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The Bolognese Societates Armatae of the Late 13th Century
By Jürg Gassmann
Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Volume 2, Number 1, 2014
Introduction: The municipal archives of Bologna have preserved for posterity twenty-four sets of byelaws for associations of free citizens, associations which had the purpose of uniting members for the armed defence of the city and for mutual assistance.
The bye-laws of these societies, with various restatements and amendments, mostly date from 1230 to 1300. There were some societies for which we don’t have the bye-laws, and we may not have all amendments, but the collection is nevertheless unique. Associations of comparable estates – individual or collective feudal-law entities – were very common in the Middle Ages throughout Europe. Specifically “armed societies” are known from other Northern Italian city-states, but if they were as prevalent there as in Bologna, the relevant records have been lost.
There are also reasons to conclude that the Bolognese situation was unique among Italian cities. The other remarkable aspect is that these societies flourished during barely a century, from sometime in the 1230s to the beginning of the 14th century. These societates armatae were not Fechtschulen; so what were they? Was their function military, political, or purely social? What were the reasons for their growth, why did they decline? Though I cannot provide a complete answer, this article illuminates some of the factors in these fascinating societies’ rise and eventual disappearance.