|Varieties of fatherhood: the weak father among the non-propertied classes in early modern Italian cities|
|The relationship between father and son in the early modern period has been conceptualised exclusively in terms of submission of the latter to the authority of the former, moreover, it has been characterised as implying a one-way flow of obligations and resources running from the father to the son. This paper will reverse this usual perspective and show that the legal institution of patria potestas also entailed a son’s economic obligation to his father, for it gave fathers full rights over the earnings of their grown-up sons. It was to escape this burden that many adult men, sometimes married and fathers in their own right, resorted to the legal deed of emancipation, which freed them from the patria potestas of their living father and hence from any economic obligations to his family.
The analysis of a sample of over a hundred deeds from the last quarter of the 17th century reveals that emancipations were particularly frequent among those urban classes which largely lived of their work and participated in the labour market from an early age. The arguments used by sons to justify their request to be emancipated throws light on the specific nature of the father-son relationship among these groups. Fathers are often portrayed as too poor to comply with the duty of settling all male children in a trade and paying for the dowries of the daughters, and as obliged to rely on older sons to fulfil these essential paternal and masculine roles. They are implicitly depicted as failed patriarchs and their legal prerogatives over the son thus appear illegitimate.
The analysis of these narratives exposes the tension between the shared expectation that fathers should settle their male children in an occupation and the inability of many to offer anything beyond mere subsistence. This gap between interiorised ideals about fatherly roles and practice made the position of the paternal figure particularly vulnerable among the non-propertied classes. Here paternal roles were often shared by a range of male figures, rather than being entirely fulfilled by the biological father. Tensions or simply emotional and physical distance characterised the father-son relationship, in sheer contrast with the rhetoric of the time, which depicted such bond as “the greatest love there is”.