- Women and Jewish Marriage Negotiations in Early Modern Italy: For Love and Money by Howard Tzvi Adelman
Jewish life in early modern Italy, which to some extent is synonymous with the Italian Renaissance period, has been the subject of numerous studies, ranging from Cecil Roth's somewhat antiquated The Jews in the Renaissance (Philadelphia, 1959), to Moses Shulvass's The Jews in the World of the Renaissance (Leiden, 1973) and, more recently, Robert Bonfil's Jewish Life in Renaissance in Italy (Berkeley, CA, 1994). All these studies focus on intellectual and economic aspects of Jewish life, while issues that concern women are rarely accorded a place. The exception is Roni Weinstein's Marriage Rituals Italian Style: A Historical Anthropological Perspective on Early Modern Italian Jews (Leiden, 2004). Weinstein's work, however, focuses on anthropological and social aspects of marriage and puts less emphasis on the halakhic questions, while totally avoiding matters of divorce and separation. Adelman's book fills this lacuna.
Howard Adelman's book examines marriage negotiations, family formation and dissolution, questions of polygamy, the "anchored" wife ('agunah), financial arrangements and more. The main sources for the study of these topics are rabbinic responsa and rulings, and to a lesser extent Jewish plays and writings of a non-religious nature. The author also takes into account the stand of the Catholic Church in Italy and compares Jewish practices with marriage customs and regulations pertaining to the status of women in the non-Jewish environment. In his opinion, rabbinic attitudes toward betrothal, marriage and divorce were influenced to some extent by Catholic practices, particularly in matters of divorce. Apparently, local authorities were reluctant to allow Jews to divorce when they did not allow Catholics to do so (pp. 22, 73).
The fragmented political conditions that characterized the Italian peninsula from the Middle Ages to the mid-nineteenth century justify treatment of these issues in specific contexts. In most cases, scholars examine the condition of Jewish women in the Republic of Venice separately from their situation in Rome and the papal state; [End Page 212] Jewish life in Umbria (central Italy) is discussed in light of the particular conditions that prevailed there; and the same is true for Florence (and Tuscany in general): Each region is believed to present different characteristics.1 Adelman, however, argues for the existence of a common cultural and social context: "Despite a division of the peninsula into separate states, each with its own government, economy, foreign policy, and army, two unifying factors served to promote a certain sense of Italianità (Italianness) among those living on the peninsula. One was their struggle to prevent further foreign occupation … the other was common loyalty to the religious doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church …" (p. 2).
This observation is particularly appropriate for the period following the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the convention that formulated Catholic doctrine and practice in response to the spread of the Reformation. In 1563, the Council of Trent promulgated the "Tametsi" decree, which eliminated de facto marriage arrangements. One of its more important consequences was its definition of what constituted a valid marriage: In the Catholic context, this now required consent of the couple, a ceremony performed by the parish priest before witnesses in the local church, and registration of the marriage in the church records. Clandestine marriages, although illicit, were still considered valid. According to Adelman, the Council's decisions "provided a context and vocabulary for the development of Jewish practices" (p. 7). Indeed, I would add, during the Middle Ages, before the conformity imposed by the Council of Trent, Christian and Jewish marriage customs in Italy differed considerably from one region to another because of local traditions. This is particularly true for the kingdom of Sicily, where marriage customs, particularly with regard to the disposal of property, were influenced to a great extent by the Byzantine heritage.2
Adelman's book offers an overall view of women's status, marriage customs, etc., in the early modern period. Chapters 2 through 6 trace all aspects...