Fornicating with nuns in fifteenth-century Bologna

Fornicating with nuns in fifteenth-century Bologna

By Trevor Dean

Journal of Medieval History, Volume 34, 2008

A nun in a veil: A misericord carving (c.1390)

Abstract: The article opens with the prosecution in 1432 of a spicer for abducting a nun. This is first of all presented as the story of a trial: the formation of the indictment, the defence tactics, the deposition of witnesses, and only then are the experience of the nun, and the gender relations in the event, examined. This leads to numerous contexts: legal (the development of the law on sexual relations with professed nuns); judicial (similar cases in late fourteenth-/
fifteenth-century Bologna); monastic (the unstable history of convents); social (the place of the nunnery in the local sexual economy); and historiographic (Ruggiero’s ‘culture of illicit sexuality’).

Introduction: In September 1432 Giovanni di Giacomo Amicini, a Bolognese spicer (aromatarius), was prosecuted for abducting a professed sister, Antonia di Baldino da Logliano, from the Convent of the Poor Clares (Monasterium Sancti Francisci da le donne) outside the city-gate on the via Santo Stefano, the previous October. His motivation, according to the indictment, was mere lust (causa libidinis): he put her first of all in a widow’s house, and then, the following month, took her to his own house, where he kept her for many days and nights, fornicating with her. She became pregnant, and went away to Ferrara in the spring, but returned to his house for the summer months. There she aborted a male child, which was baptised by the midwife, and Giovanni at once had it buried at one of the city churches.

Arrested by the podesta, Giovanni at first confessed his guilt, but within a week one of his relatives, Bonifacio Amicini, appeared before the court to present his brother’s defence. It is not clear whether Bonifacio had received any legal training; if not, he presumably had taken advice: there were plenty of lawyers and law students in Bologna, where the university was the leading law school in Europe. Bonifacio entered the following objections (‘exceptions’) to the prosecution: Antonia was an ‘indecent woman of ill fame’, who had prostituted herself; she had refused to observe monastic clausura and had many times left the convent, going about with various men; two years previously, she had also been found with men in her cell on several occasions; she had already, before Giovanni’s alleged offence, given birth to two children by other men.

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