Numerous records of trials held in the early modern period have survived up to our day.
These court documents, which usually contain descriptions of the legal cases as well as of witnesses’ testimonies, are important sources for studying the everyday life of Renaissance Italians. Men and women, called by courts to testify, often recalled not just events in their statements, they also often mentioned material objects that were connected to the event, and revealed much of the gossip that was discussed on the streets, taverns and at people’s homes. These words of witnesses, faithfully written down by the scribes, then, are not just stories of crime, but they can tell us a lot about what material goods signified for Renaissance Italians, how men and women expressed and used the meanings in the politics of everyday life, and what attitudes men and women had towards their home, furnishing and clothing.
In Italy, court proceedings survive in many different forms, including disputes that were settled at civic courts, Merchant courts, or by sumptuary law officials. These are often useful also for dress historians. Along the statements, witnesses sometimes mentioned textiles, trims or garments they had seen, sometimes describing with remarkable precision how these were worn or made, who wore them, where such items were acquired or what people thought about them. For example, on 3 July 1638, for example, when a modest gardener’s wife in Florence was apprehended by officials for wearing too fine items, such as a ruff and silk trimmed sleeves made from fabric that imitated the effect of clothing of gold, a witness told the court that the accessories were part of the woman’s wedding gown, which had been made by nuns at the Florentine convent of Annalena.
In Scandinavia, surviving town court books also provide a valuable insight into the criminal offences and the role that dress and dress accessories played in thefts and other local disputes. For example, in 1550, in the town of Elsinore, a tailor settled his case by handing over a pair of English hose that he had made, while in the same year, on Easter evening, a carpenter stole a piece of red camlet which he then resold in return for some wax.
Cultural studies that have made use of criminal sources:
Cohen Elizabeth S. and Cohen, Thomas, V., ‘Open and Shut: The Social Meanings of the Cinquecento Roman House, Studies in the Decorative Arts, Fall-Winter 2001-2002, 61-84.
Brucker, Gene, Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence(Berkely, Los Angeles, 1988).
Cohn, Samuel K. Jr., Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in Renaissance Italy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
Muir, Edvard and Ruggiero, Guido (eds.), Microhistory and the Lost people of Europe(Baltimore, London, 1991).
Ruggiero, Guido, Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the End of the Renaissance (New York, Oxford, 1993).