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Lifting the veil (partly)

Yosanne Vella:
Women in 18th Century Malta
SKS Publishers, Malta, 2017.

Up to a couple of generations ago, more than half of the population of the world hardly featured in history. Making a few exceptions for the excitingly sinful, like Messalina or Mata Hari, or the grandly heroic, like Boadicea or Joan of Arc, or outstanding queens like Elizabeth or Catherine the Great, women remained hidden in the obscure pages of history, peeping out every now and then in rare footnotes. Their silent contributions remained unknown and unsung.

Today, women’s studies features in all self-respecting universities, ever since the first course was introduced in 1969 in Cornell University. Women’s studies has grown into an interdisciplinary field of academic study that examines gender as a social and cultural construct, the social status and contributions of women, and the relationships between power and gender.

Yosanne Vella was the local pioneer of this field of study and has been successfully tilling this field for over 30 years, concentrating mostly on women in the 18th century. If, today, women feature rather more prominently in local historical studies and among students’ interests, a good part of the credit must go to Dr Vella. Much more, of course, remains to be done.

The present book presents Dr Vella’s research output over the years, much of which was locally unacknowledged as it tended to appear in foreign academic journals. This information has now been suitably updated and presented in a generously illustrated book.

Much of the material had to be laboriously teased out from notarial archives and that unparalleled source of local social history which are the precious records of the inquisition’s tribunal held in Mdina.

The author begins by giving a concise overview of the 18th century, a period that has a certain allure and romantic attraction before that was destroyed by the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. And, of course, its end was signalled by the cataclysmic revolution in France and which helped in the demise of the Order which had ruled over Malta since 1530.

The book is conveniently divided into seven chapters dealing with work, education, religion and magic, knights and slaves, criminal activities, victims of crime and adultery and sexual offences.

Women have been traditionally associated with house work and all kinds of chores, while normally being barred from professional careers.

Dr Vella presents a different idea of working women in the 18th century, with good numbers apparently employed in agricultural work, often employed alongside their husbands although still receiving less pay per day. Some females even made investments in the lucrative corso!

Working in textiles, spinning and weaving  and dress-making were considered primarily women’s work, while women are also frequently recorded as running shops and even taverns and coffee shops. From records of shop-keepers relative to the eight years between 1788 and 1796, it emerges that no fewer than 24 per cent were females, certainly no mean contribution to the economy.

Women are also recorded playing both tragic and comic roles at the Manoel Theatre, although Gesuarda Lambertini was fired because ‘she was often indisposed’. Most of these actresses, however, seem to have been foreigners.

When education was generally restricted to the few, and never reaching the masses, it is no wonder that the female sex did not partake much of learning and tuition. Still it would be incorrect to brand all women as having been left in the wilderness of ignorance. A few aristocratic families must have wanted their daughters to learn basic knowledge and skills.

De Soldanis was one of the few clerics who saw the value of educating girls and wrote at length as to how this would benefit society, even though the kind of education he had in mind was a conservative one that would teach women to know their place.

Nuns would, of course, have a modicum of education. Joining a nunnery was a refuge for many, including unmarried aristocratic ladies who often saw to raising the standards within the walls. Then there were also bizocche, women who opted for the ascetic life without actually joining an Order to live as lay sisters. Again de Soldanis writes at length about one such, Teresa Muscat from Attard, who lived an exemplary life and when she died, ‘she went to heaven’. Some nuns were less exemplary and ended before the inquisitor’s tribunal to answer for their lascivious and scandalous behaviour which, admittedly, makes for more exciting reading.

Somehow women were more inclined to resort to magic and to the occult powers and as such they feature quite frequently in court records. The making of love potions, amulets and the casting of spells were traditionally a female province. Even amateur ‘doctors’ with their particular medicines were classified as witches and risked serious sanctions.

Dr Vella also discusses female relations with the knights and also with slaves. Many 18th-century accounts – Carasi’s being the prime one and who incidentally is not featured as a source in the book – write about sexual corruption among the knights and the cooperation they found among local women, even with the acquiescence of their spouses. Valletta also boasted some of the finest brothels in the Mediterranean, always going by these accounts.

There was also obviously interaction between women and slaves who were, so to say, even lower in social status than the women themselves. Slaves were often found to be useful sources for the casting of spells or curses, to which women seem to have quite frequently resorted more than men.

The last three chapters, dealing with female criminals, female victims of crimes, and adultery and sexual offences, make most interesting reading, peppered as they are with accounts and anecdotes.

Women appeared frequently in court charged with non-payment of debts, abusive and blasphemous conduct, drunkenness, theft, molestation, fighting and violent conduct. Theft, both petty theft and the occasional big job, seems to have been the most common misdemeanour women were accused of. A good number of these thefts were apparently driven by sheer poverty. Some of the cases are described in some detail. The courts appear to have been more lenient with women.

All too often women ended up as victims of crime themselves, then no less than today. In not a few cases, it was the women who actually reported the crime. Women were quite often the victims of violent crime both by husbands, partners or strangers.

Rape was a common feature of a basically violent society, often carried out by a relative or an acquaintance.

The last chapter deals with adultery and sexual offences. As Dr Vella says, the way the law then seemed to look at women depended on class and her marital status, and some restrictions were placed on women because of their sex. Their legal rights were quite non-existent and they were precluded from holding official positions.

Adultery and sexual offences were regarded as crimes, and women guilty of them often had to face stiff punishment. A wife guilty of adultery would lose her dowry and the right of community of acquests. On the other hand, husbands so guilty were first given a small fine, which was doubled the second time round, and only sentenced to forced labour for three years for a third offence.

Pimps were punished by whipping or by having a label put around their necks with the legend ‘per ruffianesimo’. More serious cases were punished much more severely and rapists were sentenced to one year’s forced labour, although the penalty was suspended if they married their victim who also received 20 scudi.

The decision to publish the book as a coffee-table production is perhaps debatable. This necessitated the finding of numerous colourful illustrations which often stretched the book producer’s imagination to find relevant pictures. At least the delightful colour pictures by Jean Houel from the Hermitage are always so pleasant to see.

Personally, I simply do not like the Anglicisation of Italian names in transcriptions. Giacomo, Tommaso and Giovanni should stay like that and not rendered as James, Thomas and John.

Still Dr Vella’s book is an important contribution to local women’s studies which should please the general reader as much as the specialised one. In a way it helps to partially lift the veil that has long hidden the female sex from history and should inspire other authors to tackle this subject.

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