Legal Vengeance: Feud in Renaissance Florence and Medieval Iceland

by Stefan Broekhuizen

Faculty Editor: Dr. Tommaso Astarita, Ph.D.

Much has been written about the extraordinary achievements of the Italian Renaissance. Scholarship, the arts, and technology improved by leaps and bounds, as human potential was supposedly truly realized for the first time since antiquity. It is surprising, then, that violent echoes from the so-called Dark Ages remained prevalent in this period of cultural and intellectual enlightenment. A close study of vendettas—extraordinarily violent, ritualistic conflicts between rival families or clans—in Renaissance Florence reveals uncanny similarities with the blood-feuds of Viking-age Iceland. These commonalities, in turn, prompt the question: what caused such similar conflicts in such dissimilar places and time periods?

This essay seeks to accomplish two things: first, to establish certain parallels between medieval records of Icelandic blood-feuds and Renaissance Florentine accounts of vendettas; second, to explore the societal commonalities between medieval Iceland and Renaissance Florence which may have given rise to these conflicts. I do not go so far as to assert that the Florentine vendettas of the Renaissance had their direct antecedent in the Icelandic blood-feuds; I simply suggest that certain similarities—namely, the presence of a pervasive honor culture—between the societies of Viking-age Iceland and Renaissance Florence contributed to the prevalence of feuding in both.

Two primary documents constitute the principal sources of my evidence. Landnámabók, or The Book of Settlements, chronicles the seventy-year period between 860-930 A.D., during which Viking settlers from Scandinavia colonized Iceland.[1] Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (1068-1148), an Icelandic historian, composed the original—now lost—version of Landnámabók, upon which later writers expanded.[2] Sturla Thordarson (1218-84), an Icelandic statesman and poet, authored the version used here, also known as Sturlubók, which consists of five distinct sections.[3] The first deals with Iceland’s discovery, while the next four sections—each one corresponding to one of the four geographical “quarters” of Iceland—detail the settlement of their respective lands. These four parts each contain a multitude of brief chapters; each chapter focuses on a different settler, and details the land that he claimed, his family, and any significant events in which he or his kin were involved. The Society of Renaissance Florence, edited by Gene Brucker, compiles a variety of Renaissance Florentine texts, ranging in type from household chronicles to legal documents. Each chapter of the text contains a group of documents pertaining to a different aspect of Renaissance Florentine society; this essay utilizes texts pertaining to the vendetta, which range in date from 1267 to 1420 A.D.[4]

Neither The Book of Settlements nor The Society of Renaissance Florence are perfect sources of evidence. Sturla Thordarson composed his version of Landnámabók over three centuries after the actual settlement of Iceland, and as such the text contains some anachronisms (the division of Iceland into quarters, for example, did not occur until some time after the settlement of the island had concluded).[5] Moreover, among historians, “there is little doubt that…[Thordarson] was familiar with, and drew on, several family sagas in expanding his edition.”[6] Nevertheless, Landnámabók’s anecdotes of Viking life provide invaluable evidence as to how feud operated in medieval Icelandic society. The vendetta texts from The Society of Renaissance Florence, for their part, come from a variety of authors and serve different purposes; consequently, the documents do not follow a uniform structure, and contain varying degrees of bias. By contextualizing and analyzing their conventions, however, it is possible to glean from these texts information about the vendetta and Florentine society even when they are not stated outright.

An extended conception of family characterized both Icelandic and Florentine feuding. In both societies, the idea of kinship transcended the traditional nuclear family, expanding to include distant relatives, friends, and retainers. Donato Velluti’s account of an act of vendetta violence in 1295 evinces these extended conceptions of kin in Renaissance Florence. Writing in the mid-14th century in his family chronicle, Donato recounts how his father, Berto, with the help of “[his] neighbor, Cino Dietsalvi… Lapo, [and] Gherardino di Donato,” murdered Lippo di Simone de’ Mannelli.[7] Subsequently, in Florentine court, the Mannellis accuse “[Donato’s] uncle Filippo… Lapo, Gherardino, Berto [Velluti], Cino Dietsalvi, and Lapo Filigherini, [the Vellutis’] intimate friend and neighbor… and [the Vellutis’] relative and friend, Fenci di Gherardo Malefici” of involvement in the murder.[8] Donato admits outright that men outside his immediate family helped perpetrate the revenge: Dietsalvi and di Donato lack the Velluti surname, implying that they are not of the same direct bloodline. Furthermore, the Mannellis accuse several of the Vellutis’ friends and relatives of participation, which demonstrates that vendetta was by no means restricted to blood relatives. Rather, it often involved even those who were only tangentially associated with the feuding families, such as friends and neighbors.

Similarly, one entry in Landnámabók describes an Icelandic blood-feud stemming from a son’s objection to another man initiating an implicitly intimate relationship with his widowed mother.[9] The son, Helgi, kills his mother’s lover, Thorgrim, after an exchange of words. Seeking revenge, Thorgrim’s son, Hæring, then “[rides] to Hofdi with two companions to see Teit Gizurarson,” with whom they “set off with fifteen men to stop Helgi”.[10] Teit, according to R.I. Page, “was Hæring’s great-uncle and so a suitable ally in an act of vengeance,” and he aids his great-nephew in Helgi’s murder.[11] That such distant relatives considered it their obligation to participate in blood-feuds attests to the Icelanders’ extended notions of kinship. Paired with Velluti’s vendetta account, a pattern becomes apparent. Feud in both Renaissance Florence and medieval Iceland extended far beyond the nuclear families between whom the conflict started, and encompassed not only distant blood relatives, but also friends and neighbors of the opposing clans.

An intergenerational dimension also typified both Florentine vendettas and Icelandic blood-feuds. The previously discussed case in Landnámabók exemplifies the feud’s tendency to transcend generational boundaries: Hæring avenges his father’s murder with help from his great-uncle. Meanwhile, Donato Velluti’s chronicle—apart from describing the Velluti family’s vendetta with the Mannelli clan—also describes a separate conflict with the Berignalli family. The Berignalli had murdered Velluto Velluti, the “first cousin of Donato’s grandfather,” in 1310.[12] On his deathbed, Velluto excludes Donato’s branch of the Velluti family from his will – so Berto, Donato’s father, “[commands Donato and his siblings], his sons, not to involve [themselves] in [the resultant vendetta with the Berignalli]”.[13]

In this case, Berto exhorts his sons not to undertake their relative’s vendetta: however, the necessity of such a command implies that, without Berto’s express orders to the contrary, his offspring would readily have assumed the obligation of vengeance. Thus, both the Icelandic and Florentine sources portray feud as a kind of inheritance, passed down between male members of families.

Legality also played a crucial role in both starting and resolving feuds. In both Renaissance Florence and medieval Iceland, clan conflicts often had their origins in various forms of legal strife. Landnámabók describes one such feud arising over lumber rights. According to the record, a man named “Ozur [grants] a share in the wood [to his freedman Bodvar] on the condition that Ozur should get it back if Bodvar [dies] without issue.”[14] However, Bodvar surrenders his rights to the wood to Atli Hasteinsson in return for legal help after he is accused of stealing sheep.[15] Upon Bodvar’s heirless death, Hrafn Thorvidarson, the caretaker of Ozur’s young son, Thorgrim (Ozur had died some time before), “[lays] a claim to Vidiwood and [forbids] Atli [from using] it, but Atli [claims] it [is] his.”[16] The two engage in a small battle, resulting in Atli’s death.[17] Landnámabók contains several such examples of blood-feud stemming from legal disputes; as R.I. Page writes, “Quarrels over the right to cut wood in a forest are quite common in medieval Icelandic tales, and presumably represent what often happened.”[18] Similarly, the Florentine vendetta between the Mannelli and Velluti families was born of legal conflict: in 1267, “[Gino di Donato Velluti] had procured the cancellation of a judicial ban against an enemy of the Mannelli,” who murdered him in retaliation, beginning the vendetta between the families.[19]

Furthermore, feud enjoyed considerable legitimacy within both Florentine and Icelandic legal cultures. In both medieval Iceland and Renaissance Florence, feud worked within the law as a valid method of conflict resolution, serving the function of both private and public justice. Landnámabók evinces the blood-feud’s lawfulness in Icelandic culture in its record of a feud originating from a certain Orn of Vælugerdi’s assistance in the murder of a man named Onund. The deceased’s sons, seeking revenge, “[take] over a charge against Orn for wrongful grazing and the outcome [is] that Orn could be killed by the Onundssons with impunity anywhere but at Vælugerdi and within arrowshot of his own land.”[20] Eventually, Orn strays past these boundaries, and “[Onund’s sons kill] Orn, and people [agree] that he’d been killed legally.”[21] Although Onund’s sons did not accuse Orn directly for his role in their father’s murder—instead pursuing a “wrongful grazing” charge—they nonetheless obtained authorization to pursue their blood-feud through the Icelandic judicial system, demonstrating the feud’s legal legitimacy as a form of conflict resolution. Jesse L. Byock explains, “Iceland’s societal order did not seek to supplant private feud. Instead, Iceland organized its judicial apparatus, indeed its entire society, to assist and expedite the resolution of feud.”[22] While medieval Icelanders certainly did not encourage blood-feud—instead seeking peaceful settlements when possible—they nonetheless recognized its legal validity.

Likewise, a Florentine legal decree dating to October 8, 1387, arbitrating a quarrel between the Strozzi and Lenzi families, demonstrates clearly the vendetta’s legitimacy as a mode of legal recourse within Florentine law. The document states the following regarding the offended:

“Giovanni and Piero Lenzi… and their children and descendants are hereby authorized with impunity to pursue a vendetta… and to offend by any means and to any degree Nofri and Pagnozzino and their sons and male descendants, and also any other member of the Strozzi clan… no matter how remote the relationship.”[23]

In this case, the Florentine legal ruling explicitly authorizes a vendetta, incontrovertibly showing that the vendetta was both a recognized method of conflict resolution, and legitimate in the eyes of Renaissance Florentine law. Moreover, the Lenzis’ sanction to offend “the sons and male descendants” of the perpetrators recalls the previously discussed patrimonial quality and multigenerational aspect of vendetta conflict.

Medieval Icelandic blood-feuds and Renaissance-era Florentine vendettas display thus remarkable similarities. In both societies, feud operated under an extended sense of kinship. Furthermore, in both medieval Iceland and Renaissance Florence, feud functioned as a form of inheritable condition, by which young men fell heir to the obligation of vengeance from their male predecessors. The legal systems of Renaissance Florence and medieval Iceland also both recognized and permitted feud as a valid method of settling conflicts. Such intriguing commonalities in the method and legal status of feud suggest the presence of deeper, underlying similarities between the societies of Renaissance Florence and medieval Iceland. But what similarities existed between these two societies, dissimilar in so many ways?

By most measures, Renaissance Florence and medieval Iceland were polar opposites. Geographically, Iceland’s location in the North Atlantic contrasts sharply with Florence’s inland position in the northern third of the Italian peninsula. Furthermore, in the medieval period, Iceland consisted entirely of rural homesteads with no major towns or cities.[24] Florence, on the other hand, was at the height of the Renaissance a flourishing city with a vibrant urban culture. Moreover, Iceland in the Viking age was largely isolated, relying on a subsistence economy and engaging in limited trade with foreign entities.[25] Conversely, Florence during the Renaissance maintained a lucrative cloth manufacturing industry and an expansive trade and banking network, which facilitated the exchange of ideas as well as goods.[26] Indeed, it seems that medieval Iceland and Renaissance Florence were, in nearly every respect, antithetical. Despite their differences, however, both Icelandic and Florentine societies shared an important cultural characteristic: namely, both possessed distinctive honor cultures, which necessitated feud in their respective communities.

In Renaissance Florence, honor culture stemmed primarily from the Mediterranean ideal of masculinity, which anthropologist David Gilmore defines as “performative excellence.”[27] In his study on vendetta in Renaissance Friuli, a region in northern Italy, Edward Muir elaborates on this theory. According to Muir, Italian men, in striving for this ideal, “[follow] a script that involves [them] in public displays of physical risk.”[28] Moreover, the “good” man “is above all loyal to his own. When he or someone close to him is hurt by another, either in word or deed, the good man seeks revenge by which he retaliates in an appropriate way, ideally matching the injury with an equal or slightly greater injury.”[29] By achieving “performative excellence,” a man proves his masculinity and “acquires honor, that most precious and perishable of social attributes.”[30]

By this logic, honor constitutes the ultimate goal of the Mediterranean man, and he directs all his actions toward its obtainment. Thus, participation in vendettas—which, by their very nature, involve “public displays of physical risk”—served as an ideal way for the Renaissance man to showcase his masculinity, and, in doing so, increase his honor. In this same vein, however, a vendetta was not just a way to bolster one’s honor: in fact, it was virtually obligatory. The “good” man, after all, did not allow affronts directed at himself or his relations to go unavenged. Doing so would call his masculinity—and, by extension, his honor—into question. Therefore, retaliation was not simply an option, but a necessity.

The Florentine legal document from 1387 regarding the vendetta between the Strozzi and Lenzi families gives a violent example of how Florentine honor culture manifested itself. According to the record, a certain Piero di Lenzo had been losing at cards, and exchanged words with Pagnozzino degli Strozzi. The situation quickly escalated:

Pagnozzino thought that Piero was criticizing him, for a short time before, he had been wounded in the hand by one of [Piero’s] relatives. So he put his hand on his sword … and gave Piero such a blow that he cut off his hand, and he struck his head with such force that pieces of bone were scattered about … and after ten days, Piero died.[31]

It is unclear whether Piero actually meant to insult Pagnozzino. Nevertheless, Pagnozzino, perceiving an affront to his honor, reacted immediately and forcefully. He murdered Piero at the gambling table—fulfilling the “public display of physical risk” component of performative excellence—and thus proved his masculinity and defended his honor.

Medieval Iceland, for its part, possessed its own, equally pervasive form of honor culture. For Vikings, honor was “closely tied to maintaining life, property, and status or exacting revenge,”[32] and was thus intrinsically intertwined with one’s place in society. Loss of honor, Byock states, “signalled that the individual was incapable of defending either himself or his property,”[33] and thus indicated weakness. Honor’s close link with social status in Icelandic society meant that affronts to one’s honor constituted social degradation, and therefore had to be avenged. Gunnar Karlsson ties this conception of honor into his analysis of the blood-feud, writing that “in the Icelandic Commonwealth violence was the legitimate tool of anyone to restore justice, and the moral demand for courage turned that right into a duty. Thus, if a close relative of yours was killed, the most shameful result was that the killer – and his family – got away with it with impunity.”[34] In a society with such extended notions of kinship, the blood-feud was therefore virtually unavoidable: one was honor-bound to seek vengeance not only on behalf of one’s nuclear family, but also on the parts of one’s distant relatives and friends.

Icelandic honor culture pervades Landnámabók. In one chapter, a young man named Thorolf “challenged Ulfar for the lands he owned. Ulfar was old and childless, and was killed in the fight.”[35] The text explicitly states that Ulfar was advanced in years, so it defies contemporary reason that he would agree to a duel with a man in the prime of his life. In the context of Icelandic honor culture, however, Ulfar had no choice but to fight. By declining the challenge, Ulfar would signal that he “was incapable of defending either himself or his property,”[36] and therefore lose his honor and social standing. Rather than face these consequences, Ulfar chooses to fight, knowing full well that he is at a disadvantage. Ulfar’s decision—if it can be called that—demonstrates the lengths to which Icelanders would go to preserve and defend their honor, and evinces the honor culture that pervaded medieval Icelandic society.

Over time, centralization of political power in Florence marked a decline in the prevalence of vendettas and in the legal legitimacy that the vendetta had previously enjoyed. In the fifteenth century, power slowly consolidated in the hands of the Florentine aristocracy, particularly the renowned Medici family. Despite the Medici’s growing influence, Gene Brucker explains that “[Medici authority] never became absolute, and the [Florentine] republic was not transformed into an autocratic despotism.”[37] However, while Medici power may not have been absolute, their central role in Florentine affairs caused an increase in the power of the state, which was, in turn, increasingly able to enforce its decrees. This centralization marked a decline in the pursuance of vendettas, since the increased strength of governmental institutions meant that Florentine citizens could now achieve justice in court. An entry from the diary of Antonio Rustichi, dating to 1420, illustrates this change. Rustichi describes an incident in which “Simone di Buonarroto di Simone [Buonarroti] … threw a brick at [his] head.”[38] Instead of immediately pursuing a vendetta, Rustichi takes Buonarroti “to the court of the podestà,” which settles the conflict by forcing Buonarotti to make a public apology.[39] Cases such as these demonstrate the transition from the vendetta as a form of justice to peaceful resolution through now-reliable governmental mechanisms.

Similarly, Iceland’s transition to monarchical rule signaled the end of the blood-feud’s legal legitimacy. After the island’s initial settlement, Iceland had founded a unique, democratic governmental system known as the Icelandic Commonwealth.[40] The Commonwealth, as Gunnar Karlsson writes, “consisted of thirty-nine chieftains (goðar) who held a district assembly (várþing) in groups of three and thus formed thirteen assembly districts.” An annual, countrywide assembly of all free males known as the Althing overarched the thirteen individual district assemblies.[41] Thus, Iceland, to probably a greater degree than Florence, had planted its roots firmly in democracy. Iceland’s lack of centralized political authority meant that the “maintaining of order and the enforcing of judicial decrees [were left] to concerned private parties.”[42] The blood-feud, as we have seen, often fulfilled this role of private justice.

However, between the years 1262-64, after a series of violent internal conflicts, the Icelandic chieftains renounced their chieftaincies and “swore allegiance to King Hákon [of Norway] and his son Magnúss at the Althing.”[43] This agreement came to be known as the Old Covenant.[44] Thereafter, Iceland became subject to the Norwegian law of “royal wergild (þegngildi), which meant that manslaughter became an offence against the king as well as the family of the person who had been killed.”[45] Although blood-feuds did not cease completely after this implementation of Norwegian law, Iceland’s subjection to a centralized political authority in the Norwegian monarchy marked the beginning of the end for the blood-feud as a valid mode of legal recourse.

The Renaissance undoubtedly saw significant advancements in innumerable fields, and effected profound changes not only in Italy, but in all Europe. However, my analysis reveals distinct and undeniable parallels between the Renaissance and the medieval period. Such parallels, we have seen, are especially apparent when considering the pursuance of revenge in Viking-age Iceland and Renaissance Florence. Indeed, the vendettas of Renaissance Florence contain striking echoes of the blood-feuds of medieval Iceland, a connection which speaks not only to the constancy of revenge throughout history, but also to the presence of underlying similarities between these two disparate societies, thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart. These similarities, however, extend beyond the theme of revenge which provides the foundation for this essay: they raise broader questions about the evolution of masculinity, particularly regarding how it is defined and achieved, and how the fundamental concept of masculinity transcends cultural boundaries. The parallels between medieval Iceland and Renaissance Florence also draw into the spotlight the question of honor, and how its attainment and maintenance have managed to remain uncannily universal over time. Finally, the decline of both the vendetta and the blood-feud in their respective societies demands a closer look at the impacts of increases in state power and of the centralization and strengthening of government structures. The prevalence of feud across the boundaries of time and distance demonstrates significantly more than the historical constancy of vengeance: it points to deeper, more profound parallels regarding human nature, values, and the evolution and expansion of centralized power.

[1]             Sturla Thordarson, The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók, trans. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, (Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 1972), 7.

[2]             Ibid., 3.

[3]             Ibid.

[4]             The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, ed. Gene

Brucker (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 106-120.

[5]             William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 17.

[6]             Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland, (London: The Penguin Group, 2001), 98.

[7]             The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, 106.

[8]             Ibid., 107.

[9]             Thordarson, The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók, 140.

[10]            Ibid., 141.

[11]            R.I. Page, Chronicles of the Vikings, (London: British Museum Press, 1995), 74.

[12]            The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, 108.

[13]            Ibid., 109.

[14]            Thordarson, The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók, 139.

[15]            Ibid.

[16]            Ibid., 140.

[17]            Ibid.

[18]            Page, Chronicles of the Vikings, 73.

[19]            The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, 106.

[20]            Thordarson, The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók, 132.

[21]            Ibid.

[22]            Jesse L. Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California

Press, 1982), 27.

[23]            The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, 113.

[24]            Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland, 15.

[25]            Byock, Viking Age Iceland, 44.

[26]            Gene Brucker, Renaissance Florence, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1969), 53-54.

[27]            David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity, (New Haven and

London: Yale University Press, 1990), 31.

[28]            Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli during the Renaissance,

(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 68.

[29]            Ibid.

[30]            Ibid.

[31]            The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, 111.

[32]            Byock, Viking Age Iceland, 15.

[33]            Ibid.

[34]            Gunnar Karlsson, The History of Iceland, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 57.

[35]            Thordarson, The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók, 47.

[36]            Byock, Viking Age Iceland, 15.

[37]            Brucker, Renaissance Florence, 257.

[38]            The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, 119.

[39]            Ibid., 119-120.

[40]            Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 72.

[41]            Ibid., 22.

[42]            Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga, 27.

[43]            Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 82.

[44]            Ibid., 83.

[45]            Ibid., 90.