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  • The Evolution of Women’s Asylums since 1500: From Refuges for Ex-Prostitutes to Shelters for Battered Women
  • Louise A. Tilly
Sherrill Cohen. The Evolution of Women’s Asylums since 1500: From Refuges for Ex-Prostitutes to Shelters for Battered Women. Studies in the History of Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. viii + 262 pp. Ill. $39.95.

Historians are concerned with patterns of continuity and change. Sherrill Cohen’s study emphasizes continuity, arguing that the early modern Italian conventlike refuges for ex-prostitutes and contemporary shelters or women’s residence halls “are linked both by historical patterns of institutional evolution and by attitudes toward women embedded in the cultural gender system of Judeo-Christian societies”; the latter, she continues, is “based on male control over female sexuality and on women’s socioeconomic and political subordination [which] has shaped Western societies’ perceptions of women’s needs and how best to shape them” (p. 3).

Late-sixteenth-century wealthy benefactors in Italian commercial city-states pioneered lay-administered refuges that addressed problems specific to women. Cohen links the founding of these institutions to both a well-established history of urban philanthropic activity and the Counter-Reformation. Her case study compares three refuges for women in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany: the Monastero delle Convertite (Convent of Converted Prostitutes) and the Casa delle Malmaritate (House of Unhappily Married Wives), both in Florence, and the Santa Maria Maddalena (also a refuge for converted prostitutes, named after Mary Magdalen) in nearby Pistoia.

Primary sources—such as institutional statutes and constitutions that indicate their patrons’ intent, registers and records concerning their residents and fiscal matters, and the writings of contemporaries who commented on the operation of the institutions and the lives of the women who lived in them—serve Cohen well. She describes in rich detail the distinctive characteristics of each institution. The Convertite was originally a lay refuge for repentant prostitutes, housing one to two hundred women. The Malmaritate, sheltering about thirty women, hoped to rehabilitate married prostitutes and wives in troubled marriages, teaching them skills with which to earn a living; the even smaller Santa Maria Maddalena, in contrast, sought to instill a spiritual ethic in its residents.

Cohen opens with a discussion of gender ideology in medieval and early modern Europe. Documents from the period illustrate the greatly limited options open to respectable women: marriage, or taking vows as a nun. Wage work outside the family setting was the alternative for those without dowries (required for both marriage and entering a convent at all social levels except the very poorest), and prostitution could be one of the more lucrative types of work available. [End Page 713]

The legal and social context of prostitution was complex; as Cohen writes, it “operated . . . at the intersection of economic exigencies, Christian moral strictures, and gender ideology” (p. 42). The refuges provided a welcome alternative to some women who had become prostitutes because of their lack of other options; others, however, preferred not to submit to the institutional rules and conditions imposed on residents and continued their life outside, knowing that the refuges offered a last resort. Cohen discovers that many women who had never been prostitutes lived in the refuges. She groups these as “anomalous females” who did not fit neatly within the narrow parameters of respectable women: some were temporary guests, others employees of the institutions, and still others, widows from prosperous or noble families or those incarcerated by their families for having “gone astray.” The Convertite was favored by the latter, because of its relatively mild regime; in addition, she notes, for some families pressed for cash, it was “the best all round bargain among convents . . . in terms of the dowry rate, accommodations, and atmosphere” (p. 62).

Cohen constructs the link to later periods via the modern notion of the social institution, a concept that sixteenth- or seventeenth-century contemporaries would not recognize. She sees the lay refuge as a transitional form between the medieval monastery and more modern institutions: the Malmaritate lasted longer as a new-style institution in which women could spend a period under lay supervision with no obligation to take religious vows, and eventually return to society...

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