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Bankers, Merchants, and Poets: Florence and the Roots of the Renaissance - HIS00124I

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Lucy Sackville
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

At the turn of the fourteenth century, Florence was one of the great cities of Europe. A teeming metropolis and commercial centre, whose financial houses bankrolled the papacy and the rulers of Europe, Florentines were everywhere involved in the life of late medieval Europe, to the extent that Boniface VIII called them the ‘fifth element of the universe’. The struggle to control the city and its influence was played out among its different social groups, in an arena that saw not only armed violence, but revolt, attempted murder, actual murder, and the occasional resort to arson. But Florence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was also a seedbed for ideas of ‘renaissance’, and in the midst of these tensions, the cultural world of Italy and Europe was being transformed by the work of painters and writers like Giotto, Dante, and Petrarch.

What was the relationship between medieval Florence and the period we now call the Renaissance, and why has this question proved so persistent? How were people’s conceptions of their place in history changing? Helping us to understand the city and its significance will be its contemporary residents, and the letters, memoirs, civic and religious documents they left behind. Two chroniclers will guide us through its history - Dino Compagni, a merchant closely involved with the political life of his day, and the banker Giovanni Villani. Through their experiences and memories we will explore Florence and think about what it meant to live in a city in this period, and along the way will meet some of the great artists of the age.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to study particular historical topics in depth
  • To develop students’ ability to examine a topic from a range of perspectives and to strengthen their ability to work critically and reflectively with secondary and primary material

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Have acquired a deep knowledge of the specific topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to use and synthesise a range of primary and secondary sources
  • Be able to evaluate the arguments that historians have made about the topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to study independently through seminar-based teaching

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 1-hour plenary/lecture and a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of semester 1. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW) during which there are no seminars. Students prepare for and participate in eight 1-hour plenaries/lectures and eight 2-hour seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. The Unpronounceables: Guelphs and Ghibellines
  2. Class and Faction: whose side are you on?
  3. The City: Something of the mountain and the rock
  4. Money: they say the best things in life are free
  5. Morality and Religion: It is better to will the good than to know the truth
  6. Literacy and Education: you can learn many things with a bit of study
  7. Popular Culture: a sweet new style
  8. Early Humanism: out of the darkness and dense gloom?


Task Length % of module mark
Assessed Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment, students will complete a referenced 1200 to 1500-word essay relating to the themes and issues of the module. This will be submitted in either the Week 5 or Week 9 RAW week (on the day of the weekly seminar).

For summative assessment, students will complete an Assessed Essay (2000 words, footnoted). This will comprise 100% of the overall module mark.

Summative assessments will be due in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
Assessed Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will typically receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Lansing, Carol. The Florentine Magnates: Lineage and Faction in a Medieval Commune. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Sullivan, Mary Elizabeth. “Is Dante a Cosmopolitan?,” Postmedieval: a Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. 9, no. 4 (2018): 511–23.
  • Witt, Ronald G. The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.