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  • Chapter 3The Formation of Women's Legal Identity in Trecento Venice1
  • Jason Hardgrave

Identification of medieval women, as individuals or groups, is a complex task. A host of approaches to the historical discourse about identity continually supplements the understanding and visibility of medieval women. The majority of source materials remain descriptive of women but rarely reveal their voices or identities. An analysis of the ways in which women were categorized and identified, and of how women worked with, in, and around these categories, provides some insight into how medieval women construed their own identity.

Legal sources in particular provide an interesting combination of both prescriptive and descriptive identity construction, and they remain some of the most accessible of medieval materials. Legal codes employ a system of taxonomy that incorporates social and political identity, categorizing people by socio-economic status, association with particular families and groups, and relationships such as partnerships and marriages. Even in this prescriptive model, gender identity is the most important level of categorization; men and women are treated differently in law. Within these gendered groups there are additional levels of categorization; not all women are treated equally in law. These differences become even more apparent in the descriptive sources of legal cases and instruments. Cases are determined differently based on gender, on legal and social identity, and a host of other, subtle cues, to the extent that cases are almost decided on an individual basis. In many ways, this study undertakes to show what P. J. P. Goldberg described in introducing the collection of essays, Medieval Women and the Law, as "...the way legal discourses constructed women and the way women attempted to exercise agency even within the patriarchal constraints of different legal systems."2

This study focuses on the particular time and place of fourteenth-century Venice to serve as a model for analyzing the broader context of medieval women's [End Page 41] identities. In analyzing the legal identity of fourteenth-century women in Venice, three issues are addressed: how women's legal identity is formed; how this differs from the legal identity of men in the same period; and how the legal identity of late medieval Venetian women reflected and influenced other aspects of their identity.

In June of 1400, the Venetian courts heard accusations against noble lady Diadas de Trevisana of San Vitalis of her stealing a silver belt, a red belt, a gold ring inlaid with pearls and lapis, and a box containing twenty-five gold ducats. Under torture, lady Diadas confessed to the crime of stealing goods and coins worth two hundred and twenty five ducats, for which the Doge approved her sentence of a whipping and the amputation of her nose and lip.3 If the courts had followed the sentencing guidelines outlined in the criminal code, on the basis of the stolen property's value, Diadas de Trevisana should have been put to death. This case is one of only three cases in which the courts tried a noble woman for theft, and it is the only recorded instance of a noble woman given a corporal sentence beyond whipping for theft in fourteenth-century Venice.

In January of 1358, Marina from Istria, identified as a servant and the daughter of the Slav Peter of Coprona, was accused and convicted of stealing thirty-four ducats from a locked chest in the bedroom of her master, Signore Thomas de Alto.4 She then tried to make good her escape by hiring a boat. Shortly thereafter, she was captured by the authorities with the money in her possession as she attempted to flee Venice. At trial, her former employer and accuser, Signore Thomas de Alto, testified against her. Marina's husband, Marin Cerdonis, failed to provide her an alibi, and the court eventually sentenced Marina to death by burning.5 Unlike that of the noble lady Diadas de Trevisana, the sentence passed against the foreign servant Marina does match the written statutes. In fact, the courts reserved this most severe sentence of death exclusively for foreign and slave women. Of the seventy-one cases of recorded thefts by women in fourteenth-century Venice, only seven resulted in the woman being...


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