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Reviewed by:
  • Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Venice
  • Sybil M. Jack
Hacke, Daniela, Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Venice (St Andrews Studies in Reformation History), Aldershot, Ashgate, 2004; hardback; pp. 282; RRP £55.00; ISBN 0754607631.

Venice was one of the great marvels of Europe, a cosmopolitan city, a hub in the trade that went from Scandinavia to the Near East, a centre for technological advance and printing, renowned for its prosperity but even more for the stability of its government and its civic harmony and tranquillity. Daniela Hacke, in this work, seeks to probe beneath the surface calm and elucidate the dynamics of Venetian society below the level of the closed patrician ruling class. She touches only very briefly on the stratification of Venetian society and any unwritten rules that may have governed the ways in which unions between members of different levels of society were transacted. She does not investigate the possibility that there were sub-sets of the community with their own private cultures and attitudes towards what constituted appropriate behaviour and their own means of enforcing it. Yet the practices of Jews and others may have influenced thinking amongst the orthodox community, as may their constant contact with the Ottoman Empire.

She sets her study in the context of sixteenth century church reform and the focus of both protestant and Catholic reformers on formalising the regulation of matrimony. This she argues 'criminalized traditional courtship rituals' (p. 33) and laid the foundations for a new, morally ordered, means of controlling society. The way in which the jurists negotiated the path between the child's free consent to a marriage and the parents' wishes forms one angle of the triangle which she explores. The right of the parent to the respect and the duty of the child effectively cancelled out the free will of the offspring. [End Page 193]

Provision for the settlement of disputes within the family was a necessary part of the way in which social hierarchy was maintained and made acceptable, if unpalatable, to those involved. The complex structure of family and state could only be maintained if most subjects held reasonably common established rules of behaviour that formed the moral values of the society and if the vast majority of participants submitted to their enforcement. These Hacke presents as largely held in common despite the cultural diversity of the city. She also suggests that these ideas were widely held in the community and often expressed in the statements of witnesses in the various cases.

Two different jurisdictions with different procedures and aims were involved, the secular court of the 'Executors against Blasphemy' that oversaw the criminal aspect of the Tridentine decrees and the church 'Patriarchal' court that heard cases of annulment and divorce. The legal practice was severe and a defendant's rights were hard to protect. The process was protracted and torture of fit adult defendants, while uncommon, was not ruled out. To meet the requirements of the criminal and canon law the statements were largely written to meet the legal impediments of fear and force, especially if an annulment was sought, while experiences that were not relevant at law were omitted, but Hacke argues that despite this we get a 'multi-vocal account' of family life under stress.

One may wonder whether the number of requests made – around fifty a year, to the Patriarchal court – let alone the cases actually prosecuted represent a significant percentage of a population of around 140,000. Numbers, however, are not the key element in her study as she is concerned to tease out the underlying attitudes of men and women towards appropriate marital relationship and the duties of both parties.

Hacke uses well-documented cases to develop an description of the neighbourhood within which the participants lived their lives and to which they appealed for support both moral and physical in their affairs. It was the neighbourhood, in the end, that provided the moral control and prejudices. Disobedience in children for instance was widely disapproved of by mothers as well as fathers and in some cases mothers were more insistent than fathers on the acquiescence of their child.

Hacke sees the practices...


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