Florence from 1340 to 1360: Plague, Revolt and Financial Crisis

This is a paper summarizing a chapter in Najemy’s A History of Florence 1200-1575. As one who is on his way to becoming a historian, I tried my best to summarize as accurately as possible in the time I was given, but please reference Najemy’s credible writing before taking mine for granted. Enjoy!

Florence throughout the Middle Ages kept the reputation for being a wealthy city-state. But things would change in the 1340s as a combination of debt and war caused the Florentine people to have no other option than to revolt against their leaders. Florence from the 1340s to 60s would show a darker side of its personality that would create heavy consequences financially and politically. This is a story of action and reaction, and of consequence and outcome, which started in war and ended with what any sane historian would agree to call surprising results.

It all started in the late 1330s with the death of Castruccio Castracani, the former holder of Lucca. Lucca fell into the hands of Mastino della Scala, who was the holder of a growing northern Italian territory that threatened to keep expanding. Fearing this expansion, Venice allied with Florence to war against Mastino from 1336 to 1338. This is just one of many wars where, in order to finance soldiers, the elites of Florence would have to seek public funding through the notorious gabelle tax and involuntary loans from its people. Even the rural population surrounding Florence, whom were collectively known as the contado, would have to cough up more money for taxes as a result of this war. This says little about the popolo, whom were the poor masses of the city.

While the government was putting into effect mandatory public loans with interest on their people to finance their war with Mastino, manufacturing companies who paid the most were given incredible power and began to act as banks. These companies, in many cases but not all, were given the responsibility of paying the loans of their workers to the government, as workers who could not afford to pay a loan would have their company pay it for them in order to take advantage of the high interest return rate. Systems like this of forcing your people to pay loans had worked in the past, but upcoming events would make things hard to manage.

Taxes and enforced loans on the people of Florence were beginning to take their toll. Evidence of this can be seen in the decreasing revenue of the gabelle tax. The gabelle in 1337-38 raked in 90,000 florins, but in 1342-43, despite raising the amount of what people had to pay, only brought in 65,000 florins. Revenues collected from the taxation of wine also decreased dramatically, a telling sign that something was going wrong with Florence’s financial system.

To make things worse, a whopping debt of 250,000 florins was dumped onto Florence as it offered to buy Lucca out from under the della Scalas’ boot in 1341. Pisa, another powerful city-state in Italy, shook its head at this and what was supposed to be an expensive solution to war became an even more expensive instigator of war. To finance a new war with Pisa, more heavy taxes and involuntary loans were pushed onto the people of Florence. More signs of how this burdened the working people were shown boldly to the eyes of all, as profits from the southern Italian grain trade plummeted. The languished cries of the soon-to-be financial crisis were now palpable on the horizon.

The financial crisis was pushed forward with a heavy kick as, just in the nick of time, France and England started a war of their own. This was bad for Florence because nearly its entire wool enterprise, which was its largest source of revenue, had relied on imports of raw wool from England coming in via shipments through France. To make sure this important source of raw wool was not lost, some of Florence’s wealthiest families began to loan huge sums of money to the English king, Edward. In 1337, Edward was lent 175,000 florins. Promises of loans from other Florentine families would see that number rise to 840,000 florins by 1340. There was a general understanding that these loans might never be paid back, but Florence was desperate to keep its wool enterprise alive. England continued to ship raw wool to Florence without going through France, but these imports would not be enough to make up for the loss of the massive loans. In the long run, Florence would find an even more lucrative source for wool elsewhere, but this would not be until much later.

By combining the heavy taxes and forced loans with the expenses of war and the declining of profit margins in all fields of revenue, a historian can see clearly that things were not looking good for Florence at this time. The financial crisis was under full swing, and one of the first major reactions happened in November 1341 as members of the contado started a political uprising. Although this uprising was small, it would speak as an omen to a bigger one yet to come.

By July 1341, all of the compounding problems of the financial crisis sparked emergency decision-making in the government. These decisions would ultimately lead to even more forced loans from the general people of Florence. More loans from the people meant more debt for the commune and, when adding in the 250,000 florins still owed for buying Lucca from the della Scala, a total debt of 650,000 florins was reached. Then, in October, Florence lost a battle with Pisa and at the same time Pope Benedict XII cut Florence out of important business. All of this compounding with what was already a crisis made things extremely bad for Florence, so much so that people feared Florence would not be able to exist as an independent city-state for much longer.

By June 1342, people who had paid loans to the commune hoping for high interest returns, people known as depositors, began to demand their money back. Soon whole flocks of depositors were demanding their money back. The elite government panicked as a result and did something they would only ever consider doing in the most dire of emergencies. Later in 1342, the elite government brought in a reputable foreign leader, one Walter of Brienne, to take control of the government in their stead, wholly hoping he would have the guile to emplace the immoral policies required to save the financial system from complete ruin.

Since Walter was also given control over the armies fighting with Pisa, he ended the war altogether. He brought back many policies that were in favor of the contado and the popolo. He also reduced the city’s debt by implementing new indirect taxes. He did all of this at the loss of respect from the elite, and he was eventually kicked out of office on July 26th 1343. But he left a lasting mark on the popolo and poorer craftsmen such as the dyers. He left them with considerably more power than they had enjoyed previously. This sense of power was just what the popolo needed to begin their major violent uprising of September 1343, an uprising that would inaugurate an entirely new popular government. On September 25th, fighting broke out in the streets between the popolo and the elite which caused 60,000 florins in damage. As magnates were dragged from their palaces, control of the government was taken out of the hands of the elite and given to the popolo. New systems of selecting leaders were put into place and the guilds now had more power than the old elite families. Most of the officials in control now worked to please the popolo, and the elite could do nothing but watch in disgust.

On December 29th 1343, the new popular government coalesced the commune’s debts into one big mountain, literally called the Monte. The Monte at this point was nearly 800,000 florins deep, but it would not stay so for long as the popular government would work hard to save their Republic. Interest payments on the involuntary loans were temporarily suspended. In 1344, to counteract this decision, depositors started selling their loans like credit to buyers who hoped to make a profit off the interest that would eventually have to be paid back to them. The methods of the new government worked, and by 1345 the Monte had been reduced to 570,000 florins.

Further action against the Monte called for voluntary loans with promises of high interest. Many of the poorer guildsmen who had found new wealth due to their rise in power, people known as “new men”, took advantage of this by giving the government large sums of money, waiting for the day that they would be paid back with much profit. This proved to work well against the Monte, which by 1358 was reduced to 270,000 florins. These new men of the 1343 revolt would continue to prosper as they bought cheap property that the elite were selling in order to pay back debts of their own. Things were looking up for the Republic and its financial system, but they would not stay so for long.

In the late 1340s, hostilities between the elite and the popolo were once again on the verge of crisis. For the elite, the plague of 1348, or the “Great Pestilence”, would come as somewhat of a blessing, as it would give them the opportunity needed to put government control back into their hands. All government activity in April came to a complete standstill as half of Florence’s total population was decimated by the disease. Things would not shape up until August, when the popolo turned around and realized the elite were once again safely in their palaces doing all the policy-making. The elite were back in power because many of the popular government’s systems of selecting officials required a higher population and therefore were now impossible to enact, and the surviving elites had just enough power to turn things back to the way they liked it, spreading power only amongst themselves. But not all outcomes of the plague were in the elite’s favor. Due to a lack of population, the cost of labor skyrocketed. Although many surviving new men could not afford to pay the new labor costs, many others did, and these lucky new men would grow to become some of the elite families of the future.

Overall, however, the elites benefited greatly from the plague, as almost all of them could not only afford the new labor costs but could also afford to attract all the best workers by offering to pay back their debts as well. Despite this causing many complaints from the new men as they lost their best workers, tensions between the popolo and the elite throughout the 1350s and 60s were less hostile than historically recorded because of many other new men and guildsmen being satisfied with rising profits. Many skilled craftspeople were benefiting greatly from the rise in labor costs. In some cases this even meant that they were being paid as much as three times what they had been in the 1340s.

All of this progress would show its effects in the 1360s when industry saw a large expansion in quality exports. Increased production drove up wages even further, but this was not a good thing for everyone. Smaller firms who could not afford labor were disappearing from the marketplace, especially as they could not compete with the high production levels of the richer companies. Despite regulations on production levels being emplaced, increased worker mobility meant that all of the best workers were going to the richer companies, as the richer companies continued to offer the paying back of debts for anyone who would work for them. While Petrarch was settling in Venice in 1361, financial stability was somewhat settling in Florence. Things would never be perfect, but Florence’s financial crisis was over, all thanks to revolt, good politics and, of course, the plague.

Source: A History of Florence 1200-1575 by John M. Najemy

3 Comments

    1. Glete, Jan. Naval History 1500–1680. Routledge, 2017. I remember seeing an article about it in this compilation.

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