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Thomas J. Kuehn. Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence.

Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002. xvi + 306 pp. index, append, illus, tbls. bibl. $60. ISBN: 0-472-11244-9.

"The problem with bastards was that they were part of the family, but not totally" (7). In his new book Thomas Kuehn continues his project of delineating Renaissance Florentine personhood in legal theory and social practice. Applying the thesis variously examined in Law, Family, and Women (Chicago, 1991) and refined in "Understanding Gender Inequality in Renaissance Florence," Journal of Women's History 8 (1996): 58-80, he here sets out to study Florentines' treatment of bastards as a guide to the difference between family-bound Renaissance personhood and the individualism of modern times. The key is property: "To be supported from family wealth was to be acknowledged.., as part of a web of relationship" (26). The question driving the book is thus whether and under what circumstances illegitimate children shared in their family's name, honor, and property during their father's lifetime or through inheritance. To answer, Kuehn investigates illegitimacy in all its aspects, as legal and governmental authority defined it and as bastards lived it. He applies characteristically deep learning and massive research, with especially productive use of Catasto records and jurists' consilia. They disclose an enormous range of outcomes for illegitimates, depending on class, gender, and location, but also deriving from "certain fundamental ambiguities of law" (250). The property and family standing and consequently the personhood of bastards are thus marked, in Kuehn's account, by legal ambiguity and social variety. On his showing, in Renaissance Florence there was not illegimacy, but illegitimacies.

The book's trajectory moves from theory to practice. Kuehn begins with a thorough survey of illegitimacy in the ius commune and among jurists, whose rival consilia created a cloud of "indeterminacy" around it (69). He then examines their status in Florentine statute law, noting that the state's political and fiscal concerns further complicated the status of bastards. Providing a unifying conceptual thread through the diversity of opinion and legislation was the distinction between naturales (offspring of stable concubinal relationships) and spurii (born of casual encounters). Kuehn concentrates mainly on the former in the rest of the book, which then examines illegitimacy in social practice, because they were the most likely to appear in Catasto declarations or in property litigation. Spurii had a much harder time getting acknowledgment, let alone property, from their fathers, making them elusive in the records. By the same token, most of Kuehn's examples concern bastards from the propertied classes; the economic and cultural stakes of their acknowledgment were higher than among poorer Florentines and consequently likelier to prompt disputes with legitimate siblings or other lineage members.

Much of the book is devoted to exploring the uncertain boundaries and uneasy relationships between naturales, especially those legitimated by subsequent marriage or legal action ("rescript"), and their legitimate kin. Kuehn provides numerous examples of illegitimately-born Florentines taking their place in society and possessing economic substance owing to paternal and even sibling acceptance, often into the household. But balancing these are instances of bastards denied recognition and inheritance. In Kuehn's account, the relationship of bastards to the family turned not only on questions of property but of honor as well. The stain of their birth excluded them from honor; they were considered morally flawed. They were therefore blocked from the family identity that was inseparable from honor. Indeed, the presence of bastards in the family could even cast doubt on the birth of their legitimate half-siblings. For these reasons as well as economic motives, legitimi, their mothers, and their kinsmen normally opposed the inheritance claims of illegitimates. Bur again, not always. The absence of legitimate siblings, moreover, put bastards in a different light, and this is one of Kuehn's most significant findings: they were considered a "blood bank" for the lineage. Florentines' zeal to preserve the line over time paved the way for legitimation and inheritance for male bastards without brothers. Illegitimates could be a family blemish but also a family resource.

Kuehn's procedure is consequently to pass in review a great number of examples illustrating variety rather than pattern in the responses to and experience of bastards. Regarding fathers' treatment of them he comments, "Here, as in so much else revolving around illegitimates, there was no single script to follow" (150). Nor can their presence in the population be calculated with any confidence. Kuehn examines the 1427, 1458, and 1480 Catasto records (in the process correcting Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber's figures, 123) and traces a range from 0.5 to 1.4 percent, though he reckons that the shame attached to illegitimacy led to underreporting. For those bastards acknowledged, principally as deductions from their fathers' tax liability, the stain could never be completely eradicated, even by legitimation. Yet for some men it faded as they acquired other adult identities; and Kuehn observes, following Anthony Molho, that female bastards were even better able to blend because marriage or the convent obscured their uncertain relationship to their father's lineage.

Kuehn's kaleidoscopic account shows us legitimati, naturales, and spurii in activities and relationships of every sort. It also explores the ways in which illegitimacy was a touchstone for trends in Quattrocento Florence, such as the close and possibly causal relationship between foundling homes and illegitimacy rates and the legal disadvantages for bastards occasioned by the growing prominence of lineage-promoting native Florentine jurists. It also spotlights the disadvantages endured by women in Florence: female bastards were likelier to enter convents or to get smaller marriage dowries than legitimate girls, poor or servant women were likelier to become pregnant outside marriage, and illegitimate newborn girls were likelier than boys never even to make it to the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Kuehn shows bastards everywhere in Florentine society and legal thinking. But he leaves a larger sense of their place--to use two adjectives recurring throughout the book--indeterminate and ambiguous. Obscured by their uncertain numbers, the dense multiformity of family responses to them, and the unpredictability of legal action by and against them, the experience of bastards is recounted in massive detail but eludes a comprehensive assessment of illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence.


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Author:Chojnacki, Stanley
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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