Wednesday 30 April 2014

A Senate decree passed in Venice 1515 noted:

·         There is such gross and unnecessary expenditure on meals and banquets, on the adornment of women, and on the decoration of houses, that fortunes are squandered and a bad example is set to those who seek to live modestly.
·         To correct that trend, the Venetians passed laws to limit conspicuous consumption. at WEDDING BANQUETS, for example, no more than three kinds of meat could be served. Wild birds and animals, Indian cocks and hens, and doves are strictly forbidden. Oysters may be served only at private meals for up to twenty persons.
·         To control personal adornment, women wanting to wear pearls must register them, declaring the number, weight and quality.
·         In Florence anyone wanting to wear gold, silver, pearls, precious stones..or cloth of silk brocade had to pay an annual tax. Married women could wear two rings tax-free.
·        The rationale of sumptuary legislation in Florence: to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who force men to spend money on them. On account of these unbearable expenses, men are avoiding matrimony. 

I think we need laws like that men aren’t force into unbearable expenses and avoid dates, or maybe just to put brakes on NICK PATERAS, whose second date went like this.

·         He needed something to make the blood rush to his heart. No, not falling in love. Something more exciting. So he and date drove to the airport, where they sprinted from desk to desk to find a flight to -- somewhere. They ended up spending the weekend in Port of Spain.
·         When they got back, they looked at each other in awe. Right. Isn’t conspicuous consumption an awesome thing?
·         Now invites your comments. I suggest sentencing the couple to 40 hours of community service, but I doubt that’s what West Jet has in mind.
(Info on Renaissance sumptuary laws comes from The Society of Renaissance Florence and Venice: A Documentary History.)

Sunday 27 April 2014

RACIAL PROFILING, 1509: The Jewish pawnbroker.

From a nasty diatribe against the Jews by the convert Johann Pfefferkorn:
When someone comes to a Jew with an article to be pawned, the Jew knows that that person is under duress.

  • The Christian shows him a ring, expecting a certain amount of money for it. The Jew inspects it all round and replies: No, I cannot lend you that much. The Christian is in desperate need for money and says: How much then will you lend me? Then the Jew turns the pawn back and forth, inspecting it closely and, after a long examination, says: A ring, of all things! And he names a small sum he is willing to lend on it, say, one gulden.
  • The Christian takes the gulden in the hope that he will soon be able to redeem his pawn, but he becomes poorer by the day, and when one year is over and the Christian does not redeem his pawn, which is worth much more than the loan, it has passed by default to the Jew for the small sum he lent for it.
  •  If the Christian comes before the year is over to settle his account, interest has accrued on it and his debt now amounts to 1 gulden, 34 pence, and 8 hellers. The Christian cannot pay and begs the Jew to let the interest accrue together with the initial loan at the usual rate. Then the Jew replies: With pleasure, but you need to bring me more collateral. And that is what the Christian does. 
  • The second year, the original loan plus the interest amounts to 2 gulden and 46 pence and 4 hellers. The Christian cannot pay it and begs the Jews, as before, to let the interest accrue. But if he cannot bring him more collateral, the Jew takes the pawn into the city and publicly offers it for sale. Thus the Christian is embarrassed before a number of people, and so he brings everything he has in his house and privately hands it over to the Jew. Now that the Jew has for one gulden goods valued at a hundred gulden or more, the poor Christian has nothing left to pawn and runs away and must live in poverty for the rest of his life. This happens a great deal and often.
(Image from The Calculation of Ruprecht Kolperger, 1491)

Thursday 24 April 2014


More from the regulations of Idelfonso College.

  • When leaving the residence and going into town, members are to wear the regulation-issue hooded cloak.
  • No resident shall grow a beard or long hair. Rather, they should resemble respectable secular priests in their appearance.
  • None is permitted to go into a tavern and have a meal in town, unless by permission of the rector.
  • Let no one presume to bear arms either openly or concealed, or have arms in his room on penalty of being deprived of his meals for a month and having the weapon confiscated.
  • No one is allowed to play dice or cards.
  • We strictly forbid the playing of any kind of musical instrument in College, except the monochord and the cembalo.
  • On feast days college member are allowed to play ball and engage in other physical exercises, provided these activities are carried on in the inner courtyard, where they cannot be observed from the outside. And let the rector not grant such permission lightly, but only when he sees that the work must be lightened with these kinds of respectable pastimes.
  • We furthermore forbid that any women be given access to the College at any time, except by permission of the rector. He will appoint a person of integrity to accompany the visitor and show her the buildings of the College. Just the buildings, I take it. The men, I hope, were hidden away so as not to corrupt her chaste eyes.
       (Image from

Monday 21 April 2014


From the rules of Ildefonso College:
  • No one is to be served food outside the dining hall.
  • Members of the college will drink from silver cups (donated to Ildefonso by the founder), so that beverages may be served in a becoming fashion.
  • Each person will also be supplied with a knife, a saltshaker, and a jar of water.
  • Each person will eat the same quantity of food, prepared in the same manner.
  • During lunch and dinner spiritual reading shall not be neglected. Ordinarily the Bible shall be read at lunch. At dinner, other books of saints or doctors may be read, as long as they are approved by the church.
  • If the reader mispronounces words or mumbles, he shall be corrected by a senior lecturer in theology. If no theologian is present, a professor in the faculty of Arts will do the correcting.
  • Let everyone listen attentively to the reader and beware of seditious and scandalous talk, on threat of a harsh penalty proportionate to the seriousness of the offense and the status of the person.
  • Only those whose business it is to prepare and season food are allowed to enter the kitchen or the cellar. Any resident found on the premises will be deprived of his portion of wine for the day.

Wednesday 16 April 2014


Cover image of Pfefferkorn's book
This description comes from a booklet entitled How the Blind Jews celebrate their Easter (Wie die blinden Juden yr Ostern halten). The author, Johann Pfefferkorn, was a German Jew who converted to Christianity.  The book clearly shows his anti-Semitic bias, but provided German readers with an early (the first?) account of Jewish religious practices.  

  • The flour to be used in the holy meal must be ground with a clean and newly-hewn grindstone and kept in freshly-washed bags. … The houses of the Jews are very smelly and unclean, but at the time of this feast they are quite determined to cleanse all rooms in their houses and to sweep them clean, also to scour clean their utensils, especially pots and bowls, and anything else used in the preparation of food, although they do not use them at this time. Rather, they have dishes specially kept from year to year for this feast. They also polish to a sheen all the silver and pewter dishes…Then they bring them to the rabbi for inspection, whether they are clean and right for use in this feast.
  • On the second day before Easter, after sundown, the head of the household himself goes with a lit candle from room to room and zealously searches the whole house, and if he finds anything unclean, he collects it and burns it to ashes.
  • On the day before Easter, after sundown, they make dough [of clean flour and water fetched from a stream], but without salt or yeast… The head of the household himself takes the dough and with his own hands fashions three cakes.
  • When the cake has been eaten in the proper manner, each person takes up his prayer book. Then, on the command of the father of the family, the door is opened and someone riding a donkey, which has been ordered for this purpose, comes into the room. All who sit there loudly recite the words of the [79th] psalm, like this: “O Lord pour out your wrath over the nations that do not acknowledge you” – meaning us Christians.
  • Around midnight they go to bed and that night act very unchastely, for each of them hopes that the Messiah will be born of him.
 (For Pfefferkorn's anti-Semitic campaign and the resulting controversy with Reuchlin, see my book: The Case against Johann Reuchlin. Religious and Social Controversy in Sixteenth-Century Germany)


Monday 14 April 2014

EARLY MODERN CURFEW: Life in a college residence.

From the 1510 regulations governing the life in Ildefonso College in Alcala:

The Gated Community.
  • The main gate shall always be locked at dusk. Other gates shall be locked between seven and nine, according to the seasons.
  • Fifteen minutes before the gate is locked the large bell shall be rung nine times to warn visitors to leave.  A councilor will then make the rounds to examine the locks of the gates. Any visitor who is caught after the gates are locked will be lowered by a rope from the window. 
  • The gates will only be unlocked in case of an emergency, when there is need for a physician, for example…and only in the presence of the rector and councilors.
  • Anyone who attempts to unlock a gate in other circumstances, shall be expelled from the College and never admitted again.
The Library. 
  • The library will be open four hours a day.
  • The books shall at all times be chained in their proper place so that they may not easily be taken away. And we forbid that they be lent to anyone.
  • Chaplains and fellows will have their own keys and are responsible for locking up again, on penalty of being deprived of their dinner.
  • Anyone taking a book from the library will be deprived of his dinner for fifteen days on the first occasion. The penalty will be doubled on the second infraction. On the third he shall be expelled from College.
  • If the person is a visitor, he automatically incurs a sentence of excommunication.
  • The books must be dusted at least once a month.


Wednesday 9 April 2014

EARLY MODERN TREATMENT: Possessed by the Devil and punished by the Inquisition.

In 1552, the wool carder Bartolomé Sanchez of Cardenete sensed that he was possessed by the devil. The Inquisition immediately took an interest in him.

According to trial records, Sanchez attempted to get rid of the Devil by the DIY method:
On the advice of the village priest, I went to do penance at the Dominican monastery.
I wrapped a rope of raw matweed around my body at the waist and gave it about five or six turns so it would cut into my flesh. I prepared five stones that weighed about 25 pounds and put them inside some saddlebags, which I intended to carry to the monastery as a form of penance. I then ordered my son to read some prayers because I was so high and dizzy I couldn’t pray on my own. To drive out the devil, I began shouting Get out, cursed Lucifer, I did not give you permission to come in here.

But the Devil kept plaguing Sanchez, and the Inquisition had him imprisoned. His cell mate, however, testified that he seemed normal: I have not seen Bartolom√© Sanchez out of his senses or understanding…he does nothing but eat and sleep and walk to and fro.

In the final sentencing, Sanchez was nevertheless declared a heretic and apostate, excommunicated and released to the secular arm of justice. All of his property was confiscated…His descendants for two generation were deprived of all and any benefices, dignities, and offices… and ineligible to bear weapons or ride on horseback.

Sanchez abjured his errors publicly:
Mercy! I confess. I want to convert to our Holy Catholic Faith…I fully understood the error I was in and in which the devil kept me fooled…I am sorry for all of it, and I beg God for mercy.

He was released, but had to wear the sanbenito – a shirt that identified him as a former heretic. Every Saturday, moreover, he had to make a short pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Bridge outside the city walls.

Unfortunately Sanchez suffered a relapse. While attending mass, he began shouting and striking at those around him, calling them goddamned buggers…and foaming at the mouth.

In 1560, the Inquisition finally acknowledged that Sanchez was mentally ill and put him into an asylum in Zaragoza.
(Source: Sara Tilghman Nalle, Mad for God)

Sunday 6 April 2014

EARLY MODERN JOKES. From Poggio Bracciolini’s Facetiae

A priest, who had buried his pet dog in the churchyard, was told this was unlawful. His case was tried in the episcopal court. He pleaded with the bishop: O father, if you only knew the wisdom of that dog! At the close of his life he made his will and left you fifty ducats. The bishop approved of the burial, collected his inheritance, and had the case dismissed.


A woman fell into a river and drowned. Her husband searched for her body but was told he was looking in the wrong place. He ought to search for her downriver. I know what I am doing, replied the man. She was always so stubborn and self-willed and so contrary that she would never float with the current.


An ambassador visited Pope Urban and was told to keep his speech short because His Holiness was ailing. But the man had prepared and memorized a long oration and wasn’t going to let it go to waste. As he went on and on, the pope showed some annoyance, and the ambassador feared his petition would be denied. He corrected his mistake, saying: Holy Father, my instructions are -- if you do not consent to our request, I must repeat my speech.  The pope immediately gave orders to have this business attended to.


Pope Martin was displeased with a letter his secretary had composed and wanted it revised. The man re-submitted the letter on the following day, and the pope was satisfied. What did you change? he asked. Nothing, the secretary said, and told him the following story:
Galeazzo Visconti, the father of Duke of Milan, was excessively corpulent. One day, after he had eaten a very large meal, his breeches felt uncomfortably tight. He summoned his tailor and overwhelmed him with reproaches, accusing him of having made the breeches too narrow and ordering him to enlarge them. The tailor bowed and took them away. At home, he hung the breeches on a peg, and went to bed. But don’t you need to alter the garment? the tailor’s wife asked. No, he said: Tomorrow when his digestion is finished, the breeches will fit. And sure enough, when he returned them the next morning, Visconti said: Perfect! They no longer pinch me anywhere.

Okay, okay, I hear you. Poggio wouldn’t have made it as a stand-up comedian.


Thursday 3 April 2014

EARLY MODERN ART: Cellini markets his product.

In his autobiography (covering the years 1558-63), Benvenuto Cellini shares his sales technique with us.

  • Rule # 1: Be coy about the price. It is not my custom to put prices on my work, he told Duke Cosimo of Florence who was interested in his bronze sculpture of Perseus.
  • Rule # 2: Insist that art is precious and discussing its value is crass. I exclaimed that if the Duke gave me ten thousand crowns I would not be paid enough, and that if I had ever thought things would come down to haggling, I would not have entered his service.
  • Rule # 3: Claim that your art is unique. The duke said: Cities and great palaces can be built with thousands of ducats. I rejoined: Your Excellency can find multitudes of men who are able to build you cities and palaces, but you will not find one man in the world who could make you a second Perseus.
  • Rule # 4: If the customer threatens to walk away, offer to reduce the price. I heard the Duke say: I will throw Perseus to the dogs, and so our differences will be ended. Whereupon Cellini settled for 3500 gold crowns.
  • Rule # 5: Make sure you have the last word in the transaction: 3500 gold crowns should not be taken as my proper recompense for such a masterpiece, but only as a kind of gratuity,
  • Rule # 6: Don’t believe people who say they could have gotten you a better deal.  When the Duchess heard that [I had settled for 3500 crowns], she said I should have put myself into her hands, she would have gotten me five thousand crowns.
  • Rule # 7: Demand payment in full. Cellini made the mistake of accepting instalments. Soon the payments became irregular. He could see that the money was drying up. His salary was also in arrears. Then the duke fell ill and, with a mind to his eternal life, ordered to have my salary paid up. But I never obtained the remainder of the money for my Perseus.

Cellini’s Perseus is now in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. The image is from