“I have loved you for so long, and I [still] love you; why do you not give your consent” – these words, spoken inside a church, were at the centre of a case of sexual harassment from the summer of 1486.
This fascinating story was uncovered by historian Godfrey Wettinger, as part of his work Aspects of Daily Life in Late Medieval Malta and Gozo.
Wettinger’s research into the ecclesiastical courts of medieval Malta included this case, when on September 2, 1486, Petrus Saliba and Novellus Bacubac, the father and husband of Jacoba Saliba appeared in front of the local vicar to accuse a cleric named Andreas de Bisconis of making a sexual assault on the lady while she was praying at the church of St.James at Rabat (now called Victoria). In this opening accusation, they reported that Andreas had waited until he was alone with Jacoba and then told her “I have loved you for so long, and I [still] love you; why do you not give your consent.”
“I thought you were another woman.”
At a hearing a few days later, the account was elaborated upon – Andreas came up to Jacoba and she was kneeling in prayer, and told her “Oh my jewel! this is the time for which I have been waiting to have you and to speak to you. I have wished you well for so long, but you did not consent to my will. Would you not now, pray, be accommodating for us to enjoy ourselves together and have sex together.”
In response, Jacoba began to scream and shout at him: “What a scoundrel you are, and what presumption and rascality this is! ….that you should assault me while I am inside the church saying my prayers and the Holy Father!’
According to Andreas, he actually thought that the lady he was speaking to was a prostitute that he knew, and that because the woman was wearing a mantle, he mistook Jacoba for her. Once she rose up and faced towards, Andreas realized his mistake, saying, “Good lady, forgive me, for God’s sake! I took you for someone else. I thought you were another woman.” He then rushed out of the church.
However, the father and husband had another accusation against the cleric – they blamed him for, months earlier, having carved into the walls of another church, “Whoever wants to fall in love, let him love the elder daughter of Petru Saliba”. (Another witness said that inscription stated “Who wants to love the daughters of Petru Saliba, that is the elder, does well because she is the most pretty of them all.’) Andreas denied that he was the one who wrote the slander.
“He little cared about me and justice.”
Wettinger continued to follow the case as over the next few weeks witnesses were brought in by the plaintiffs and the defendant. Some of them witnessed part of the scene, or had heard Andreas afterwards admit to what had happened. Others gave more damning evidence, including one that revealed that four years earlier Andreas had confessed he was in love with Jacoba. Two others testified that the carving on the church walls looked like Andreas’ handwriting, one of them adding that “having a copybook with the writing of the accused, he thought that some letters and strokes of the writing on the wall of the church did resemble the letters and strokes made by the accused in that copybook in his possession.” Another added that he had seen the accused singing loudly and walking about the streets at night-time singing with other youths.
Meanwhile, Andreas de Bisconis, maintaining his story that of mistaken identity, offered several witnesses who said that the cleric was a good and honest young man, with an excellent reputation.
On 7 October Novellus Bacubac went back to the court to respond to the defendant’s pleas. Wettinger writes:
He argued that [Andreas’] attempt to prove his good reputation did not mean anything once it had been proved that he had committed the crime of which he was accused. His guilt was apparent from his own confession. Proof also existed on the ‘famous verses’ written or engraved on the walls of churches slandering Jacoba. The witnesses themselves produced by him testified not to the good reputation itself of the accused but merely to their own belief in his good reputation, which did not prove anything. They thought he had a good reputation because they did not see his crimes, but other witnesses had actually seen them, as could be proved by the testimony of those produced by the plaintiffs.
When persons on behalf of the accused asked others to testify to his good reputation, several refused to do so, answering in the common speech of Gozo, “You want us to testify to the good reputation of Andria the deacon. Do not get us to give (testimony), because if we have to testify we shall say nothing in his favour, as we feel the very opposite about his affairs to what you say on his good reputation, since we hold him and find him to be a deacon of bad life and fame, and very unhappy.”
Even if he had mistaken her identity, he had certainly committed the crime of which he was accused. The mistake itself was only a feigned one, as can be seen by the well-known graffiti he had scratched on the walls of churches. These show that the accused had long been thinking in his mind of Jacoba, the wife of the plaintiff. It was therefore presumed that he had willingly committed the crime of which he was accused. The very words he used, according to his own confession, show that he was giving vent to his feelings and the frenzy of love, rather than greeting an old female friend: he had himself said that he wanted to start loving, and not that he wanted to continue an old affair.
At this point Novellus asked that Andreas de Bisconis be put to torture in order to make him confess. However, the court decided a week later to render judgment – Andreas was found guilty of both the assault in the church and making the inscription – and sentenced him to one year imprisonment in a local jail, with iron shackles on his feet. The court also gave Novellus Bacubac possession of a field owned by Andreas as payment for the plaintiff’s court expenses. Novellus still wanted the cleric to be tortured so he could be convicted “out of his own mouth” but the court denied his appeal and the sentence was read in public and carried out.
The last we hear about this case takes place seven years later, when in 1494 Jacoba wrote a letter to the Bishop of Malta. Perhaps Andreas had left the island, but he had now returned, and she wanted the bishop to take him into the custody. Jacoba adds that Andreas should have gotten an even worse punishment, “but as we were, and are, poor people and they are relatives of the judge himself, we could get little justice done then, and while he was in prison he used to get out at night-time removing his irons and going about the streets singing and joking as if to show that he little cared about me and justice.”
This article and ten others can be found in Aspects of Daily Life in Late Medieval Malta and Gozo – they offer a look at the disputes and feuds that took place in this small Mediterranean country. Other cases involved a bitter property dispute between a widow and her former in-laws, a fight between the clerics outside the main cathedral of the island, and what happened to some sheep and goats when Turkish pirates raided Malta in 1533. Click here to learn more about the book from Malta University Press.
Top Image: 17th century map of Malta. Original held and digitised by the British Library