Domestic violence in late-medieval Bologna
By Trevor Dean
Renaissance Studies, Vol.18:4 (2004)
Abstract: The aim of this paper is to suggest that married life in Renaissance Italy was much more violent than the current historiography allows. A survey of recent prominent works on marriage shows that violence, if mentioned at all, is briefly alluded to as a possibility, but rarely examined as a reality. This paper uses the voluminous records of the criminal court in Bologna to remedy this. A quantitative approach first of all exposes the strikingly high rate of wife-murder in Bologna, along with the associated wife-battering. A possible explanation for this is made, using the notion of a ‘Mediterranean honour code’. The judicial records also reveal, however, that domestic violence was not the exclusive province of husbands, and a qualitative approach – drawing on notions of female subjectivity and the sex-gender system – is used to explore the trials of three violent women.
Introduction: Marriage is a theme that has in recent years attracted increasing attention from historians of the Renaissance period: micro-studies, such as Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna, or grand statistical analyses such as Anthony Molho’s Marriage Alliance, or feminist explorations of weddings and widowhood such as those pioneered by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. What these studies tend to focus on is the contracting of marriage, in its legal, social or symbolic aspects, rather than the character of married life. These studies examine, in Klapisch-Zuber’s phrase, the ‘entrances’ (of brides) and the ‘exits’ (of widows) into and out of the ‘house’ (or family).
They have also established a range of controlling conditions that determined the subordination of wives to husbands: marriage as an arrangement between men in which the woman was an ‘object of trade’ (in Klapisch-Zuber’s words); the property relations within marriage, especially regarding the dowry; marital ownership of the bride’s dresses and jewellery; age inequality; the definition of ‘family’ in male terms; and the frequency of second marriage and the concomitant abandonment of children of a first marriage. But what has been left out of these studies has been violence.
Of course, it has been long and widely known that husbands had the legal right to use limited violence to ‘correct’ their wives, and it is clear that this right was enacted in legislation, respected by the lawcourts, endorsed in juristic discussion of disputed points of law, and assumed by husbands in their daily lives. For example, a Sienese man, taken to court after breaking his wife’s arm, exclaimed in disbelief, ‘Can’t a husband beat his wife?’. But detailed study of the violent character of marriage in late medieval Italy has been lacking.