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Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348-1434.

Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348-1434. By Samuel K. Cohn Jr. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiii plus 308 pp. $49.95).

In this dense book, Samuel Cohn offers a bold new interpretation of the transition from the late medieval to the Renaissance state in Florence. Turning away from often celebratory studies of political tracts, diplomacy, wars, and constitutional reforms that dominate Florentine historiography, Cohn instead embeds his analysis of state formation in political geography and social conflict. He considers the consolidation of power by the Florentine regional state from the perspective of peasants living on the mountainous periphery, which he deems a periphery of both geography and class. It was in the mountains that the architects of the Florentine regional state met their most strenuous opposition to expansion in the form of peasant revolts and widespread population movements.

Based on an eighty-seven year survey of tax records from the Black Death (1348) to the beginning of Medici ascendance (1434), Cohn argues that a series of successful peasant uprisings between 1401 and 1405 forced the Florentine government to change its attitudes and policies toward its rural subjects. In response to these rebellions, the Florentine ruling class began to consider its own welfare as more closely intertwined with that of its surrounding district. After 1402, Florentine tax policies shifted from oppressive, exploitative measures to more equitable, sensitive means of assisting rural communities which suffered demographic flight. In resisting heavy tax burdens, highlanders stimulated state development yet molded it to their own advantage. Peasant protests and petitions ultimately "convinced city elites to revolutionize the Florentine tax system from an old mosaic of unequal taxation based on the rural community to a 'universal tax' based on individual wealth." (p.6) The crucial teachers of Florenti ne statecraft were not humanists or political philosophers but thousands of mountain peasants living on the frontiers.

In constructing this argument and chronology, Cohn reinforces various hallmarks of his prolific work: the reliance on statistical analysis of serial records as the primary evidence; the search for critical turning points within long-term structures of politics, mentalities, and demographic regimes; an interest in geographical place as a key determinant of historical experience; and the ability to think outside the box of conventional historical interpretation. These virtues notwithstanding, Cohn's case is not completely convincing.

The book is divided into three parts. The first and most successful part considers the relationship between city and countryside, and compares the social world of highlanders with lowlanders. Cohn shows how the countryside was not a homogeneous area but was formed instead by a mosaic of communities, with differing economies, terrain, population size, and relationships to the center city. He establishes a three-tiered distinction between communities based on geographical location: the innermost ring of rural population living in the plains around Florence, which enjoyed privileged tax status because of connections to wealthy citizen investors; an intermediate zone of hillside villages; and distant mountain communes situated over 500 meters in elevation, which faded in and out of Florentine control throughout the fourteenth century. Cohn identifies striking differences in patterns of association between mountain dwellers and plainsmen, based on tax surveys, criminal proceedings, wills and other notarial records . Highlanders created a much wider array of networks for themselves than did lowlanders, crossing political and parochial borders in their migrations, marriages, and criminal collusion. Here Cohn effectively debunks the image of mountain peasants constructed by Braudel and others. Far from being a backward, semi-pagan lot, these highlanders were as numerate and Christian as lowland tenants and sharecroppers, and seemingly more sociable as well.

These mountain communities also bore the brunt of radically unequal tax assessments prior to the universal flat tax enacted in 1427. In the second and third chapters, Cohn shows how "taxes were the lever that turned the demographic and economic history of the countryside" during the late fourteenth century. (p.91) Burdened by crushing tax loads, mountain inhabitants fled from certain poverty not by migrating downward toward the more privileged plains, but rather by escaping upward over the border of Florentine jurisdiction. It was the out-migration prompted by taxation that proved more devastating than the plague to highland communities. Once some mountain dwellers had resisted with their feet, those left behind were faced with still heavier debt loads. The upshot was a new form of resistance after the fundamental turning point of 1401: direct confrontation.

Part Two examines the episodic peasant uprisings from 1401 to 1405 that Cohn claims altered Florentine attitudes and tax policies toward the hinterland. He sketches three dramatically different perspectives on these events as portrayed by chroniclers, criminal records, and administrative tax petitions. In the least convincing chapter, Cohn argues that Florentine chroniclers engaged in a "conspiracy of silence" about peasant revolts. These writers glossed over moments of resistance in favor of a triumphalist view of Florentine history, promoting themes of Florentine liberty, fairness, and republican superiority over feudal neighbors. Whatever the growing power of civic ideology, the suggestion that dozens of chroniclers purposely evaded any mention of these events strains credibility, given the sharp factions and personalized interests that divided the elite. The lack of sustained narrative in these chapters also makes it difficult to comprehend the precise nature and scope of the rebellions, and hence to eval uate their significance in relation to the overall argument. Criminal records provide a counter-chronicle for Cohn, but their mixed reports of robbery, murder, and collective mayhem muddle the inrentionality of these events as explicit tax revolts. Tax petitions offer the best direct evidence for peasant discontent, yet Cohn overplays the evidence. In 1403, the high point of peasant petitions for tax relief, only forty-four of 240 petitions (18%) requested government assistance, a level of engagement far short of dominating the "center stage" of urban administrative business. (p. 193)

A similar tendency to overstate the case is found in Part Three, where Cohn elucidates the changed attitudes of the Florentine elite toward the hinterland after 1401. Here Cohn argues that, through petition and protest, emboldened peasants taught their social betters important long-term lessons about how to manage a regional state. After 1402 Florentine officials sought to incorporate the periphery into the central fiscal domain, to assist rather than to exploit the hinterland. Florence's new interest in consolidating its territory through more benign taxation stemmed the flood of peasant migration and eventually contributed to the prosperity of the countryside. Yet the evidence that social conflict and a feisty peasantry drove changes in administrative policy and mentality is too slender to support such weighty claims. At its peak only six percent (n=29) of tax petitions alluded directly to Florentine mistreatment, with far fewer complaints in most years. Some documents are read selectively to dramatize the assertive agency of mountain peasants, while an ongoing elite counter-rhetoric lambasting peasant exploitation is given short shrift. These shortfalls in evidence cast a deep shadow over Cohn's interpretation of both causation and chronology.

This study provides an important reconsideration of the relationships binding peasants and elites, as well as those distinguishing peasants themselves. It brings the state usefully back into the fold of social history, and forces us to rethink Braudelian stereotypes of mountain civilization. That rebellious mountain peasants founded the Florentine state in the ways suggested here, however, remains a challenging but unconvincing claim.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Strocchia, Sharon T.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348-1434.

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