Co-evolution of social classes in Renaissance Florence

I am interested in looking more closely at what Luhmann says about society organized by stratification. We can take Florence as a case study.

In A History of FlorenceJohn M. Najemy writes

From at least the early thirteenth century Florence’s history was dominated by a competition, more intense and longer-lasting than similar confrontations elsewhere in Italy, between two distinct but overlapping political cultures and classes: an elite of powerful, wealthy families of international bankers, traders, and landowners organized as agnatic lineages [of the male bloodline]; and a larger community of economically more modest local merchants, artisans, and professional groups organized in guilds and called the popolo.

First, we note the distinction historians have drawn between the agnatic elite and the popolo. This is how historians reduce complexity. Secondly, we observe that the development of the elite and the popolo (“the people”) is a case of co-evolution. To quote Najemy again,

elite and popolo . . . emerged and developed in constant dialogue and conflict.

We might think of the elite as having existed for centuries before the popolo emerged, but from a systems-theory perspective this would not be accurate because the elite was not the elite until the popolo emerged. The elite and popolo are not things-in-themselves, but are rather observed as differences.; they are products of a distinction made by an observing system-history, a subsystem of science. The same can be said for the European aristocracy more generally.

When looking at the late 13th century, historians draw a new distinction (a case of re-entering a prior distinction) within the elite between old and new–the old elite’s wealth based in land and the new elite’s wealth based in trade and banking. Here we see beginnings of the modern economic system,

According to Najemy,

The emergence of this new plutocracy [rule by the wealthy] made Florentines acutely conscious of the difference within the elite between older families with limited connection to commerce and newer ones whose wealth exceeded anything previously seen and whose mercantile activities were radically transforming Florentine society and the city’s relationship to the outside world.

The social system known as organizations has a long history. In a stratified society, status is centered in the family. But in self-constituted organizations, people without powerful families or patrons could find protection.

Thirteenth-century Italy witnessed an explosion of self-constituted associations: the spontaneous formation of societies and organizations for purposes that ranged from religious devotion (confraternities) to security (armed neighborhood companies) to resistance against the economic pressure of grasping bishops (rural communes) to the protection of collective interests by practitioners of the same trade or business (guilds). These were not the exclusive property of the popolo, as elites also joined confraternities and guilds. But armed neighborhood companies, rural communes, and the great majority of guilds emerged from the need to find collective strength in such associations by those who lacked powerful families. Throughout communal Italy the popolo depended chiefly on armed companies and guilds to advance its interests.

In the guilds we see the development of a secular morality. As Najemy writes,

In the 1230s each Calimala merchant periodically renewed his promises, sworn on the gospels, to “acknowledge, observe, and implement everything that the consuls of the merchants of Calimala shall require of me within the terms of their office,” never to defraud creditors, to observe and conduct themselves in accordance with the guild’s statutes, and to advise the consuls “as best I know how” whenever requested. The first rubric of the oldest surviving complete redaction of statutes of a Florentine guild, the 1296 constitution of the used-cloth dealers (Rigattieri), preserves their oath: “I who am or will be of this guild swear on the holy gospels to hear, give heed to, and observe any and all just and honorable commands and decrees” of the consuls and not to defraud creditors.


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