A Love made to be Eternal. A Story of Friendship, Death and Faith.

By Nicolò Zennaro


On 16 July 1410, surrounded by relatives, friends and colleagues, the merchant Francesco di Marco Datini died at the age of seventy-five in his house in Prato, now the site of the State Archives. Of all the relatives, friends and partners who gathered around him in his last moments, the first to break the silence about Datini’s death in his correspondence was Lapo Mazzei, the notary and probably the only true friend of the deceased. Indeed, Datini was a man who was anything but easy-going because he was obsessed with controlling and his well-known tendency to fly into a rage quickly. Their friendship had begun in 1390: Francesco had been so fascinated by the text of a letter by Mazzei, read aloud by the city council, that he immediately wanted to meet its author. Theirs was a sincere and profound friendship. Mazzei was Datini’s confidant and one of the few people close to him to really care about his happiness. The two spent whole days discussing every conceivable subject, from literature to business, without the slightest hint of boredom. In the eyes of the notary, their friendship was irreplaceable and destined to last forever, surviving even death. Lapo wrote to Datini: “I shall never lose you. So much love has entered my bones and my soul.”. To make this possible, Mazzei, a man of faith, had tried for twenty years to persuade Francesco to repay the fortune God had given him in commerce with charity and donations to religious institutions in Prato and Florence to gain a place in Paradise. When his friend died, Lapo could not contain his sorrow, writing his first letter after the death of his friend to Cristofano da Barberino, manager of the Datini’s company in Catalonia. Lapo did not want to talk about his loss, but still mentioned Francesco “to whom God grant peace, and of whose death I will tell you little because he would want a full page: his sorrow, the sermons he preached, and his death, which was in our arms”. Depressed, Mazzei allowed his existence to be “led by time [...] without too much melancholy”. He admonished Cristofano to enjoy life and not to think that he had all the time in the world, as Francesco believed, “for whom it seemed a wonder that he should die”. Only a short time before his death, Lapo had managed to persuade Francesco to settle his accounts with God by making a bequest in his will of 70,000 florins to the city of Prato, to the religious institutions of the city and Florence and by establishing the Ceppo Nuovo, a secular charity foundation helping the poor people in Prato. In his testament, written down by Mazzei himself, Datini stated where he wanted to be buried:

In the first place, recommending his soul to God and the entire Celestial Court, he chose to have his body buried in the church of San Francesco di Prato when he died, in that place, with those devices and ornaments of the tomb, burial and funeral of the entire mortal body, and the expenses of these and other surrounding things, appropriate and used in similar things.

                                  Image 1. The Church of San Francesco in Prato

To be even more sure of saving his soul, Francesco asked and paid for an annual mass to occur for eternity at the church where he would have rested. This is still the case today: every year, on 17 August, the day the merchant of Prato was buried, a memorial liturgy is celebrated in his honour. Having read part of his life through the letters written by him, his friend Lapo, his wife Margherita and the many business associates who corresponded with Datini, I decided to attend the event 613 years after Datini’s funeral. Indeed, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get even closer to the man who, although he lived centuries ago, has strongly influenced my life as a researcher. It was the 17th of August 2023. The Italian sun was unrelenting, and temperatures reached 37 degrees. Nevertheless, at 10 a.m., a few people stood before the Datini monument in front of the City Hall, the event’s starting point. There was a long silence, followed by a flower wreath laying at the base of the statue. The silence continued until the institutions of Prato moved to lead the procession towards the church of San Francesco. Once inside, more people joined in to attend the mass. The priest celebrated until he interrupted his sermon to explain how one of his confreres had asked him: “How come we keep celebrating this mass for Francesco di Marco Datini?”. The priest replied dryly that it was because of the deceased’s wish. This rather bland answer did not move the hearts of those present in the slightest, and when the ceremony ended, all left the church to seek shelter from the sun in their homes or the nearby cafés. Walking down the church’s steps, I kept wondering about it. I like to believe that the relationship between Francesco and Lapo is probably why this mass is still celebrated today. Just as Mazzei considered his friendship with Francesco eternal, so did the merchant. Convinced that the notary would undoubtedly end up in paradise for his exemplary Christian behaviour, Francesco made every effort to redeem himself. In this way, he could spend eternity with his beloved Lapo, talking honestly about everything, as they loved to do in their earthly life, living the friendship they hoped would last forever.

                                Image 2. Francesco Datini’s tomb in the Church of San Francesco

Short Bibliography

Crabb, Ann. The Merchant of Prato’s Wife. Margherita Datini and Her World, 1360-1423. University of Michigan Press, 2015.

Guasti, Cesare. Lettere di un notaro a un mercante del secolo XIV. II vols. Florence: Successori Le Monnier, 1880.

Origo, Iris. The Merchant of Prato: Francesco Di Marco Datini. London, 1957.

Sapori, Armando. ‘Economia e Morale Alla Fine Del Trecento. Francesco Di Marco Datini e Ser Lapo Mazzei’. In Studi Di Storia Economica (Secoli XII-XIV-XV), Terza., 1:155–79. Firenze: Sansoni, 1982.

Can natural disasters of the past tell us something about our future?

by Elisabeth Heijmans


As the summer seems intent to never end, we cannot ignore the higher frequency of natural disasters and more extreme weather conditions such as storms and wildfires that have punctuated our summer. These disasters due to man-made climate change increasingly bring our attention back to the limits of our presence on earth and inevitably affect how we think about the future (of humanity). While scientific progress and our understanding of the causes of extreme weather conditions increase, we fear for our future and that of subsequent generations.

It is not the first time optimistic trust in progress clashed with the occurrence of natural disasters. Most famously in the mid-eighteenth century, the Lisbon earthquake is said to have impacted mentalities in a time of rationality and belief in scientific progress. The catastrophe took place on the 1st of November 1755 and affected the Iberian Peninsula and Lisbon primarily, but its impact (both material and psychological) was felt far beyond. Historians claim it was the strongest earthquake that Western Europeans have ever experienced.

That this extremely destructive and deadly event influenced the way people wrote about the future is visible in the letters written by the prominent Jewish merchant, Abraham Gradis who experienced the event from Bordeaux. The business correspondence of Abraham Gradis does not contain much emotional content or references to God, until the author writes about the Lisbon earthquake. When he learned that one of his close friends had drowned in the tsunami following the earthquake, he wrote to one of his correspondents “I admit that I am desperate about this accident, may God by his saint grace console the many afflicted and save us from similar misfortune”. On the same day, he wrote another letter appealing to God for help: “the famous earthquake caused much misfortune in Portugal, may God put his hand, we are penetrated with the pain of all the accidents”. Other letters penned in the following days mentioning the disaster include similar divine references.

Abraham Gradis clearly saw turning to God as the main way to protect him from a possible future event beyond human control. Clearly noticeable are the high frequency of terms related to his emotional state. The merchant talks about despair, affliction, misfortune, and pain. This choice of wording was not trivial. It was meant to convey sadness about the present situation and fear about the time to come.


The communicated fear also concerned the possible impact on the merchant’s business: “I wish from the best my heart that you will have no interest in all the disasters that have occurred in Lisbon as a result of the furious earthquake that took place there on the first day of this month which will cause infinite damage to trade may God spare us from such accidents” or “may god put his hand and preserve your interests as well as ours against losses”. Abraham Gradis did not have any investments or partnerships directly in Lisbon, but bankruptcies and financial losses generated by the earthquake spread fast and could affect him in the long run. Here, we read unexpected combinations of words within the genre of the business letter, such as “best of our heart” to write about economic interests or “furious” to qualify the earthquake, showcasing the emotional impact of the disaster.

When writing about the Lisbon earthquake, all of Abraham Gradis future-oriented sentences mentioned God and were particularly dramatic and emotional in their content. The writer does not discuss the causes of the disaster, so it is impossible to know whether he thought the cause of the earthquake could be explained scientifically or if he saw it as a punishment from God as some of his contemporaries argued. What we know for certain, is that Abraham Gradis systematically turned to God for consolation and protection when writing about the earthquake.

Of course, all comparisons have their limits. While there are certainly many parallels to be drawn between the impact of the Lisbon earthquake and that of climate change-induced disasters, we should stress that current extreme weather conditions are due to man-made causes. This being said, the Lisbon earthquake remains instructive because it challenged the general scientific optimism of the Enlightenment and impacted the way people wrote about their future. Like in 1755, our current situation shows the limits of scientific progress and technologies. While we hopefully won’t revert to religious solutions, we cannot rely exclusively on scientific and technological progress. Instead, a profound change in our way of life and our relationship to nature is needed.

*Notes on sources: the letters of Abraham Gradis used here were transcribed by Mathieu Beaud, Cécile Robin, Pierre Gervais amd Dominique Margairaz, with the authorization of the French national archive. The projet 08-BLAN-0329-01  "Comptes et profits marchand d'Europe et d'Amérique, 1750-1815", dir. P. Gervais, Y. Lemarchand, D. Margairaz, http://marprof.univ-paris1.fr makes them available under creative commons licenses.

Further readings:

- Wilke, Jürgen, “The Lisbon Earthquake (1755)” in European History Online, Mainz , 2017. URL: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/wilkej-2014-en last consulted 02/09/2023.

- Braun, Theodore E. et al. (ed.): The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: Representations and Reactions, Oxford, 2005.

- Van Asperen, Hanneke and Jensen, Lotte (ed.): Dealing with disasters from Early Modern to Modern Times: Cultural Responses to Catastrophes, Amsterdam, 2023.

Sinksenfoor ever

By Sara Budts


Voor veel lokale voetballiefhebbers was afgelopen pinksterzondag een hoogst turbulente dag. Slechts 10 minuten voor het ultieme fluitsignaal liet Union Saint Gilles met een afgeweken balletje het Antwerpse droomscenario uit mekaar spatten. Hoewel er nog een waterkansje is (en Antwerpenaren doorgaans niet meer dan dat nodig hebben om overtuigd te zijn van eigen succes), grijpt Royal Antwerp FC wellicht net naast hun eerste titel sinds 1957. Gelukkig moesten de teleurgestelde supporters niet al te ver gaan om hun verdriet te verwerken. Op slechts een kwartier fietsen van het Bosuilstadion was de dag ervoor immers de Sinksenfoor van start gegaan: de uitgelezen plek om hun emotionele rollercoaster in te ruilen voor een fysiek exemplaar en hun opgekropte frustraties te wentelen in gesponnen suiker of een warm bad chocolade.

De Sinksenfoor is een monumentaal volksfeest dat tot ver buiten Antwerpen bezoekers trekt. Hoewel de meeste Antwerpenaren zich de recente omzwervingen van hun Foor nog wel herinneren (van de Leien naar de gedempte zuiderdokken en uiteindelijk Park Spoor Oost), is de jaarlijkse hoogmis van het opverteren een heel stuk ouder dan je zou denken. Dat ontdekte ik zelf pas vorig jaar, toen ik in mijn Engelse handelsbrieven uit de 16e eeuw een aantal verwijzingen tegenkwam naar ene "Sinxon fair". Het besef dat die mysterieuze Sinxon Fair wel eens de voorloper zou kunnen zijn van onze eigenste Sinksenfoor, overviel me veel later dan je zou mogen verwachten van iemand met een doctoraat in de historische taalkunde. Dat komt wellicht - toegegeven, het is een zwak excuus - omdat die Sinxon Fair waar mijn handelsfamilies het over hadden een heel ander doel leek te hebben dan de Sinksenfoor die ik zelf al eens bezocht had.

                                  Foorwijf anno 2022

De fair die de Cely's en Johnsons frequenteerden in de late 15e en vroege 16e eeuw, was immers in de eerste plaats een kruispunt van internationale handel. De sinksenfoor maakte deel uit van een cyclus van vier jaarlijks terugkerende markten in Brabant die buitenlandse handelaars - vaak uit Engeland en Italië - in contact moesten brengen met lokale handelaars en ambachtslieden. De Sinksenfoor begon 15 dagen voor Pinksteren en duurde ongeveer een maand. Omdat de precieze datum van Pinksteren samen met die van Pasen fluctueert naargelang de maankalender, begon de Sinksenfoor ergens tussen 25 april en 29 mei, en liep ze tot minimaal 13 juni en maximaal 10 juli.

Naast de data van de jaarmarkt, onthullen de brieven ook wat er op zo'n markt gebeurde. Zowel de Johnsons als de Cely's zijn wolhandelaars, en voor hen was de markt in de eerste plaats een plek om hun wol en schapenhuiden te verkopen aan handelaars uit de Lage Landen. In 1480 slaagde George Cely er zo bijvoorbeeld in om zijn volledige voorraad middelmatige wol te verkopen aan ene Jan Van Der Heyden.

Daarnaast fungeerde de markt als deadline voor een heel gamma aan financiële transacties. In de wereld van de Cely's en de Johnsons verliep geldverkeer doorgaans via wisselbrieven die de houder op een bepaalde datum kon innen. Die datums volgden trouw het ritme van het marktseizoen en vielen niet zelden tijdens de Sinksenfoor. Ook de leningen die de handelaars opnamen bij elkaar liepen slechts een vooraf bepaalde termijn, en ook die termijnen vielen geregeld samen met een jaarmarkt. De correspondentie van de Johnsons vermeldt tussen 1543 en 1552 maar liefst 69 leningen en wisselbrieven die op de Sinksenfoor afliepen. Ook Richard Cely had in 1479 een lening te pakken gekregen die hij moest terugbetalen "at Synschon marte".

Een jaarmarkt als de Sinksenfoor was niet alleen een belangrijk deel van het zakenleven van de Johnsons en de Cely's, het was voor henzelf en hun familieleden ook een uitgelezen kans om allerlei exclusieve producten te kopen die weinig met wol te maken hadden. Toen John Johnson in 1546 terugkeerde van de markt gaf hij zijn vriend Henry Southwick "a bagge with monney, and spetialties of the Pasche, Sinxon and Bames maertes". Over het boodschappenlijstje van de Cely's weten we nog meer. In 1476 zakten de broers George en Robert Cely af naar de Sinksenfoor met op hun verlanglijstje onder meer een broek en een ring voor George, een gordel voor de vrouw van Robert en een havik voor een van hun andere broers. De havik bleek slechts 6 shillings duurder dan de gordel, waarvoor de mannen 10 shilling neertelden. Toen George vier jaar later terugkeerde naar dezelfde markt, had een modebewuste vriend hem verzocht om een stel mooie veren te kopen, ter versiering van zichzelf en zijn paard.

Het gamma aan producten waarvoor de Cely's naar de markt trokken geeft aan hoe divers het koopwaar en de bezoekers van zo’n jaarmarkt waren. De vroegmoderne voorloper van de sinksenfoor was geen saaie handelsbeurs: er was ook steeds een kermis, met eetstandjes, bezienswaardigheden, attracties, lokale en regionale handel. Ze werden goed bezocht door locals die kochten van locals. Je kon er wisselbrieven regelen, maar even goed een kip kopen of eens goed doorzakken. Bovendien was het fenomeen niet uniek voor Antwerpen - ongeveer elk stadje of dorp had een jaarmarkt. Het verschil tussen de jaarmarkt van een dorp als Berlaar en de Sinksenfoor was er voornamelijk eentje in schaal: die laatste was zo groot dat ze ook een internationale dimensie had.

Waar een goeie eeuw eerder Brugge nog het centrum van de textielhandel in de lage landen was, had dat zich rond 1500 verlegd naar Antwerpen. De Sinksenfoor won zo snel aan belang dat er rond het midden van de 16e eeuw bijna het hele jaar door marktactiviteiten plaatsvonden in de stad. Niet veel later kwam er aan die hoogdagen een einde toen de politieke situatie er te precair werd voor de handelaars door, onder meer, de beeldenstorm, de Spaanse furie en - als finale klap voor de internationale handel - het beleg van Antwerpen in 1584 en 1585. Ondanks die tegenvaller hield de Sinksenfoor hardnekkig vol te bestaan, zowel als handels- als entertainmenthub. In de eeuwen daarna transformeerde de grootste foor van het Stad door een klemtoonwisseling van handel naar amusement; eentje van wisselkoers naar paardenkoers, van geldgewin naar suikerspin, en van lamswol naar smoutebol. Wie de komende maand een hongertje wil stillen: u weet waar naartoe.

Hooray, it’s pi day!

By Sara Budts


Today, the 14th of March, is Pi Day: the annually returning feast of the number π and, by extension, all things numerical. All around the globe, adepts of the noble art of mathematics throw parties to symbolically celebrate pi. Some hold competitions in which contestants try to memorize as many digits of the number as possible; others take a more pragmatic approach and honour pi as the proverbial Burgundians would do: by eating pies and pizzas, snacks that are reminiscent of "pi" in both their name and their shape. Let’s join the party and celebrate the circle for its contributions to a field that does not come to mind first when you think π: historical research!

One way in which circles help us to understand our past, is their ability to make highly abstract, intangible concepts more accessible. One such concept is time. Although the way in which time is conceptualised differs greatly between cultures and periods, most of them describe it metaphorically as either a line, a circle, or both. Our (Western-European present day) culture, for instance, combines a linear conception of time with a circular one.

The linear features of our temporal understanding are visualised best by the concept of a timeline: the 14th of March is preceded by the 13th and followed by the 15th. Perhaps the most radical example of temporal linearity is the Unix timestamp, a popular timing device among computer scientists that defines each moment by the number of seconds that have elapsed since the 1st of January in 1970 (UTC). At the moment of writing, that number is 1678713926.

Temporal circularity, by contrast, is present in the way we depict days of the week, months, seasons, the human lifecycle and the succession of generations. Today is a Tuesday, as it was 7 days ago and will be 7 days from now. Moreover, today is not the first 14th of March we've ever had: there was one at the same time last year and all years before that. It is not even the first Tuesday the 14th of March: 2017 had one too. While we acknowledge that each day is a unique moment in time, we still label it in exactly the same way (barring the year) as that one time 365 days ago.

While this labelling is not entirely arbitrary - the weather in August 2023 will be more like the weather in August 2022 than in January 2022 - there could be other ways to cut up time in convenient little entities. In fact, we had such an alternative organisation of time ourselves roughly 500 years ago, as becomes apparent from the merchant correspondence of the Johnson family business. In the 1540s, the Johnson family was active in the cloth and wool trade between London, Calais and Antwerp. Due to their bankruptcy in 1553, most of their correspondence has been preserved. To get a grip on their sense of time, I exhaustively searched 167 randomly selected letters and kept track of all temporal references I could find.

As I was annotating, it soon became apparent that the Johnsons use different temporal reference frames for different aspects of their life. Like we do now, the datelines in their letters often contains full dates, like “the v daye of February”. Similarly, when they write about which letters they've received, they often use dates to distinguish them. This makes sense from a practical point of view: the main business associates wrote each other multiple times a week, so it is simply convenient for them to embed the letters in a temporal framework that caters for great precision, like dates do.

For their day-to-day business operations, however, the Johnsons use a temporal reference frame based on holidays instead. Their (business) year was conceptually divided into four quarters, roughly corresponding to the four seasons. Each quarter started with a quarter day (Our Lady Day (25/3), Midsummer (24/6), Michaelmas (29/9) and Christmas (25/12)) and was cut in half by a cross-quarter day (Candlemas (2/2), May Day (1/5), Lammas Day (1/8) and All Hallows (1/11)). In the 165 letters I analysed, I found 57 mentions of quarter days and 9 of cross-quarter days. These days were used as temporal anchors for a variety of activities: often as due dates of bills of exchange, but also as appointments for meetings or deadlines to have sold goods by. This doesn't mean that all the activities took place precisely on the (cross) quarter days - some activities were scheduled “the weke aftar Owre Lady’s daie” – but most of their business life was talked about in relation to these holidays.

Of the two temporal reference frames the Johnsons used, only one survived. Interestingly though, the two timeframes are fairly alike in terms of “cyclicality”. Whether one uses 12 months or 8 holidays as annually recurring temporal anchors matters much less than the simple fact that the anchors are recurring. This is especially so in light of the argument that the temporality of everyday life was more cyclical in the middle ages than it is now. What the temporal references in the a Johnson letters reveal above all is that various frames of temporality can happily coexist in the minds of Early Modern Englishmen and that the alleged shift from cyclical to linear isn’t as – well – linear as it first looks like.

In other words: circles are important, in history as well as mathematics, especially on a day like this. Now go and enjoy a pie!

Between routines and uncertain futures

While taking care of his children during the plague of 1533/34 in the South German town of Nördlingen, Margaretha Tucher wrote to her cousin Linhart Tucher (1487-1568): “We all thank you very much for the cask you sent us; we will not let the figs go mouldy. […] I immediately offered Lorenz Tucher to send him as many as he wants, but he said he would come over if he needed some. I sent a basket to Martin [Tucher] as he has not received any of them yet; I sent 10 pounds of almonds and 2 baskets of figs to [our neighbour] Rummel, who accepted them with many thanks, and 4 pounds of almonds and 2 baskets [of figs] to the two monks in the monastery; [I also sent] 4 pounds of almonds and 1 basket [of figs] to Doctor Baumann because he has been so comforting to me: When one of the children got sick, I went to him, and he gave me much good advice […]; when the man [in the house] next to me died, he told me what to do and what to give to the children; and I also sent 2 baskets [of figs] to the woman who brings us the milk because she does us a great service with the milk since it is not easy to get it here and she […] always gave it to us for less than the usual”. [1]

As long-distance merchants, the Tucher family had privileged access to consumer goods most of their contemporaries had not. The letters and accounts sent by the family members and agents in Lyon, Geneva or Venice do not only deal with aspects of their own trade but regularly mention goods that were ordered by Linhart for himself, that is, not for the Tucher trading company. Amongst other things, he ordered food that was exotic for German consumers, for example, figs, almonds and dates, as well as different sorts of high-quality cloth such as velvet or atlas. These goods were partially for their own household, but a large part – food in particular – was systematically distributed among their wider network as gifts. Hence, stocks of these goods were prepared in advance. In the correspondence, such routinised exchanges did not need much attention apart from information about the quantities, when the good was sent off and a confirmation after it had arrived at its destination.

                                Market scene by Pieter Aersen (1550)

                                URL: https://www.wikiart.org/en/pieter-aertsen/market-scene-1550

While figs were relatively easy to acquire for the Tuchers on a regular basis, more individual wishes could be more challenging and time-consuming to fulfil. In a letter from 22 November 1531, for example, Anthoni V Tucher (1510-1569), a younger relative of Linhart Tucher working for the family company in Lyon, announced that he wanted to buy a necklace for his new sister-in-law. The following letters only mention that he had not been able to find something he liked either in the city or at the fair. Only in May 1532, six months later, he informed Linhart that the Tuchers’ factor Linhart Rottengatter had bought a necklace. [2] A little later, on 4 November 1532, Anthoni wrote to Linhart that he had not yet been able to buy “a short blade” for a rapier that Linhart had ordered. Exactly one month later, Anthoni sent an update that he had now found a suitable blade with the desired features and would send it to Nuremberg together with this letter. Unfortunately, the messenger left the blade behind in Geneva – which turned up again in January 1533 in Lausanne (on the other side of Lake Geneva) and was sent by another family member, Sebald Tucher, to Nuremberg. [3]

What does all this have to do with the history of the future? At first sight, not much. When we think of ‘the future’, most of us probably think of grand events, fundamental changes, hopes for a different society, or apocalyptical expectations. But ‘the future’, in the sense of ‘what has not yet happened’, is also present on a much smaller scale, namely, in everyday life expectations, intentions and plans of individuals. A large part of everyday life’s future orientation is stabilised in routines and taken as self-evident – hence, there is no need for much attention. But routines are often fragile: small changes in the ordinary flow of events and practices, quickly disturb the stability of the typical and demand plans instead of the routine practice: A certain, unquestioned future outlook becomes a less certain future as a goal has to be redefined and/or the steps to reach the goal have to be newly arranged. The examples from the Tucher correspondence thus illustrate the nuanced relations between routine practices and individual plans, in other words, between certain and uncertain futures as they shape everyday life experiences. As a source for the history of the future, such letters allow us to move beyond the scale of past future outlooks of entire societies or cultural narratives and to focus on the details of certain and uncertain futures in the everyday lives of past groups and individuals, their configurations in different domains of life and, as far as the surviving sources admit, of different layers of society.

Further reading:

-        Martin Diefenbacher and Stephan Kley, Tucherbriefe. Eine Nürnberger Patrizierfamilie im 16. Jahrhundert, Nürnberg 2008. (Introduction to the Tucher family and their letters, in German)

-        Christian Kuhn, ‘Generational Discourse in Urban Youth Images’, The History of the Family 15, 3 (2010), 348-363. (Analyses the Tucher correspondence as a strategy for long-term stabilisation)

-        Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische, ‘What Is Agency?’, American Journal of Sociology 103, 4 (1998), 962-1023. (Discusses, among other things, the relation between routines and future orientation in sociological theories of action)

[1] Stadtarchiv Nürnberg E 29/IV Nr. 978.

[2] Stadtarchiv Nürnberg E 29/IV Nr. 48-51, 53.

[3] Stadtarchiv Nürnberg E 29/IV Nr. 54, 55, 57.

Blissful, Healthy & Profitable … New Year's Wishes From the Past

By Sanne Hermans


Many of us would agree that New Year's Eve involves a certain kind of magic, the sensation as if we can put the negativity behind us and try (again) to achieve our lifestyle, romantic, or career goals. We review the past year and set intentions for the coming. According to tradition, people wish each other all the best for the year ahead. In light of future thinking, these New Year’s wishes can be seen as hopeful statements – a positive push towards something – with a temporal horizon of one year. From a historical perspective, these formulaic future statements may tell us something about the socio-cultural backgrounds of the individuals using them and their interpersonal relationships. In this blog post, I want to glimpse these persisting formulas from the various merchant correspondences we consult for our project.

                                Postcard wishing "Happy New Year" by Frances Brundage, 1910.

Starting with the oldest, the Datini Correspondence (Italian) from around 1400 sadly yields no results. This could be because the city-states (i.e., Venice, Florence, Genoa) used different calendars, resulting in a complex system in which people scattered across Italy lived in dissimilar years. Therefore, the oldest New Year’s wish encountered derives from the Tucher Correspondence (German). On 10 January 1520, Hieronymus Tucher in Lyon wrote to his cousin Anthony II Tucher in Nuremberg the following (translated):

        “May Christ the newly born, our Savior, grant you and me a blissful new year [ein gluck seligs neuys Iar] for soul and body, amen.”

The same correspondence also contains a New Year’s greeting that, from our perspective, seems relatively late. On 3 March 1528, Hiernomymus Reichel in Venice writes to his friend Lennart II Tucher in Nuremberg (translated):

        “I wish you mercy and peace with a blissful new year [Einen gluckt selligen neuhen Iar] to all our souls’ salvation, amen.”

The two-month difference between these similar wishes might be due to the various calendars used in Europe at the time. As said, the Italian city-states had their own systems in place. Venice, where Hieronymus Reichel lived, celebrated the Venetian year on the first of March, continuing the ancient Roman custom until 1797. The next is from the Johnson Correspondence (English). On 29 December 1551, Sir Ambrose Cave in Duddeston ended his letter to family friend John Johnson with a New Year’s wish, not for one but many years to come:

        “As knowithe the Lord, Who giff you all your good desyers, with a good newe yere and many. Written in hast, as apperithe, the xxix daye of December.”

On 2 February 1578, the Dutch merchant Gaspar Cunertorf residing in Lisbon send a letter to his partner Jan Janssen in Kampen, opening with (translated):

        “Honourable, favourable friend, Joan Janss, wishing you a blissful new year [gelugkzalich nieuwe jaer]. This is to inform you that we are all very surprised that we have not received any letters from you in 3 months, […].”

The date of writing has relatively long since passed the new year, but considering their previous correspondence dated 8 November, there had been no earlier opportunity to wish a happy New Year. It is also noticeable that there is no reference to God or Christ present. Incidentally, this is only sometimes the case. In another letter, dated 8 January 1578, Gaspar wrote to his agent Adriaan Speelman in Antwerp (translated):

        “Hereby commanding God Almighty who wishes to spare you and all your family in long health and grant you a blissful New Year [ghelucksalich nieuwe jaer].”

It is more often in these closing formulas that references to the divine are made. So the place in the letter can be essential in understanding why a New Year’s greeting is infused with health formulas, Christian ritual formulas, or both. Of course, it may also have to do with the relationship between correspondents, which in this case is hierarchical. In another Dutch correspondence, that of the Family Thijs, we encounter a lengthier New Year's wish in the opening of a letter from 2 January 1600 (translated):

        “With heartfelt greetings and wishing you a happy and blessed new year [frolyck ende salyck niewe Jaer] and all that is good. I cannot resist writing you this little letter, even though I have not heard from you in a long time, which surprises me very much. I pray and urge you to be a bit more diligent in your writing this new year and to inform us of your good health often.”

Written by Hedwig de Baccher from Hamburg to her brother Samuel in Amsterdam, this extensive greeting must be placed in the context of the plague sweeping through Western Europe at the time. Hedwig's fears were well-founded as the epidemic reached their father in Halberstadt during the summer of 1600. Fortunately, he made a full recovery. One year later, on 8 January 1601, her wish is more subdued, perhaps indicating that the scare of the epidemic may no longer be as prominent as the year before:

        “A Blissful New Year [gelucksalig Nieue Jaer], kind, dear brother. This little note is to inform you of our good health; hoping to hear the same from you.”

The greetings by the Dutch correspondents contain the same adjective as the German: blissful (gelukzalig). Forwarding a century and a half, the last wish discussed derives from the Roux Correspondence (French). Françoise Datour in Saint-Malo writes to a her business correspondent Jean-Baptiste Honoré Roux in Marseille on 27 December 1741:

        “As this letter will arrive in the new year, my son and I wish you and your dear family the happiest new year and long prosperity in your enterprises [des plus heureuses et une longue suitte de prospérité dans vos entreprises].”

In this New Year's greeting, economic prosperity is placed beside the usual desire for happiness, which is new compared to the other formulations. Still, not surprising as this letter should be viewed in a mercantile setting.

The above examples show, on the one hand, that there were remarkable similarities in formulating New Year's wishes between time and space and, on the other, that there are indeed some subtle differences. For instance, New Year’s wishes can be located at the beginning or the end of a letter;  with and without references to the divine. Incidentally, this may also be a sign of the times, a phenomenon that will be further explored by Sara and Elisabeth through these and other future statements. Lastly, they may refer to happiness, health, or prosperity but depending on the situational and relational context; one desire may receive more focus than another.

This post ends with a very last greeting in the present, namely from our team to you, the reader: a Happy New Year, and may all your future goals be realised.

Source image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PostcardHappyNewYearOldManKidScytheHourglass1910.jpg last consulted 28/12/2022.

More about New Year’s traditions:

… of the Middle Ages:

·       https://www.medievalists.net/2015/12/celebrating-the-new-year-medieval-style/

·       https://www.medievalists.net/2016/01/a-medieval-guide-to-predicting-the-year/

… of the Early Modern Period:

·       Sophie Cope, “Making the New Year: Dated Objects and the Materiality of Time in Early Modern England,” Journal of Early Modern Studies 6 (2017): 89-112. Link: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/bsfm-jems/article/view/7078

A House Built of Gold and Future

By Nicolò Zennaro


In Venice on the 23rd of September 1845, John Ruskin (1819-1900), a famous writer and art critic, writes a letter to his father. He complains to him about something that happened the day before and touched his very soul.  John had seen how the city government was carrying out a restoration project which he perceived as an act of destruction to the detriment of a work of extreme beauty. The hammer blows of some workmen were undoing the façade of one of the most sumptuous and beautiful palaces on the Grand Canal in front of Ruskin, who felt compelled to make a watercolour sketch of that splendour that was unravelling on the ground. The building concerned is the Ca' d'Oro, or House of Gold, located in the sestiere of Cannareggio.

                                Ca d'Oro by John Rushkin, 1845.

The blows of the hammers were not just hitting the palace’s façade. They were reshaping the materialisation of the will of a man who spent his entire life, his experience and capital on uncertain risks and investments to realise his expectation of an ideal future. I am not talking about Marino Contarini (1385-1441), the patrician and businessman who commissioned the construction of the Ca' d'Oro between 1420 and 1434. He was enabled in this venture not by his trading skills or political planning but by the aspirations of his father, Antonio Contarini (c.1353-1441). Antonio developed the small family's business, making them a reference point in the international wool and spice trade. Moreover, it was he who increased the Contarini's political power to such an extent that he was among the candidates for doge in the 1423 election and enabled the marriage between Marino and Soradamor Zeno (1406), which earned him the ownership of the palace that was partially demolished and integrated into the construction of the Ca' d'Oro.

It is easy to trace Marino's life but not his father's. The main reason behind this difficulty is the widespread homonymy traceable in the documents of the period. The lists of the 1378 Estimo presents as many as 68 heads of families -11 of whom were female- with the surname Contarini. In 1512, Marin Sanudo (1466-1536), a Venetian politician and humanist, still counted 38 males, mainly concentrated in the parishes of San Silvestro (19 members) and Santi Apostoli (15 members). This lineage also appears inextricably linked to the events of the Chioggia War (1379-1381): one of their members, Andrea Contarini, ruled during this conflict from 1368 to 1382. Most of the information we have comes from his political activity, which took off in 1409 when he was selected as ambassador to visit the Croatian city of Zara, part of the Venetian domains, and the Pope in Rome. In 1414 he was elected as Procurator of St. Mark, one of the city's highest offices. A portrait of him hung in the hall of the Maggior Consiglio in the Ducal Palace.

Despite the importance of this man in the political and economic dynamics of Venice, the Archivio di Stato di Venezia has no sources on his activities as a merchant. To reveal this fundamental part of his life, it is necessary to move from the lagoon to Prato, a city not far from Florence. Here is the house of Francesco di Marco Datini (c. 1335-1410), a Tuscan merchant who became famous thanks to Iris Origo's novel, The Merchant of Prato (1957). This building is now housing the Archivio di Stato di Prato, which preserves around 150,000 letters and hundreds of account books relating to his holding company. Among these correspondences is that of Antonio Contarini, the man behind the House of Gold. My project will study his 210 letters written between 1397 and 1406 to understand how this businessman thought and conceived his future. This will allow us to know how his expectations were reflected in his choices, which later became the foundations of the palace of the Ca' d'Oro.

This palace, deprived of lapis lazuli and gold leaf, can still be admired and visited today. Since 1927, it has been used as a museum and houses the Giorgio Franchetti Gallery, which preserves several masters of Venetian art history, such as Carpaccio, Mantegna and Titian. A palace, conceived as the materialisation of a single individual’s future expectations and hopes, now stands in front of the Grand Canal as one of the cornerstones for understanding the past and culture of an entire city.

For more on this topic, see:

·      Goy, Richard John. The House of Gold: Building a Palace in Medieval Venice. Cambridge: University Press, 1992.

·      Mozzato, Andrea. ‘Una Preziosa Materia Prima. La Lana Spagnola a Venezia Tra Tre e Quattrocento’. Archivio Veneto, 2008, 25–58.

·      Arslan, Edoardo, Venezia gotica: l’architettura civile gotica veneziana, Milano, Electa, 1979, pp. 225-237.

How current events and present ideas on the future shed light on the historical research of the Back to the Future project

by Jeroen Puttevils


I have long been pondering (with some dread even) about a good subject for this first blog post. But then two opportunities presented themselves last week: Elon Musk took over Twitter, causing a huge exit of Twitter users, and FTX, a Bahamas-based exchange for cryptocurrency, filed for bankruptcy. So what does this have to do with the history of the future – the subject of this blog? Well, both Musk and the former CEO of FTX Sam Bankman-Fried are strong advocates of longtermism, as all kinds of investigative pieces on Musk and Bankman-Fried produced around their respective controversies have shown. 

Longtermism is a philosophy that emphasizes the long-term future of humankind. Longtermists argue that people in the future matter as much as we do now and because there might be more people alive in the future than now, they should be taken into account when we take decisions today. Key proponents of longtermist philosophy are Toby Ord, Nick Bostrom and William MacAskill. Longtermists argue that we have to act in our present to avoid catastrophes that obliterate potential future generations, such as pandemics, nuclear wars, potentially dangerous artificial intelligence and climate change. (A good place to start reading is the Wikipedia page on longtermism, although it is not very critical).

Now, at first sight, one cannot be against such measures. However, Émile P. Torres (whose very interesting work you can follow on Émile P. Torres 🏳️‍⚧️ (@xriskology) / Twitter and on Émile P. Torres (@xriskology@mastodon.bida.im) - Mastodon) provides serious grounds for suspicion about the longtermism movement. In a number of highly recommended pieces that Torres wrote for Aeon (Why longtermism is the world’s most dangerous secular credo | Aeon Essays) and Salon (Émile P. Torres's Articles at Salon.com) he shows how well-funded longtermism has become thanks to financiers as Musk and Bankman-Fried. Moreover, the vision of longtermism is embraced by tech moguls; their funds and influence contribute to the evangelization of the movement’s ideas. Bankman-Fried, for example, has been particularly vociferous about longtermist thinking (https://www.vice.com/en/article/dy7epm/sam-bankman-fried-was-supposed-to-be-different-he-wasnt).

Add to that the emphasis of longtermism put on potential future generations which should be enabled by acting in our present. This makes some longtermists argue that we should only help present humankind to the extent that future generations are made possible. There has also been criticism of longtermism’s stance vis-à-vis climate change: longtermist views tend to discount the short-term economic effects of climate change. Musk’s spaceX program contributes directly to the emission of greenhouse gases today. The production of cryptocurrencies, traded at Bankman-Fried’s FTX, requires vast amounts of electricity. So, key activities of both visionaries have a profound effect on climate change, but they will probably discount this in view of a longer-term future. The ends justify the means?

Hence, one should treat this philosophy with the utmost care and scrutiny. It is fascinating as a historian working on histories of the future to read about longtermist ideas for several reasons. The features of these ideas are now particularly clear because of the spotlights on Musk and Bankman-Fried– many longtermists are now actively cutting their ties with Bankman-Fried and FTX, for example (https://twitter.com/willmacaskill/status/1591218014707671040).

First, longtermism explicitly thinks about the future and quickly arrives at ideas of human extinction. The near future is not of immediate interest and that has obvious historical parallels with all kinds of apocalyptic ideas. Secondly, in longtermism we see a clear nexus between a distant future and acting in the present. Third, the longtermist ideas of the future ended up in circles of power and influence. Obviously, ideas about the future are inherently political and those who are in power and/or have considerable influence because of their wealth thus have a big effect on the relationship between acting in the present and thinking about the future. 

                Caption: The Clock of the Long Now or the 10,000-year clock, paid for by Jeff Bezos.

These three points closely mirror the agenda of the Back to the Future project. We consider different layers and types of future thinking through and consider, for example, how ideas about End Times fed into thinking about the future and affected actions in the historical present. Another line of research we pursue is the range of different future horizons: not only the very distant future but also near-future short-term speculation like the activities at the now-bankrupt FTX or price speculation on the arrival of the new fleet from India in the sixteenth century or the effect of epidemics on people’s future expectations. We are also ever more aware of the power dynamics behind images and ideas of the future in the past. The dynamics between collective and individual imagined futures also reveal such power play: is Elon Musk like the medieval church, indoctrinating the faithful with his view of the future? Moreover, future thinking explains investment decisions today, such as buying Twitter or setting up an exchange for crypto, but it also can help us understand the economies and societies of the past: how did future thinking affect decisions and actions in the past? This blog takes us and you on this journey to the past, to the histories of the future. I hope the journey can provide us with insights into the past, the present and our future.


After writing this blog, several newspapers and magazines published new pieces on the connection between longtermism, effective altruism which has close ties to longtermism, Musk and Bankman-Fried:

Elon Musk's useful philosopher - New Statesman

The good delusion: has effective altruism broken bad? | The Economist

FTX debacle casts an unforgiving light on effective altruism | Financial Times