point had been read aloud to her. A comment by a business partner of Francesco's provides insight into how she practiced: "As for what you say about monna Margherita learning to read: you say that she knows how to read well the little book of the Office of Our Lady, and that recently she tried to read one of my letters and could not do it. I don't marvel at it: it's like a priest who cannot say Mass except from his own book. If she wants to learn to read merchant letters tell her that she must study a month to do it like she has studied six months in her book." (46)

Domenico di Cambio had particularly clear handwriting, probably the reason Margherita had started with his letters when she decided to learn to read letters. As time passed, Margherita went on to harder hands, which included Francesco's when he was not being careful. Going from books to letters involved not only the ability to deal with the personal idiosyncrasies of letter writers but also the ability to read different scripts. (47) In this era before printing, books were written in Gothic lettering, whereas letters in the Datini circle were mostly written in the mercantile script. (48) Francesco helped Margherita interpret his letters by having clerks recopy those he had scribbled in his own hand, although he could not always do so. One time he wrote "I have added another page to the end of this letter, written carelessly, and since Nanni is not here I cannot have him copy it. Read it as best you can." Elsewhere, Margherita told him "If you want to write me about this [confidential] matter, please have Guido do it because I can read his writing easily." (49) Here it should be mentioned that men had trouble with bad handwriting too. One time ser Lapo apologized to Francesco for a letter he had written with his son perched on his knee, and said that if Francesco could not read it, he should have one of the clerks do it for him, the assumption here being that Francesco might not want to spend time deciphering it. (50)

Francesco found Margherita's ability to read useful, but, he nonetheless warned her sententiously against becoming too enthusiastic: "Provide for the family in a way that does you honor and do not spend so much time reading that you do the other things badly; organize other things well and when you have finished you can read as much as you want." (51) While there is no evidence that Margherita in later years read any books beyond the Book of Our Lady, it is not unlikely that she looked into some of the vernacular literary and religious books that Francesco bought over the years, mostly on ser Lapo's advice. Ser Lapo mentioned a book of the writings of Saint Francis that he had lent to the Datinis in terms of Margherita having put it away in a storage chest rather than in terms of her reading it: he wanted it back for his children because it was easy reading. However, Margherita would at least have had contact with it and, given her religious proclivities, she might even have read it. (52)

Francesco was impressed, within limits, by Margherita's ability to read books and letters. He took less interest in her autograph writing, judging by his failure to mention it to her.


Margherita's recently rediscovered letter from 1388 leaves much room for improvement: it is nearly illegible, with meandering lines, sometimes squeezed together and sometimes far apart, demonstrating a poor grasp of word placement on the page (fig. 1). Some of the blotches on the page come from damage over time, but most are Margherita's own inkblots. This letter makes clear why writing was considered a mechanical rather than an intellectual skill: in addition to forming characters, writing involved cutting the quill pen, mixing the ink, applying the ink evenly, and placing the words on the page in an ordered fashion. (53)


Margherita's letter of 1388, written a few months after the birth of Francesco's first illegitimate child, is perhaps a little more open about her feelings of being neglected and unappreciated than are other letters. Nonetheless, no unusual circumstance seems to have prompted it, nor was the content particularly unusual, making it quite likely that Margherita wrote other autograph letters in the 1380s and early 1390s, though none have been preserved. There are a few suggestive comments: in 1384 she enclosed two letters to her mother Dianora in a letter to Francesco, saying "Give them to monna Beatrice [to deliver] and tell her to take good care of them; I would not have the heart to redo them in a year," which may indicate more effort than required for a dictated letter, or may only refer to the delicate phraseology needed for dealing with her difficult mother. Another time, in 1394, Margherita told Francesco "This morning ... I sent you a letter in Stoldo's hand and two in my hand," although she was probably using hand loosely, to describe letters she dictated. (54) In an interesting passage from 1393, Margherita's brother-in-law Niccolo told Francesco that Margherita's sister Francesca could not write: "We received your letter ... and the letter Margherita sent Francesca, and since Francesca does not know how to write, it is up to me, Niccolo, to take up the shield and answer for her." The wording raises the possibility that Niccolo was implicitly contrasting Francesca with Margherita, whom he knew could write. On the other hand, he may only have been demonstrating husbandly devotion, perhaps setting himself off from Francesco, because he goes on to say that he helps his wife in all matters, as he is pleased to do. (55)

Both Margherita's letter of 1388--with its extremely poor handwriting, poor word placement, and poor organization--and Francesca's inability to write letters should be put in the context of their mother's letter writing. Three of their mother Dianora Bandini's thirteen extant letters from the 1380s are almost certainly autograph and, while not highly literate, they are superior to Margherita's effort (fig. 2). Evidence that they are autograph comes from the reverse side of the letter in fig. 2, where Dianora comments on her bad handwriting while at the same time indicating that she could read well. Further evidence comes from her explanation in a later scribal letter that she could no longer write herself because of problems with her hands, punishment she claimed, partly jokingly, "for her sins." (56) Given her skills, why did Dianora not do a better job of teaching her daughters or providing them with teachers? Elite girls rarely went to school in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and were taught at home by relatives or tutors, including their mother, if she was able. The explanation of Margherita and Francesca's lack of expertise is probably that Dianora taught them at an elementary level when they were children but, married at sixteen, they went no further, or even regressed. There are degrees of reading and writing knowledge, and Margherita--and, even more so, Francesca--was at the lower end of this range. (57) Margherita, however, aspired to full literacy.



Full literacy is the ability to read and write well, which, in Margherita's case, meant to read and write at the merchant level. A passage Margherita wrote in September 1395, a few months before she embarked seriously on writing, shows the limitations of having someone else write one's letters. Francesco had complained that he had received no details about what was happening in Prato, and Margherita replied that she had a writer available to her only in the evenings, and that there were so many other things to do in the evenings that it was hard to fit in writing long letters. She remarks: "If I knew how to write, I would do as you say, because, like you, I could write at all hours of the day." (58) This comment demands explanation, because the earlier letter shows that she did indeed know how to write to some level. What she probably meant to write was, "if I knew how to write with some ease and competence." Both the Strozzi and Datini sources call preparing boys to write letters at the merchant level "teaching them to write," although the boys were already partially literate, having learned the basics earlier in childhood. In a letter written at the time the apprentice Simone was already penning Margherita's letters for her, Francesco comments: "I am pleased that Simone has learned and is learning to write." (59) Alessandra Strozzi writes about her youngest son Matteo, aged eleven, who was preparing to go to work in a merchant company abroad: "I have taken him out of abacus (arithmetic) school and he is learning to write." Matteo explains to his brother, in a letter he wrote himself, "I have been going to a teacher who is teaching me to write, because until now I have been writing at home, and I realize that I am not forming my letters well." (60) From this viewpoint, knowing how to write implied good penmanship, good placement of words on the page, and good composition.

Although Margherita chose to pen her own letters in order to avoid depending on scribes in transmitting to Francesco the news he demanded, this is not the whole answer, because she would later return to using scribes. What were her other reasons for learning to write? One can speculate about possible motivations based on a thorough reading of the Datini correspondence. The letters show her as wanting to be respected for her competence. They show her as proud of a social background superior to Francesco's, but at a disadvantage to her husband in other ways, particularly in her inability to produce the heir he so desired, but also because of her birth family's continual need for his financial help, and because of expectations arising from age and gender. In self-defense, it can be surmised, Margherita strove to be an efficient and intellectually competent woman. In any case, for a time she apparently found letter writing an interesting challenge.

All references to Margherita's learning to write well come from ser Lapo's letters from 1396, since Francesco never mentions it in surviving letters. In April 1396, ser Lapo commented to Margherita that he had been told how well she had learned to write, which was a marvel at her age, when others were forgetting what they knew rather than learning new things. (Margherita was thirty-six at this point.) In letters of September and December, Lapo asks Francesco to have Margherita write to him so that he can see how her writing is progressing. (61)

When Margherita began to write autograph letters in 1395-96, she overcame the poor style of her letter of 1388. Although experts have authenticated the earlier letter as autograph based on its overall attributes, she began to form several of her characters differently. (62) Contrary to Iris Origo's view, ser Lapo Mazzei almost certainly was not her teacher. (63) Origo's opinion probably grew out of Lapo's comment in a letter to Francesco that: "I pardon my student [Margherita], whom I taught, for not answering my letter, since I know she is busy with preparations for Christmas." (64) This remark can easily be taken to mean that ser Lapo had a role in teaching Margherita to write. However, he also called Francesco his student in religious matters, and putting his phrase in this context makes it likely that he was thinking of Margherita as his student in religion. (65)

A perusal of the Datini correspondence shows that Margherita and ser Lapo spent very little time together, not enough for him to teach her to write. While he could have given her a list of characters to practice copying, he probably did not, since ser Lapo wrote in the handwriting of notaries (fig. 3), while Margherita's script was in the merchant style, rounded, with broad letters. (Fig. 4 shows the first of the twenty autograph letters Margherita wrote in 1399 and fig. 5 shows the last of her 1399 autograph letters.) (66) To cast further doubt on Lapo's role in teaching Margherita: Lapo teasingly asked Francesco whether Margherita had chosen to write in the style of a nun, or a hermit (that is, in a Gothic script), or in another style, suggesting that he did not know which she had chosen. (67) Nor, comparing handwritings, did Margherita model her lettering directly on those of Francesco or his clerks. It is more likely, therefore, that she used one of the lists of characters readily available for teaching young clerks. (68) All in all, it can be supposed that Margherita reached full literacy through practice and by building on what she already knew, rather than by learning through formal lessons from ser Lapo or anyone else.



Knowing how to write better letters did not mean that Margherita gave up using scribes. There are no surviving autograph letters by her from 1396 to February 1399, twenty from 1399, and only one autograph letter after 1399 (from 1402). Examining the circumstances in each of these periods sheds light on Margherita's letter writing: first, why are there no autograph letters from the time ser Lapo was commenting on her writing? Eighty-six scribal letters from Margherita to Francesco remain from 1396 until her autograph letters begin, 1396 to 1399 being one of the most active periods in the correspondence. Circumstances in the period 1396 to 1399 partly discouraged Margherita from writing to Francesco in her own hand. She spent most of her time in Prato, closely involved in household management, and having at her disposal people who could act as her scribes (even if not always as readily as she wanted). Also, her relationship with Francesco was at a low ebb, eliminating any wish to undertake for him what was still a laborious writing process, and eliminating any expectation that he would show interest if she did. (69) In spite of ser Lapo's complaints about her failure to write to him in her own hand, Margherita almost certainly did so a few times, but ser Lapo (like many people) did not keep letters. One time, ser Lapo went so far as to tell Francesco to throw away, once Francesco had read it, a letter ser Lapo had proudly sent to Francesco to demonstrate the writing skill of Lapo's beloved son. (70) The few surviving letters from Francesco to ser Lapo exist because Lapo returned Francesco's original to him with Lapo's own message added as a response. (71)

Margherita's autograph letters from 1399 were all written in Florence. Autograph letters are often more intimate than scribal ones, and Margherita was feeling friendlier toward Francesco while she was away from Prato. In Florence her responsibilities were fewer and Francesco's letters were less carping. (72) Also--and at least as important--she wrote them in the Datini house in Florence, separate from the business, and she had no scribe easily available except for ser Lapo's very young son Peraccino. Soon after Margherita arrived in Florence in February 1399, she sent Francesco a letter penned by Peraccino, and after that she sent only autograph letters to Francesco during the boy's stay. She wrote most of the letters before mid-May, when Francesco joined her, the 1399 correspondence then ceasing except for a short time in November, when they were apart and when she wrote two more letters.

Francesco had taken on the ten-year-old Peraccino as an apprentice in Florence, and since he was so young, and Margherita was in Florence and Francesco in Prato, much of the responsibility for Peraccino fell on her. When Margherita tested Peraccino's skills by having him write a letter to Francesco in her name, he did it in an uncertain, uneven hand, but she told Francesco she would have the boy learn to write well enough for the merchant workplace. (73) The next day, in her first autograph letter, she told Francesco about her young scribe: "He has one thing you will like; he can read well. As far as writing, don't be surprised that he cannot write straight, as he is still learning arithmetic, but he seems to me to be of a condition that he will learn when he is taught, and that will be as soon as you are here." (74) Margherita expected Francesco to do the teaching but, as often happened, Francesco was delayed and the teaching fell to her. Peraccino mostly spent his days with Margherita in the Datini house and not at the Datini business. A couple of times, Margherita called Peraccino her collettere, or co-letter writer, thus noting that, while she wrote to Francesco herself, she and Peraccino collaborated on other letters. (75) Ser Lapo commented that Francesco could see by looking at the boy's letters the useful habits that practice with Margherita was establishing. (76) It is very likely that instructing Peraccino inspired Margherita to exercise her own skills.

Margherita's autograph letters show improvement over time. Margherita wrote in a decided hand from the beginning--the ink dark, the letters upright--but for several months her writing lacked fluidity, suggesting that she pressed down very hard with the pen, and wrote slowly and laboriously; however, writing became easier for her over the months, and the words in her letter of 4 November flow smoothly (fig. 5). She had trouble, perhaps more than average, in creating straight lines; her spacing of lines and margins in the nine letters from February until early April is crooked, but improves thereafter. She uses some of the abbreviations that were part of writing conventions, but only started using capitals after her first five letters. Throughout the series, her spelling remains more dialectical and phonetic than the men's, even though the men also wrote in the Tuscan Italian of the era. (77) She uses no punctuation at the end of her sentences, but neither does Francesco. Others use the slash (virgule or solidus) to end a sentence and even at every breathing space; only ser Lapo sometimes uses periods as well as slashes.

As for form, it is apparent that Margherita was making an effort day-by-day to follow merchant standards more closely. (78) Medieval theorists attempted to discuss merchant letter writing as a variant of the ars dictaminis, or medieval art of letter writing, but their approaches were too different to make this enlightening. (79) Ars dictaminis letters were not normally dated, but Margherita, following the merchant tradition, wrote at the top of the page "In the name of God," followed by the month, day, and year. (80) The use of exact dating by merchants reflected a desire to keep precise track of their correspondence, as well as a special interest in numbers and time compared to other social groups, and Margherita shared in this outlook. (81) Significantly, the Datinis' friend ser Lapo, a well-educated and somewhat literary man (but not a merchant), often fails to date his letters, probably seeing it as less formal and friendlier.


Like those around her, Margherita often skips the salutation--one of the most important aspects of the ars dictaminis, which gave particular attention to the relative social status of writer and recipient. Omitting the salutation was customary among people who corresponded often in the comparatively egalitarian merchant world. It was also a sign of intimacy, judging by the first letter ser Lapo wrote to Margherita, in which he explains the lack of salutation and lack of declaration of goodwill (the exordium) by saying "I write the above in the domestic style, because I have decided to ... leave aside the prefaces and prologues that are used among strangers." (82) As a notary, Lapo was well informed about the conventions of letter writing, but sometimes chose not to use them.

Instead of a salutation, Margherita, like the men, begins by mentioning the letters she has recently sent and received, and she also ends the letters with the customary Idio ti[vi] guardi or a variant. However, other aspects of her autograph letters were, in the early months, much less effective than the men's, indicating that her scribes had improved the form of her letters, even if they had taken down her words as she spoke them. The narrative portion of merchant letters normally cover the subjects mentioned in letters received, as well as adding any new subjects, in both cases using separate paragraphs for separate points. Margherita's first letters were not divided into paragraphs; then, in April, she began to indicate paragraphs. However, upon carefully reading the images of the handwritten text of the eight letters from 7 April through 3 May, rather than judging only by their appearance, it becomes obvious that she was often dividing her paragraphs inaccurately. Margherita knew that, according to merchant conventions, a paragraph normally began with a large letter written to the left of the text. However, she did not understand the paragraph's relation to meaning, and she placed the large left-margin letters in the middle of an idea and even in the middle of a sentence. (83) In her letter of 6 May she uses paragraphs correctly, backsliding on 7 May; and then, in her three remaining letters from 8 May, and 2-4 November, her paragraphs are correct according to merchant expectations. (84) To sum up, Margherita's struggle with paragraphs in 1399 indicates she was striving to learn a correct writing style, and that she eventually did.

Her first eight autograph letters, until mid-April, are short. One reason, she explains in a letter written in February, was that she expected Francesco to arrive any day and she could inform him about the news in person. By April it was clear he had been delayed and he complained that she was not telling him enough, although he had given her a scribe (albeit an inadequate one) Perracino. (85) Probably because of this comment, as well as because of her increasing facility, her letters became longer. Francesco's complaint reveals a lack of interest in whether Margherita wrote in her own hand or used a scribe, so long as she provided him information. His attitude probably reflects his general unwillingness to praise her, rather than outright hostility to her writing. As Diana Toccafondi comments about the Datini correspondence, "The sensation that ... the reader takes away is that ... of a dialog between two illiteracies: ... on Margherita's part illiteracy (or partial literacy) accompanied by an extreme intelligence of emotion and values, on Francesco's part a refined control ... of writing accompanied by ... emotional illiteracy." (86)

Ser Lapo sent Peraccino back to school early in 1400, and Margherita wrote one scribal letter to Francesco before the couple went together to Bologna for the year in order to escape the plague. (87) After they returned, Margherita penned her last surviving autograph letter in 1402, written poorly, with the lines crooked on the page--whether because she had lost the knack of writing or, probably, because she was lying in bed. She explains that she is writing while sick in bed, with no one in the house to write for her, and that she does not feel up to sending out for a scribe. (88) Her comment implies that she expected to use a scribe when possible. Similarly, in early 1403 Margherita explained to Francesco that she had not written because each time she had sent to her brother-in-law Niccolo's house for him to come and write for her he had not been at home. (89)

Autograph letter writing had taken effort and she apparently no longer cared to make the effort. She had achieved what she needed to achieve. Peraccino, practicing letter writing himself, had perhaps stimulated her, making her want to pen letters, and he was only with her for a year. Also, Margherita and Francesco had reached an equilibrium, and spent most of their time together in Prato as they aged, although the spark, which had sometimes been there between them earlier, seems to have disappeared. When they were apart, scribes were often available; much of what Margherita needed to discuss was impersonal household or business matters; and her health, as always, was poor. Nonetheless, her improved literacy still had an impact on her life, because Margherita, when in Florence, read letters as they arrived, in order to decide what needed to be sent on immediately to Francesco in Prato. (90)


To conclude, how does Margherita Datini's letter writing compare with that of other women and men of the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? This question raises issues of dictation, autograph writing, and motivation.

Margherita Datini dictated most of her letters, but in this she was following a common pattern in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Sometimes people dictated letters because they were illiterate or partially literate: this included many nobles as well as women, although fewer of either by the sixteenth century. Literate people in governing families dictated letters because they had wide-ranging and burdensome correspondences, but they would occasionally write in their own hands when the personal touch was required. (91) Merchants were a different case, because writing formed an important part of their professional expertise, and they penned numerous important personal or semi-personal letters with their own hands, although they used clerks for routine letters.

Dictating a good letter demands skill in mental composition, provided either by the scribe or by the author, and Margherita Datini valued her ability at mental composition, with her dictated letters having an open, informal tone. Although this spontaneity partly results from Margherita's personality, it can also be seen in dictated and autograph letters from Margherita's mother, Dianora Bandini, and from Alessandra Strozzi. It probably reflects the close relationship between spoken and written expression in the merchant world, and contrasts with the more reticent and conventional ars dictaminal-influenced letters that were standard in ruling families in Italy and among the Englishwomen whose correspondence has been the best-studied of any fifteenth-century female correspondence outside Italy. (92)

Florentine women letter writers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had received at most an elementary education, whether they dictated or wrote autograph letters. The few learned Italian women, enthusiasts of humanist studies, were the daughters of nobles or of learned men, rather than members of the mercantile patriciate, to which, broadly speaking, Margherita, her sister Francesca, and her mother Dianora belonged. Even Lucrezia de' Medici, the mother of Lorenzo de' Medici and a woman of intellectual interests, wrote in an unpracticed hand. Her daughters and granddaughters were fluent in vernacular writing--a sign of increasing female literacy as the fifteenth century ended--but these girls were not taught Latin, as their brothers were. (93) Margherita's literate mother Dianora had given her daughters elementary education before they married at sixteen, but as young adults Dianora's daughters were only partially literate, with Margherita's skills better developed than her sister Francesca's.

Although they possessed little formal education, some Florentine and Tuscan women wrote long and detailed letters. The question is why they made the effort to do so. One answer is that women who persevered with writing after early childhood were women who had an incentive to communicate in writing, and who did it in their own hand because it was more intimate or because scribes were difficult to find. (94) It is quite likely that the widowed Alessandra Strozzi, who sent so many autograph letters to her absent sons, improved her skills through practice over time because she wanted to keep in touch personally. (95) Dianora Bandini, also a widow, wanted to communicate between Avignon, where she lived, and Italy, writing to her two merchant sons, and to her two daughters and their husbands. On the other hand, Dianora's daughter Francesca was almost always in the company of her husband, Niccolo, a prolific letter writer, so she had no practical motivation to write. Similarly, of Lucrezia Tornabuoni de' Medici's thirty-nine surviving letters, only six rather short family letters are autograph, because she was never separated from family long enough to improve her writing or to see the need to write long informative letters: she was also surrounded by scribes. (96) Margherita Datini, unlike her sister Francesca, was often apart from a husband who expected frequent written reports from her.

In learning to write literate letters, Margherita built upon years of dictating letters in which she detailed her activities and those of her household. The high point of Margherita's autograph writing came during the extended stay of ser Lapo's son Peraccino, who was just learning to write letters. Taking the boy's progress as a challenge, she made a concerted effort to improve her skills little by little while he was there. Furthermore, good autograph writing seemed an attainable goal because she had for years watched young employees improve with practice: perhaps she was motivated by the belief that she could do as well as these boys. Perhaps personal reasons, and particularly her infertility, also contributed to her desire to excel in areas outside a woman's usual sphere. In any case, she had long prided herself on intellectual competence, and the inability to write well had been a failure of intellect.

The Datini letters show Margherita living in Francesco's shadow: whether in angry moods or amicable ones, her life revolved around him. Her basic position gave her similarities to the submissive Florentine patrician women whom Klapisch-Zuber describes, except that Margherita was never submissive. (97) She always retained a strong sense of self-respect and autonomy, fighting back in self-defense in response to Francesco's criticism, eager to prove herself to her small world.



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*I wish to express my gratitude to the director of the Archivio di stato di Prato, Diana Toccafondi, and to all the Archivio's staff for their help. In particular, I would like to thank Chiara Marcheschi for her valuable assistance with the transcription and interpretation of difficult passages. I would also like to thank Jane Couchman for her insightful suggestions as I was writing this article. The quoted phrase in the title comes from Margherita's letter of 1 September 1395.

(1) The information throughout this study is taken from letters and account books in the Archivio Datini in the Archivio di stato di Prato (hereafter abbreviated ASPO Datini) and from published editions of these documents, including the letters of Margherita to Francesco Datini (hereafter cited as M. Datini, 1977 and 2002), the letters of Francesco to Margherita Datini (hereafter cited as F. Datini), and the letters of ser Lapo Mazzei (hereafter cited as Mazzei). M. Datini, 2002, is an innovative CD-ROM that includes not only the text of Margherita's letters but also images of the handwritten letters. Reference numbers are included for letters cited in this article only in certain cases: to differentiate multiple letters on the same date, for unpublished archival letters, and for those letters with images on M. Datini, 2002, about which I make important points regarding the handwriting. The best-known secondary work is Origo: although vividly written and based on archival research, its aim is to give an overall picture of the Datini business, family, and household for the general reader. For Francesco's business, see Melis, who includes some personal information; Bensa, 1928. Bensa, 1926, is a short article on Margherita. Hayez, 1997 and 2006, are interesting articles based on the letters in the ASPO Datini. See also Valori; Crabb, 2005b; Byrne and Congdon; Toccafondi. Byrne is also of interest. On Margherita and Francesco's marriage arrangements, see ASPO Datini, vol. 1114: ref. no. 6101225 (Francesco in Avignon to monna Piera di Pratese in Prato, 28 August 1376); Mazzei, 1:xxxiv-xxxvi (proemio). General background on the Datinis can be found in Guasti's introduction (proemio) to Mazzei.

(2) Fifty-seven of Francesco Datini's account books and eight volumes of letters remain in ASPO Datini for the period in Avignon--from 1363 to the end of 1382, when the Datinis returned to Italy--allowing a detailed reconstruction of Francesco's early career. The most accessible description of Francesco's business in Avignon is Origo, 3-33; see also Melis, 135-72; Mazzei, 1:xxiii-xxxix (proemio). The quotation is taken from the title of Origo.

(3) Margherita's "pains" (doglie) are frequently and openly mentioned by the Datini circle, including Monte Angiolini, Niccolo dell'Ammannato, Nanni di Luca (Fattorino), Barzalone di Spediliere, as well as by Margherita and Francesco themselves, see ASPO Datini, 349.10: 4383; 695.2: 312393; 1103: 133945; 1105: 1500186, 133569; M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (23 August 1389, 3 June 1395, 8 June 1397); F. Datini, 278 (26 January 1402/03). Two letters remain from a doctor, maestro Naddino, who thought he could cure her, see ASPO Datini, 1091: 133438, 133439. Francesco's illegitimate children were born in 1375, 1387, and 1392; for the first two, who lived only a few months, see ASPO Datini, 1091: 133371, 13375, 13377 and 198: 123v, 124v, 166v. Ginevra is mentioned frequently in the Datini correspondence after she came to live with them in 1398.

(4) This is the Casa del Ceppo dei poveri di Francesco di Marco, or charitable institute for the poor, centered in the palazzo Datini, which also houses Francesco's papers in the Archivio di stato di Prato.

(5) There are also 110 letters to and from Margherita, excluding her correspondence with Francesco, as discussed below. Francesco's business letters also often included personal passages.

(6) M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (6 May 1394, 1 September 1395, 6 and 8 May 1399); F. Datini, 113 (5 May 1394), 168 (23 March 1396/97), 194 (6 June 1397), and 265 (8 May 1399). Note that the Florentine and Pratese calendar changed to the new year on March 25. In the notes, following the practice of the Archivio di stato, I will give both the Florentine and modern years for the documents; in the text I will use modern dating.

(7) ASPO Datini, 347.7: 4011 (Francesco to Monte d'Andrea Angiolini, 13 March 1384/85): "Dite a Margherita che, nonostante ella sia come sia e parli chi vuole parlare, io non ho intenzione ne di andare ne di restare in nessun luogo, dove ella non sia con me; e, parli chi vuole parlare, non mi sembra di essere uomo senza di lei.... mi sembra di essere stato 100 anni senza lei; non mi aiutera piu e che guadagni 1,000 fiorini, se ella non diventera superba."

(8) See ibid., 10891: 3302781 (20 February 1387/88): "ma s'io ... avese podere sopra a te chome tu a sopra a me to darei uno manolvadore"; M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (31 March 1387): "ma tue a (a) chomandare ed io sempre per ubidire"; (27 August, 1389): "puoi fare quel che tti piacie, chome singniore ch'e un bello uficio, ma volsi usare chon discrezione." For her comments suggesting the inferiority of her own sex, see M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (20, 23, and 28 January 1385/86, and 15 April 1394). Margherita defends her sex from men's criticisms in her letter of 12 September 1402.

(9) Margherita and Francesco never mention the birth of the illegitimate babies in their letters to each other. For the illegitimate baby born in 1387, who died several months later, see Francesco's account book, ASPO Datini, 199: 14r, 72, 73v, 74v, 123v, 124, 166v. For Ginevra being taken to her wetnurse as a baby, in November 1392, see Francesco's letters to Stoldo di Lorenzo, ASPO Datini, 697: 109144 (17 November 1392) and to Manno degli Albizzi, ASPO Datini, 543: 400421r and 400429r (18 November 1392 and 24 November 1392). For Margherita's later affection for Ginevra, see especially, M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (1 December 1398). Margherita mentions the Datini's lack of legitimate children and hints at the regret and bitterness it caused in only two letters, M. Datini 1977 and 2002 (23 January 1394/95 and 18 May 1402). Ser Lapo Mazzei speculates that Francesco strove to memorialize himself through building his palace and villa because he lacked heirs to carry on his memory in the more usual way, see Mazzei, 1:25 (25 April 1392).

(10) On partial literacy, see Cressy; Thomas; Spufford.

(11) On teaching and learning reading before writing, see Strocchia; Cressy; Spufford; Thomas.

(12) See n. 43 below.

(13) Origo, 227-28, argues for 1396 as the year Margherita learned to read and write. Hayez found the misplaced letter, dated 20 February 1387/88, in the ASPO's Casa del Ceppo collection: it is now in ASPO Datini, 10891: 3302781. Paleographer Armando Petrucci has authenticated it as being in Margherita's hand, and both Petrucci himself and the director of the Archivio di stato di Prato have conveyed this information to this writer by personal communication.

(14) For Margherita's mother's literacy, see ASPO Datini, 1092: 6000153v (5 October 1383) and 302454.1v (7 June 1385).

(15) For the standard medieval practice of dictation, with a growing trend toward autograph writing, see Petrucci, 1995b.

(16) M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (17 March 1398/99): "non mi mandate piu lettere se no' lie iscrive Guido, perche lo scritore non n'e troppo buono e perche 'l dettatore e piggiore"; Tomas, 2003, 48, 71 (Ginevra Alessandri to Barbara of Brandenberg, 3 March 1465/66, from the original in the Archivio di Stato di Mantua, Gonzaga 1085, 58): "Io so male scrivere e peggio dectare."

(17) On the ars dictaminis, see Murphy; Camargo; Henderson.

(18) Petrucci, 1993; Cardini; Plebani; Daybell, 2001.

(19) On the number of autograph letters Francesco sent to Margherita, see F. Datini, 28. On his having good copies made for her, see ibid., 170.

(20) The issue of women's individual voices in dictated letters is discussed in Women's Letters across Europe, introduction, 3-18; Richardson; Stott; Antenhofer; Broomhall.

(21) See Scott; Zancan, 113-54. Saint Catherine was at best partially literate.

(22) Scott.

(23) For merchant letter writing conventions, see De Blasi, 1985a; Crabb, 2005b.

(24) For Francesco's comment, see F. Datini, 40 (19 January 1385/86). For Margherita's response, see M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (23 January 1385/86): "Voi m'avete ditto per due vostre lettere ... che io non debo avere dettate queste lettere io, ma che lie dee avere dettate Piero di Filippo. Salvo la grazia vostra, mai non mi detto lettere, ne d'egli, ne neuno; voi mi tenete un da pocho, ch'io non chredea che io facessi dettare mie lettere a llui. Quando io non avesse Simone, andrei a Niccholo dell'Amanato, che mi parebe piu convenevole che Piero di Filippo, o a Lorenzo: di questi due direi i miei sagretti, e non a piu persona."

(25) F. Datini, 41-44 (22 January 1385/86): I' oe auta tua lettera, e se l'una fue bene dettata, l'altra e via melglo, di che io veggio ora di certto ch'ella fue detta per te, di che o grande piacere d'una partte e d'altra partte o grande dispiacere. E dirotti chome i' oe grande piacere che Idio t'abia data tanta bonta che tue sappi tanto di bene chome a dire simily chose; ma i' oe grande paura che tue no sia preso alla mortte, in pero ch'egl'e un volghare che quando uno fancullo fae o dice chose che a lui sia fuori di forma secondo la sua giovaneza, e l'uomo dice 'di certto questo fancullo no dee a vivere'; chosi, per simile modo, si dice di molte persone. E perche questa lettera e fuori d'una forma da femina giovane chome se' tue, e no llo ai achostumato, dubito che tue vorai fare miracholi preso alla tua mortte."

(26) Margherita uses the salutation in seven of her eight letters from 23 January 1384/85 until 10 January 1385/86 and then stops in her letter of 16 January 1385/86, never starting again. For the scribe writing "monna Margherita says" in letters signed by Margherita, see M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (9 August 1394, 18 March 1394/95, 21 May 1397, 28 August 1397, 23 November 1398, 13 March 1398/99, 6 January 1409/10). For her saying "Io Margherita," see ibid. (23 November 1398). For interventions and postscripts, see ibid. (28 January 1385/86, 21 May 1397, 2 November 1399, 18, 22, and 26 January 1402/03, and 23 February 1402/03). For the letter signed by Guido, but with frequent interventions by Margherita, see ASPO Datini, 1106: 1401395 (26 April 1399) and 1401383 (18 November 1398). For a letter in Margherita's name stating that it was composed by the scribe, see M. Datini, 2002 (21 May 1397).

(27) For the late medieval and early modern wife as subordinate agent--under her husband's authority, but nonetheless with considerable autonomy in acting--see Pollack; Harris.

(28) For Francesco's group letters, see F. Datini, 124-25 (25 May 1394), 126-28 (26 May 1394), 187-88 (13 April 1397), 189 (18 April 1397), 190-92 (21 May 1397), 222-23 (18 April 1398), 223-24 (3 June 1398), 237-38 (20 July 1398), 274 (20 January 1402/03), 285-88 (3 January 1409/10), 295-97 (7 January 1409/10). For Francesco's addressing an employee by name in a non-group letter in order to give him a message, see ibid., 133-34 (15 April 1395) and 151-52 (19 March 1396/97). There are too many noi letters by Margherita to specify them here.

(29) Hayez, 2006, 420-21. Interestingly in this context, Alessandra Strozzi used many proverbs and ironic observations, which can be interpreted as backing up her self-confident authority in the role of mother: see Crabb, 2005b, 38-40.

(30) M. Datini, 2002, 1401751 (15 April 1394): "Del chanceliere mio iscrivo pegio l'un di che l'atro: me ne grava, ma no'si disdicie, perche stane a ghovemamento di femina; ma tu m'ai bene lasciata a fare piu faciende, che s'io fosi uno huomo basterebe, che non ebe mai si fatta faccienda, il chancielere de' Signori."

(31) For the previous letter of April 15, see M. Datini, 2002, 1401750. For letters by Margherita stating they were penned by Fattorino, which can be used for comparison, see M. Datini, 2002 (6 May 1394, 12 August 1395, and 1 September 1395). For Margherita's annoyance with Fattorino the following year, see M. Datini, 2002 (3 and 5 June 1395); F. Datini, 136 (4 June 1395).

(32) M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (12 March 1397/98).

(33) ASPO Datini, vols. 10891 and 10892. Hayez and Simona Brambilla are engaged in a project analyzing the physical characteristics and content of these letters, as well as their social context.

(34) This comment is based on my own investigation, with a special interest in women's letters, of the carte strozziane for the fifteenth century. Crabb, 2005b, 32, n. 27, discusses how Alessandra Strozzi's letters came to be preserved.

(35) Hayez, 2006.

(36) Klapisch-Zuber, 1992, argues that attitudes to women's honor limited the ability of women to associate with unrelated men: see also Klapisch-Zuber 1980a and 1990a. It is evident that Margherita spent time out and about, albeit in activities approved by Francesco. Valori interprets the way in which Margherita and other respectable women controlled their own honor.

(37) Mazzei 1:134 (ser Lapo to Francesco, 9 January 1395/96): "Greetings to monna Margherita: I recommend her to you because she deserves it and also because God has given her to you as your companion" ("Salutaremi monna Margherita: e raccomandovela, perche 'l vale; e anche perche Iddio ve l'ha data per compagna").

(38) Trexler, 131-58.

(39) F. Datini, 104 (10 April 1394): "Molto si duole la Francescha perch'ella no lla apersse, per vedere se tu se' chosi buona dettatora quanto io do loro a 'ntendere. Farai bene, quando puoi, farnele una a tuo modo, chon dirlle 'io non sono villana perch'io in chontado istia.'" The letter under discussion no longer exists.

(40) Mazzei 2:178-79 (ser Lapo to Margherita, 10 April 1394): "e v'era monna Tessa mia donna; ch'io vi prometto che, tra le risa e il diletto, io mi tramutai per modo che la donna si consumava sapere il tenore della scritta ch'io leggeva; e uditala, non si potea ricredere dello ingegno che Dio v'ha dato. E non mi seppi tenere ch'io non andasse allora allora a Guido, e puosigliele in mano; che non mi parve per piu amorevole modo raccomandargli Francesco vostro, e anzi mio."

(41) See Her Immaculate Hand; King, 192-203.

(42) On teaching reading before writing or not teaching writing at all, see Strocchia; Thomas; Cressy; Spufford.

(43) For opinions of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century writers about the proper education of women, see Barbarino, 10, 15, 19; Certaldo, 126-27; Vespasiano. Good modern studies of female education and literacy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with an emphasis on Florence, are Bryce; Miglio, 1989 and 1995; Kapisch-Zuber, 1984; Strocchia. On the literacy of Italian women in general in the Renaissance period, see Grendler; Plebani; D'Amelia; Fantini. Francesco's acccount books indicate that his illegitimate daughter Ginevra had reading lessons in Florence (ASPO Datini, 559: 23v) and probably continued them in Bologna (ASPO Datini, 234: 27). Margherita's mother Dianora could read (ASPO Datini, 1090: 6000153v). Margherita mentions the mother and daughter of one of Francesco's employees as being able to read (M. Datini, 2002, 20 January 1385/86). Ser Lapo's wife could not read: Mazzei 1:60.

(44) M. Datini, 2002 (21 March 1393/94): "Tina has read the psalter; she will be needing a Little Book containing the seven psalms and the Office of the Virgin that has good lettering" ("La Tina ane letto il saltero; arebe di bisogno di qualche libricuolo che vi fose suso i sette salmi e l'ufficio della Donna, ch'avese buona lettera"); ibid. (12 August 1395): "about the matter of the Little Book, do as you wish, but above all make sure that it has good lettering, large and easy to understand" ("del fatto de lo libriciolo fane tuo parere, ma sopra tutto fae ch'abia buone lettere e grandi e intendevoli"); see also ibid. (26 July 1395). Evidence about Francesca's reading can be seen in ibid. (4 June 1395), and limits on it in ASPO Datini, 1105: 133481 (Fattorino to Francesco, 2 April 1398).

(45) On the book, see Mazzei, 1:112-14 (ser Lapo to Francesco, 27, 29, and 30 September 1395); ibid., 2:181, 185 (ser Lapo to Margherita, 13 November 1395 and 31 July 1396); M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (13 August 1395, and 22 and 23 May 1397); ASPO Datini, 1105: 133603 (Fattorino to Francesco, 14 October 1396). Many Books of Hours (Little Books of Our Lady) were in Latin, but it seems likely that the ones in the Datini sources were in Italian, given their use in teaching reading to Margherita and Tina. Bec does not count Books of the Virgin as books in his survey of books owned by Florentines because he considers them to be precious objects rather than reading material. Bryce, 140-42, disputes Bec's view; see also Plebani, 38-39.

(46) ASPO Datini, 335: 6000491 (Domenico di Cambio to Francesco, 21 October 1396): "A la parte chedite che monna margherita apara alegere e dite chella sa bene legere ilibriciuolo deluficio della donna / eche a questidi ella s' abatte auna mia lettera e nolla seppe legere / ionomene maraviglo punto chella sia di quella ischiatta del prete chenosapea dire luficio seno cholsuo libro chosi fara monna margherita chenosapra mai bene legiere se none nel suo libro ma sella vogla daparare alegere le lettere di merchatanti ditele chella istudi uno mese alegere chomella istudiato nel libro suo que' VI mesi."

(47) On the ability, or lack of it, to read different scripts, see Thomas, 99-100; Daybell, 2005, 148.

(48) See Brown, 88-89, 122, for Gothic book hand; ibid., 126-27, for the introduction of the humanist Italic script, which had not, however, begun to replace Gothic textura in the fourteenth century. Petrucci, 1995c, 169-200, discusses the evolution of different kinds of writings and books in Italy, including the merchant script, mercantesca.

(49) F. Datini, 170 (31 March 1397): "Con questo sara uno foglio che segue questa lettera e per non tenere piu Nanni non si puo chopiare: legetelo tanto che voi lo' ntendiate"; M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (6 May 1399): "Se tu mi rispondi nulla di questo fatto, famelo ischrivere a Ghluido, perche lla lego molto bene."

(50) Mazzei 1:76 (ser Lapo to Francesco, 12 October 1394).

(51) F. Datini, 135 (2 June 1395): "Provedi alla famiglia per modo ti sia honore, e none attendere tanto a lleggere che tue faccia male tutte l'altre chose; dae ordine all'altre chose per modo vadano bene, e poscia puoi leggere quanto vuoi."

(52) Mazzei, 1:223-24 (ser Lapo to Francesco, 30 October s.a. [1399]). Melis, 92-93, summarizes evidence of the books Francesco owned or was acquainted with.

(53) Thomas, 100. For correct writing style and word placement in merchant letters, see Crabb, 2005b, 34-38.

(54) M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (23 February 1384/85): "Chon questa arette due lettere che vanno a monna Dianora: datele a monna Biatrice e ditele di fare buona guardia, che no'mi direbe il cuore di rifala in un ano"; ibid. (22 January 1394/95): "Istamani per lo fratello di Nanni da Santa Chiara vi mandamo una lettera di mano di Stoldo e due di mia mano."

(55) ASPO Datini, 1103: 134011 (Niccolo dell'Amanato Tecchini to Francesco, 24 January 1392/93): "una vostra lettera ricievemmo e ... lla lettera manda la margherita alla francescha ella francescha nonsa scriver pero mi conviene a me niccholo pilgiare lo schudo per lei affare la risposta e non pure di questo pilglio lo scudo per lei mae mi conviene pigliare lo schudo per lei d'ogni cosa e chosi' sono disposto a ffare."

(56) Ibid., 1092: 6000153 (Dianora Bandini to Francesco and Margherita, 5 October 1383): "I know very well how to read your letter using glasses, but I doubt, if God does not give you the grace that he gave to the Apostles, that you will be able to read this one" ("Io so be' legere la letera tua aoperado li occhiali, ma dubito, se dIdio no ti fa quela grazia che fece agli apostoli, tue non saper legere questa"); ibid., 302454.1v (Dianora to Francesco, 7 June 1385): "Give Margherita my blessings and tell her that if I had the strength in my hands I would write her in my own hand: but I cannot, I think because of my sins" ("La Margherita mi benedi' e dille s'io aro mai la forza nelle mani ch'io le scrivero di mia mano: ma no posso, credo sia per pechati miei"). These two, and eleven other, letters by Dianora are found in ASPO Datini, 1092 and one is found in 10892. The three autograph letters are from 23 April 1383 (6000158), 5 October 1383 (6000153), and 14 August 1384 (6000155). She apparently wrote no autograph letters after 1384. She died in 1388.

(57) On the range of reading and writing levels, see Thomas, 99-104; Daybell, 2005, 145-46. For a discussion about whether Alessandra Strozzi's daughters could write, addressing similar questions, see Crabb, 2005b, 31-33. Hayez, 2006, 450, points out the likelihood of regression when writing is infrequent or intermittent.

(58) M. Datini, 2002 (1 September 1395): "Se io sapesi iscrivere farei quello che ttu di ch'i' 6 gia ripreso te perche farei il di a tutte l'ore."

(59) F. Datini, 40 (22 January 1385/86): "E molto mi piace che Simone abia imparato e inpari a scrivere."

(60) Strozzi, 6 (Alessandra Strozzi to Filippo Strozzi, 24 August 1447): "Hollo levato dall'abbaco, e appara a scrivere"; ibid., 24 (Matteo Strozzi to Filippo Strozzi, 29 March 1448): "E in questi di mi porro con uno maestro che insegna iscrivere, che insino a ora sono istato a scrivere in casa, e veggo che non piglio buona forma di lettera." See also Crabb, 2000, 104-05, 110, 115.

(61) Mazzei, 2:183 (ser Lapo to Margherita, 8 April 1396): "he has told me how well you have learned [to write], which is a marvel at your age, when other women are forgetting what they knew" ("m'e detto ch'avete cosi bene apparato, che e una maravigla nella etade che siete, nella quale l'altre sogliono dimenticare"); ibid., 1:154 (ser Lapo to Francesco, 22 September 1396): "I have been eager for a letter from monna Margherita in order to know how she is progressing" ("Bene ho astettato qualche lettera da monna Margherita per sapere de' suoi processi"); ibid., 159 (4 December 1396): "Tell monna Margherita that I will never write her anything more if she does not write something to me; I want to know how well she has learned to write, and if she writes like a nun or a hermit or a religious zealot or rather like an ordinary woman" ("Dite a monna Margherita che mai no le scrivero piu nulla, s'ella non iscrive a me qualche cosa; ch'io voglio sapere com'elle e saccente nella scritture, e' se 'l suo fia dettato di monaca o di romita o di spigolistra, o pur di comune donna").

(62) See n. 13 above.

(63) Origo, 227.

(64) For ser Lapo's calling Margherita his pupil, see Mazzei, 1:163 (December 1396): "Io perdono alla discepola mia, a cui ho insegnato, s'ella non mi risponde, poi che mi fate fede ch'ella e sotto la pasqua in tanti viluppi."

(65) For Lapo (somewhat humorously) calling Francesco his discepolo, see his letter in Mazzei, 1:80, s.a. [1394]: "The good teacher [Lapo] is very pleased that his pupil [Francesco] is progressing" ("El buon maestro ha gran diletto che 'l discepolo l'avanzi"). The remark about Margherita is also slightly humorous.

(66) On the merchant script, mercantesca, see Petrucci, 1995b; De Blasi, 1985b; Miglio, 1986; Osley; Grendler, 23-27; Crabb, 2005b. Ogg contains many examples of mercantesca. For the notarial script, see Niccolaj.

(67) Mazzei 2:159. For an example of a nun's letter, see ASPO Datini, 10892: 6000178 (Suora Filippa to Margherita, s.a. [1385]).

(68) For example, M. Datini, 2002, contains in its didactic section a quarderno di esercizi di scittura, or notebook of writing exercises, reproduced from ASPO Datini, 174 (insert 14).

(69) The letters from 1396 through 1398 have an unfriendly tone (more than at other times), with Francesco's many criticisms provoking angry responses from Margherita.

(70) Mazzei, 2:129 (ser Lapo to Francesco, s.a. [1408]).

(71) These letters are in ASPO Datini, 1096.

(72) Margherita and Francesco's 1399 letters are quite congenial compared to those in the years immediately preceding them. She worries about his health and mood, sympathizes about the illness of a friend, and expresses gratitude for his help in dealing with her wayward brother Bartolommeo; Francesco's letters, although matter-of-fact, are mostly uncritical.

(73) M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (18 February 1398/99).

(74) Ibid., (19 February 1398/99): "e' gn'a una chosa che ti piaccia, che gn'e presto e' leggiere. Del non avere ischritto diritto n[on] te ne maravignare che none iscrissi anchora, in percio ch'egni sta anchora all'abacho, ma e' mi pare di chondizione ch'egn'aparera tosto, se gni sara insenato, e chuesto si fara chuande tu sarai qui."

(75) For her use of colletere, see M. Datini, 1977 and 2002 (8 April 1399 and 6 May 1399). In a similar way, forty years later, the widowed Alessandra Strozzi oversaw her youngest son's letter writing practice and had him write miscellaneous letters for her while writing to her other sons herself. See Crabb, 2000, 103-25.

(76) Mazzei 1:218 (ser Lapo to Francesco, 21 February 1398/99). See also M. Datini, 2002 (19 February 1398/99).

(77) For example, she regularly writes the syllable gli as "gni."

(78) Hayez, 1997, basing his analysis on letters in ASPO Datini, presents a comprehensive discussion of the form of merchant letters, including differences from the ars dictaminis and from other letter styles, approaches to dating and to salutations, and other aspects of letter writing, which provide a background to the following paragraphs. See also De Blasi, 1985b; Crabb, 2005b, 32-36.

(79) See Hayez, 1997; De Blasi, 1985b, for the relationship between the ars dictaminis and merchant letters.

(80) The Italian phrase she used is "al nome di dio."

(81) Hayez, 1997, 72-74, considers the implications of the way merchants dated their letters and made references to God.

(82) Mazzei 2:178 (ser Lapo to Margherita, 8 April s.a. [1994]): "Io vi faccia le soprascritte alla dimestica; perche cosi ho diliberato ... lasciare stare i proemii e i prologhi che s'usano fra gli strani."

(83) The most strikingly incorrect use of paragraphs in her 1399 letters can be observed in the handwriting images in M. Datini, 2002, 1401924 (7 April); 1401928 (2 May, misdated as 2 January); and in her two letters 1401929 and 1401930 (3 May). In these, she follows the form for new paragraphs at the left-hand margin, but she begins them in mid-sentence. The printed text in M. Datini. 1977 and 2000 is accurate in its wording, but the editors have corrected her use of paragraphs, making it necessary to look carefully at the scans of the originals in order to understand her paragraphing.

(84) See Hayez, 1997, for a detailed discussion of this style.

(85) F. Datini, 259 (3 April 1399).

(86) Toccafondi: "La sensazione che ... il lettere ne riporta e quella ... di un dialogo tra due analfabetismi: ... da parte di Margherita l'analfabetismo (o la parziale alfabettiazione) si accompagna ad un'estrema intelligenza dei sentimenti e del valori, da parte di Francesco alla raffinata padronanza ... della scrittura sembra accompagnarsi un ... analfabetismo del sentimenti."

(87) Mazzei, 2:233 (Ser Lapo to Francesco, 26 January 1399/1400).

(88) M. Datini, 2002, 140194 (12 September 1402). Since M. Datini, 2002, includes images as well as text, it is possible to see the awkward layout and handwriting of this letter.

(89) Ibid. (17 February 1402/03).

(90) Ibid. (30 April 1402 and 15 May 1402).

(91) For analyses of the circumstances in which literate women chose to use scribes or write in their own hands, see Daybell, 2001; D'Amelia.

(92) For the Gonzagas of Mantua and the ars dictaminis, see Antenhofer. For English letter writers, see Dalrymple; Richardson; Truelove; Ward; Watt.

(93) See Miglio, 1995, including photographs of handwriting, figs. 1, 6-9 (following numbered-page 86). Miglio is critical of the writing ability of Lucrezia's grandaughter, Lucrezia di Lorenzo, but her letter, in fig. 1, seems very good for a nine-year-old.

(94) Fantini, 122-25, gives the example of a widow who wrote better than her daughters (and even than her son) because she had the need to develop her skills. Petrucci, 1989, discusses the process of finding scribes.

(95) See Crabb, 2000 and 2005b.

(96) Miglio, 1995, 79-82; Tornabuoni, 1993.

(97) See Klapisch-Zuber, 1980b, 126-27; Klapisch-Zuber, 1990b, 13. Chabot, 1999a and 1999b, paints a bleak picture of the position of fifteenth-century Florentine patrician women she has studied, but her women offer some resistance to their subordination, as did Margherita.
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Author:Crabb, Ann
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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