The Story of Work 7: Guilds, Dante, Florence, Famine and Plague

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If you are new to this serial story, you can find the Introduction here. Like any serial, each episode builds on what has gone before, so if you find yourself confusing your labor with your opus, or praxis with poiesis and you are starting here, it might be an idea to go back to the Introduction and then read on through. The recurring cast of conceptual characters is introduced in the episodes on Greece and on Rome.


This episode marks a departure from the previous ones in that, despite a brief discussion of Dante, it is less focussed on texts: it remarks on the historical practice of work as well.

I start off by linking back to the previous episode of the story before comparing that with some historical practices and events that had very significant effects on the stories about and the changing connotations of work. I contrast this with Dante’s careful usage of the term lavoro (“work”) in the Divina Comedia (yes, just one m, though there are 2 in modern Italian) before ending with a return to material history and the effects of the 1325 famine and 1348 plague.

I am very well aware that this episode is sketchy – I could really do with a lot more with Dante and Piers Ploughman, not to mention Chaucer, accounts of the various peasants revolts, maybe even the Inquisition Register (I’m thinking of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie on Montaillou, of course). They, and much much more, will appear in the final version, I promise. The trouble is that there are so many more records from now on and the hierarchy of influence is less clear to me in this period. To make the choices, I need to do more research on what was widely known and republished in the nineteenth century (besides Dante and Chaucer, certainly Piers Ploughman, having received modern editions since 1813, was regarded as a political text – see e.g. Jusserand’s volume in the 1890s, and Furnivall teaching it in Working Men’s Colleges).

In the meantime, your suggestions, advice and comments are very welcome.


I have previously mentioned the centrality of Providence in Aquinas’s thinking about work. There are several elements involved in Providence that will later assume very considerable importance.

Most important is the conception that we are all born with specific dispositions to a certain estate (and therefore kind of work) and must remain within it. Providence is this sense is politically a conservative position (we shall see this in much later thinking too).

With some caveats, we can see elements of closely-related hierarchical thinking in material secular society contemporary with Aquinas in the thirteenth century, especially in the rise of the guilds. The guild master (or the many guild mistresses) would provide both technical and (in theory) moral training together with other guild members with a view to the reproduction of both skill and social stability in the next generation. In addition to some regulation from the state, the guild system offered a basis and justification for the regulation of unfair competition from colleagues (including from those who developed new and more effective methods of production). In other words, it was a secular regulation of the rage for financial gain that the Church Fathers and classical philosophy denounced because it violated a concept they had inherited from the classical Greeks, “temperance“. Above all, despite the many social activities that they undertook, schools and alms-houses they founded and the huge variation in the behaviour of individuals, guilds set themselves up at least in their own rules as intending to conserve the moral and religious status quo.[1]

The standard story still promoted by neoliberal thinkers is that such conservative restraint was a bridle that restrained the natural energy of the social animal, which was, however, invigorated with the rise of modern forms of capitalism in Renaissance Italy and Spain. What before was a kind of slavery, now was free (a dichotomy between freedom and slavery that we have seen to be fundamental to the concept of work from the beginning). The new commercial enterprises were characterised by the invention and adoption of double-entry bookkeeping, and by the formation of cartels and joint stock ventures that spread the risks and profits of large-scale and complex transnational trade, especially but not exclusively connected with cloth (hence the image below).

Whatever one’s underlying metaphoric thinking and political and economic preferences, it is certainly true that these developments marked a significant alternation in how work came to be thought of – but not everywhere and by everyone as we shall see.

Italian fashion c. 1300 from Albert Kretschmer, Costumes of All Nations (London: H. Sotheran & Co, 1882), from http://www.kendallredburn.com/images/costumesofallnations/IMG_5902.JPG (Wikimedia Commons)

These innovative business procedures made a crucial distinction between the legal fiction of the ‘firm’ and its partners and for whom ‘work’ was actually done and the employee: the ‘employer’ was no longer God or his representatives, or a master in a trade guild, but a ‘company’ – a transformation of the abstract ideal of the monastery or the Church. While Max Weber would posit this as becoming widespread later, historians now suggest that for the first time ‘work’ became regarded as something useful for the economy.[2]

This radically new conception was limited to certain geographical areas and classes, to be sure – mainly Florentine and Venetian bankers – but it enabled cultural production on a lavish scale that was gradually emulated over Europe.

No longer just a back payment (atonement) for sin and an investment in life after death, or an activity involving transactions limited by custom and use, ‘work’ was enabled by these new technical procedures to be redefined as an investment in capital which in itself was an investment in future happiness in corporeal life in the form of material goods: architecture, painting, sculpture, and indeed the cloth upon which so much of the wealth was based.[3]

The numerous primary sources written by the record-keeping classes that Richard Goldthwaite’s fascinating and detailed The Economy of Renaissance Florence is founded on  allow us to see that Florentines took it for granted that lavoro [< labor] and travaglio [work as suffering; related to French travail, it originally referred to a form of torture] were essential to the earthly city’s economy far more than to their idea of the City of God.

Domenico di Michelino, Dante illumina Firenze – Dante illuminates Florence by showing it visions of hell, purgatory and heaven (1465, fresco on north wall of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence). Wikimedia commons.

We do not see this in Dante (c. 1265 – 1321), however, although Florence was already very wealthy. This is not the place to consider Dante’s complicated attitudes either to classical philosophy in general, or his (virtue) politics in relation to classical and Christian philosophy (interesting as those certainly are). All I want to do here is alert the reader to a hugely influential text that (like Virgil’s Eclogues and Aeneid in classical times) is not usually discussed in relation to histories of “work:” the Divina Comedia.

Although it is hardly one of its highlighted (or much repeated) words, the Divina Comedia is in fact very careful in its use of lavoro. As a noun, the term only occurs five times in the entire Comedia. The verbal form, lavorare, is used just once. Nonetheless, each occurrence is very carefully thought through. The single appearances of the noun in the Inferno and Purgatorio (plus the verb once in the Inferno) throb with the shameful and painful connotations of classical Latin labor as ponos.

In the tenth circle of Hell, Dante and his guide Virgil (whom we have met before in this Story of Work) come across the punishment for forgers. They are confined to a malarial ditch and are madly scratching their skins with their nails come coltell di scardona le scaglie (“like knives the scales of a bream”). Tell me, asks Virgil of one of them, “if the nail last eternally for your work / task [lavoro],” whether there are any Latini (Italians) amongst this lot. Of course he knows the answer very well the answer to both parts of thw question: yes, there are, and yes, the lavoro, the punishment, is eternal, and so the sufferer’s nails will continue to scratch the terrible sores.

dinne s’alcun Latino è tra costoro
che son quinc’ entro, se l’unghia ti basti
etternalmente a cotesto lavoro.

Dante, Inferno, XXIX: 88-90
Illustration by Gustave Doré for this Inferno. Originally published in 1861, the illustrations were widely reprinted in different editions of the Divina Comedia. This image was taken from an 1892 edition from the American branch of Cassell & Co. copied from
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8779

Later in the Purgatorio, on their way up the mountainside to the gates of Paradise, Virgil tells Dante to look down beneath his feet. Dante sees carved into the pathway figures from classical myth and the Old Testament: amongst them are the giant Briareus, Niobe, Saul, and Nimrod, King of Shinar, as if out of his mind at the foot of his great lavoro – the Tower of Babel – while his people, who were as arrogant as he, look on.

Vedea Nembròt a piè del gran lavoro
quasi smarrito, e riguardar le genti
che ‘n Sennaàr con lui superbi fuoro.

Dante, Purgatorio, XII: 34-6

At the beginning of the Paradiso though, there is an immediate (and to me quite shocking and moving) shift. Dante’s guide Virgil cannot enter Paradise with him – Dante’s beloved Beatrice had taken over the role of guide at the end of the Purgatorio – but Dante seems unwilling to part with him even now. For here, signalled by the classical appeal to Apollo, we find as if an echo of the use of labor in Virgil’s Aeneid we’ve seen before, as the sybil tells Aeneas of the effort he will have to make to fulfil his task of visiting his father in the underworld. Perhaps too it recalls the famous praise of labor in Virgil’s Eclogues:

O buono Appollo, a l’ultimo lavoro
fammi del tuo valor sì fatto vaso,
come dimandi a dar l’amato alloro.

Dante, Paradiso, I: 13-15

“O good Apollo, to the last work make me into such a vase, made with your power, such as is required to give the beloved laurel” – a rather elliptical invocation even in Italian, which effectively asks the god to inspire Dante so that he can make his final book, the Paradiso – here the lavoro – into something worth being crowned with a laurel-wreath for. Dante here wants to be granted poiesis, the gateway state that creates the true work of art – lavoro be it noted, slave work, not opera (< Latin opus), the result of techne. That lavoro rhymes with alloro – laurel – is significant. For the rhyme links the two words – the sonic echo suggests that it’s Virgilian and Christian lavoro that is closer to alloro than another Italian word for “work” that Dante could have used here: opera (< opus). For the lavoro here is indeed a “work of art,” a meaning that Vasari will use constantly and indifferently in his very material Vite de piu ecceleenti pittori (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters) 150 years later in 1550, and which could often just as well be translated there as an economically-driven “product.” Here, though, Dante seems to stand a cross-roads: the lavoro is an art work but it is not part of a material economy. It is a strenuous activity inspired by the divine which is also associated with the heroic yet spiritual virility lauded by Virgil.

But this case of lavoro is, too, a transition, for when lavoro appears twice again in the Divina Comedia it changes meaning once more. Both times it is associated with positive adjectives (buon lavoro, alto lavoro – good work, high work) and each time it is best translated as the “mission” of the Church (Paradiso, V: 31-33; VI: 22-24). While this was a meaning that the Vulgate had preferred to associate with opus (and hence Italian opera), we have seen several times now how a clear difference between labor and opus has been undermined for centuries by the Church fathers.

The associations of lavoro remain at the end of the Divina Comedia, then, as Christian and spiritualised as the labor of Aquinas or St Benedict. Dante has taken the word on a journey through the Comedia, developing its meanings to suit its context, from the horrors of hell to the beatitude of heaven. His usage is very far removed from the wealth-producing labour recognised by the Florentine lay people.

Before we pass on, I want to note very briefly, how another difference from his contemporaries lies in Dante’s use of another word Florentines used for work in their letters: travaglio. The Divina Comedia uses it just three times, and each time it very clearly means “torture,” not work at all (Inferno XXXIV: 91-93; Purgatorio XXI: 4-6; Paradiso XXXIII: 112-114) . The poem entirely excludes the hyperbolic popular use of the word. Exactly as we have seen before, it excludes the economic aspects of work. It is not as if the meaning of “work” – whether lavoro or travaglio – is the same everywhere, even in the same city at roughly the same time.

This is hardly surprising. Dante, as we know from plenty of sources, would certainly have agreed that late medieval and Renaissance Florence, for all its dazzling depictions of piety, was the earthly realisation and redefinition of Aquinas’s feared malum into bonum with which we ended the last episode. His uses of the lavoro and travaglio just confirm this.

Much more important that that trite point is how this discussion of the even the smallest quasi-incidental details of language use in Dante are the result of specific yet very rich cultural traditions. Dante draws on aspects of them to change the associations of the word. The same goes for our uses of the word “work.” Do they really have nothing to do with Dante’s?

And then even though lavoro appears so little in Dante, a central question for his world-building, even if it is implied, was (as it still is) whose work for whose bonum. Unregulated by the classical or theological virtues, forgers operate in the economy and go to hell because they work for personal gain or passion, as do so many, many others scattered all over Hell, from Dido, Dionysus of Sicily, to Ugolino della Gherardesca and Archbishop Ruggieri – as bad rulers they don’t do their jobs because the put themselves first. They are not regulated by the virtues but by the sins. In all cases that means they were concerned with their own short-term bonum.

In terms of historical practice, exploitation was, perhaps, the norm not just amongst Florentine merchants and bankers. Lukasson in 2021, picking up what early critics of Max Weber objected to, is keen to remind us that forms of working in an organised marketplace designed to extract profit (or as he would prefer it, increase value) at various stages long predate the seventeenth century that Max Weber suggested. One of Weber’s early critics pointed out that in the sixteenth century the Low Countries’ wealthy cloth firms ‘put out’ work to households in the country for reasons of profit; the Holy Roman Imperial mining rights in central Europe were leased out to firms, and, with their accompanying activities, this involved the employment of at least 100,000 workers.[4] Few of these vast bodies of manual laboratores [workers] whether in Florence or northern Europe would have been as replete with bonum as those running the banking houses or cloth firms.

This is where the conservative theology of Providence came in handy as a justification. Theologically, it could be argued that exploitation was what the laboratores deserved since Providence had allotted them to this station. Correspondingly, by the record-keeping banking and merchant classes, the laboratores were almost always presented as ‘vicious, dangerous and illiterate… more animal than man’,[5] quite in tune with Greek thinking. As individuals, they are pretty much excluded from Dante’s vision too, at best lumped together as masses who groan but do not articulate their stories.

Miniature from a folio of the Antiquitates Flandriae, depicting the citizens of Tournai, Belgium burying those who died of plague during the Black Death. By Pierart dou Tielt (c. 1340-1360 CE). Made c. 1353. (Royal Library of Belgium) – retrieved from Tielt, Pierart dou. “Citizens of Tournai Bury Their Dead.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified March 22, 2020. https://www.worldhistory.org/image/12033/citizens-of-tournai-bury-their-dead/.

The unequal division of profits became acute when factors other than the economic and ideological came into play. There were far-reaching effects on labour and on all types cultural documents caused by the shortages brought on by the 1325 famine and by the 1348 plague. In an illuminating study, Kellie Robertson (2006) detailed the cultural effects of these disasters and their effects on the first English national labour regulation laws.[6] In short, the very severe labour shortage combined with a terrible scarcity of resources precipitated a battle over the ideological meaning of work: was it primarily the result of sin or was it a holy pre-lapsarian activity? Those demanding higher wages held to the latter; those refusing to grant the higher wages held to the former. The previous attempts to marry the two theological notions of labour through Providence no longer seemed convincing.

That said, and despite what I have written above about Florence, this was still not an occasion for the widespread redefinition of labour in secular terms as contributing to an endlessly growing, changing and profitable national economy. As Robertson tells us, the new English labour laws may have enforced everyone’s participation in the corn harvest, but they also ensured the price that the crops could be sold for was not exorbitant: profit or increasing national wealth was not the motive. [7] The purpose of the laws was still to maintain social stability.

In the terms of this serial, the virtue of temperance was still regarded as a guide to government: it was not considered good praxis to create the conditions for ‘constantly revolutionising the instruments of production’ that, according to the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie require and such as we see in the competition for GDP.[8] The new labour laws that Robertson describes were in that sense a continuation of classical practice. We can see this too in the thinking behind later labour legislation, including the famous 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses: with its Preamble’s likely deliberate echoes of Piers Plowman, it was as much call to regulate the greed of the managers of charitable funds as to regulate acts of charity themselves.[9]

Conceptions as well as the practices of work are changing, but not everywhere all at once, not even in all of a single city.


[1] Gervase Rosser, The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 60 and chapter 2 passim. Given Rosser’s very persuasive argument about the difference between historical practice and discourse, it is wise to note again here that this serial does not focus on actual behaviours but on discursive description and prescription.

[2] Cf. Komlosy, Work, 11. Short references like this mean that the full reference can be found in the annotated bibliography in the Introduction here.

[3] Richard A. Goldthwaite, The Economy of Renaissance Florence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Goldthwaite’s is an example where modern scholarship has entirely overturned nineteenth-century thinking: cf. Ruskin’s idea of Renaissance Florence as a city ‘entirely resolved … to do justice to all men…’ whose merchants were ‘examples of whatever modes of life might be consistent with peace and justice.’ (Val D’Arno: Ten Lectures on the Tuscan Art Directly Antecedent to the Florentine Year of Victories… Oxford, 1874 (London: George Allen, 1890) 105, 65, paras. 128, 83.

[4] Herbert M. Robertson, Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism: a Criticism of Max Weber and his School (New York: Kelley and Millman, 1933), 33. A lot more work has been done since then and I cite Robertson simply to show the age of this objection. Cf. Lucassen, Story, 180-1.

[5] Le Goff, Time, Work and Culture, 97.

[6] Kellie Robertson, The Labourer’s Two Bodies: Labour and the ‘Work’ of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350-1500 (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006).

[7] Robertson, Labourer’s Two Bodies, 41.

[8] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 83.

[9] James J. Fishman, ‘Regulating the Poor and Encouraging Charity in Times of Crisis: The Poor Laws and the Statute of Charitable Uses.’ Pace Law Faculty Publications 406 (2007), https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/lawfaculty/406 .

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