Gregorio Dati: Life of a Merchant
Gregorio Dati’s Diary gives the reader an insight into the life of a fifteenth century merchant. While Dati’s Diary is not a day-to-day account of every day life, it spans enough time to give the reader a larger picture of life in Florence. There is much to learn about the business life of a merchant, as well as his family life, and even his public (political) life.
Much of what Dati writes about pertains to his partnerships with various other merchants. From these writings one can ascertain that a typical partnership is often dissolved and reconstructed with new terms. After one partner dies, terms are renegotiated to form a new partnership with the remaining partners. On more than one occasion, Dati formed a partnership in which he was to invest money that he did not actually have. He states “As appears in these accounts, we renewed our partnership on 1 January 1393 when I undertook to invest 1,000 florins. I did not actually have the money but was about to get married…and to receive the dowry”. Dati sets up another partnership in 1403 in which he is to contribute 2000 florins. He states “this is how I propose to raise them: 1,370 florins…are still due to my from my old partnership…The rest I expect to obtain if I marry again this year”.
Each year the partnership was reviewed and either dissolved or renewed. The above-mentioned partnership was renewed in 1394, but the contract was allowed to expire in 1395. This indicates that while the partnership was making a profit, all the parties felt it was in their best interest to continue. When the profit started to get smaller, the parties felt it best to dissolve the partnership. In the United States today, many partnership agreements contain clauses allowing a partner to leave at any time, rather than being bound by a yearly contract.
Another interesting point is how closely fortunes are related. When Dati starts having financial trouble with his business, it affects his brother’s business in Valencia. Dati details exactly what his own problems were and how those problems affected his brother Simone. He states that he and his partners were forced to withdraw from business and collect what they could to pay their creditors. Because of this, Dati was unable to keep a promise to Simone to send goods to Valencia which Simone would then sell to the King. Because of this, Simone’s business in Valencia began to stagnate and collapse.
At the end of his diary, Dati sums up his business life. One can see from reading this shortened account of his life that business then was much like today in that sometimes business was good and sometimes it was bad. Dati was “captured and robbed at sea” in 1394 and suffered considerable losses. Dati’s brother, Simone, was robbed and held for ransom in 1397. Dati ultimately paid to have Simone released. The Diary makes this sound like kidnapping is a common occurrence—a fact of life in the times.
Dati states that he was Guild Consul eight times over the span of his life. This responsibility is a business position, held because he was a merchant and a member of a guild. As one of several guild consuls, Dati probably represented his guild to other guilds as well as businesses. It is likely that his service to his guild contributed to his name being submitted to hold public office. In May 1422 Dati’s name was drawn to serve as Overseer for the Guild Hospital.
Not only was Dati a merchant, he was mostly respected. One can perhaps believe that he would not have been chosen to as Guild Consul or Overseer for the Guild Hospital otherwise. It is logical to suggest that his work within the Guild contributed to his eventual career in politics. Without the respect of his peers and the experiences he was provided, it is unlikely that he would have continued to have his name in to be drawn for political office.
Gregorio Dati’s political career started in earnest in 1412 when his name was drawn as a Standard Bearer of the militia company. Dati states that he “had not been sure whether [his] name was in the purses for that office.” Dati seems excited that he is eligible to hold office, although he states that he will not “invoke the aid of any or attempt to get myself elected to public offices or to have my name included in new purses.” Dati attributes the fact that his name was drawn to be Standard Bearer to the beginning of his recovery of fortune. His brother was promoted to Father General and helped Dati to pay off debt.
In 1421 Dati was drawn to serve among the Twelve Good Men. While Dati does not go into detail as to what this position entailed, he does state that “no greater unanimity could be found than that which reigned amongst us.” In 1422 Dati was elected to serve among the Five Defenders of the County and District. He states that it is a difficult office to hold, but that the work they did improved the life of those less fortunate. After 1412, Dati spent a great deal of time in public office.
In 1424 Dati served as Podesta of Montale and Agliana. He states that he accepted the office as a means to avoid the plague. Dati’s past experiences with the plague must have considerably influenced his thoughts on accepting this post.
In 1425 Dati was chosen to serve among the Lord Priors of the city of Florence. He was proud that, though the task was “extremely onerous”, he helped leave matters better than he found them. In 1429, Dati was chosen to be the Standard-bearer of Justice for two months. The Standard-bearer led the priors. Dati must have felt that this was a huge honor, especially since Dati was 50 years old before he held his first office. Five of Dati’s children and several more of his household died of the plague.
What one reads about Dati’s personal life is fascinating. He was married four times and had a total of twenty-seven children. Of the twenty children from his second and third wives, only five were still alive in 1422. Dati’s fourth wife, Caterina, gave birth seven times as well. One thing is obvious from Dati’s accounts: giving birth to many children was common, although most of them did not make it to adulthood. Dati tells us that his first three wives either died in childbirth or in relation to a miscarriage. This indicates that the business of having babies was a dangerous one, as likely to result in the death of the mother as it was to result in the death of the child.
Dati’s respect for all his wives is evident in the naming of his children. Dati’s first wife, Bandecca died before giving birth to any live children. Dati named his first daughter by his second wife after his first wife. He also named one of his daughters by his third wife after his second wife. His first daughter from his fourth wife was named after his third wife. This indicates a healthy respect for each of his wives.
Dati writes in his diary about the accounts of each of his wives—how he knew them, who they were related to, and the financial details of their betrothal and marriage. In 1391, his second wife, Isabetta, was left the income from a farm in S. Fiore a Elsa by her mother. Dati is careful in his notes to state that the income from the farm is to go to his wife and her children after her. One can ascertain that Dati felt it important that this money stay intact for the future of his children.
Another interesting point is that Dati was partially responsible for paying the dowry on his sister Madalena. He also paid a dowry of 550 florins when his daughter Bandecca was married. This seems an important note—that the men are responsible for the women of their households until they are married, then the responsibility transfers to their husbands. Dati seems to take his responsibility seriously, making sure that his children are entitled to anything their mothers may have inherited.
Christianity plays an important role in the everyday life of Dati. This is evident not only in his personal life, but also in his professional life. He praises God after each transaction he mentions and hopes for God’s help to make the transaction fruitful. Even when he loses money he states that it is fitting to give praise to God for all things. In 1395 when Dati forges a new partnership he prefaces the details by saying “May God and His gentle Mother bestow their grace upon us.” In his notes dated 1 January 1404, Dati details how he feels he can best serve God in his business. He has written his pledges down so as not to forget them in the enterprise of daily life.
Dati also praises God for his political offices. He attributes the ability to work well with others while in office to the grace of God. After his name is drawn as Standard-bearer, he states he will abide by God’s will, serving and doing what good he may.
In Dati’s personal life, Christianity is extremely evident. As a part of every day life, Dati’s children are baptized and sponsored in the church. After the birth of each child, Dati asks God to grant the child health and to help make the child good. After the death of a child, Dati states that God has called the child back to Him, and hopes the child will intercede on Dati’s behalf in the afterworld.
By the end of his Diary, Dati states that he has practically no liquid capital at all. Dati went through times of great profit as well as seemingly total loss. His life was definitely one of uncertainty. While life in Florence was in many ways different than life today, in many ways it is very similar. It is obvious that Dati cared much for his wives and children. He worked very hard to support himself and his family. Although the details of political life were very different, Dati was pleased to serve and pleased to help his fellow man. He did what he could to better himself and the lives of his family. His life was a study in feast or famine in the business world, not unlike many businesses today.
Dati, Gregorio. “Diary.” In Readings in Medieval History, volume 2, 3rd ed., edited by Patrick Geary, 502-17. Publisher state: Publisher, Publish year.
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