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“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”: The Power and Emotion in Women’s Correspondence in Fifteenth-Century Italy
By Nicole Lynn McLean
Master’s Thesis, University of Maryland, 2012
Abstract: This thesis examines the lives of Alessandra Strozzi and Lucrezia de’Medici of Florence. The fifteenth-century in Italy saw women’s power declining, and patrician women used letter writing to enter the public sphere and exert power. This study analyzes socially constructed emotional themes in women’s correspondence which is in concert with scholars like Barbara Rosenwein in that it seeks to instead situate emotions in specific historical contexts. For Alessandra, we see how she successfully employs the emotions of guilt and shame to manipulate her sons into behaving properly, as these emotions were closely connected to Italian culture. Second, in the patronage letters written to Lucrezia by potential clients, we see the use of motherly emotions by clients in hopes that Lucrezia will essentially fill a mother’s role, helping them with their hardships. Even though client’s letters represent a “fictive” mother/child relationship, they are a testament to Lucrezia’s power as a mother.
Introduction: The history of emotions is a particular area of social history that has been on the rise during the last few decades, especially research on the medieval period. Until recently, this field of research was seriously neglected by historians and often relegated to other fields of study including sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Yet, there are an abundance of historical sources just waiting to be analyzed to gain an understanding of what the cultural norms were in regards to emotional behavior or how to understand why people may have used certain emotional expressions in their writings. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the medieval period was understood to either be one of a cold and emotionless age or one in which people acted in a “childlike” manner.
After Norbert Elias and Johann Huizinga published their works in the early to mid twentieth century, which described medieval emotions (and consequently anything pre-modern) as either non-existent, unrestrained, or “childlike”, many future historians followed suit. Scholars continued the theory that the premodern period did not exactly express emotions, while the modern period can be understood as one of complex feelings. Historians also continue to argue that the medieval period is one of unrestrained emotions in which no societal norms existed to make people conform to certain standards; in comparison, the modern period has cultural norms that regulate the expression of emotions.
However, while examining documents of the medieval period, historians can find great examples of emotional expressions that completely debunk the myths of an unloving and unrestrained period of history. Sources ranging from laws to literature to letters can “reveal social practice” whether or not emotions are explicitly expressed throughout each particular source. In addition, letters from the Middle Ages, which will be the focus of this study, can tell us much about social norms in regards to parent-child relationships, the power women could exert through correspondence, and how emotions could be performed through the letters of patronage.