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  • Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue. Dishonoured Women and Abandoned Children in Italy, 1300-1800 by Brian Pullan
  • Sharon Strocchia
Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue. Dishonoured Women and Abandoned Children in Italy, 1300–1800. By Brian Pullan (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2016. ix plus 240 pp.).

Written by an eminent historian of the Italian Renaissance, this book offers a synoptic survey of the social policies surrounding charity toward dishonored women and abandoned children in the Italian states from 1300 to 1800. The book explicitly aims to synthesize a wealth of secondary studies, rather than to present new evidence. Hence its originality lies in articulating shared approaches to entrenched social problems across polities and over time, as well as in connecting the treatment of sexually suspect women and base-born illegitimate children, which usually are viewed separately. What draws the study of prostitutes and abandoned children together is the common concern with saving souls and restoring female honor that was evident throughout the medieval and early modern centuries. In the eyes of Italian states and societies, both groups were in dire need of rescue and redemption.

The long analytical time-frame allows the author to identify three key turning points in public policies toward prostitutes and abandoned children. Late medieval Italian states controlled loose sexual activity and its consequences by establishing foundling hospitals and penitential asylums for fallen women, and by confining prostitution to discrete spatial zones. In the sixteenth century, the perceived mission to protect and rescue endangered women was bolstered by the "aggressive, redemptive, soul-saving charity" associated with Catholic reform (90). Finally, signs of more humane attitudes toward foundlings appeared around 1800, as the outcomes of previous failed policies became obvious. By focusing on common patterns over the longue durée, the book presents a coherent vision of how Italian states gradually built a comprehensive apparatus for coping with particular social ills.

Pullan argues that Italian states developed two related strategies in directing charity toward fallen women and foundlings in these centuries. The first was a policy of regulation and rescue. Italian governments took a pragmatic approach to certain "sinful" activities such as prostitution by controlling rather than prohibiting them. Such pragmatism invariably led states to articulate a second strategy of choosing between two evils: tolerating prostitution, for instance, was rationalized as a way to dissuade men from homosexuality. Importantly, Pullan situates this pragmatism within a broader sexual and moral economy by emphasizing its redemptive or restorative aspects. At the same time that Italian states [End Page 911] set up civic brothels, they also established conservatories, penitential nunneries, halfway houses and other transit points that both confined distressed women and gave them some crucial breathing space. "It was as if the right hand of society, its charitable, pious side," the author argues, "were seeking to balance the worldliness and moral compromises of the left hand" (3). Pullan's goals in the book are to consider how these intertwined strategies operated over time, to evaluate their successes and failures, and to offer important nuances and qualifications to previous studies.

The eleven chapters trace a thematic rather than chronological arc, beginning with the women who had lost their honor to infants abandoned at foundling hospitals. The opening chapters introduce readers to the ways in which issues of prostitution, public morality and the law intersected. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the great age of brothel building—Italian states licensed prostitution "as if it were a civic amenity comparable with pawnbroking" (29). Paradoxically, the sex workers who staffed these new civic institutions frequently found themselves below the law. As contemporaries tried to account for prostitutes' motives—grinding poverty, parental pressures, abandonment by fickle lovers—they remained undecided about whether these women were desperate or depraved. Available evidence suggests that prostitution was "as much a consequence of dishonor as a cause of it," since many known prostitutes strayed into sex work after experiencing trauma or upheaval (82). Questioning whether prostitution proved an effective remedy for sodomy in practice, Pullan concludes that this rationale was mainly a useful fiction.

Chapters 5 and 6 turn to the myriad measures designed to redeem prostitutes and other dishonored women: redemptive marriages, compulsory conversion sermons, forced placement...


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