This book seeks to contribute to Italian social history and to deepen understanding of Catholic charity and social policy in past times. It focuses on two groups of disreputable (or at least tarnished) women and children and on the arrangements made to discipline and care for them, both by public authorities and by voluntary organisations and would-be benefactors. The first group consisted of prostitutes, concubines, single mothers, estranged wives, and girls in moral danger. The second was composed of children, many born outside wedlock, who were abandoned by their blood parents, out of shame or poverty or both. A synoptic survey, the book examines the complications involved in the tolerance and regulation of activities considered bad but impossible to suppress. Could licensed prostitution be used as a lesser evil to counter supposedly greater abuses, such as sodomy, adultery or concubinage, and to protect ‘decent’ women? Could child abandonment be tamed and used against the greater evils of infanticide or abortion, to preserve the honour of women who had borne illegitimate children and to save fragile lives? And what should be done to protect and rescue the victims of sexual exploitation and children separated from their natural mothers?
This chapter illustrates the day-to-day workings of one tribunal, in the hope that readers will draw their own conclusions about the judges, the prisoner and the society in which they were placed. It presents in English translation the record of the trial of an obscure person who was arrested by the Inquisition in Venice. The tribunal which inquired into the misconduct of Giorgio Moreto, 'Swarthy George', was one of some forty Italian branches of the Roman Inquisition, responsible to the Holy Office created in 1542 and the Congregation of the Index of 1571. The ecclesiastical judges of the Inquisition functioned with the collaboration, sometimes grudgingly and sometimes enthusiastically given, of the lay authorities in the states and cities which housed their tribunals. Giorgio's offence was to challenge, perhaps unthinkingly, the orderly scheme which authorities, both clerical and lay, were seeking to impose upon Venice as upon other Catholic cities.
The Introduction identifies two related strategies which influenced charity and social policy in Italian communities, ca.1300-ca.1800. The first was a policy of regulating rather than trying to suppress certain morally dubious activities, and also attempting to rescue some of their victims; the second was the practice of showing tolerance for a so-called lesser evil [minus malum] in the hope of averting a much graver one. The book will show how these strategies applied to two spheres of action: the control and protection of dishonoured women, and the treatment of foundlings. The Introduction explains how in this book the term ‘dishonoured women’ will apply not only to public prostitutes but to all women of tarnished reputation, the term ‘foundlings’ chiefly to children believed to be illegitimate. By way of preliminary it indicates how the people and institutions in the book related to general Italian ideas about poverty and the organisations designed to relieve it.
This chapter explores the perceptions, in late medieval and early modern Italy, of unchaste women thought to have lost their honour by having sex outside legal marriage. It considers the language used to describe them, both by themselves and by their neighbours and superiors, from all-embracing pejoratives such as meretrice and puttana to subtler terms, including ‘free woman’.Some were professionals, others amateurs and part-timers. As a profession prostitution was multi-layered and status-conscious, ranging from ‘common prostitutes’ to more stylish and selective ‘courtesans’. The discussion considers several forms of urban and rural prostitution, examines the status of mistresses or concubines, and describes the difficulties of estimating the numbers of prostitutes in any given society.
This chapter analyses late medieval arrangements to accommodate ‘common’ prostitutes in official brothels and designated vice districts and to allow them limited tolerance on the margins of mainstream society. If clearly set apart from ‘decent’ women, they could perhaps protect wives and maidens from sexual attack, and the lesser sin of ‘simple’ fornication be used to curb the far greater transgressions of adultery and sodomy. The chapter examines magistrates’ arrangements to license and to some extent protect recognised prostitutes, together with their agreements with brothel keepers and the owners of houses of ill-fame. Clearly, though, during the fifteenth century the auhorities were failing to confine the trades within official limits and were unable to prevent heterosexual prostitutes from engaging in the ‘unnatural’ practices they were supposed to prevent.
Chapter 3 discusses developments in public policy and intellectual attitudes towards prostitution and sexual immorality in early modern Italy. It shows how attempts were made to discipline courtesans and repress concubinage, which were both regarded as greater menaces to good order, marriage and the social hierarchy than was the ordinary prostitute who kept her place. Official brothels fell out of favour and the registration and taxation of prostitutes became more haphazard, though vice districts stayed and were somewhat erratically maintained. Trenchant criticisms were made of the notion that prostitution was a defensible ‘lesser evil’ capable of preserving the public good; in some quarters it was seen as an enemy of marriage and demographic growth, as a stimulus to irresponsible lust rather than a device for controlling it. But writers still defended the regulation rather than the repression of prostitution, even in the face of venereal disease.
How and why did women become prostitutes or otherwise lose their good name? This chapter considers, in the light of what is known about their experiences, some standard explanations offered by commentators in the early modern period, and touches on others: it asks whether social superiors held dishonoured women entirely responsible for their condition, or whether they recognised extenuating circumstances, attempted to discipline corrupters and seducers, offered some legal redress to wronged women. The discussion focuses mainly on three topics: poverty and destitution, partly caused by a combination of low wages, widowhood, husbandly desertion, and barriers to female advancement in skilled trades; corruption by parents or husbands bent on exploiting daughters and wives; seduction by faithless lovers or violation by sexual predators. Did the Council of Trent’s decree on marriage protect women against relying on dubious promises, or did it for a time inadvertently act as a seducer’s charter?