Women under Venetian Colonial Rule in the Early Renaissance: Observations on Their Economic Activities

Article excerpt

Whether the Venetian colony of Crete is interesting more for the reflection it casts on early Renaissance Italian society than for its own unique history is a question only recently coming into sharper focus. From the social arrangements imposed by Venice on the colony's ethnically mixed population, where a very small Latin minority dominated the far more numerous Greeks, to the everyday business of trade carried on by Latins, Greeks, and Jews, the history of Venetian Crete defines in a way few other fields can what was politically possible and culturally conceivable in the fourteenth-century European Mediterranean. Because the colony was a creature of Venice's devising, the society there can serve as a useful contrast to the kind of social relations current in Italian cities in the same period. Furthermore, the compact nature of the colony's archives, sufficiently intact to comprise one of the most valuable if underused sources in western Europe, lends itself to the investigation of questions that other archival sources, more forbidding in volume, discourage.

Beginning in 1211 and for the nearly four hundred and sixty years that Venice possessed the island of Crete, there exists a rich mine of diplomatic sources located in the State Archives of Venice, in the form of the Archives of the Duke of Candia (as Crete was called in the pre-modern period).(1) The contents of these archives, which were transferred to Venice after the Ottoman Turks took possession of the island in 1669, consist of deliberations of the island's advisory councils in the fourteenth century, court records beginning in the same century and extending to the end of Venetian rule, proclamations issued by the government, and a variety of other sources dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There is also an abundance of notarial records from Crete under Venetian rule, which have been incorporated into the larger notarial archives of the State Archives of Venice. The first century of Venetian occupation, the thirteenth century, is poorly represented in both the Archive of the Duke of Candia and the Cretan notarial records. A considerable amount of material has survived from the fourteenth century, but is still less than what remains from the subsequent two centuries.

The notarial records from Crete are of interest here. Perhaps because the island of Crete is located on the periphery of the late medieval and Renaissance world and thus stands in the same position with regard to the fields of late medieval and Renaissance history, relatively few scholars over the past twenty-five years have gone to the States Archives of Venice to consult the fourteenth-century notarial registers from Crete. Whatever the reason for the neglect, the rewards of deciphering the obscure Latin legal formulae, however, are great. In contrast to the larger metropolises of Venice and Florence, the so-called city of Candia was in fact a small town with a correspondingly simpler way of life. Yet the material presented here, taken together with a few other studies also derived from the notarial registers, reveals a Candia that is more lively than the one depicted in studies based on governmental and legal sources. If the government's records of its deliberations, proclamations, and court records provide a moving image of Candia, notarial records furnish the soundtrack of the city's bustle, thus bringing the scene closer to life than either set of sources would do on their own.

Even so, the picture is not complete, because the notarial registers that have survived appear to have belonged to notaries working within the city walls and not from the surrounding burg. The city of Candia included the area within the walls known as the city proper (civitas) and the area outside the walls, known as the burg. Latins and free Greeks of lesser status lived within the walls, while Greeks comprised the majority of residents in the burg, although more and more humble Latins in the fourteenth century were moving beyond the city walls. …