Cohn, Samuel K(line), Jr. 1949-

views updated

COHN, Samuel K(line), Jr. 1949-

PERSONAL: Born April 13, 1949, in Birmingham, AL; son of Samuel Kline (a physician) and Mildred (an artist; maiden name, Hiller) Cohn. Education: Attended University of London, 1969-70; Union College, B.A., 1971; University of Wisconsin—Madison, M.A., 1972; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1978. Politics: Socialist


ADDRESSES: Offıce—Department of Medieval History, University of Glasgow, 10 University Gardens, Scotland G12 8QQ. E-mail—[email protected]


CAREER: Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, assistant professor of history, 1978-79; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, assistant professor, 1979-85, associate professor, 1985-86, professor of history, 1986-95; University of Glasgow (Scotland), professor of medieval history, 1995—. Visiting professor, Brown University, 1991.


WRITINGS:

The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, Academic Press (New York, NY), 1980.

Death and Property in Siena, 1205-1799: Strategies for the Afterlife, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1988.

The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death: SixRenaissance Cities in Central Italy, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1992, revised, 1997.

Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power inRenaissance Italy, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1996.

(Editor, with Steven A. Epstein) Portraits of Medieval and Renaissance Living: Essays in Memory of David Herlihy, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1996.

(Editor and contributor of introduction) David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.

Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion,1348-1434, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1999.

The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture inEarly Renaissance Europe, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.


Contributor of "The Place of the Dead in Flanders and Tuscany: Towards a Comparative History of the Black Death" to The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.


SIDELIGHTS: During a scholarly career that has spanned more than two decades, historian Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., has interpreted such facets of Italian Renaissance history as the role of women in Florence, testamentary giving patterns, and the effect of the bubonic plague on the rate of societal changes. On these and other topics he has published a more than a dozen books and journal articles.


The effects on Europe of the Black Death, commonly thought to be bubonic plague, has been one of Cohn's longtime interests. In The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death: Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy, he studied 3,389 testaments and 21,351 pious bequests to discern changes in charitable giving patterns after the outbreak of plague in 1362 and 1363. He found that prior to this period, benefactors gave smaller amounts to a wider variety of charities, while after this outbreak of plague benefactors gave larger sums to fewer charities and focused on creating monuments to themselves whether through a large donation to a monastery, friary, parish, civic hospital, or civic organization. The work caught the attention of scholars, among them Daniel Bornstein, who reviewed it for Historian. "Bold interpretations such as this have the signal merit of stirring fruitful debate," Bornstein wrote, "but a number of questions about Cohn's evidence and interpretation might give one pause," such as occasionally but possibly important mistranslations of Latin text in the documents studied. As D. R. Skopp explained in Choice, these questions revolve around Cohn's statistical analysis using multiple regression models, the unevenness of his database, and in his attention to "sheer numbers of bequests . . . [rather than] the actual proportion of the estate."

Cohn edited and wrote the introduction to The Black Death and the Transformation of the West by David Herlihy, founding associate editor of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. And after Herlihy's death, Cohn edited Portraits of Medieval and Renaissance Living: Essays in Memory of David Herlihy. In 2002 Cohn served up another study of the disease and its effects: The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. In it he argues that the Black Death was not the bubonic plague and attempts to explain why the Renaissance arose from the most significant mortality event in the West's history.

In his 1996 publication Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in Renaissance Italy, a collection of essays on several topics, Cohn "adduces a mass of new evidence and rich argumentation in considering the important question of how women experienced the changes associated with the Renaissance in Italy," to quote Catherine King of the English Historical Review. Cohn presents a new interpretation of the condition of women in Italy, stating that Florence was the worst place in central Italy to have been born a woman during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Basing his assertion on court records, Cohn argues that the Florentine criminal courts stopped prosecuting the perpetrators of rapes and assaults against women. He also notes that the rates of infanticide of female children rose, restrictions on female occupations increased (causing forced female migration), and women's control over property declined. A woman's treatment by others depended on several factors: her social class, whether she was secular or a member of a religious order, and her geographical location.

Another subject of this work is the economic conditions of the Florentine hill people, who were believed to live in poverty compared with the townspeople. However, Cohn makes a case for the hill dwellers' greater prosperity due to the increasing role of animal husbandry over grain farming. In addition to discussions of the treatment of women and the affluence and influence of the Florentine peasantry, Cohn formulates a new methodology. Rather than use a single or several well-documented and celebrated court cases to make a particular point, Cohn maintains that "a quantitative reckoning of court cases can provide clues to the past that no individual case history, no matter how 'thickly' described . . . can possibly reveal." Thus in his research Cohn uses a large number of primary sources in his research. Reviewing the work for the Journal of the Historical Association was Trevor Dean, who commented, "The challenging nature of these arguments will be evident, and these lucidly written essays (though sometimes clogged with archive Latin) will certainly provide stimulus for debate among Renaissance historians."


Some twenty years after Cohn published The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, his Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348-1434 appeared. In this "bold new interpretation of the transition from the late medieval to the Renaissance state in Florence," to quote Journal of Social History contributor Sharon T. Strocchia, Cohn argues that a number of successful peasant uprisings from 1401 to 1405 prompted the Florentine government to tend more kindly to its peasant subjects, particularly in lightening their tax burden. Cohn compares the relationship of the mountain dwellers and lowland dwellers, proposing that they were not backward and pagan, but intelligent, religious, and sociable. He also maintains that the high tax burden forced many mountain dwellers to move outside of Florentine jurisdiction to survive, causing the remaining peasants to revolt. Finally, as far as the historical record is concerned, Cohn asserts that the urban historians in Florence attempted to cover up the existence and nature of the uprisings in writing the region's history.


Creating the Florentine State elicited discussion among scholars. Among them was Trevor Dean, who, in an article for the English Historical Review expressed reservations. "The argument [about the influence of the peasant rebellions] is conducted with force and pugnacity, and the book makes a most valuable addition to the historiography of European rebellions. But there are moments when Cohn might be suspected of overdoing it." Similarly, while Strocchia found that "Cohn effectively debunks the image of mountain peasants constructed by Braudel and others," she found his case to be "not completely convincing." In her opinion this is particularly the case for a "conspiracy of silence" about the peasant revolts by Florentine chroniclers, for which she believes Cohn "overplays the evidence." Despite these alleged flaws, Strocchia concluded: "This study provides an important reconsideration of the relationships binding peasants and elites, as well as those distinguishing peasants themselves." Choice's P. Grendler also praised the study, calling it "clearly written" and "strongly argued," and Renaissance Quarterly reviewer Louis Haas found much to like about this "significant, well-researched, and well-argued book." Noting that Cohn's "spadework in the archives—especially his ability to link persons in various archival collections—evinces considerable doggedness on his part," Haas praised Cohn's use of statistical methods and his discussions of the results. "His quantitative discussion and its attendant tables and appendixes are clear and convincing enough for the average scholarly reader."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Cohn, Samuel K., Jr., Women in the Streets: Essays onSex and Power in Renaissance Italy, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1996.



PERIODICALS

American Historical Review, February, 1982, review of Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, p. 211; June, 1990, review of Death and Property in Siena, 1205-1799: Strategies for the Afterlife, p. 860; October, 1993, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death: Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy, pp. 1283+; December, 1998, review of Women in the Streets, p. 1641; April, 2001, review of Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348-1434, pp. 673+.

Catholic Historical Review, January, 1990, review of Death and Property in Siena, p. 95; October, 1993, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 740+.

Choice, April, 1993, D. R. Skopp, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, p. 1367; September, 2000, P. Grendler, review of Creating the Florentine State, p. 209.

English Historical Review, October, 1982, review of Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, p. 843; November, 1995, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 1247+; February, 1999, Catherine King, review of Women in the Streets, p. 164; February, 2001, Trevor Dean, review of Creating the Florentine State, p. 198.

Historian, spring, 1994, review of The Cult ofRemembrance and the Black Death, pp. 583+; summer, 1995, Daniel Bornstein, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 583-584.

History, January, 1999, Trevor Dean, review of Women in the Streets, p. 144.

History: Reviews of New Books, spring, 1998, review of Women in the Streets, p. 140.

History Today, January, 1994, review of The Cult ofRemembrance and the Black Death, pp. 55+.

Journal of Economic History, September, 1998, review of Women in the Streets, pp. 876+.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, spring, 1982, review of Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, p. 690; spring, 1990, review of Death and Property in Siena, p. 672; fall, 1994, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 308+; winter, 1998, Martha C. Howell, review of Portraits of Medieval and Renaissance Living: Essays in Memory of David Herlihy, pp. 417-425, review of Women in the Streets, pp. 460+.

Journal of Modern History, September, 1982, review of Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, p. 591; September, 1990, review of Death and Property in Siena, p. 624; June, 1995, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 358+.

Journal of Social History, fall, 1990, review of Death and Property in Siena, p. 161; fall, 2001, Sharon T. Strocchia, review of Creating the Florentine State, p. 242.

New York Review of Books, January 21, 1982, Felix Gilbert, review of The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, pp. 64-65.

Reference and Research Book News, August, 1997, review of Women in the Streets, p. 94.

Religious Studies Review, April, 1991, review of Death and Property in Siena, p. 170.

Renaissance Quarterly, fall, 1982, review of LaboringClasses in Renaissance Florence, p. 472; winter, 1989, review of Death and Property in Siena, p. 833; winter, 1994, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 942+; winter, 1998, review of Women in the Streets, pp. 1341+; summer, 2001, Louis Haas, review of Creating the Florentine State, p. 593.

Sixteenth Century Journal, fall, 1994, review of TheCult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 719+; summer, 1998, review of Women in the Streets, pp. 577+; spring, 2001, review of Creating the Florentine State, pp. 154+.

Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, July, 1982, review of Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, p. 595; January, 1992, review of Death and Property in Siena, pp. 127+; October, 1994, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, pp. 1140+; July, 1998, review of Women in the Streets, pp. 825+; January, 1999, Rosemary Horrox, review of The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, pp. 184-185.

Times Literary Supplement, January 15, 1982, review of Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence, p. 61; September 1, 1989, review of Death and Property in Siena, p. 956.

University Press Book News, December, 1992, review of The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death, p. 16.*