Renaissance Families

by John L. Ward

I recently heard a lecture on the 14th century Medici and Albizzi families of Florence. Besides the fact that they were unfriendly rivals in commerce and politics, there were some interesting ideas from those times.

  • They readily accepted that they were “constricted families” – families defined by their commercial needs more than their biological relationships. This isn’t too different than the concept we use with very large, old families of “families of affinity” – families more defined by shared purpose and community of interest than shared DNA and legal ties.
  • Renaissance families practiced the “emancipation age” when the next generation are spun off from the family and expected to find their own independent paths.
  • Wills were written when the author was quite young and given to all heirs to see. That, they believed, lessened in-fighting and increased senior generation transparency and accountability.
  • Finally, they documented all their family agreements and commercial transitions. The care for writing it down became a moral imperative and a very firm commitment of responsibilities and duties.

The lecture was by Dr. Paul Gehl, a long-time curator of the Newberry Library in Chicago. The Newberry is one of the most important libraries in the US on the history of families and on genealogy. See


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