Digestum vetus cum glossa Accursii (Bolognese, c. 1345)

A market scene from a Bolognese manuscript of Justinian's Digest (c. 1345)

This collection features forty-one inventories of insolvent households in Bologna. All date to the last quarter of the thirteenth century and were compiled by court notaries assigned to debtors' property in the course of litigation. Today, they are preserved in Bologna's Archivio di Stato as the series "Ufficio degli inventari."

The City

The thirteenth century was Bologna’s golden age. The city was already famed for its university, whose more than two thousand professors and students swelled its population. The banking industry, in particular, flourished as students clamored for loans. The prosperous years after 1200 saw the construction of the Piazza Maggiore, a vast public space at the city center, and a new set of walls to accommodate the growing population. By the middle of the thirteenth century, over fifty thousand people were living within these walls, with roughly the same number scattered throughout the villages of the surrounding contado.

This period in Bologna's history also saw shifts in political culture that created the institutional environment for the inventories in this collection. Merchants and bankers spearheaded the formation of the popolo, a coalition of craft guilds and citizen militias that, by the middle of the thirteenth century, could compete for power with established political authorities in the city. Meanwhile, the aristocratic families that had traditionally dominated Bologna's government descended into civil war, leading, in 1274, to the expulsion of some twelve thousand members of the so-called “Lambertazzi” faction. The popolo, led by the notary Rolandino Passaggeri, found itself in a position to seize control of the city. The inventories of the Ufficio degli inventari largely date to the years of rule by the popolo under Rolandino's effective direction.

Institutional context

The earliest evidence of Bologna's office ad inventaria, the institutional entity that generated the inventories of the Ufficio degli inventari series, appears in the city's statutes of 1288. No comparable office is described in earlier statutes, which, together with the chronological arc of the series (1287-1300), suggests that the office ad inventaria was an innovation of Rolandino’s regime a popolo. This would be in keeping with Rolandino’s innovative approach to governance: procedural regularity and meticulous record-keeping became mechanisms for legitimating rule by the popolo.

The office ad inventaria was staffed by four notaries, one for each quarter of the city, who served six-month terms. The office was associated with the civil arm of public justice, a network of courts whose precise jurisdictional outlines remain obscure given the few case records that survive from this period. The notaries’ services came into play when a debtor failed to respond to a civil summons. At this point, the creditor who lodged the plea was able to request attachment (tenuta) of the contumacious debtor’s property equal to the value of the debt in question, starting with chattels (mobilia) and proceeding to real estate (immobilia) and income from rights (iura).

If the debtor failed to mount a defense, the creditor was on the threshold of obtaining compensation out of the debtor’s attached property. But first, a public crier (bannitor) announced throughout the city that anyone claiming to own any of the property in question or to have a competing right in it as a creditor should bring this to the court's attention. If someone purporting to be a creditor appeared, one of the notaries ad inventaria was assigned as a guardian (curator) of the debtor’s “undefended” goods (bona indefensa), i.e., whatever had not been claimed by a third party. The notary inventoried the property in question, supervised its appraisal, and defended it against the competing creditor’s claim. If successful, the notary was to pay the original creditor whatever he or she was owed out of the debtor’s property. There is no indication in the statutes as to how, or whether, this property was to be liquidated.

When his term ended, each notary ad inventaria deposited his register of inventories in the communal coffer (armarium). Today, fragments of these registers constitute the Ufficio degli inventari series.

The Sample

The statutes of 1288 are fairly clear on the nature of the items recorded by the notaries ad inventaria. The objects, houses, fields, and written records in these inventories constitute property that creditors had designated for attachment. In other words, an inventory is not a snapshot of a debtor’s entire estate, but captures only the portion appraised at a value equal to the debt a creditor was seeking. The structure of extant inventories generally corresponds to the procedures outlined in the statutes: objects are listed first, followed by real estate and, very rarely, notarized contracts. It is safe to assume, then, that inventories including any real estate also list all of the debtor’s movable property, which had to be exhausted before a creditor could attach immovable property such as houses and arable. The present collection includes only inventories featuring more than three objects, but there are many more in the Ufficio degli inventari series that consist almost entirely of real estate. It is reasonable to suppose that debtors spirited away their most valuable and easily transportable possessions, leaving creditors with real estate, bulky furniture, and “junk.”

Lodovico Frati, one of the few scholars to have examined these inventories, saw in them evidence of the crude simplicity supposedly typical of households in thirteenth-century Bologna. But the objects described in any given inventory constitute only a portion—likely an unrepresentative one—of an insolvent debtor’s estate. While some of these inventories may have captured every object that a creditor could lay hands on, debtors were capable of working around the system. Given willing co-conspirators, a team of draft animals, and a sturdy cart, a debtor could abscond with things that had a high value-to-weight ratio: clothes and textiles, objects fashioned from precious materials, money, books, jewelry, smaller livestock, even pets—though one debtor in the collection saw fit to leave behind a caged bird (unum avem cum cabia). The spareness of the households creditors encountered—often little more than a bed and an assortment of empty casks, sacks, vessels, and chests—may speak more to debtors’ strategies of evasion than to a crude and simple lifestyle. Even the “richest” inventories in the collection do not consist of more than a few dozen low-value objects. Typical in this respect is the inventory of Boniachobus Artuçii, few of whose remaining material possessions were appraised at more than a few soldi.

The inventories follow a regular structure. The preamble identifies, first, the notary ad inventaria assigned as guardian to the undefended goods, followed by the debtor, the presiding judges of the court in which the attachment was requested, the notary who wrote the request for attachment, and the creditor who made the request. Then follows the inventory proper of attached movables, immovables, and rights, usually in that order. Apart from the components of bed sets, objects are usually appraised individually. Real estate is identified with a plat description followed by the appraised value. Most inventories conclude by identifying the property's sworn appraisers (extimatores), who were sometimes the debtor’s neighbors.

Goals and Prospects

A comprehensive inventory of the Ufficio degli inventari is currently in preparation by Giovanna Morelli, who graciously facilitated access to the series in 2017. As work progresses, it will be important to determine whether there is any correlation between debtors’ backgrounds and the nature and volume of the material possessions they left for creditors to attach. Why, for instance, did some debtors leave behind dozens of cheap objects, but others few or none at all? It may be possible to fill in some of the gaps by consulting parallel series in the voluminous holdings of Bologna's Archivio di Stato. The remarkable "Memoriali" series preserves tens of thousands of notarial contracts from the 1280s and 1290s, a treasure trove of prosopographical data about the litigants featured in these inventories, as well as the procurators, court notaries, and appraisers who entered into the process. One might also turn to the comprehensive fiscal surveys (estimi) extant from this period, comparing the households of insolvent debtors against their property assessed for tax purposes. The Centro "Gina Fasoli" per la storia delle città, in collaboration with Bologna's Archivio di Stato, has made available a searchable database and digital edition of the estimo of 1296-7.

In general, the inventories of the Ufficio degli inventari must be considered alongside scholarship by Massimo Giansante, Germana Albertani, Rossella Rinaldi, Jean-Louis Gaulin, and others who have studied the workings of credit and debt in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bologna.


Considered individually, the inventories of the Ufficio degli inventari may seem disappointingly bland. Like a testament, any one of these inventories can be imagined as a photographic negative of a debtor’s estate. But a testament tends to isolate exceptional objects; the inventories collected here privilege the drab and unexceptional. In at least some cases, they capture what remained after an insolvent debtor had skipped town with his (rarely her) most valuable and treasured possessions, leaving the creditor with the “dregs” of a household: beds, chests, benches, dishes, towels, agricultural tools, and all manner of pitchers, casks, vats, bottles, and basins—typically empty, apart from the rare sack filled with foodstuffs. Occasionally, something stands out: a shield, a pile of wooden planks, a helmet, perhaps a gown or a cloak. Then there are the true oddities. Cantus left behind a caged bird; Albertus, a stable full of horses; Petrus, a sack filled with one hundred and fifty pounds of cotton.

If the material culture on display in these inventories is generally drab, the same cannot be said for the people involved. The most striking aspect of the collection is the prevalence of female creditors. Many of these women bore the title domina, but this need not have been a marker of nobility; married women in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bologna were identified as domine regardless of their social status. Out of thirty-eight inventories in which the creditors (as opposed to the procurators who often lodged pleas on creditors' behalf) can be clearly identified, in twenty-six she was an individual woman. Half of these cases were brought by wives and widows who were evidently seeking to recover their dowries from the estates of insolvent husbands, living and dead. Only in seven inventories was the creditor an individual man. In two inventories, a woman and a man appear together as creditors; in two more, male creditors are identified as the children of women, with no mention of the fathers. Only one inventory features a female debtor.

This prevalence of female creditors is not entirely surprising. Rossella Rinaldi has shown how, throughout the thirteenth century, Bolognese widows arranged to recover their dowries from deceased partners' estates. The records of the Ufficio degli inventari suggest, however, that wives were also capable of recovering their dowries from the estates of still-living partners hounded by creditors, hinting at collaborative strategies of patrimonial protection that have been observed in other cities, notably Florence and Marseille.

Owner and Contributors

This collection is owned by Eric Nemarich.