Margherita Datini – The Wisdom and Faith of an Ordinary Medieval Woman
Margherita Datini – The Wisdom and Faith of an Ordinary Medieval Woman
Church history books are beginning to devote more space to women. Treatments of Medieval Christian women, however, is usually limited to a few queens and nuns – those who could express themselves at a time when most women’s voices were dismissed.
Recently, scholars have turned their attention to the correspondence, discovered in 1870 behind a staircase, of an Italian merchant and his wife – a collection comprising over 150,000 letters and 500 account books.
To historians, this is a rich documentation of how both trade and daily lives were conducted in fourteenth-century Italy. The wife’s letters in particular (over 250) afford the unique opportunity to hear the voice of an ordinary Medieval businesswoman and wife. To Christians, they represent an interesting account on how she met her daily challenges with faith.
Becoming a Merchant’s Wife
Margherita was born in 1360 to the noble Bandini family, who had moved from Florence to Avignon, France, following political exile (both Margherita’s father and her mother’s family had been accused of plotting against the republic). By that time, the papacy had also moved to Avignon, bringing further prosperity to the city.
In 1376, at age 16, Margherita was given in marriage to Francesco Datini, a wealthy merchant from Prato, Italy, who was 25 year her senior. Taking advantage of the papal move, Francesco was thriving in the new papal seat by selling luxury goods and art to cardinals and other clerics who lived there.
The age difference between Margherita and Francesco was not uncommon. In reality, Francesco had been so absorbed by his business that he would have gladly avoided marriage altogether. He had lovers, and had even fathered a son in 1374.
But it was his Prato neighbor Niccolozzo Binducchi, a father figure after Francesco’s parents died of the plague, who insisted that he should marry. A marriage, Niccolozzo expected, would produce legitimate children who could take over Francesco’s business and benefit from his work. As happy as Niccolozzo and his wife Piera had been about the birth of Francesco’s son, “having a legitimate son will bring you more honor before God and the world,” Niccolozzo reminded him. Sadly, Margherita proved to be unable to conceive – a source of great sorrow for the couple.
In 1383, Francesco and Margherita moved back to Prato, where he traded in clothes, weapons, iron and salt, extending his business to other Italian and even Spanish cities and dealing in international commerce. In later years, he dabbled in the banking and insurance business. In reality, charging interest was still forbidden by canon law, but Francesco eased his conscience by saying he would leave his money to the poor when he died.
Francesco’s work caused him to travel for long periods of time, but he stayed in touch with his wife to receive news from home and reports about his business. He also sent her seemingly incessant instructions and reminders, to the point of becoming annoying.
From 1384 till his death in 1410, they corresponded about every two or three days. At first, Margherita, who had only learned to read (mostly her prayer books, typically written with the Gothic alphabet) had to dictate her letters. In her late thirties, she surprised Francesco by learning to read and write in the current “commercial” alphabet. This new ability allowed her to write whenever needed (without having to look for a scribe) and to be more honest in her letters.
As most women at that time, Margherita suffered from her husband’s repeated absences, which left her alone with her servants. Apparently, after marriage Francesco continued to be as work-driven as he had always been, so much that Niccolozzo had to exhort him, “You are rich enough, thanks be to God. Don’t want it all, don’t want it all, don’t want it all.”
She was also distressed by Francesco’s extramarital affairs, which he carried on as usual. The birth of her husband’s second son with a sixteen-year-old servant troubled Margherita so deeply that she became seriously ill. Francesco found a husband for the girl, but the baby died after a few months.
Francesco was not irreligious. He often worried about his sins, interpreted contrarieties as God’s punishment, and kept promising to become “a new Francesco.” He never mentioned any sin in particular, and adultery and infidelity might have been low in his concerns, since they were not considered as serious in men as they were in women - something most wives had learned to accept.
While accepting the traditional position of submission to her husband, Margherita felt free to advise (and even reprove) him when it came to religion and morals. This was included, at that time, in the wife’s duties toward her husband, and was encouraged by preachers.
And Margherita had many pearls of wisdom to share – most likely, pearls she had gathered as she juggled the many responsibilities Francesco had placed on her shoulders, and as she persevered in spite of her loneliness, infertility, and chronic illness (which caused her debilitating pain with each menstruation).
Once, noticing some sadness in one of Francesco’s letters, she encouraged him to trust God as he had said he was willing to do regarding fatherhood. “Why don’t you do in this and other matters what you said you would do about your children, if you had any, that if God took them away from you, you would accept it? If we trusted him in everything and were content with whatever happened, we wouldn’t be overtaken by these passions.”
As many women and men of her time, she had also learned to draw lessons in priorities from life’s constant reminders of the briefness of time. “If we thought about death and how short is our time in this world, we wouldn’t take on all these anxieties and would allow Him to lead us, being content in everything.”
Besides, she had learned to put everything into perspective. “I don’t think there is a man or a woman that has less reason to fret than us, since God has given us many benefits and we don’t have any burdens in this world. ... Let us remember those who have to shoulder heavy burdens they can’t avoid. Let us entrust everything to God and may He do what He will with both goods and people. Those who put this into practice don’t burden themselves with many sorrows.”
She applied the same lesson to injuries received. On one occasion, when Francesco was harmed by a business associate, she encouraged him to leave the matter to God: “Temper your spirits. Leave vengeance to the Lord God, who works better than anything we can devise.”
Since Francesco and Margherita would have never expected their letters to be published, they felt free to express their opinions, concerns, and even frustrations. In fact, she was franker in her letters, she said, than she would have been in person.
She found Francesco’s procrastination in addressing his excessive work schedule (in spite of repeated recommendations by his doctors) – distressing. “I wish you would not always be the same Francesco that you have been since I have known you,” she once told him, “who has done nothing but torment your soul and then your body. You are always preaching that you will lead a good life and that each month and each week will be the one.”
In spite of this, their letters are full of expressions of love and care for each other. After a reprove, Margherita told Francesco: “If I have said anything that is displeasing to you, I beg you to forgive me: my great love made me say it.”
From Prato, she sent him regular provisions of clean clothes, medications, books, eye-glasses, freshly baked bread, meats of all kinds, fruit and vegetables, spices, and home-made meals.
She felt the burden of her many tasks, so much that once she expressed her wish to leave everything behind and join a monastery (a wish many women made at that time). She would bear these burdens better, she said, if her husband could just recognize half of what she was doing.
Mothering through Infertility
But Margherita’s greatest sorrow was in her apparent inability to bear children. She finally accepted her condition, concluding that, if she couldn’t taste the joy of having children, she was also spared the pain of losing them at a time when few survived childhood.
She repeated these thoughts in 1402, when Francesco mourned the death of another child, and Margherita expressed her empathy both for her husband’s pain and for the “bitter morsel” the mother of the child had to swallow. “But believe me, Francesco, God does all things for the good of your soul,” she reminded him. She then prayed that God would help her to be grateful that, in her infertility, she would never experience the pain of losing a child.
The Datini home was brightened by the frequent visits of their nephew Tommaso (Maso) and niece Caterina (Tina), children of Margherita’s sister. In 1398, Francesco brought home his only surviving child – a daughter, Ginevra, fathered six years earlier with a twenty-year-old servant. Margherita and Ginevra bonded immediately.
From then on, Margherita’s letters are full of references to the child’s lively disposition and the activities they did together. Margherita made the child some clothes and sent her treats when Ginevra visited Maso and Tina: almonds, cheese, and the ingredients for “frittelle.” The only painting depicting the Datini shows them all kneeling in prayer, with Ginevra in front of Margherita.
When Ginevra turned sixteen, Francesco found her a husband, a distant cousin named Leonardo, apparently chosen among many suitors because he was not after Francesco’s money. Leonardo’s relatives had been trying to get him married for a while because of some bad habits which, as it was common at that time, they hoped a marriage could cure. Margherita and Ginevra were informed of the match after the fact, with an official letter that described Leonardo as “a good youth of good appearance.”
In 1399, the plague that had decimated the population of Europe returned with slightly lesser violence, killing many, including some friends and relatives of the Datini. Scared that he might meet the same end of his parents, Francesco went on two pilgrimages, pledged all his fortune to the poor, and eventually moved his family to Bologna, about 45 miles north of Prato.
A year later, they returned safely. As Francesco resumed his business, Margherita took the opportunity to review his priorities: “In my opinion, you need only two things: the first, to do what is pleasing to God, and the second, to spend the little time that is left you so that God may give you the grace to may give back to Him what He, in His goodness, has lent you.” The second comment referred to the charity Francesco had pledged to start for the poor.
But the plague struck again, and the family had to move back to Bologna, this time for fourteen months. Once again, they returned safely, but weary from travels and chronic ailments. In a letter to Francesco, Margherita expressed a pearl of wisdom she had learned over the years: “I take pleasure in two things in this world, that is, to accept with peace what God does to us and, for a person who has a family, not to expect from them more than what God has given them and to take pleasure in them.”
Francesco died in 1410. Margherita had the pleasure of seeing him become more religious in his last years. As promised, his entire estate went to the poor. Margherita, one of the four executors of his will, was awarded one hundred gold florins a year as long as she remained a widow and chaste. She survived Francesco for thirteen years, living mostly in Florence with Ginevra and her husband, who had received from Francesco a legacy and dowries for their daughters.
Margherita couldn’t have imagined that, 447 years after her death, her letters would be discovered and studied. And she couldn’t have imagined that, about 150 years after that, readers could sympathize with her challenges and draw from her wisdom.
 Ann Crabb, The Merchant of Prato’s Wife, Margherita Datini and Her World, 1360-1423, University of Michigan Press, 2015, 12
 Ibid., 12
 Valeria Rosati, ed., Le lettere di Margherita Datini a Francesco di Marco (1384-1410), Prato, Fondazione Datini, 2010, 23 January, 1395, (my translation), 81
 Ibid., 17 December 1385, 18
 Ibid., 16 gennaio 1385, 21
 Ibid., 16 January 1385, 20
 Ibid., 18 May 1402, 311
 Crabb, The Merchant of Prato’s Wife, 179
 Rosati, Le lettere di Margherita Datini, 24 September 1401, 300
 Ibid., 12 September 1402, 212