Notaries as Harmonizers of Desire: Poetry, Music, Sacrality and Financial Gain in medieval Bologna (ca. 1280-ca. 1330)

This paper examines how medieval notaries used their cultural backgrounds, including elements from music, dance, poetry and Christian spirituality, to shape attitudes toward wealth and the distribution of resources in late thirteenth-century Bologna. Notaries’ rise as a professional group is closely related to commercialization, urbanization and monetization, the appearance of universities and the formation of communes in the southern half of Europe starting in the twelfth century. Scholars have recognized the importance of notaries in regulating and mediating public and private affairs through legal formulas. However, they have barely considered them as engaged in questions of civic morality. Examining poetry, prayers and the images notaries entered into their registers, and drawing on additional sources from notarial culture, I show how notaries shaped attitudes toward wealth, and the pursuit and distribution of material gain among members of the commune. Beyond the text of statutes, philosophical and theological treatises, images, poetry and prayers in notarial registers provide insight into how notaries themselves imagined and defined economic morality. An image from a 1289 register of the office charged with the administration of communal assets depicts the notary Zachetus de Viola. Zachetus appears here as playing a vielle (Lat. viola), an instrument primarily used in secular music. The frame of the portrait, however, resembles a monstrance used in Christian mass to depict the host. Thus, the image unites music, Christian spirituality, the communal office, and the self conception of notaries. Zachetus’ role as administrator might be viewed analogous to a musician, creating “social harmony” via the documentary infrastructure. Analyzing hundreds of such images, poetry and prayers alongside documents and drawing on additional evidence of notarial culture, this paper explores the role of medieval notaries in shaping the economic morality of their communities.