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  • Nefarious Crimes, Contested Justice: Illicit Sex and Infanticide in the Republic of Venice, 1557 - 1789
  • Jana Byars
Nefarious Crimes, Contested Justice: Illicit Sex and Infanticide in the Republic of Venice, 1557 - 1789. By Joanne M. Ferraro (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. xv plus 248 pp.).

In Nefarious Crimes, Contested Justice, Joanne Ferraro examines criminal cases investigated by various magistracies in the Republic of Venice from 1557 to 1789. The parameters of the study are wide. She limits her source base to cases that would fall under the modern rubric of "sex crime," including infanticide, attempts to procure abortions, sex with priests, and other assorted sexual/ immoral acts. Her investigation begins in the midst of the Council of Trent and ends as the Serenissima falls to the French. These dates allow Ferraro to address the book's larger theme - the Catholic Reformation - and conclude that the secular government of the Republic of Venice actively enforced moral discipline in concert with the Catholic Church. The tenets of Tridentine reform did not simply trickle down to the laity slowly in the centuries following the conclusion of the Council. Instead, Church leaders and secular Catholic governments jointly opted to investigate and punish moral transgressions more often and more strictly. Further, women were more often and more vigorously the target of these investigations. Thus, the legal position - and consequently the cultural and social position - of women weakened over the period of time under study. While in the sixteenth century the authorities were more concerned with restoring honor to a woman and normalcy to the community, by the end of the eighteenth century these bodies were much more interested in punishing women's sexual inconstancy. In tandem with this point, Ferraro nuances our understanding of the motivations for the enclosure of women and the charitable institutions of the Catholic Reformation. Women's asylums were anything but and much of the newfound zeal directed toward female purity was more interested with firmly controlling sexual behavior than offering succor to women and infants in need. Through the painstaking reconstruction of these cases she is also able to, in her words, "deflate myths." She makes it quite clear that while the lion's share of defendants brought forward for prosecution for abortion and infanticide were women, this was hardly simply a woman's crime. Men were intimately involved with the process from conception through termination. In addition, she makes a very strong point about the dangers of domestic space. The hearth was full of menace for women and children - in the form of licentious employers, predatory family members, and petty jealousies of other women.

Joanne Ferraro tells a good story. Where she really excels is in the details of the individual cases. Ferraro reaches deep into dusty archives, pulls out dry cases put to paper hundreds of years ago in language that falls far short of inspirational and brings them to life. She adheres to the feel of the cases and produces a good [End Page 643] deal of transcribed testimony, but never loses the flow of the narrative. The book evokes the image of the historian as sleuth and rightfully so. Ferraro chases down all the angles with these cases and presents them in great detail with coherence while remaining true to the original feel of the cases. She opens with an excellent discussion of the problems inherent in dealing with criminal cases and clearly avoids the pitfalls incumbent with trials and testimony. Contested Justice, like Marriage Wars before it, does an excellent job of laying bare the intimate lives of some of history's most inconsequential people and the communities in which they lived. Ferraro constructs a very personal past, one where people lived, worked, played, and negotiated difficult passages in their lives in whatever manner possible and through whatever means available. This past is messy. By diligently examining her cases, she is able to tease out and make plain that the process of disciplining morality was not restricted to the authorities but also sat with the community. She portrays the constant negotiation between the direct simplicity of the law and the morass of lived experience well, making clear that a consensus about acceptable...


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pp. 643-644
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