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October 27, 2004

Romeo, Juliet and Renaissance Urban Demographics

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Fellow Blowhards:

Obviously, the artistic worth of Shakespeare’s plays hardly stands or falls on the basis of their historical accuracy. But the other day I came across an essay by urban historian David Herlihy on “Some Psychological and Social Roots of Violence in the Tuscan Cities” that seemed to me to illuminate aspects of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Shakespeare, who apparently wrote “Romeo and Juliet” around 1595, based it on Arthur Brooke's poem “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet” of 1592. This in turn was a translation of a French poem based on a short story by the 16th-century Italian writer Matteo Bandello.

The pervasive violence of Shakespeare’s play clearly reflects the situation in urban Renaissance Italy. In the early 1500s, one observer of the Italian urban scene wrote that law and order had all but vanished from the Italian cityscape. “There is no other justice,” this writer affirmed, “but deceit, force, money and factional and family ties; all the other books of every law might as well be burned.”

Although Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, the instability caused by young urban males with hyper-itchy trigger fingers, so to speak, seems to have been similar throughout the Italian peninsula. As Professor Herlily points out:

The famous dispute between the Blacks and the Whites, which was the occasion of Dante’s exile from Florence in 1302…had its origins in a feud between two branches of the Cancellieri family of Pistoia…Probably in 1286, two young cousins of the Cancellieri house fell to brawling in a tavern, and from this small spark, struck by irresponsible youths, a war began which eventually engulfed the major cities of Tuscany. The prominence of the young in precipitating this battle is evident also at Florence. There, the Donati and the Cerchi families led the Black and White factions, respectively. At a public dance, held in welcome of the first of May, gangs of young men from the two factions traded insults and blows, and turned the rivalry into open war.

Professor Herlihy is quick to point out that this pervasive violence wasn’t just a reflection of poor law enforcement (although that undoubtedly played a role.) Rather, such ultra-macho horseplay was pretty much what you’d expect in any place that shared the basic social arrangements of an Italian Renaissance city…such as the Wild West.

Based on very detailed information available from the Catasto, a combination tax assessment and census conducted in 1427, Professor Herlihy points out that the sex ratio between Florentine men and women aged 18 to 32 was 132:100. This is the kind of oversupply of men and undersupply of women that is normally found only in frontier towns. In the case of Renaisance Florence, this sex imbalance was the result of two causes. The first was a continuing immigration of ambitious young men from the countryside. The second was the tendency of Italian urban families to ship any unmarried daughters off to convents by the age of 15 or so, where they wouldn’t need expensive dowries and were apparently beyond the reach of the census takers.

Added to the sex-ratio imbalance was the fact that urban males couldn’t get married until they could support a family. (This was the opposite of the situation in the Italian countryside, where you couldn’t start an independent life as a farmer without a hard-working wife.) And it took a long time to get established enough for a city-guy to contemplate marriage, if he ever made it to the altar at all. In Florence in 1427, only a quarter of men between the ages of 18 and 32 were either married or widowed. Married men didn't make up the majority of the masculine population until they reached their middle 30s. The average Florentine child was born to a 40-year-old father. As the good professor describes it, the resulting sexual tension must have been pretty intense:

For an extended period, young men such as these were deprived of all legitimate outlet for their sexual energies; their behavior was also unrestrained by any responsibility for a wife or children. Moreover, the haste to settle the future of young girls through early marriage or the convent largely deprived these men of even the companionship of women their own age. Unless the strictures of the contemporary moralists and the plots of numerous novella deceive us, many of these unattached young men, blocked from marrying, relentlessly pursued women in hope of seducing them—married and widowed even more than single girls.

The violence and sexual hijinks of the Shakespeare’s play seem pretty understandable in such a context. It also makes it clear that the love of Romeo and Juliet was doubly ‘forbidden’—first because it crossed faction (Montague v. Capulet) lines, and second because good girls of Juliet’s age and station were supposed to be saving themselves for wealthy husbands twenty years or more their senior, not playing around with boys their own age.

In case you’re wondering, according to Professor Herlihy’s statistics, this tendency toward late masculine and early feminine marriage was not only shared but was, in fact, even more extreme for upper class men and women like Romeo and Juliet. And this trend is also accurately, if briefly, referred to in the play.

The first scene makes the “generation gap” between male parent on the one hand and his much younger wife-and-child on the other quite clear:

What noise is this? Give me my long sword, ho!

A crutch, a crutch! why call you for a sword?

Of course, the seething masses of horny Renaissance urban cowboys, most of whom were not as ‘lucky’ as Romeo in being able to win the affections of a marriageable woman, undoubtedly had recourse to other, less romantic solutions. In the words of Professor Herlihy:

The presence of so many bachelors within the urban population offered fertile grounds too for the practice of prostitution and for sodomy, for which the Renaissance town had a notorious and deserved reputation.

Hmmm, maybe this offers a whole new perspective on the development of the male and female nude as a leading element in Renaissance art!



posted by Friedrich at October 27, 2004


Fascinatin', tks. A couple of whatevers?

* Any idea what the sex-balance (or imbalance) was in the London of Shakespeare's time? What do I know, but I've certainly got the impression that England was a pretty carousing and brutal place too. I wonder if its Wild West character was the result of factors similar to Florence's.

* I just finished going thru a Portable Professor lectures series sketching out the history of Rome. And I was struck by how much -- assuming everyone'll forgive me a few wild generalizations here -- the ancient Romans reminded me of a handful of Italian-American friends. In many ways, really (sensual, shrewd, fun, expressive, dignified, "be a man," etc), but especially in the tendency to see everything as a function of tribal or maybe clan warfare. That underneath whatever's on the surface (so-called democracy, so-called socialism, whatever), it's really all about conspiracies, power, sex and clan warfare. I mean, I'd say that about half the time this conviction (knives behind curtains, incest, egos, etc) makes them right, and super-smart about the nature of things; maybe half the time they're reading in. (But maybe I'm naive!) Anyway, from your account it sounds like early-Renaissance Florence had that character too. Yet haven't I read somewhere that today's Italians don't have much genetically in common with the ancient Romans? So why should this kind of continuity in character (if I'm being fair about it) exist?

* Steve Sailer and the GNXPers have pointed out many times something worrying about the mideast, which is that many Islamic countries are full of crowds of young men unable to find plausible mates. Yikes: roving, unfocused, frustrated testosterone! Doesn't bode well for peace over there, does it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 27, 2004 10:28 AM

Glad to see you are back.
Have you looked into that nuclear waste issue any further?
You promised to have some more information when you returned to blogging.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 27, 2004 11:05 AM


I'm working on my response. I had this in the can before we got into the whole nuclear issue. I assume you want a thorough discussion.

Best regards...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 27, 2004 12:40 PM


Don't know about London, but I had the same thought myself. To wit, Shakespeare probably wasn't doing detailed historical research when writing his play, but was just assuming that Renaissance Italy was pretty much the same kind of scene as Elizabethan England.

As for enduring national traits, linking ancient Rome to Italy, that's hard to say. I have also heard that the 'modern' Italians are really, er, Germans from a genetic point of view.

However, I'm guessing that the dynamics of most pre-Modern cities, especially those run by native oligarchies like Rome and Florence, may have been quite similar. It may not be necessary to assume genetic similarities to account for the connections.

As for the population dynamics of the Middle East...yikes!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 27, 2004 12:55 PM

And when you consider legal polygamy in Middle Eastern countries, with wealthy middle age husbands being able to support multiple wives - double and triple yikes! (At least for 20 y.o. unemployed men...)

Posted by: Tatyana on October 27, 2004 02:07 PM

On the other hand, given the warehousing of young females in convents, it must have been a great time to be a priest!

Posted by: ricpic on October 27, 2004 04:09 PM

Once again, I don't think the Romeo and Juliet
story has anything to do with Renaissance
Italy per se. Otherwise, Leonard Bernstein and Co. wouldn't have been able to adapt it as "West Side Story." There is nothing unique about human nature in Renaissance Italy that isn't replicated in greed, cunning, gang warfare, family feuds, and other forms
of human distemper in society down through
the ages. Why does every educated person
on earth respond to Romeo and Juliet as a
universal and timeless love story?

Posted by: Winifer Skattebol on October 27, 2004 09:21 PM

Ah, Winifer, Winifer...

You're simply not a historian at heart.

Have you no curiosity at all about the ways in which things were different and the ways in which things were the same in the past? Doesn't it strike you that marriage patterns so radically different from those of today might have helped generate that timeless art you venerate?

Have you ever asked yourself why no one is knocking out those good old fashioned Elizabethan blank verse tragedies today? Or no one writes epic poems a la the Divine Comedy today? Allow me to suggest, politely, that the reason might have something to do with how the ways in which we create, consume and relate to art have changed since Renaissance/Elizabethan times.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 27, 2004 11:50 PM

No, Friedrich. A thorough discussion is not required; just some meat on the bones of your claims would be sufficient.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 28, 2004 12:21 AM

Allow me to quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica on T.S. Eliot:

"All his plays are in a blank verse of his own invention, in which the metrical effect is not apprehended apart from the sense; thus he brought “poetic drama” back to the popular stage. The Family Reunion (1939) and Murder in the Cathedral are Christian tragedies, the former a tragedy of revenge, the latter of the sin of pride. Murder in the Cathedral is a modern miracle play on the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. The most striking feature of this, his most successful play, was the use of a chorus in the traditional Greek manner to make apprehensible to common humanity the meaning of the heroic action. The Family Reunion (1939) was less popular. It contained scenes of great poignancy and some of the finest dramatic verse since the Elizabethans."

And I don't think anyone would deny that
The Waste Land is an epic poem...Or the
Cantos of Ezra Pound.

As for changing marriage traditions, the
following passage points out (click on link below)
that the famous Van Eyck "Arnolfini Wedding"
serves exactly the same purpose as a photograph would today. The need of the artist to record an event has not changed one

Posted by: Winifer Skattebol on October 28, 2004 12:59 AM

Come now, surely texts can be *both* rooted in time and timeless! Certainly R&J or any other great (or not so great) work grew out of a particular time and place, and the background that Friedrich has presented is fascinating and would certainly find its way into my classroom, if I were to teach the play again. At the same time, something still speaks to us over the vast distances, and we appreciate the parts of the story, characters, and situations that we recognize as being the same today. The two positions are not mutually exclusive; each enriches the other.

Friedrich, where did this article appear? I'd love to read the original.


Posted by: missgrundy on October 28, 2004 12:26 PM

" I don't think the Romeo and Juliet
story has anything to do with Renaissance
Italy per se. Otherwise, Leonard Bernstein and Co. wouldn't have been able to adapt it as "West Side Story." There is nothing unique about human nature in Renaissance Italy that isn't replicated in greed, cunning, gang warfare, family feuds, and other forms
of human distemper in society down through the ages. Why does every educated person on earth respond to Romeo and Juliet as a universal and timeless love story?"

Winifer, your comments all contradict.

"Every educated person on earth" responds to R&J as a "universal and timeless love story" precisely because "there is nothing unique about human nature in Renaissance Italy that isn't replicated in greed, cunning, gang warfare, family feuds, and other forms
of human distemper in society down through the ages."

Posted by: lindenen on October 30, 2004 03:30 AM

You name me a time when human nature has not known love. You name me a time when human nature has not known cruelty. Are you human?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 30, 2004 01:15 PM

I don't see anything contradictory about the way it was stated originally. The sentence
beginning with "Why" does not refute the foregoing. It is merely a rhetorical question designed to illustrate what is self evident.
The reason we enjoy Romeo and Juliet is that
it is set against the backdrop of enmity and
wrongdoing. If the lovers weren't star-crossed
it would just be a sappy love story.

Posted by: Martine Mallary on October 30, 2004 08:38 PM

My is it possible that this subject of all became controversial?

I for one appreciate the historical perspective. It makes R & J make more sense to me. As I've said before---I never thought of it as a "timeless love story." I thought of it as a dopey love story, and an entirely avoidable tragedy. Like Helen and the Trojan Horse. The whole thing requires unbelievable stupidity to take place at all.

Posted by: annette on October 31, 2004 05:17 AM

I must say, I partially agree with Annette--when Baz Luhrmann's "WS's R+J" came out, it didn't make sense to me. Why would late twentieth century scions of wealthy Americans families act like sixteenth century tragic Florentines? He should have made it into a gang warfare piece

Posted by: Maureen on October 31, 2004 02:27 PM

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