By Danièle Cybulskie
Looking ahead to a new calendar year inspires many of us to examine our old habits and shortcomings and resolve to make those changes that will lead us to become better versions of ourselves. This looking backwards and looking forwards at the same time is a very old concept – part of the reason the first month is named for the god Janus, whose two faces allowed him to see both forwards and backwards simultaneously.
Medieval people also took moments from time-to-time to reflect and vow to do better. In the diary of Gregorio Dati, an Italian merchant born in the fourteenth century, we can see resolutions tied to this urge to face a new year as a better man in an entry dated January 1, 1404.
While modern people’s resolutions – at least those we voice aloud – tend to target our shortcomings around food and exercise, Dati’s resolutions aim at how he wishes to be a better Christian. He writes, “since my birth forty years ago, I have given little heed to God’s commandments,” and his three resolutions are aimed at rectifying this. First, Dati says,
I resolve from this day forward to refrain from going to the shop or conducting business on solemn Church holidays, or from permitting others to work for me or seek temporal gain on such days.
I resolve from this very day and in perpetuity to keep Friday as a day of total chastity – with Friday I include the following night – when I must abstain from the enjoyment of all carnal pleasures.
I resolve this day to do a third thing while I am in health and able to, remembering that each day we need Almighty God to provide for us. Each day I wish to honour God by some giving of alms or by the recitation of prayers or some other pious act.
These are all things that Dati knows should already be a regular part of his life, but that he hasn’t had much success with. His everyday struggle to do what he should is a familiar one in a world in which we continue to make and break our own New Year’s resolutions.
Dati’s challenges to himself resemble modern resolutions not only in his desire to do good (for others, and for himself), but they also include a few other strategies we tend to use to hold ourselves accountable. For one thing, he’s cemented his intentions through writing. He says, “I have written this down so that I might remember my promise and be ashamed if I should chance to break it.” Using the written word as a way of binding a promise to ourselves is a strategy that continues to be promoted when making resolutions, both for the esteem in which we still hold written contracts, and the guilt the reminder brings.
Dati’s also given himself incentives for sticking with his program of reform. For each of his resolutions, he’s attached a monetary penalty if he doesn’t live up to his standards. If he works on a holiday, he must “distribute alms of one gold florin to God’s poor”; if he has carnal relations on a Friday, he must “give 20 soldi to the poor for each time, and … say twenty Paternosters and Avemarias”; if he forgets to perform a pious act, he must “give alms to the poor of at least 5 soldi.” These seem to be in descending order of the seriousness of the breech in question (that is, of course, unless he anticipates several donations will be necessary for one Friday’s worth of sinning).
Finally, Dati gives himself some wiggle room. In his resolution not to do business on holidays, he already anticipates that he will intentionally break his own rule, saying he’ll distribute his gold florin’s worth of alms “whenever I make exceptions in cases of extreme necessity.” He also allows that he’ll probably forget not to have sex on Fridays, which looks like it might be likely. After all, if he needs to explicitly spell out for himself that Friday nights are included in his ban, it seems evident that he recognizes this intention might be a difficult one for him to uphold. At the end of the section on pious works, he give himself the most wiggle room: “These however are not vows but intentions by which I shall do my best to abide.” Although this immediately follows his intention to recite prayers or perform pious acts, it seems to imply that it applies to all of the preceding resolutions. It may be telling that this is the place at which he stops writing about this years’ resolutions.
Indeed, Dati’s not completely convinced he can meet all his goals (at forty, he knows himself pretty well), but he’s choosing to be optimistic, “Distrusting [his] own power to reform, but hoping to advance by degrees along the path of virtue”. His optimism mirrors our own society’s feelings towards New Year’s resolutions: we accept that we’ve failed, but we believe we can do better.
Sadly, we have no record of whether or not Dati managed to meet all his goals, although resolutions he notes in his diary a decade later (not to take any civic position in which he’d have power over the death penalty, for instance) also have monetary penalties attached, so he may have found a strategy that worked for him. We can only hope that Dati was able to hold to at least some of his good intentions, and to “advance by degrees” towards becoming the man he wanted to be. May we all find similar success in reaching our goals this year.
You can find this and more excerpts from Gregorio Dati’s diary in the useful and chunky compilation Readings in Medieval History, or check out Julia Martines’ complete translation in Two Memoirs of Renaissance Florence: The Diaries of Buonaccorso Pitti and Gregorio Dati.
Love The Five-Minute Medievalist? Pick up a copy of Danièle’s book here.
Top Image: Manuscript pages from La Sfera, circa 1450, by Gregorio Dati (1362-1436), including hand-colored map. MS Typ 155, Houghton Library, Harvard University