The Professions in Renaissance Florence


The Guilds

The communities of lawyers and of physicians in Florence, like other non-menial occupations in Florence were regulated by their respective guilds, the Guild of Lawyers and Notaries, and the Guild of Doctors, Apothecaries and Grocers, which established licensing requirements and standards for the profession.  These were two of the seven “greater guilds,” which governed the major professions. such as medicine and banking.  There were also fourteen lesser guilds that controlled the other, less prestigious professions such as the traditional crafts.  Liked other guilds elsewhere, these guilds established a level of monopoly and fostered the economic interest of the members.  These guilds also provided for the needs of the less fortunate members, observed funerals and supported joint religious activities.  In Florence, the guilds had an established political function, involved in the electoral functions of the city and in city offices [1].


The Legal Profession
The legal guild was the highest ranking of these seven guilds. All recorded legal relations in Florence were under the control of the legal guild.  No one outside the guild was authorized to attest public documents. At its peak in 1338, before the population onslaught of the plague, the guild membership included 80 lawyers and 600 notaries [2].


To be a member of the guild, lawyers had to have attended an Italian university law school for at least five years, and had to pass an examination administered by the guild.  This included those who provided court representation and provided expert legal opinions as well as the judges [3].


Notaries were charged with documenting all legally binding transactions. Some notaries became skilled enough to provide representation in a court of law.  In this function they were designated as procurators.  To become a member of the guild, a prospective notary had to pass an examination administered by the guild, which tested his knowledge of grammar and composition as well as his understanding of contracts.  To prepare for the examinations, the candidate could attend relevant classes, but mostly he learned the material by working for about two years with a practicing notary [4].


The Medical Profession

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Guild of Doctors, Apothecaries and Grocers, which also included barbers and gravediggers, had roughly six hundred members, although there were fewer doctors than apothecaries and grocers [5]. The number of guild doctors in Florence reached 71 in 1379, and then decreased along with the general population due to the plague [6].  The guild defined doctors as those “who practice physic or surgery, set bones, and treat mouths.”  The guild statute of 1349 required doctors to have a medical degree or to be examined and approved by a board of doctors [7].


The guild doctors, however, did not in practice have a monopoly over the healing arts of Florence during the fourteenth and fifteenth century.  Folk medicine continued to be practiced, which offered home remedies using household or easily available ingredients [8].


There were three major groups of doctors, physicians, surgeons, and empirics.  Physicians had medical degrees form recognized schools and practiced internal medicine. Most Florentine physicians studied at Bologna, Padua or Florence. These medical studies included theory and general principles, the study of specific diseases and their treatment, and surgical practices, based on the study of Greek and Arabic texts and some use of dissections. Medical students also accompanied experienced doctors on visits to patients [9]. Surgeons were limited to treating external conditions such as sores, wound, and fractures.  Universities offered lesser degrees appropriate for the surgeon level of practice, and individual doctors also provided private training, but the majority of surgeons did not have formal academic training.  Empirics were specialists in treating a particular condition, such as eye problems or bone dislocations, and their trade by learned by watching and assisting [10].  In the year 1427, about 50% of the doctors were physicians, 20 % were surgeons and 30% were empirics, although these percentages varied widely [11].


Medieval hospitals mostly provided food, shelter and rest, but some medical care was  gradually introduced. The hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, founded in the 1280’s had 300 beds in the late fifteenth century, and it employed nine medical practitioners by 1500 [12].


[1] Katharine Park, Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 15-16.

[2] Lauro Martines, Lawyers and Statecraft in Renaissance Florence (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968), 12-15.

[3] Ibid., 30-31.

[4] Ibid., 34-37.

[5] Katharine Park, Doctors and Medicine, 17-19.

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Ibid., 48-49.

[9] Ibid., 59-61.

[10] Ibid., 63-67.

[11] Ibid., 75.

[12] Nancy G. Siraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 39.