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  • Sex Crimes, Honour, and the Law in Early Modern Spain: Vizcaya, 1528–1735
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Sex Crimes, Honour, and the Law in Early Modern Spain: Vizcaya, 1528–1735. By Renato Barahona ( Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. xxi plus 274 pp. $60.00).

This is a study of roughly 350 cases involving sexual misconduct from the province of Vizcaya, one of the Basque provinces of northern Spain. It is based primarily on records housed in the archive of the Real Chancellerìa in Valladolid, where cases heard in Vizcaya came on appeal. As he explains in the intellectual autobiography included in the introduction, Barahona began this project almost forty years ago, when he was a graduate student working under Fernand Braudel. Braudel had learned there were huge numbers court documents from Vizcaya no one had touched, and on his recommendation Barahona set out to investigate criminality in this Basque province. He found tens of thousands of unorganized dossiers, many of them crumbling and most of them incomplete. The archives were cold, dark, and open only sporadically (a situation that will be familiar to many readers who have done time in smaller European archives, or even some larger ones). As he notes very self-revealingly, his paleographic skills and understanding of Basque and Spanish history were not up to the broad task, and he went off into other areas of Basque history for decades. By the time he returned to the topic, the archives had heat, light, and a computerized catalog of holdings, making a study like this not only possible but actually pleasant to undertake.

The book that has resulted after this long detour is certainly a much narrower one than originally planned. It looks at 240 lawsuits involving estrupro (defloration), 70 involving amancebamiento (cohabitation without marriage), and about 35 involving other forms of sexual misconduct. The 240 estupro lawsuits provide evidence for the book's first three chapters, which examine courtship practices, the language of sex, and the role of coercion and violence in sexual encounters. A fourth chapter focuses on the cohabitation lawsuits, and a fifth discusses the way issues of honor and dishonor play out in various types of lawsuits. The book ends with a conclusion comparing the sexual behavior of people from Vizcaya with that of people elsewhere in Spain, and includes several appendices.

As the topics of the chapters make clear, this study is not simply narrower than originally planned, it has a very different focus. Decades ago, sexual misconduct [End Page 806] was generally viewed within the lens of criminality, and analyses emphasized the institutional structures that dealt with crime and meted out punishment; it was criminal misconduct that just happened to be sexual in nature. Since then the history of sexuality has emerged as a dynamic historical field, and the issues covered in this book are treated primarily through that lens. Their status as legally-actionable misconduct is still important, but primarily as a demonstration of the way in which a particular society regulated sexuality and set boundaries.

We have also become much more interested in what people said they did, that is, how they interpreted their actions. Their words have allowed us to evaluate more fully the social and cultural meaning of sexual and other types of behavior. Barahona's attention to language comes out in his separate chapter on the language of sex, and also in his inclusion of numerous quotations from the cases, most of these in both the original Castilian and in English translation. (The court records are all written in Castilian, and Barahona notes that only five cases mention the presence of a translator for litigants who could only speak Basque.) His discussion of language highlights the effects of the "linguistic turn" in historical analysis, but his attention to (and occasional outrage at) actual events makes it clear that he does not think that words are all we can know.

What do these Basque cases reveal? Most of the details of actual cases will not be very surprising. The majority of the cases, both those of defloration and those of cohabitation, involve women who were of lower social standing than the men. Seduction by promise...


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pp. 806-808
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