Category Archives: Case Studies

Freedom and Adultery: Elisabetta di Giano and the Right to be Forgotten

By Isabel Harvey, 21/06/2021

Protagonists: Elisabetta di Giano, from the countryside of Spoleto, and her husband,  Bernardino di Filippo.

Sources: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones,  1601, Letter S-V. Spoleto. 4 letters, between 12 September 1600 and 2 January 1601 (See the sources here).

Between May 1600 and September 1601, the diocese of Spoleto was without a bishop: fifteen months that allowed Elisabetta di Giano to activate her strategy of liberation. Locked up for two years already in the Monastery del Palazzo of Spoleto, where she had been personally placed by the former bishop Paolo Sanvitale, she took advantage of his disappearance to try to escape. She sent a letter to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars towards the end of 1600, explaining how the Bishop, responding to her husband’s request, had had her “arrested and imprisoned in the Monastery de Palazzo of the said City with five and a half scudi by month as cost for her roof and cover,” a sum that she had to cover alone. However, he had made her the “promise that, if she did not like to stay in the said Monastery, she would be able to move to another one to her satisfaction.” This is the reason of her letter: she wanted to change convents, since she could no longer afford to pay the rent and food, and moreover, two nuns were relatives of her husband, “which is not without great suspicion and danger for her life.[1]” However, she did not explain why her husband and his family resented her to the point that her physical safety was in danger. Nor did she explain why her husband had had her forcibly confined to a convent. The letter arrived in Rome, and the Congregation acted, as it usually did when letters were sent by lay people, by asking for more information from the Episcopal See, where only the vicar was left to dispatch urgent matters.

The vicar, Giovanni Matteo Fidutio, answered on 9 December, 1600, after having visited Elisabetta in the convent. According to him, she would have “told to Your Illustrious Lord many things that are not true,” such as the amount of money she had to pay to the convent each month. When he asked her where she wanted to be transferred, she replied that “such is not her intention […] and that she does not want to enter another Monastery but she would like to go out, and return to her house.” Seeing the vicar’s openness to grant her request, Elisabetta seized the occasion and asked instead to be completely released. The vicar refused, explaining to the woman “that she would have put herself in a manifest danger on her life for the serious offense, that she has made to her Husband.[2]” But he did not say more about the crime that had led Elisabetta to the convent.

            The vicar’s answer did not satisfy the Congregation. The vicar, not very familiar with the case, turned to Elisabetta’s husband, Bernardino di Filippo, in order to better understand why he had asked to lock his wife in a convent. Bernardino sent a memorandum to Rome in which he explained his version of events. After an argument, Elisabetta had decided to leave the marital home and live alone in the castle of Giano, inherited from her father. She had stayed there for two years, and “at the end, in that Castle, she got pregnant.” The day of delivery came, “in bed saying that she was close to death, and in addition to doctors she called the parish priest, and two Capuchin Fathers who assisted her to restore the health of the soul. In presence of said monks, and of many women and men who were there, the good woman, with the assistance of the divine justice, gave birth to a girl. When the said monks saw the birth, scandalized by such fact, they immediately fled away. This episode revealed her adultery, and we do not know what happened to the newborn.” According to Elisabetta’s husband, nobody knows what happened to the child, but Elisabetta quickly realized the seriousness of her situation. Given the number of people in her home at the time of the birth, the rumor spread quickly. According to her husband, fearing the “danger of being killed by her husband,” she asked the Bishop Sanvitale to quickly send his sbirri to take her to a safe place, the convent. Bernardino added, still hurt by the adulterous actions of his wife, that he “humbly asks to His Holiness not to allow such an enormous crime to be unpunished.[3]” He thus clearly opposed the release of his wife, without, however, ever showing a desire for revenge or presenting himself as the violent husband she described. The husband’s memorandum was accompanied by a short letter from the vicar who, cautiously, confirmed the adultery and accepted the version in which Elisabetta was the one who asked to be locked up.

            The case ends here for the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars: the husband’s version, supported by the Bishop, seems to have convinced the cardinals. Elisabetta did not insist: she most likely will request to be released to the new Bishop when he will be appointed. This story, however, demonstrates Elisabetta’s constant desire for freedom: she did not hesitate to leave her husband to live on her own, outside the control of a male figure, in her own property, and to lead the life that suited her. If, as her husband Bernardino stated, Elisabetta really asked the Bishop for protection when she realized the danger created by her adultery, then she fully assuming her act. Finally, the strategy she implemented at the time of the Bishop’s death in order to regain her freedom demonstrates her attention to the ecclesiastical justice system and its institutions, as well as a certain creativity and determination to move within it. If the case did not succeed in 1600, for Elisabetta it was certainly only a short postponement.

            The relationship between the woman and the Churchmen in this case was based on absence: the missing Bishop who left the episcopal see unoccupied for more than a year, offering an opportunity for both oblivion and action. Elisabetta tried to use this period of confusion and the space for action it created to convince other Churchmen, the cardinals of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars and the vicar of Spoleto, to erase the crime of adultery she committed that, in the end, did not appear so dramatic to her. 

[1] Archivio Apostolico Vaticano (AAV), Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari (CVR), Positiones (POS), 1601, Letter S-V. Spoleto. (segregata et messa nel Monasterio del Palazzo di detta Città con cinque scudi e mezzo il mese di Provisione per suo vitto) / (promissione che non piacendoli stare in detto Monastero, di metterla in una altro à sua sodisfatione) / (il che non è senza gran sospetto et periculo della sua vita)

[2] AAV, CVR, POS, 1601, Letter S-V, Spoleto, 9 December 1600. (narrato à Vostra Signoria Illustrissima molte cose, che non sono vere) / (non essere tale la sua intentione […] et che non vuol intrar in altro Monastero ma vorebbe uscire fuori, et tornarsene a casa sua) / (che lei si sarebbe posta a manifesto periculo della vita sua per la grave offesa, che lei ha fatta à suo Marito)

[3] AAV, CVR, POS, 1601, Letter S-V, Spoleto, 2 January 1601. (ultimamente in quello Castello fu resa gravida) / (messo à letto dicendo ch’era vicino à morte, et oltre à Medici fisici fece chiamare il Parocchiano, et due Padri Cappuccini ch’assistessero à ramentarli la salute dell’anima, et in presenza di detti religiosi, et di molte donne, et homini che vi erano andati, la bona donna per permissione della divina giustitia partori una figliola femina, il che visto detti Religiosi scandalizzati di tal fatto subito fuggirno via, et fù palesi questo adulterio, ne si seppi quello che facessi del parto) / (pericolo che correva d’essere ammazzata da suo marito) / (supplica humilmente la Santità Sua non permetta, ch’un delitto cosi enorme debbia passare impunito)

Prostitution and Witchcraft: The Case of Agatha Spörri

1606, Zurich.

By Adrina Schulz, 21.04.2021.

            For this case study I will turn to another subject that made Zurich authorities very nervous: magic. While the connection between prostitution and witchcraft, especially via love spells, has been well-researched for the Mediterranean world, the extensive literature on witchcraft in the German-speaking world has not paid much attention to this topic. But these two gendered crimes were deeply connected in the minds of Zurich’s inhabitants, as shown by the Zurich phrase “gehäxet und gehuret,” (witched and whored), which was used to describe women insulting each other. I will use the case of Agatha Spörri from 1606 to investigate this connection for the Zurich context and to assess the relative dangers of each accusation for the women involved. 

            The case of Agatha Spörri is labyrinthine, spanning over 100 pages and involving a number of interrelated crimes and a host of witnesses and defendants. The main charge against Spörri was that of repeated adultery. Her main partner or client was Ulrich Schilling, though she was also involved with other men. Both Spörri and Schilling were married, making the crime double adultery, which carried heavier penalties than adultery between a married person and an unmarried person or premarital fornication. There were also accusations against Spörri, her father Oswald Spörri, and her uncle Heinrich Spörri of blackmailing several of her partners or clients with the threat of exposure. Furthermore, the Spörri family had been tried several times throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for a variety of deceptions, scams, and thefts. Even worse, Agatha Spörri’s aunt, Anna Spörri, had been executed as a witch in 1598, following accusations of causing storms, taking abortifactants, stealing, and making a pact with the devil, among other claims. Thus, there are many facets to this case that could be explored in detail, but I will focus here on the connection between sex and magic. 

            In the depositions of Agatha Spörri and her various partners or clients, words for magic were never explicitly used. Instead, the court repeatedly questioned Spörri’s main partner or client, Ulrich Schilling, about the food and drink she had given him. They wanted to know whether or not these items had influenced his behavior, decisions, and movements, specifically whether or not they had caused him to follow Spörri around (“daß sy Spörin Ime Schillingen daß er Iro dergstalt nachgan müss, etwaß Zuoäßen. ald Zuotrincken geben haben wurde”). This repeated questioning reveals an unstated concern about the use of food-based love magic – food and drink being important tools of witches (Roper, Witch Craze, 17). Love magic was commonly used by prostitutes in the early modern period, as has been researched for various Mediterranean contexts by Daniella Hacke, Giulia Morosini, and Guido Ruggiero, among others. The goal of these spells was usually to attract clients and keep their attention, or conversely to prevent them from being sexually interested in others such as their wives, even to make them impotent. Thus, the Zurich court’s fears about the effects of love magic correlated with the concerns of authorities throughout early modern Europe.

            But in the Catholic, Mediterranean world, punishments for witchcraft were not as extreme as in Reformed areas such as Switzerland (Herzig, Witchcraft Persecutions in Italy, 4). Spörri’s aunt, as mentioned above, had been burned at the stake, and witchcraft was said to follow family lines (Roper, Witch Craze, 156). Thus, this accusation against Agatha Spörri, veiled as it was, was life-threatening. In fact, it was apparently more dangerous to be guilty of witchcraft than prostitution. Spörri readily stated that she had engaged in adultery solely due to poverty (“inn Ehebruch sich vergangen…dann sy ein solliches allein us grosser armut gethan”). Conversely, she staunchly refuted the implied charge of witchcraft and insisted that such accusations against her were unjust (“er gescheche Iro aber mit dem gezig…unrächt”). Thus, while both crimes carried the death penalty, witchcraft was apparently more important to deny and thus a greater threat. This contrasts with my previous case study, in which Anna Uster was executed for repeated adultery, the same crime that Spörri admitted to. These cases occurred in the same year, raising the question as to why Spörri was not frightened of an adultery charge. Perhaps the difference was that Spörri had one main partner, though she was also accused of adultery with other men. Or perhaps she hoped that once she was absolved of the crime of witchcraft, her sex crimes would be deemed less important. 

            Whatever the specific reason for Spörri’s defense strategy, it seems to have worked. She seems to have gotten off “lightly”: she kept to her story despite being tortured and was not executed. Her statements throughout the case show that she was aware of the different accusations against her, whether they were stated explicitly or implied, and that she knew how to defend herself against the worst possible outcome. She fought against the unspoken connection between adultery and magic, and between herself and her aunt. Her later fate remains a mystery, but in 1606 she was able to leave the Zurich court system alive. 

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)

A Chaplain in the Engelthal Sister-Book

By Emma Gabe, 04/01/2021

Ez saz ein reicher pfaff ze Vilseck, der hiez Ulschalk, der waz manig jar ein grozer offener sunder gewest, und da er ir heiligez leben vernam, da bat er sie, daz sie in enpfingen, er wolt ir caplan sein und wolt in mit allen trewen vor sein. Der wart ein so heiliger man, daz man leider von im sang.

Karl Schröder, Der Nonne von Engelthal, 3.

The Engelthal sister-book––a hagiographical text written in the first half of the fourteenth century containing the religious experiences of nuns from that community––tells about the nuns’ chaplain, Ulschalk. The writer, an anonymous nun, notes that Ulschalk was a great sinner for many years before reforming, asking to become the community’s chaplain, and becoming “such a holy man that songs were written about him” (Schröder, 3). But why was he called a “great sinner”? Does this label result from particular deeds and actions performed by Ulschalk while he lived a worldly life, or was it simply a way of accounting for his late conversion to the religious life? This description of Ulschalk’s previous life is notably different from the lives of the nuns, many of whom appear to have always led virtuous lives––at least according to the sister-book’s author(s). This raises the question: while Ulschalk reformed and became a holy man, would the same type of reformation be possible for a woman who had been a great sinner in the world?

Ulschalk’s religious conversion occurred after he had a family, because his daughter was later elected prioress. This suggests that Ulschalk’s family was also powerful and influential outside the monastery. Indeed, family networks and influence permeated medieval cloister walls and shaped internal politics. Yet his daughter took the opposite approach to power, which reveals gendered approaches to power: where Ulschalk wished and asked to be the nuns’ chaplain, his daughter rejected the powerful position of prioress with a typical modesty topos by claiming she would rather be sick than prioress, a wish that God kindly granted (Schröder, 38–39).

Karl Schröder, ed. Der Nonne von Engelthal. Büchlein von der Genaden Uberlast. Tübingen: Laupp, 1871.

Bishops and Domestic Violence

By Isabel Harvey, 21/12/2020.

Protagonists: Galeozzo Garganello, a layman from Bologna, and his wife, the noblewoman Lucretia Past.

Source: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1605, Lett. B-F. Bologna. (See the sources here)

In Bologna in 1605, the Bishop submitted a case to Rome that seemed to get more complicated every day. Galeozzo Garganello and the noblewoman Lucretia Pasi were newly married, but already the young woman was seeking asylum away from the marital home. She “was in danger of being poisoned, or in other way losing her life by the actions of […] Garganello her husband,” and “several times he heavily bet her.”(1) In addition, Galeozzo frequented a prostitute and kept her in the marital home in the presence of his wife Lucretia. The Bishop was informed of the situation by Lucretia, “showing him the beatings, and the bad actions done by her said husband.”(2) So, he removed the woman from the clutches of her husband and found her a safe place, which was at first her parents’ home. Then Lucretia wished to enter a convent: this refuge was generally suggested by the Bishops and chosen by the mismarried women. Since these women had to obtain a license from Rome in order to enter the convent, the Bishop acted as her representative to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars and obtained this permit. Lucretia thus entered the convent, with the intention of spending the rest of her days there. This solution suited her: she gave up asking for a divorce and therefore for her dowry of 5000 scudi, and in exchange her husband payed her alimenti, the annual allowance for roof and food in the convent. 

The Bishop and Lucretia both thought they had solved the problem. However, when it was time to pay, Galeozzo fought back. After prevaricating for a while, saying he was opposed to the choice of the monastery, he went to two local secular courts, where, after five years of trials, he obtained an order forcing Lucretia’s return to his home. The Bishop refused to enforce these judgments, considering the danger for Lucretia too severe. Galeozzo Garganello then wrote the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, the congregation responsible for Lucretia’s acceptance into a convent, and asked his wife to be sent back home, arguing that he “took a wife for having a succession, and also because he do not have the gift of continence.”(3) Rome quickly communicated this request to the Bishop, who was exasperated by Galeozzo Garganello’s behavior. Lucretia, on her side, refused to leave the monastery, but the nuns did not want to keep her for free. The Bishop sincerely feared for her safety. Rome thus launched a second investigation, in order to confirm the judgment of the Bishop who had suggested the divorce. 

In this case, many power dynamics and power games were conditioning the life of Lucretia, and fortunately, mostly in a positive way. The Bishop of Bologna, who refused to recognize the judgments of the secular courts on the pretext of the woman’s security, was certainly also motivated by an ambition to strengthen the predominance of ecclesiastical courts over secular authorities. Here, he was following in the footsteps of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars who, precisely in the years of the pontificate of Clement VIII (1592-1605), were working to affirm ecclesiastical jurisdictions over secular powers. Galeozzo Garganello sought to circumvent the Bishop’s bias by appealing to Rome, aiming to short-circuit the Bishop’s authority, while naively presenting a change of opinion to those who had authorized the entrance of Lucretia Pasi into the convent. 

As in this case, the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars regularly dealt with family dramas, and did not hesitate to get involved in the problem even if, in the end, its capacity for intervention remained limited. In fact, Rome was called to intervene in cases of domestic violence whenever the woman found refuge in a convent, as in the case of Lucretia Pasi. The Cardinals of the Congregation took the opportunity to gather as much information as possible, preparing for a possible legal battle if the violent husband sought the help of another ecclesiastical court, for example the Sacra Rota of Rome. Bishops, for their part, tried to resolve these scandalous matters before the case reached higher authorities. In this case, the numerous letters exchanged between the Bishop and the Congregation show the extent of conjugal and family violence, which only interested the Episcopal justice when the life of the woman was in danger.

(1) AAV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. B-F. Bologna. (perche correva pericolo d’esser velenata, ò in altro modo perdere la vita per mano di Laeazo Garganello suo marito) / (più volte havendola malamente battuta)

(2) AAV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. B-F. Bologna. (et mostrandoli le percosse, et li mali deporti di detto suo marito)

(3) AAV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. B-F. Bologna. (prese moglie per haver successione, et anche per non haver il dono della continenza)

Sex Crimes and Religious Crimes: The Case of Regula Bleuler

1730, Zurich.

By Adrina Schulz, 04.12.2020.

 The deposition of Regula Bleuler from 1730 illustrates the intensity with which Reformed Zurich authorities investigated religious transgressions, even during trials of seemingly unrelated sexual crimes. In fact, the adultery and fornication accusations against Bleuler, as well as her allegations of sexual assault against Heinrich Wirth, were overshadowed by questions about her religious activities. This case took place two centuries after the initial phases of the Zurich Reformation, showing the continued and even increased relevance of confessional boundaries. 

Regula Bleuler was called before the Zurich court several times in November, 1730. She had already given birth to four children out of wedlock by this point, at least one of which had since died, and was pregnant with a fifth. She had been imprisoned three times for fornication (“hureyen”), including a stay in the stocks. After this latest punishment, she had been exiled and told that the next punishment would be physical, even the capital (“Leib und Leben”). She was caught in Eglisau, part of Zurich’s territory, and was officially imprisoned because of a new case of adultery, committed with Heinrich Wirth. Bleuler argued that the encounter had been a case of sexualized violence (for the difficulties inherent to using the modern definition of rape in the early modern period see, among others: Loetz 2015). Bleuler stated that Wirth had dragged her by the arm (“bey den arm gezehrt”) and had had sex with her (“beschlaffen”) even though she had defended herself (“gwehrt”). Wirth’s version of the story involves no force but simply states that he committed adultery with Bleuler (“die ehe gebrochen”). The court protocols do not record a conviction or punishment for either party, but from the court’s questioning, it seems that the authorities did not believe Bleuler’s version of events. Eventually, she also admitted to receiving a whore’s income (“2 1/2 t[al]er hurenlohn”) for the act, which, of course, does not mean that sexualized violence did not occur.

However, the court quickly switched to another line of questioning, regarding Bleuler’s religious activities while in exile. Although she first claimed that she only received alms (“Allmosen”) at Rheinau abbey, she eventually admitted that she had also studied with a religious man (“geistlichen Herren,” later called a “pfaff,” a Reformed word for a Catholic Priest) there. She had learned the 10 Commandments (“X. Gebott”) and the rosary (“Rosen-kranz”) from him. She even declared that she had done this out of her own initiative, and that she had furthermore had to kneel before an altar to Mary (“Sie habe zum Althar zum Mutter Gottes-bild knien müßen”) and that she had put a finger on a book, but had not had to say anything (“ihre finger auf ein buch legen, jedoch kein wort reden müßen”). These actions seem to have troubled the Reformed Zurich authorities as much as, or even more than, her sexual activities, as their description takes up multiple pages of testimony. The court protocols are accompanied by letters in support of Bleuler, one of which even focuses solely on her possible conversion to the Catholic (“papistichen”) confession. This letter states that she knew little about either the Catholic or the Reformed faith and that she had erred out of ignorance (“unverstand”), closing with the plea that she be allowed to stay in Zurich rather than be exiled again.

Thus, Zurich authorities investigated confessional matters seriously and extensively. Sexual crimes were also punished severely, as shown in previous case studies, but in the trial of Regula Bleuler, they take a backseat to discussions of prayers, holy books, and conversion. On the other hand, this case also highlights how little many Zurich inhabitants knew about confessional differences and religious doctrine, or at least how little they claimed to know. Bleuler and those supporting her had good reason to portray her as ignorant and thus as less guilty, but their claims of ignorance seem to have been accepted by the court, meaning they were plausible. Although authorities were extremely concerned with religious doctrine and difference, ordinary men and women did not always follow suit.

“My Father Refuses to Approve my Marriage”: Paternal Authority and Feminine Freedom

By Isabel Harvey, 26/11/2020.

Protagonists: Roberto Faitani, layman from Rimini and his daughter, Margherita.

Sources: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1605, Lett. R-T. Rimini. (See the sources here)

This case of domestic violence took place in 1605 in the Diocese of Rimini. Roberto Faitani wrote to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars to convince them to overrule the decision of the Bishop, who approved the publication of the wedding banns of his daughter, Margherita, without his authorization. He requested to “not be forced to give his daughter to a person of ill-repute and, by all accounts, inferior to him, an adversary who attempted everything to obtain the consent of the orator’s daughter with the help of some dishonest women and through other illegal ways.”(1) 

This person of bad life, as described by Roberto Faitani, is a certain Alessandro Pellegrini. The Bishop defined the groom in decidedly less aggressive terms: he was 35 years old, a widower,  not lacking for anything and even owning a few businesses, and was once the postmaster of Rimini. Nevertheless, Roberto Faitani, who had no worries about money, still considered Pellegrini as socially inferior. According to Faitani, his daughter was seduced and deceived not only by Pellegrini, but also by a certain Battaglino Battaglini and his wife – it is to her that Faitani referred when he mentioned dishonest women – who tried to organize the marriage and convince Margherita to act without her father’s consent. Made aware of the imminent marriage, Faitani, as he himself confessed to the Congregation, “I went back home really angry and punched my daughter,”(2) to maybe change her mind. Stubbornly, the 17-year-old girl decided to leave her father’s house and found refuge with the Battaglini family, who protected her for several days, refusing to hand her over to her father. In the meantime, the secular authorities, and then the Bishop, got involved in the conflict. Margherita was placed in a convent, waiting for a compromise to satisfy all parties. The Bishop took the opportunity to interrogate the girl several times, allowing a few weeks to pass between each interrogation, to test the strength of her will. During the first interrogation, as well as during the 3rd and 4th, Margherita confirmed that she wanted to marry Alessandro Pellegrini. Her will seemed to waver only during the second interrogation, when she maintained that she would follow her father’s will.

When Roberto Faitani wrote to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, Margherita had already been at the convent for six months. The young girl seemed to have changed her mind several times, under pressure from her father, who suggested she take the veil, offering her “some clothes as she needed, conforming to the monastic use.”(3) But in the end, after also hearing  from the nuns who had welcomed Margherita, the Bishop, for his part, concluded that she was unfit for monastic life, and that her will to marry Pellegrini remained. The Bishop, in conformity with the Tridentine decrees, could not therefore oppose the will of the girl. It was in this context that Faitani turned to the Congregation, threatening to have to take justice in his own hands – and implying Pellegrini’s assassination – if the marriage should really take place.

The encounter between the young girl and the ecclesiastical power, represented by the Bishop of Rimini, took place in the midst of a family crisis: the Episcopal Justice was called in to protect the will – and the physical safety – of Margherita against her father. Roberto Faitani did not intend to stop there, however, and turned to Rome for an external recourse from a higher court of justice.

(1) AAV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. R-S. Rimini. (che il povero oratore non sia forzato à dare la propria figlia à persona di cativissimi costumi vile et in tutti i conti inferiore a lui havendo massime tentato l’adversario di havere il consenso dalla sua figlia con il mozzo di donne disoneste et altre vie illicite)

(2) AAV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. R-S. Rimini. (andai in casa sopragiunto della collera dieda a detta mia figliola alcuni pugni)

(3) AAV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. R-S. Rimini. (alcuni panni per il suo bisogno, conforme all’uso monacale)

The Pastor and the Prostitute: Part II

1606, Zurich.

By Adrina Schulz, 30/06/2020

Protagonists: Pastor Hans Ochsner, tavernkeeper and prostitute Anna Berger, Berger’s husband Hans Buman

Citation: Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich (STaZH) A 9.2, Nr. 9. 

            In this court report from 7.3.1606, Hans Ochsner, the pastor of Spanweid (most likely referring to the almshouse in Zurich rather than the town nearby), was questioned about his encounter with a prostitute four years previously. According to his testimony, he went to the nearby town of Cloten for business and became drunk. He returned to Zurich but was not permitted to enter the city at either of the two gates he tried. Therefore, when he saw people in Anna Berger’s tavern outside the city walls, he entered and drank wine with them, becoming so drunk he could not identify his fellow guests, except to say that they were not citizens. When everyone else left, Berger brought him pillows and he slept in the living room, with both Berger and her husband Hans Buman present. He claimed not to know whether or not he had had sexual relations with Berger, due to his drunkenness and a medical condition (“lybs bruch”). However, he was willing to pay 5 Gulden to Hans Jacob Ziegler and 2 1/2 Gulden and 8 Schillings to Heinrich Freitag in order to keep the affair quiet. He was also willing to admit guilt upon learning that Berger had accused him of having sex with her. The court fined him 25 pounds and dismissed him from his position as pastor.

            This deposition is part of a much larger case, comprising over 200 pages of archival material and involving multiple prostitutes, pimps, go-betweens, and clients. Anna Berger was at the center of the action, as both a prostitute and a pimp, and was later executed, officially for adultery and fornication (“eebrüch und huryg”: STaZH A 27.52, undated). She was questioned several times, and most likely gave Ochsner’s name as her client under torture. Ochsner’s deposition is quite similar to that of the other clients in this case: many claimed drunkenness as the reason that they had had sex with one of the prostitutes and later paid the group for their silence. This mix of prostitution and blackmail was common in the early modern period, in Zurich as well as in Europe more generally (See: Strika 2012; van de Pol 2011). The prostitution ring seems to have maintained control over its clients/victims for many years before the scandal erupted in 1606, leading to extensive investigations and punishments, generally a fine and/or imprisonment for the clients and execution for the prostitutes and pimps. 

            The discrepancy between Ochsner and Berger’s punishments, as well as between those of the clients and prostitutes more generally, does not stem from an explicitly gendered law. The Zurich mandates against fornication and adultery proscribed punishment for both sexes, with the penalties increasing for repeated crimes, from fines and imprisonment to exile to execution (See: Campi/Wälchli 2011; Grünenfelder 2007). Thus, a client who only had sex with a prostitute once could escape with a comparatively light punishment, while a prostitute with many clients had inevitably taken part in multiple offenses, and thus received a harsher–even capital–sentence. Interestingly, Ochsner’s status as pastor does not seem to have affected his punishment significantly. He was fined the same amount as Caspar Hirt, a clothmaker whose deposition was recorded on the same day. Furthermore, while Ochsner was also removed from his position as pastor, a similar fate befell secular municipal leaders in similar circumstances (See the case of Thomann zur Linden from 1608: STaZH A 8.4, Nr. 51). Thus, at least in the early seventeenth century, men were punished for their sexual activities with prostitutes no matter their class or religious status, though far more lightly than were the prostitutes themselves.

            Finally, Ochsner’s deposition echoes the previously discussed case of Pastor Hans Göldi. Ochsner and Göldi told similar stories of traveling, drinking, and then accidentally coming into contact with a prostitute, and were both punished for their actions. The main difference is that while in the Göldi case, the prostitute involved remained anonymous and free, in the Ochsner case almost 20 years later, Anna Berger was named, interrogated, and finally executed. This change follows a general trend in the Zurich court records, as prostitutes began to be identified and brought before court around the turn of the seventeenth century (this is discussed in more detail in my chapter of the forthcoming book Zürichs Gelebte Reformation, to be published in 2021). It is not yet clear why this development occurred during these decades–the mandates against adultery and fornication discussed in the previous paragraph had been promulgated decades earlier. But whatever the reason, these changes negatively impacted the legal treatment of prostitutes, while the punishment of their clients remained unchanged.

For a full transcription of this court protocol, see the archival materials page.

For a discussion of why why I use the word prostitute rather than sex worker or source terminology, see my personal page.

Nuns and the Forgery of Their Accounts

By Isabel Harvey, 18/06/2020

Protagonists: Nuns from the eight poorest monasteries of Perugia. 

Sources: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia, Tutti i monasteri. (See the sources here)

Clement VIII (1592–1605) marked his pontificate by enacting reform measures according to the Tridentine decrees, especially regarding the finances of the Church. These reforms also targeted women’s convents. In fact, it was only under Clement VIII that the decree De regularibus et monialibus, adopted in 1563 during the twenty-fifth and last session of the Council of Trent, became an imperative in the dioceses of the Pontifical States. The Tridentine decree addressed the accusations of Martin Luther and his followers about the dissolute life of the regular clergy who took advantage of social and religious spaces as well as the economy of the sixteenth century. The solution adopted in Trent was largely an economic reform: Chapter Two of the decree reminded the regular orders about their vow of poverty; Chapter Three obliged all monasteries to own property from which they could draw rental income in order to eradicate the need for mendicancy; and Chapter 16 prohibited the acceptance of novices – and their dowries! – before they were of age to enter the convent.

Therefore, beginning in 1599–1600, Clement VIII, assisted by the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, started a wide-scale undertaking of reform and consolidation of the finances of women’s monastic communities. Because their land and real estate holdings were far from sufficient to feed all the nuns and support the proper daily life of the convents, the nuns had created a system allowing them to compensate for their low incomes; but this system quickly became a vicious circle. The nuns were accustomed to accept their recruits several years before they were old enough to take their vows at 16 years old. The convent received the dowry at the time of the agreement and it as often used immediately to buy food instead of being invested in a property that could bring a stable income for the future without damaging the initial capital. Later, nuns found themselves in the position of having to accept a girl without sufficient means to feed her. To overcome this problem, convents had a secondary solution: to accept supernumerary girls. The number of nuns per convent was fixed by papal decree, but it was possible to take in more girls if they paid a double dowry. This provision helped to relieve debts permanently, as half of the dowry was used to repay debts while the other half could be invested in stable properties. But it became so widely used that monasteries often counted double, or even triple, residents. Consequently, overpopulation was chronic, as in Perugia’s female monasteries.

So, towards the end of the sixteenth century, the financial situation of most women’s monastic community was critical: the convents of the Papal States were increasingly entangled in debt and overpopulation. The situation was further aggravated by a series of disastrous harvests that reduce the profitability of their patrimony. On 1 May 1592, the Bishop of Perugia summed up the situation of the women’s monasteries of his diocese as follows: “having consumed all the alms that they got for the whole year by the ordinary distribution, they remain without any allocation or credit to be able to maintain themselves.”(1) This difficult spring in Perugia was not a unique situation. The secular and ecclesiastical authorities in the cities were aware of difficult financial situation of convents and had sought over the years to diminish the deficits as best they can by putting in place emergency solutions. For example, in 1574 in Perugia, confraternities were forced to give help to the eight poorest convents of the city. The idea was to give sporadic help to the nuns, for a few years, until their numbers were reduced. But a generation later, in 1600, the situation only got worse, and the confraternities are still obliged to pay a contribution to the convents every year.(2)

In Perugia, the economic reform began in December 1599, at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Povere, when the bishop abruptly refused to give the veil to two new recruits, who had already paid their dowries: “which he says, having claimed the command of Your Most Illustrious Lord, in forbidding that no mendicant monastery can accept girls.”(3) The principle behind this reform was simple: to reduce the number of nuns in every monastery, so that the rents provided by their patrimony became sufficient to meet their needs. But with the ban on accepting new girls, the situation was catastrophic: nuns would have to repay dowries that had already been spent. 

In moments of panic and incomprehension, some nuns did not hesitate to go beyond the limits of acceptability or legality in seeking a survival strategy during this process of reform. This was the case with several convents in Perugia that chose to manipulate their accounts. In 1601, at the request of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, the Bishop of Perugia obliged all convents to provide the episcopal see with the details of their accounts, stating their patrimony and the annuities they produced each year, other revenues in money or goods, debts to repaid, and the expenses necessary for the everyday life, according to the number of nuns. The abbesses took this step without fully understanding the logic behind the economic reform, but “thinking that they should arrange it to their best interest.”(4) Consequently, many convents voluntarily provided erroneous figures. This was what the Episcopal administration of Perugia discovered in 1605: in 1601, the nuns of several convents had voluntarily reduced their income, so as to force the confraternities to give them subsidies: “in the book of the incomes of nuns’ monasteries of Perugia, sent to this sacred Congregation in the year 1601, there is an important error, caused by the nuns who did not give the right numbers.”(5) However, the consequence of such falsification was the opposite of what nuns were looking for: new recruits were completely blocked in order to reduce the number of convents’ inhabitants. The nuns had not foreseen such a consequence: they thought that the previous solutions would be reactivated and that they would obtain financial help from the confraternities. But the ecclesiastical authorities were rigid, symbolizing the new economic discipline that Clement VIII chose to impose on the monasteries of his lands.

(1) Vatican Apostolic Archive (ASV), Congregation of Bishops and Regulars (CVR), Positiones (POS), 1592, Lett. M-P. Perugia, 1 May 1592. “havendo consumati tutti quell’elemosine, che per ordinaria distributione gli toccavano per tutto l’anno, restano senza alcuno assignamento, e credito da potersi mantenere

(2) ASV, CVR, POS, 1600, Lett. M-P. Perugia, 26 January 1600.

(3) ASV, CVR, POS, 1600, Lett. M-P. Perugia, Convent of Santa Maria delle Povere. 17 December 1599. “il quale dice, haver havuto ordine dalle Signorie Vostre Illustrissime e prohibitione, che nessuno Monasterio mendicante accettar zitelle.

(4) ASV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia. “pensando di fare le conditioni loro migliori

(5) ASV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia. “Perche nella notola dell’intrate de’ Monasterij di Monache di Perugia, mandata à cotesta sacra Congregazione l’anno 1601, si pretende siano errore di molta consideratione, cagionati massime dalle Monache istesse, le quali non ne diedero la giusta assegna”

A prioress corrects a laybrother

By Emma Gabe

Scholars have long studied the relationship between religious women and clergymen in terms of gender, but class and social standing also interact with questions of gender and religious authority. One episode from the Unterlinden sister-book illustrates how social status could elevate the roles and responsibilities of religious women. A sister-book is a collection of hagiographical stories written by Dominican nuns in the first half of the fourteenth century recording the mystical experiences of the nuns in their convent. Even though they are hagiographical texts that describe religious visions, among other experiences, from an historical perspective we can still catch glimpses into the daily lives and responsibilities of the nuns in the contexts of these experiences.

Founded in the first half of the thirteenth century in Colmar, France, Underlinden grew into a wealthy convent that boasted a high level of education and sanctity. In one episode, Adelheid de Rivelden, the second prioress, learned of the misbehaviour of one of the convent’s laybrothers and corrected him. Fearing for his soul, she prayed and received a vision of Jesus as a baby in which she was assured of the laybrother’s eternal salvation. The prioress exercised temporal authority over the laybrothers and the discrepancy in their social statuses likely heightened her authority: despite being elected, prioresses usually derived from powerful aristocratic families, while the laybrother, although he could come from a variety of social backgrounds, he was likely below the prioress’ social standing. Educated laybrothers helped run the convent’s estates, while others worked the fields and provided manual labour. Nevertheless, all laybrothers, in their profession oaths, swore obedience to the prioress. Interestingly, in this episode we see how the prioress’ authority over the laybrother extended to his spiritual wellbeing. Despite her gender, she was expected to supervise and guide his religious and spiritual behaviour. In fact, his behaviour and the way she responds to it affect her own salvation.

Tempore prioratus sui eadem soror beata in perturbatione animi fuit aliquando posita et timore propter cuiusdam conuersi nostri excessum, quem inprimis aliquantulum remissius restrinxerat neglienciusque correxerat, quam censura forte iusticie exigebat. Hinc ergo periculum sibi grauiter pertimescens, et fratrem, nisi cicius respisceret, in anima periturum. Quapropter in vigilia gloriose natiuitatis Domini tota deuocione conuersa ad deprecandum pro eo Dominum, ut illum de precipio illius ruine clementer eripere dignaretur, sibique pie culpam huius negliencie relaxaret…

In the time of her prioress-ship that same blessed sister (Adelheid de Rivelden) was placed once in distress of the mind and fear on account of the deviation of a certain laybrother of ours, whom she had constrained at first in a fashion a little bit more relaxed and had corrected him more negligently than perhaps the judgment of justice called for. From that point, therefore, she grew seriously fearful of the danger to herself, and that the brother was going to perish in soul unless she took care of him quickly. For this reason, in the vigil of the glorious birth of the Lord, she turned with complete devotion to the Lord for the purpose of begging the Lord for him, that He might deem worthy to snatch him mercifully from the precipice of his ruin, and that she might release herself piously from the error of her negligence…

At this point, she receives a vision of Jesus as a child, and the sight of the child filled her with joy and comfort. In this vision, she knew that the laybrother would be saved.

Hausit quoque ex illius beatissimi paruuli consorcio et conspectu inmensam diuine consolacionis dulcedinem et gratiarum habundanciam magnam ualde, certificata etiam per diuinam reuelacionem in eadem uisione de salute eterna superius memorati fratris conuersi, pro quo sollicite et deuote Domino supplicarat. Quem in gratia Dei sancteque religionis perseueraturum proposito et saluandum in spiritu preuidit, certissimeque deinceps tenuit, nullatenus de salute illius dubitans, etiam si ipsum post letalis criminis admissum conspexisset protinus spiritum exalare…

Also she drank from the company and sight of this most blessed little one the immense sweetness of divine consolation and the especially great abundance of graces, having been assured also through the divine revelation in the same vision about the eternal salvation of the abovementioned laybrother, for whom she had prayed to the Lord anxiously and devotedly. She foresaw, in the grace of God and holy religion, that he was about to persevere in conduct and was about to be saved in spirit, and then she understood certainly, by no means doubting his salvation, even if, after the admission of his deadly crime, she had seen him die (breath out his spirit)…

Through her prayer, the prioress saves the laybrother, which further reveals her religious authority as an intercessory power. In fact, in witnessing the admission of his crime and subsequently securing his salvation, the prioress arguably takes on the role of confessor to the lay brother. Despite her gender, her spiritual authority mirrors her temporal authority.

Source: Colmar, Bibliothèque municipale, Cod. 0926 (508), ff. 53r–54r. For an edited version, see Jeanne Ancelet-Hustance, “Les ‘vitae sororum’ d’Unterlinden: Édition critique du manuscript 508 de la bibliothèque de Colmar” Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge 5 (1930): 403–04.

From Bahia to Parma, 1735

By Eva Dal Canto 28.05.2020

Protagonist: Romualdo da San Donnino

Sources: Archivio di Stato di Parma in Raccolta Manoscritti B 49

The late 18th century was undoubtedly characterized by the presence of a great number of missionaries in the colonies that had been established in the newly conquered areas of the New Continent. Such is the case of Brazil, that had been subjected to the dominance of the Portuguese Crown for more than one century when the letters of Romualdo da San Donnino, Capuchin friar, reached his patroness in the Duchy of Parma. In his communications, the missionary frequently addressed the matter of femininity and the approach of women to Christian values; in this post we will analyze his account on free European women and their everyday lives in the colony.

In the first of his two letters Romualdo da San Donnino proceeds in giving the Duchess of Parma, Dorotea, some general information regarding the travel and the asset of the mission; after discussing the local agriculture and dietary habits, he moves on to describing how European women dealt with the geographical and cultural change:

” […] Le donne bianche portano sottana, camicia ed un manto sulla stessa che si stende fino ai piedi. Di giorno non escono se non rarissimo, la maggior parte va a sentire messa innanzi giorno o se ne assolvono totalmente sotto pretesto di non avere serpentina, negri e negre e manto da uscire propriamente: la superbia regna non in sign(o)re ma in donnicciuole che in casa stanno quasi nude e fanno digiuni in mandioca a misura scarsa e acqua fangosa […]”

In this first passage, the Capuchin starts with the description of the most common clothing style among white women, consisting of a skirt, a shirt, and a cloak. It is important to notice that in all his writings, da San Donnino tries to operate a differentiation between white and black women, openly implying that the first were embodying all the characteristic of modesty inspired by Catholicism whilst the second, as “Heretics”, were deemed to be immoral by nature:

“[…] Da sì abominevole immodestia e dalla totale mancanza di Dottrina Cristiana e quasi totale di Predica, non è da stupire se proviene un costume più da infedele che da cristiano […]”

Discussing the status of European women, the missionary reflects on the reciprocal influence between them and the others. He states that the first might be suffering the influence of the second, being prompted to behave in reproachable manners. In this extract he says that not only do European women neglect their religious duties, they also seldom appreciate dressing less and dieting. Then he continues by giving his account on the rather luxurious lifestyle led by them:

” […] La signoria benestante e ricca vive con lusso moderato nel vestire, accompagnandosi di Preti e Prete e preciosità di Rede o Serpentine, che sono le carrozze del paese levate sulle spalle di due negri. La V(ostra) Alt(ez)za Ser(enissi)ma potesse vedere la preziosità degli abiti, la quantità di diamanti e dell’oro, il numero delle schiave con che compariscono in pubblico alle volte queste signore le riputerebbe gran principesse, eppure non giungono alla condizione di nobiltà […]”

It appears to be clear that what the missionary is trying to convey is an analysis of what he encounters under a double dichotomy: he doesn’t, in fact, divide what he sees merely under the category of “Christian” and “Heretics”, but also compares the New and the Old Continent using his interlocutor, the Duchess, as a set example of Christian nobility. Similar comparisons might be found in missions from other geographic areas, such as Angola, and often give us a perspective on matters such as childbirth. Further on in his letter, which I will analyze in other posts, Romualdo da San Donnino explores the practice of marriage between enslaved females and their owners, confirming his point of view on women’s sexuality and proclivity to sin.

Note on the source: the letters will be uploaded and transcripted soon.

The Pastor and the Prostitute: Part I

1587, Zurich.

By Adrina Schulz, 30/04/2020

Protagonists: Pastor Johannes Göldi, an anonymous prostitute, foreign peddlers Moritz Benneradt, Moritz Gydonnis, Wilhälm Schomal, and Gabriel Laba

Citation: Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich (STaZH) A 9.2, Nr. 3.

In this court case from 19/09/1587, Pastor Johannes Göldi of the town of Maur, Switzerland, was accused of suspicious behavior (“ärgwönisches aufführen”) with a prostitute (“gemeinne dirnn”) at the Helmhaus, a Zürich landmark that still exists today (for a discussion of why I use the word prostitute rather than sex worker or source terminology, see my personal page). The main witnesses to the events were the foreign (“wälltsche,” non-German-speaking and often French-, Romansch-, or Italian-speaking) peddlers, who saw him with the prostitute. The time and date of the event were related quite precisely: between 8 and 9 on the Wednesday of the yearly market. The peddlers stated that they had left a tavern and were going back to their stands and beds when they saw the pastor and the prostitute together in a corner. Similarly, the bodily positions of the two were described in detail: Göldi was sitting and the prostitute was standing, trying to cover him with her breasts (“mit irer büppen tegken”) and to turn off the light. The peddler Benneradt’s stated reaction to the scene is particularly interesting. He refused to say that he had seen Göldi do anything bad or have sex with the prostitute (“lybliche werch mit iren volbracht”), and stated that he was satisfied with Göldi. On the other hand, he also said that he told Göldi that the latter’s behavior did not fit his station (“das zime synnem stannd gar nit”) and that he gestured at Göldi in censure. The other peddlers did not discuss their reactions, but generally concurred with Benneradt’s version of events. 

Then Göldi himself was summoned to the court to give his statement. He said that he had become quite drunk and wanted to cross the bridge to the home of his daughters (presumably he stayed with them when he visited Zurich). By the bridge, he saw the peddlers and the prostitute. The peddlers roughly accused him of having bad intentions until the situation became unbearable, but the prostitute stood for him (“für Inne gestanden”), probably defending him. He swore that he had done nothing with her and asked for forgiveness. However, he was punished with a stay in Wellenberg, one of the Zürich prisons, and a fine of 1 mark silver.

One aspect that is quite present in this case is the city’s honor, as well as the difference between outsiders and locals. The foreignness of the witnesses was highlighted, but apparently did not discredit their testimony. In fact, the case was considered galling particularly because it was witnessed by these foreigners (“so ist doch die sach ëben ergerlich sonderlich wyls frömbde personen gsëhen”). The Reformation used prostitution and prostitutes as a polemic weapon against Catholic priests, claiming that celibacy was impossible and that therefore the priests were fornicators and prostitutes’ clients (See: Roper 1989, p. 104-107, among others).  For instance, Zurich Reformer Heinrich Bullinger wrote in a letter to Johannes Zwick that those who forbade priests to marry furthered prostitution and fornicators: “qui vero sacerdotibus interdicunt coniugio, scortatores et scortationem promovent” (Heinrich Bullinger Briefwechsel, Letter 563). Having their own pastors visibly engaging with prostitutes clearly troubled the city authorities and even the witnesses: Benneradt explicitly named Göldi’s station in his censure, instead of condemning sex with prostitutes overall.      

This case represents a transitional period in the history of prostitution in Zürich. Laws against extra- and premarital sex had already been enacted in the first half of the sixteenth century, but they were only beginning to be enforced in matters relating to prostitution during the 1580s. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, prostitutes mentioned in these cases usually remained anonymous, as did the woman in this case, while clients were punished. In contrast, in the seventeenth century, as will be illustrated in my next post, this trend was reversed: prostitutes were named, brought before court, and even punished more heavily punished than their clients.

For a full transcription of this court protocol, see the archival material page.

1601, Ferrara. Convent of Santa Lucia.

By Isabel Harvey, 14/04/2020

Protagonists: Suor Leonora Agelli, Dominican and Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra, Carmelite.

Source: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1601, Lett. C-G. (See the sources here).

In a letter from December 16, 1600, the Bishop of Ferrara Giovanni Fontana reported to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars in Rome the case of a certain Fra Giulio, whose actions prompted him to “immediately deplore such a scandalous case”:

A few months ago, I sent you a case made by my vicar against some of the Carmelites, about scandalous practices they had with the nuns of the monastery of Santa Lucia […] and in particular against Fra Giulio, who in those days was their confessor […]. Now, after hearing that one of the nuns gave birth to a girl, I sent my vicar to collect the information. He discovered, thanks to the testimony of some nuns, that the childbirth was real, and that it is possible to suppose that the child was suffocated and buried by this nun who gave birth; to then be dug out by two other nuns and taken to the refectory to show it publicly in before everyone. Other nuns said they saw that the child’s face was bleeding, and the father of that girl would be Fra Giulio.

The bishop then recounts a story that seems particularly sordid: a nun named Suor Leonora Agelli reportedly had sexual relations with her confessor, Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra, which resulted a pregnancy, which then hid from her religious sisters under the pretext of severe dropsy. She eventually gave birth in her cell to a girl who died in the process, in the presence of the convent nurse, the converse sister who assisted her, and two curious nuns. The converse, Isabetta, then buried the body of the newborn in the henhouse, but only a few hours later, four nuns come to dig it and expose it to the eyes of everyone—nuns and ecclesiastical superiors—in the refectory of the convent. At the moment when the Bishop writes to Rome, he is at an impasse. An initial investigation was carried out by the ecclesiastical superiors, the Carmelite brothers, who questioned the nuns of Santa Lucia one after another, conducting a reputation survey about Suor Leonora and Pocaterra, the confessor. It was a long, drawn-out effort that ended in nothing but cloister gossip—until the day when two nuns openly accused Suor Leonora of intentionally causing the death of her child.

The accusations of infanticide—and all the surrounding scandal—prompted the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars to request a proper episcopal inquiry. This resulted in a trial. The Carmelite inquiry is included in the trial, which now turns to the main protagonists of the case. Interrogated by their ecclesiastical superiors, Suor Leonora and Giulio Cesare Pocaterra maintained the same version of their story: she had been raped just once, and he agreed to this version, as he later confessed, in order to accelerate the proceedings and to be judged internally, to avoid the painful and humiliating justice of the secular arm of the law.

Doubting that an infanticide could have been committed, the Vicars of the Bishop Fontana took the investigation very seriously. It was discovered that Suor Leonora had many opportunities to sin with the confessor—or with anyone else, if she pleased—because she had the keys to the convent, being the convent’s porter. More troubling still, the history of a long and questionable friendship between Suor Leonora and fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra was discovered, a friendship that was the source of a deep division among the nuns of Santa Lucia, because the confessor’s preferences challenged the status of a nun who was in higher social standing than Suor Leonora, Suor Doralice, as he obliged his favorite to spend as much time as possible with him. The wounded honour of Suor Doralice and the nuns who were loyal to her dig tensions between family groups and factions that divided the community, kept in the shadows until the opportunity arose in order to force the superiors to look in the convent’s disputes. This is the occasion of Suor Leonora’s pregnancy, who, instead of being hidden by the community was deliberately and theatrically brought to the eyes of the superiors by the presentation the baby’s body to the refectory.

During the interrogations, Suor Leonora admitted little by little that the sinful act was voluntary, that she herself opened the door of the enclosure to the confessor, and that they repeated the sin for several months, between January 1600 and Lent. In the end, the accusations of infanticide were abandoned but both were convicted of violating their vow of chastity and for Pocaterra, the sacrilege that is having sexual relationship with a nun. Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra was condemned to death by Pope Clement VIII, who insisted that the priest be executed publicly. Suor Leonora was confined to the convent.