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Renaissance Florence: Society, Culture and Religion.

It is a revivifying experience to read the collected essays of a leading historian of the Renaissance. Although Gene Brucker stands out for his early interest in social history (documented in the path-breaking The Society of Renaissance Florence, 1971), he never discusses society in isolation from politics, as he demonstrates in his two major books, Florentine Politics and Society, 1343-1378 (1962) and The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence (1977). Politics and society intermingle in the collected essays too, which are divided into three sections: "Florentine Society from the Black Death to the Age of Lorenzo," "Aspects of Florentine Culture" (which includes sorcery as well as university education), and "Religious Structures, Practices, Beliefs." They are prefaced by abstracts and followed by brief updates and the sources of the articles. Of these, the last contains Brucker's more recent work, with its valuable and less familiar articles on Florentine parishes, religious houses, and ecclesiastical courts, which interestingly offer a more effective mechanism for recovering debts than their secular counterparts. He uses notarial records and the records of the Holy Penitentiary to document the lives and outlook of the clergy as well as of the laity in their care.

It may be true, as the author says, that in these essays the popolo minuto receives more emphasis as a whole than the elite, although the accounts of the early origins of the Medici and the Ghibelline trial of Matteo Villani remind us that Brucker is a meticulous historian of Florentine high as well as low politics. In "The Florentine Popolo Minuto" (1973) Brucker uses the detailed estimo records of 1379 to identify nearly sixty percent of the families in one gonfalone as poor (half of whom worked in the cloth industry; the rest were artisans, laborers, or of no listed occupation). Since these records exclude the miserabili who paid no taxes, the poor clearly formed a large and potentially threatening part of the urban population. Yet the absence of organized protest in the fifteenth century poses the question of whether this resulted from increased prosperity due to population decline, the growth of a more powerful and oppressive state, or the success of the government's provision of Jewish pawnbrokers, charitable hand-outs, and circuses.

What is distinctive about Brucker's approach to Florentine history is not simply its wide social range and diversity - unique though that is - but the fact that it is grounded in the discussions and "voices" of the Florentines themselves. Brucker has an unrivaled knowledge and memory of the discussions in the Consulte e Pratiche volumes that provide him with evidence of debates about the university and Savonarola's trial by fire. To this rich source of material he has now added the less-politicized voices of women and the poor from the tax records, "Florentine Voices from the Catasto." He is unashamedly an archival historian but, as these essays attest, he has done more than anyone else to expand our view of the scope of archive history from Rankean politics to the vastly richer world of Florentine society at large. That this is now the domain of many other historians of Renaissance Florence - who are helping to answer some of the questions first raised by Brucker - reminds us how much we all owe to his scholarship as well as to his generosity over the last four decades.

ALISON BROWN Royal Holloway, University of London
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Author:Holloway, Royal
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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