Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
A Comparison of Catalan and Tuscan Standards of Living amongst Urban Householders, circa 1420

Jeffrey Fynn-Paul, University of Toronto

This paper will present some of the findings brought to light in my doctoral dissertation for the University of Toronto, entitled, “The Catalan city of Manresa in the Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries: A Political, Social, and Economic History.” Much of the work in this dissertation is based upon an analysis of the Manresan Liber Manifesti of 1408-11, a unique tax survey of 640 households similar to the Florentine Catasto of 1427. Through an analysis of this data, I have been able to produce the first statistics on Iberian households that can be compared with David Herlihy’s famous household measures, particularly those found in his Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia, and in Tuscans and their Families. Though the prevailing wisdom, based indeed on little more than suspicion, might lead us to conclude that Iberian urban householders were worse off than their Italian counterparts, analysis has revealed that in one medium sized Catalan city at least, poor and middle class householders were much more affluent than corresponding Italian householders as reported by Herlihy. The reasons for this seem to lie in strong Catalan constitutional protections against excessive taxation, which contrast strongly with conditions in the Florentine contado.

This paper is especially engaging because of the number and precision of measures that it makes regarding Manresan householders’ standards of living. The four measures it will discuss include per capita wealth, housing and its quality, food storage, and debt levels. Regarding per capita wealth, the Liber Manifesti provides a minute breakdown of the distribution of wealth by occupation, class, and gender (fully fifteen percent of Manresan householders were widows). Secondly, it is possible to estimate the proportion of Manresan homeowners and the quality of their housing. An astonishing 80 percent of Manresan householders owned their own homes after 1400, a trend that reflects stagnating housing prices and large wage increases in the decades after the Black Death. In addition, almost half of these homes can be described as ‘solidly middle class:’ i.e., they were much more substantial than single-room hovels. Scrutiny of other sources has also made possible an estimate of the number of days’ worth of rations held in each householder’s storerooms. Once more the numbers are far better than Herlihy’s Tuscan figures would lead us to expect: by 1410, only the lowest 10 percent of the population was living hand to mouth, and middle class householders typically had two to four months’ worth of rations stored in their cellars. The fourth measure to be discussed is debt levels. While Herlihy found that 38 percent of Tuscan householders were in debt for 40 percent of their total assets, only 16 percent of Manresans were similarly indebted.

These findings will be placed in a brief context. Probable differences between Catalonia and Castile will be discussed, and a longer term picture of the fortunes of Manresa’s lower and middle classes will be provided. (A hint: the decades between 1380 and 1430 probably represented their heyday).

Because of the broad applicability of the measures under discussion, this paper should prove stimulating to historians working in many fields and regions.


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