Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence

Thomas Kuehn
An investigation of the complex social and legal issues surrounding illegitimate offspring in Renaissance Florence


As far back as Jacob Burckhardt, illegitimate children have been considered advantaged, insofar as they lacked family obligations. Celebrated Renaissance figures such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, Alberti, and da Vinci were born illegitimately. Of course, their status put these children at a legal and a social disadvantage that was nearly impossible to overcome in usual circumstances. Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence is the first systematic study of a population of illegitimate children—in this case in the city often seen at the heart of Renaissance politics and culture, Florence.

The Florentine catasto, a fiscal survey of households taken at several points in the fifteenth century, locates hundreds of illegitimate children and reveals a great deal about their household circumstances and parentage. Supplementing this information are notarial documents and family account books. Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence places Florentine illegitimate children in a complete legal context, culminating in examination of several Florentine legal cases. Thomas Kuehn shows how lawyers were called on to cope with and make legal sense of the actions and prejudices of Florentines toward their illegitimate kin.

It is clear, in its simplest terms, that illegitimacy in Florence was a permanent, if not fixed, status. Most illegitimate children, especially girls, were abandoned; infanticide was undoubtedly practiced. But even those children raised by benevolent fathers and granted legitimation always remained "legitimatus" and not "legitimus." Florentines whose illegitimate paternity was admitted were overwhelmingly born of elite fathers but poor or servile mothers. In neither social nor legal terms did the illegitimate share fully in the personhood of the legitimate adult male Florentine citizen. Still, ambiguities of status could be useful for those with sufficient wealth and social standing to exploit their potential.

Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence will appeal to social historians of Europe, medieval and early modern, especially those concerned with family life, women, and children, as well as all those interested in Florentine history. Legal historians will find it useful as well.

Thomas Kuehn is Professor of History, Clemson University.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . a fascinating and well-crafted study, full of connections to topics at the forefront of historians' current agendas, and fruitfully informed by Mediterranean anthropology."
    —Trevor Dean, University of Surrey, Roehampton, American Historical Review, February 2003
  • "One of the strengths of Kuehn's book is that, while dealing with legal provisions and the professional opinions of jurists, or with the statistics of abandonment, presence in a paternal household or testamentary bequests, he never forgets the social realities that underlie them. . . . [H]e introduces specific examples of how the legal and social disabilities on illegitimates, and the possible mitigations of these, worked out in practice. Illegitimacy is an important topic, and the treatment of illegitimates, partly but never wholly members of their paternal family, tells us much about Florentine society in the fifteenth century."
    —Christine E. Meek, Trinity College, Dublin, English Historical Review, February 2003
  • "Thomas Kuehn has produced an excellent study of illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence. Perhaps this book's greatest contribution is the melding of social and legal history to provide the reader with a fuller understanding of the complex position held by illegitimates in fifteenth-century Florence. . . . [This book's] rich documentation will provide many specialists with new leads to family notaries and other documents that will enrich their own work. In conclusion, this book presents an excellent study of an important topic that enriches our knowledge of Renaissance Florence."
    Sixteenth Century Journal
  • ". . . Kuehn has provided a fascinating look at illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence that not only makes good use of an impressive learning and scholarship on that city but opens suggestive vistas on a range of topics worthy of further study."

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Copyright © 2002, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 364pp.
  • 2 drawings, 5 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2002
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11244-9

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  • $99.95 U.S.