The light of the desk lamp has been glowing for hours. Academic night shift as usual. Exhausted, I shut the book with the edited letters of Francesco Datini (1335─1410). The letters by the merchant from Prato, who established a ‘holding company system’[i] in the Western Mediterranean that linked trading centres in Tuscany, southern France and the Iberian Peninsula, are indeed a treasure trove for anyone interested in the commercial activities and everyday life of merchants in the 14th and 15th centuries.[ii] But that is not all. They also shed light on ‘marginalized’ social groups, such as the women who worked and lived in the merchants’ ostentatious palazzi. Among them were also slaves. In the Datini network, slaveholding was a common practice, and the cadastres from that period show that merchant households usually owned at least one or two slaves.[iii] The slaves were predominantly female and originally came from the Black Sea region.[iv]

I re-open the edition of Francesco’s letters. Okay, let’s try to solve this case, the historian-detective in me shouts. Fine then. I grab a pen and hastily write all the hints on my mini whiteboard.

WHO? Manno d’Albizzo degli Agli, Francesco’s junior (and unmarried) business partner in Pisa (joint company since 1392)[v] and Caterina, Manno’s slave, who was presumably bought from a Genoese for 57 florins in 1395.[vi]

WHAT? Manno’s slave Caterina bore him a son.[vii] The Datinis then helped in the search for a wet nurse for the baby, which was successful in the end of August 1398 … a really stressful affair, about 30 days of searching in Florence and Prato, at least 13 persons of different social strata were involved and a total of 8 candidates assessed…[viii]

WHY? Good question. I step back from my trail for a moment.

The answer to this question lies in the revival of remunerated breastfeeding in late medieval Italian regions. Because of the contraceptive effect of breastfeeding that hampered the conception of further offspring, an aristocratic or merchant mother rarely breastfed her own child. Instead, women from rural or urban areas offered (or were made to offer) their services as wet nurses because of financial hardship or social obligations. In the course of the ‘renewal’ of the Mediterranean long-distance slave trade[ix], enslaved women were soon integrated into the Italian system of remunerated breastfeeding.[x] Enslaved mothers ‘with milk’ were sold or rented out to household masters and mistresses in need of a wet nurse. In this context, the historian Christoph Cluse has described the late medieval capitalisation of female slaves’ body functions in Western Europe as a ‘new escalation level of exploitation of human beings’.[xi]

I go back to the whiteboard and review the case. The clock is ticking, just as time was running in the summer of 1398. According to the correspondence of the Datini couple, the baby of Manno and Caterina was transported from Florence to Prato by a breastfeeding woman from the neighbourhood. A ‘pick-up-wet nurse’, so to say. Margherita Datini then employed (at least temporarily) a wet nurse in Prato, while always looking for a better one.[xii] But that is only one side of the coin, isn’t it? What actually happened to Caterina, the enslaved mother? Silence.

Image by Corinna Peres.

This silence of the sources bothers me. And something else in the contextual information. Parallel to the search for a wet nurse for Manno’s and Caterina’s son, another Florentine merchant, Zanobi di Taddeo Gaddi, ‘kicked out’ the wet nurse he already had to wait for the breastfeeding services of ‘Marino’s slave’. Marino… that’s what it says in the edition of Francesco’s letter. No idea who this Marino was. But that happens, considering how many people were connected to the Datinis. Too bad. I sigh. If it was ‘Manno’s slave’… Halt. Could it be that… Wait, no rush. I go to the archive’s website and browse the great digital collection of documents (thank you, Archivio di Stato di Prato!). The desk lamp continues to glow as I search for Francesco’s letter to Margherita of 19 August 1398. Bingo. And there it is, written in the cursive Mercantesca: ‘la schiava di Manno’. Joy, anxiety. Let’s check again. But no, Francesco’s scribe, Nanni di Domenico di Cambio, did not use ri-ligatures. Overnight, the edited Marino suddenly became the unedited Manno. Errors in transcription do occur. Frankly, transcribing medieval mercantile writings is a tremendous challenge in time, effort, and concentration, and anyone who has done it is a palaeographic ‘master decoder’ – like Elena Cecchi with Francesco’s letters.

I go back to the whiteboard and add Zanobi to the WHO?. Finally, I find the clue to the missing puzzle pieces. A rewarding moment. These are the moments that keep reigniting my passion for being a historian. Apparently, Manno’s and Zanobi’s demands for wet nurses were intertwined, and according to Francesco, Caterina was to be rented to Zanobi as a ‘service’ that business partners could offer each other. This means that I need to carefully (re-)read unedited letters that may be connected to this case. But reading Manno’s writing now, in the middle of the night? Well, there is always a tomorrow. I turn off my desk lamp.

And tomorrow – many tomorrows – did indeed come and shed even more light on this case, prompting me to argue that an enslaved mother’s silence – rather than her actual ‘voice’ – during a hired labour relation as a wet nurse could favour a slave’s bargaining power. Interested in finding out how and why? If you can wait a few more tomorrows, you can read about Caterina’s story in my forthcoming dissertation ‘Slaves for Households’ (2024).

Corinna Peres is a university assistant at the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Vienna, Austria. In her dissertation, Peres focuses on forms of coerced labour in Italian households in premodern times. In 2019, she graduated with a Master of Arts degree with distinction in History and Romance Philology from the Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. Since 2020, she has been Public Out-reach Coordinator of the COST Action “Worlds of Related Coercions in Work” (WORCK). With her work experience in eLearning gained at the Ruhr University, she currently teaches hybrid and online courses in economic and social history at the University of Vienna.

[i] Ann Crabb, The Merchant of Prato’s Wife. Margherita Datini and her World, 1360–1423, Michigan 2015, 34.

[ii] The historiography on the Datinis is extensive with many socioeconomic publications, e.g. by Enrico Bensa (1928), Federigo Melis (1962), Joseph P. Byrne (1999) and Jerome Hayez (2006). For a recent synthesis: Giampiero Nigro (ed.), Francesco di Marco. L’uomo il mercante, Florence 2010. For the most detailed biography in english: Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prato. Francesco di Marco Datini, London 1957.

[iii] Juliane Schiel/Isabelle Schürch/Aline Steinbrecher, Von Sklaven, Pferden und Hunden. Trialog über den Nutzen aktueller Agency-Debatten für die Sozialgeschichte, in: Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Wirtschafts- und Sozialge-schichte 32 (2017), 17–48, 25. For the cadastres: Cesare Guasti (ed.), Ser Lapo Mazzei. Lettere di un notaro a un mercato del secolo XIV, I, Florence 1880, XLIVf.; Monica Boni, La domesticité en Toscane aux XIV et XV siècles, Geneva 2006, appendix.

[iv] Of the slave population in Genoa at the end of the 14th century, over 91 % were female, in: Michel Balard, Slavery in the Latin Mediterranean (Thirteenth to Fifteenth Centuries): The Case of Genoa, in: Reuven Amitai/Christoph Cluse (eds.), Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean (c. 1000-1500 CE), Turnhout 2017, 235–254, 240.

[v] In the company founded in July 1392, Manno was the junior ‘travelling’ partner (socius procertans) in Pisa, while Francesco was the capital provider (socius stans) in Prato/Florence. On business practices in late medieval Italy see Juliane Schiel, Zwischen Panoramablick und Nahaufnahme: Wie viel Mikrogeschichte braucht die Globalgeschichte?, in: Tillmann Lohse/Benjamin Scheller (eds.), Europa in der Welt des Mittelalters. Ein Colloquium für und mit Michael Borgolte, Berlin/Boston 2014, 119–140, 126f.

[vi] Letter from Manno degli Agli to Francesco Datini, 23.10.1395, Pisa-Prato, 1311.

[vii] Letter from Lodovico Marini to Manno degli Agli, 06.08.1398, Florence-Pisa, 1402382.

[viii] For a detailed report see Corinna Peres/Juliane Schiel, Searching for a Wet Nurse: Prato, 1395–98, Bielefeld 2021.

[ix] Alfred Haverkamp, Die Erneuerung der Sklaverei im Mittelmeerraum während des hohen Mittelalters. Fremdheit, Herkunft und Funktion, in: Christoph Cluse/Jörg Müller (eds.), Alfred Haverkamp. Neue Forschungen zur mittelalterlichen Geschichte (2000–2011). Festgabe zum 75. Geburtstag des Verfassers, Hannover 2012, 267–296.

[x] Cluse identifies four facilitating factors for this process: 1) no reservations about foreignness, 2) time pressure in finding a ‘good wet nurse’, 3) mechanisms for renting and selling of slaves to private individuals and foundling hospitals, 4) sexual use of slaves, see Christoph Cluse, Frauen in Sklaverei. Beobachtungen aus genuesischen Notariatsregistern des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts, in: Frank G. Hirschmann/Gerd Mentgen (eds.), Campana pulsante convocati, Trier 2005, 85–123, 97–104.

[xi] Cluse, Frauen, 2005, 85. According to Cluse, there was also a functional link between wet-nursing, slavery and the abandonment of children to foundling hospitals, see: Ibid, 98f.

[xii] Letter from Margherita to Francesco Datini, 21.08.1398, 1401847.