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

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348-1434

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiii + 308 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 0-521-66337-7.

Mountaineers are free! Or at least free from harsh tax burdens in the fifteenth-century Florentine territorial state. And this freedom did not come from any sort of elite inspired charity or sense of civic humanism applied to the contado; the peasants in the mountain villages successively revolted against and negotiated with the Florentine state. By doing so, and not only succeeding in their immediate goals of tax relief and gaining clemency for those who rebelled but also maintaining these goals over the years, Florentine highland peasants participated in the only truly successful peasant revolt in the Middle Ages. This is a significant, well-researched, and well-argued book, perhaps as significant for political history as Hans Baron's The Crisis of the Early Renaissance (1955) was for intellectual history.

Using evidence from the Florentine archives (especially tax and criminal records) Cohn joins the debate on the transition from the medieval to the modern state and argues that peasant revolts "stimulated" state development. With 1402 as the watershed year in which the effects of mountain peasant revolts finally had their desired effect, Florence went from seeing the mountain highlands as a cash cow only fit to serve its financial needs and dicatates to seeing the area as an integral and even necessary part of the Florentine state, especially in light of the various wars that swirled around the Florentine borders. In the 1390s for instance, many Florentine highland communities paid as much as twenty-nine times more in taxes than did peasant villages in close proximity to the city of Florence. From 1371-1402 the wealth of these mountain communities declined by about half while that of those villages in the plains remained steady. A direct result of this harsh milking was a massive peasant flight from the mounta ins with drastic demographic consequences -- more serious and devastating than the Black Death according to Cohn. Peasants did not flee towards the city of Florence, but away from it, making a double loss for the state of Florence. At the same time, Florence's enemies (Milan in particular) made the most of this turmoil and tried to use these revolts for their own tactical and strategic advantage, and the peasants made the most of these wars for their own political and social goals. Peasants were actors in this process; not acted upon here. In fact, the leaders of the various revolts that scorched Florence's mountain slopes were often the peasants themselves not the various disaffected feudal lords still plotting against the rise of the city-state. Though to give these lords their due and to provide balance, Cohn does recognize their occasional participation in the various revolts. After 1402, Florence not only dealt more charitably with the revolutionaries (tending to grant clemency and tax breaks based upon the exigencies of war and the effects of a declining population base for the taxes) it also began a program of trying to establish a more equitable tax base for state finances -- a move that culminated in the great catasto of 1427. With these reforms, rural wealth in these outlying regions increased some seven times over by 1464. And these outlying mountainous regions were more fully and equally integrated into the Florentine state, which gained a bulwark against others.

This book also showcases Cohn's skills as an historian. First, the story of how the mountain peasants forced the Florentine state to accommodate their demands is almost totally hidden -- deliberately so! -- in the various Florentine chronicles. Bluntly, it just did not accord with their myth of Florence. Cohn had to play detective and scour the sources for better evidence of this story. He found his evidence in the criminal records of Florence's dealing with the revolts, where sometimes the tax burden was specifically noted as the cause for rebellion. He also finds good evidence of this story in the day-to-day petitions to various organs of the Florentine government. If nothing else, Cohn's spadework in the archives -- especially his ability to link persons in various archival collections -- evinces considerable doggedness on his part. As expected from his previous works, Cohn uses quantitative techniques well, and his quantitative discussion and its attendant tables and appendixes are clear and convincing en ough for the average scholarly reader.

Although I began this book a skeptical reader (I thought he was going to push his evidence way beyond its limits), I am now convinced of the soundness of what Cohn has to say. Everyone interested in the development of the Florentine state in particular and the early modern state in general will have to read this. If I may be permitted one criticism of an excellent work, it would be that I think Cohn has unfairly criticized Fernand Braudel's view that mountain society was nor dynamic but timeless -- reflecting the structures of daily life. Cohn, correctly for the period around 1400, sees considerable dynamism in mountain society. But perhaps in the context of state development and warfare, what Cohn is looking at is not a point of structure but one of conjuncture, one of those Braudelian cyclical sweeps which can alter even the structures of daily life.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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