Death Threats and Adultery: The Words of Marital Conflict

By Isabel Harvey, 18/01/2021.

Protagonists: Virginio Gavelli, layman from Spoleto, and his wife Felice.

Sources: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones,  1605, Letter R-S. Spoleto, September 20th 1605. (See the sources here).

The case of the marital conflict between Galeazzo Garganello and Lucretia Pasi presented above is far from unique. It was abundantly documented by the archives of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars for two reasons: first, because Lucretia Pasi was a noblewoman, inviting the Bishop to give considerable attention to her situation, and second, because Galeazzo Garganello categorically refused to pay the allocation his wife needed to live in the convent, and refused furthermore to return her dowry, which a divorce would have compelled. This refusal to lose the economic benefits acquired during the marriage led the man to fight his legal battle at several levels of ecclesiastical justice, from the Episcopal Court to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars.

Numerous letters, usually written by bishops or their vicars and accompanying the pleas of women in distress, reported situations of marital conflict and asked Rome for permission to place the woman in a convent, at least temporarily. These letters presented the situation in a codified form, aiming to justify beyond any doubt the need for the Church’s intervention in the couple’s life and the need for a refuge for the woman in difficulty. The arguments in defense of these women were twofold: first, the husband’s adultery, which in itself was a valid reason for divorce, and second, the danger to the wife’s life if she remained with her husband. The bishops’ requests were always the same: to place the woman in a convent, where she or her husband would pay her living expenses for a limited period of time, until the dust settled and the couple would get back together.

An example is the letter sent to Rome by the vicar of Spoleto on 20 September, 1605 about the conflict between a certain Felice and her husband, Virginio Gavelli. The vicar began the letter by explaining that he asked, on behalf of Felice, “permission to withdraw to the Monastery of S. Giovanni, until she found an agreement with her said husband.”(1) He added that the nuns of the Convent of S. Giovanni would be happy to accept her, that they were used to accommodating such married women, and that they expected to receive alms from Felice at the time of her entry, in addition to a recurring allowance for food and other expenses. The convent’s solution for Felice seemed simple and already pre-planned, in response to a marital problem that the vicar explained bluntly.

Only six months after marrying Felice, Virginio Gavelli had “retreated himself from her company, to live in Rome for two years with a concubine.”(2) Only after being found by the Episcopal Court of Spoleto and being summoned to appear did he return to the Bishop’s territory. It was on Virginio’s return to Spoleto that Felice asked to enter a convent, “because between them there are such a dislike, that she swears, and protests that she doesn’t want, nor is able to go with her husband, for fear of some irreparable deeds, which she says she is sure will happen to her.”(3)

All the elements necessary for quick and unbureaucratic action by the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars are present in these cases: adultery and death threats, imminent danger for Felice, and a perfect solution, the convent, where the wife would be welcomed in exchange for a price that had already been negotiated. The churchman, vicar, or bishop then became the women’s advocate and their intermediary with Rome. 

(1) (licenza di poter ritirarsi nel Monasterio qui di S. Giovanni, sino che se sia accordata con detto suo Marito)

(2) (retirò dalla sua compagnia, habitante con una Concubina per spatio de due anni in Roma)

(3) (per il che tra loro ne sono nati disgusti tali, che ella giura, et protesta non volere, ne poter andare con esso Marito, per tema di qualche male irreparabile, che ella dice tener per sicuro, li sia per succedere)

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