- Family and Gender in Renaissance Italy 1300–1600 by Thomas Kuehn
Thomas Kuehn's impressive study examines the negotiated nature of law and society in Renaissance Italy. Kuehn argues that law has been "more neglected than respected" as a lens through which to examine gender roles, marriage practices, and the nature of family life (2). He effectively employs a broad comparative approach that accounts for the ambiguities present in the variety of legal codes and changes in law between 1300 and 1600 across the Italian peninsula. He mixes an anthropological approach with legal history to examine how law both shaped, and was shaped by, gender norms, marital traditions, and other social and cultural practices. This fascinating study uses legal disputes to view the negotiated nature of family relationships and presents a nuanced, complex view of family dynamics in Renaissance Italy.
For social historians well acquainted with studies of gender norms and marriage practices but less familiar with legal intricacies, Kuehn's concise analysis of consilia are required reading. His expertise as a masterful legal historian is evident throughout the book's analysis of the incredibly complex and dense thicket of laws that shaped family life. Through a focus on consilia as the main source base, Kuehn examines the interplay of ius commune ("common" law drawn from Roman law, canon law, and feudal law) and local statutes in the deliberations and opinions of jurists who authored these texts. The drawbacks of consilia are pointed out in that they did not offer much social context about the litigants in the case nor did they usually provide the outcome of the court's decision. However, it is precisely the "dense and difficult" nature of these texts that offer such rich material in which Kuehn studies the ambiguity and flexibility of the law (12). Often paid by clients, top jurists offered interpretations of thorny legal problems where the ius commune contradicted or conflicted with local statutes. In turn, these arguments and opinions by jurists then formed the basis for new legal practices.
Kuehn begins the book with a comprehensive synthesis of major historiographical studies on the family in Renaissance Italy. Useful in itself as means to draw together the multitude of scholarly work on Italian families, Kuehn applies the lens of the law to these debates. He finds a constant tension between "individualistic tendencies in law" that often pushed against the corporate [End Page 1383] interests of the family. Rather than one fixed entity, Kuehn contends, "at best families emerge to our eyes as more nebulous kindreds, as federations of related persons and households that could become quite loose at times" (39). The following chapters explore these tensions through consilia that dealt with the power of patria potestas, marital issues involving property and dowries, inheritance through intestacy and testaments, and the role of the state.
Law rendered family life more flexible and subsequently jurists acted flexibly to accommodate family strategies. Through patria potestas fathers had legal power over their children to individually determine inheritance, but in court jurists limited that power through protecting the rights of sons from disinheritance as a means to preserve the family. Jurists also tended to side with women regarding dowry rights if fathers or brothers tried to prevent payment. However, jurists often protected dowries to exclude women from the line of succession in favor of male agnates and enforced a separation of spousal property. In particular, Kuehn's study of consilia reflects how the law enforced patriarchal ideals while also provided a means for female agency. Paolo di Castro usually argued against women's right to preserve their dowries from spendthrift husbands while Bartolomeo Sozzini's opinions on legal statutes and decisions by other jurists allowed for women's legal abilities to recover their dowries. Individual agency operated alongside family concerns as the law "gave women and men tools to negotiate their social existence" (164). By the sixteenth century, Kuehn argues that patriarchal influences hardened with the rise of the fideicommissum as a legal strategy of inheritance. The enforcement of the fideicommissum, where...