Duccio Balestracci’s book The Renaissance in the Fields offers an intensive look into the life of an ordinary renaissance peasant. Balestracci’s book is based on the financial records of Benedetto del Massarizia, a peasant from the town of Siena. The book covers several issues that were prevalent throughout the renaissance and with access to Benedetto’s records, the insight is unmatched. However, some of the more important and reoccurring themes include the importance of education and literacy, the importance of social status and social advancement, and the role of peasant women in the renaissance. Balestracci set out to widen the knowledge of renaissance peasants and their subculture in the countryside of Italy. He does so by exploring the major themes of the renaissance in a concise and objective fashion.
The Renaissance in the Fields opens with the notion that people of the renaissance were “stricken with a writing fever” (Balestracci 1). Businesses and economies were flourishing in renaissance Italy and with booming business comes the need to keep track of expenses and profits. Education and literacy seemed to become more than just an infatuation; it was a status symbol. It also came in handy with business transactions to ensure that there was no corruption or scamming going on. Balestracci says that “Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, merchants filled entire cabinets with notes on business transactions, family memoirs, and accounts of urban life” (Balestracci 1). Benedetto was one of the men that was obsessed with writing; he had a notary write down every transaction he made over his lifetime.
A literate and educated peasantry is a very significant thing for the renaissance. For ages, the lower class had been uneducated and oppressed. With the new found will to become literate and educated; the peasants now found themselves on a similar intellectual level as the upper classes. Educated merchant and lower class peoples is incredibly significant for historians like Balestracci. The accounts and memoirs left behind give much needed insight into the lives of people in the renaissance and opens up a brand new way of looking at the renaissance culture. Balestracci, however, seems a little bias and seems to like to exaggerate the amount of lower class peoples that were trying to engage in education. Surely, they were interested in becoming literate and educated, but maybe not so much as he says. He uses phrases like “There may have been someone able to ‘edify’ them during their visits to the taverns” (Balestracci 4). Taverns surely would have been a meeting place for peasants, but with the use of words like “may” he seems to be pushing the idea without concrete evidence.
As is the case in almost every society, social stature is a very important part of life to the peasants of Siena. The Renaissance in the Fields illustrates Benedetto del Massarizia’s will to advance socially. People were judged by what they ate, what they wore, how much money they made, and the reputation of their family. Balestracci went to the records of the tax office and “the evaluations of the Massarizia’ property … confirm their image as the most well off family in the village” (Balestracci 27). Benedetto worked hard to ensure he had the capital to buy the necessary things to advance his families name in society by working his own farm as well as sharecropping with a landlord. “When peasants could, they chose to own the symbols of a modest luxury, visible signs that separated those in better economic circumstances from their neighbors” (Balestracci 29). The amount one payed for a dowry would be a major symbol of wealth and would advance your standing in the community. Balestracci also points out that men of the fields would often times try and buy the same things as city dwellers to enhance their image. It was known that the rich lived in the city so by default one would look to them as cultural leaders. Some of Benedetto’s more “luxurious” purchases mirror what would be seen in a city dweller’s house hold.
Social standing was very significant for the renaissance. A person’s social status determined several things in his or her life. It determined whether or not food would be ensured, how comfortable of a lifestyle the family would live, as well as the influence over local politics. The Massarizia’s would not have been rich enough to have any type of influence over Siena’s culture, but possibly enough to influence the politics of the countryside and the peasant subculture. Knowledge of the society is important to The Renaissance in the Fields; it gives logical answers to why Benedetto bought and sold the things that he did. For example, he would buy linens because they were uncommon to peasants and the he bought a real bed instead of a straw mattress. All of the material goods are symbols to other peasants of economic well being, and he would be elevated in his community. Balestracci does a good job of portraying the social system and Benedetto’s will to advance through empirical evidence and without any bias of trying to paint a better picture of the time.
Balestracci emphasizes the role of women in the renaissance. The occurrence of women in the records were strikingly few and far between which, of course, foreshadows their role in society. As the record shows, women were rarely seen in business transactions and were only accounted for in the records of dowries or lawsuits. Simply put, “Life was not easy for those born female in the fifteenth century. Families lamented the birth of a daughter” (Balestracci 63). Women seemed to be almost a necessary evil for men in the Renaissance. If you were lower class they would cost you a lot of money in dowries and lack of help in the fields; but at the same time they were absolutely necessary to run your house hold. Balestracci says the birth of a girl is considered “a loss of two strong farmhands” (Balestracci 63). In cases like Benedetto’s brother, having many girls absolutely ruined his financial security. He had to pay so much in dowries that he had no money left. In lower class Italy, females were in no way desirable. Benedetto only mentioned his wives on two occasions, when one died and he had to pay for her funeral and when the other took him to court and he had to reclaim debts from her.
Women are underrepresented in the history of the renaissance. Balestracci touches on this subject and brings to light, through the lack of representation in the records, the role of women in the renaissance. It is quite important to understand the role of women in order to understand the society as a whole. A diminished role of the female typically represents a society where farming, hunting, or physical labor are the general means to making a living. This holds true in the renaissance, especially among peasants. Families lived and died by their crops, it was one of the only ways to ensure that food would be put on the table. The natural physical abilities of women put them at a disadvantage to men in this sort of society because they simply could not do the necessary labor.
Duccio Balestracci does an amazing job of interpreting the records of Benedetto del Massarizia and unearths many unknowns about peasant life in the renaissance. The Renaissance in the Fields is of great use to those interested in learning about the economy, society, and inner workings of daily life in the Italian Renaissance. It is a great read for students as well as historians to get a brand new perspective on the Renaissance. In fact, it might serve well for anyone that is looking for a good read. It certainly dismisses a lot of the misconceptions and stereotypes of the renaissance and in a way, brings the renaissance to life. Rather than envisioning mysterious men and women that so little is known about; it brings history down to a personal level allowing for people to relate to the Massarizia family that lived hundreds of years ago. Balestracci does well to stay with in the confines of objectivity and rarely makes assumptions on things that he does not have all the evidence to prove.