Between spaces of control and autonomy. Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy.

By Isabel Harvey

            On March 8, 2021, on the occasion of the International Women’s Rights Day, Professor Angela Carbone (collaborator on the project “The Other Sister”), the Archivio di Genere of Bari and the Università degli studi di Bari – Aldo Moro (Italy) organized an online seminar to present and discuss various experiences of non-cloistered religious women’s life between the Middle Ages and the early modern period. This seminar was part of a series of meetings entitled ArchiviAzioni. Angela Carbone opened the seminar by introducing the mission of the Archivio di Genere, a multilingual and interdisciplinary documentation center that collects publications about women: from feminist to LGBTQ movements, from women’s writing to visual arts, from gender studies to postcolonial studies, from political and social testimonies to translation works. The aim of the Archivio di Genere is to preserve the words and actions of women and to make them available to researchers. This was the purpose of the March 8 seminar, which, through the presentation of three types of case studies, took an overall look at women’s religious experience outside the monasteries in Italy. In addition to a presentation of Angela Carbone’s recently published book, Sylvie Duval and Isabel Harvey also presented case studies from their ongoing research.

            Sylvie Duval opened the discussion with a presentation of her work about the Sorores humiliate of the Milanese suburb Porta Ticinese, between 1220 and 1350. Three communities existed in the Porta Ticinese suburb during this period: the Signore bianche dette Vetteri, the Signore bianche de Supra Murum and the Vergini. These three groups were generally called the Humiliate, a common term for penitents. These communities were spontaneous foundations, fruits of the association and the work of the women. The objective of Sylvie Duval’s intervention was to explore the strategies deployed by these communities during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and their social roles in relation to the changing contexts they faced. At the beginning of the period, these three groups, which were under the protection of the archbishop, did not define themselves as nuns. When enclosure was officially imposed on all professed nuns by the 1298 Periculoso decree of Boniface VIII, they found themselves de facto assimilated to the category of nuns, without immediately changing their way of life. The question of cura animarum or spiritual direction of these nuns also demonstrates the fluidity of institutional affiliations relative to these groups of religious women: initially close to the preachers, they were then subject to the cura of the local secular clergy for an extended period, before returning, in the fifteenth century, to the spiritual direction of the preaching friars of St. Eustorge. However, when the Observance brought about a new stregthening of norms, some of them (the Signore bianche de Supra Murum) asked to return to the spiritual direction of the seculars. The economic and social interests of these communities were evident in the daily life of the neighborhood surrounding them. For example, adult oblation was a fairly common practice in the thirteenth century: a person, man or woman, gave all his or her possessions to the community in exchange for its protection. The community thus acted as a place of refuge in continuity with the neighborhood. Sylvie Duval’s intervention thus makes it possible to rethink both the identities – too often plastered onto a rigid ecclesiastical structure by the historiography – and the social roles of women’s communities in light of a determining element in women’s religious experience, that is, the immediate context. 

            Isabel Harvey continued the discussion with the analysis of a curious Venetian case: the female charity institution of the Immacolata Concezione di Maria Vergine during the second half of the sevententh century. In 1669, the rich Venetian noble Francesco Vendramin removed the management of one of his charitable works, the Seminario della Immacolata Concettione di Maria Vergine, from the oversight of the pious woman Cecilia Ferrazzi after the Inquisition condemned her on the charge of a pretense of holiness. The Seminario welcomed girls and young women who were abandoned or were under the risk of falling into prostitution. When the Inquisition condemned Cecilia Ferrazzi, a female community of Capuchins received the mission of administrating of the Seminario. During the same years when Cecilia Ferrazzi constructed and improved her Seminario, the tertiary Franciscan sister Suor Lucia Ferrari founded a series of female monasteries and pious institutions for women in six northern Italian cities: Guastalla, Treviso, Mantua, Como, Parma, and Venice. According to a hagiography dedicated to her, in 1668 she had founded and written the Rule – of Capuchin obedience – for an institution devoted to the education of young girls in Venice, sponsored by the noble Francesco Vendramin. The institution was named the Colleggio dell’Immacolata concettione. The similarities between the institutions of Cecilia Ferrazzi and Suor Lucia Ferrari are striking: same charitable activities, same sponsors, similar names, concurrent dates. Based on Venetian administrative sources, normative literature, hagiographic accounts and, above all, Roman inquisitorial documents, Isabel Harvey has shown that this was a single institution, headed by not two but three women of power with social origins ranging from poverty to nobility, who created a space of freedom for themselves at the limits of the social acceptability and the orthodoxy of the Roman Church. 

            Angela Carbone presented her work on the issue of female participation in charity in southern Italy during the early modern period, presenting her book Ritirate dalle cose del monde. Donne e istituzioni nel Mezzogiorno moderno. The point of view adopted by Angela Carbone in this work is quite innovative: she is looking for the experience and the voices of women who built living environments for other women who were on the margins of two possible female life-paths: marriage or convent. Angela Carbone’s book is organized around three main categories of women’s institutions, covering all social classes, urban and rural. The starting point of Angela Carbone’s reflections is the orphan girls, those deprived from any family support. In the period between the late Middle Ages and the beginning of early modern period, new structures of assistance for orphan girls emerged, founded by lay associations: confraternities, monti di pietà, parishes, and dioceses. The second part of the book addresses the assistance given to a group of women who were even more marginalized: repentant prostitutes, those who were unhappily married or abandoned by their husbands, and all those women whose honor was already compromised. In the institutions that were founded for these women, charitable intervention took on a moral and redemptive character, through work and spiritual exercises. The third and final part of the book analyzes the noble women, who were the protagonists in the founding of many semi-religious institutions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The history of women’s charitable institutions goes hand in hand with the social representations of women and their bodies. The identity that was assigned to them, as either a reserve of purity to counterbalance the sins of the world if they were keeping chastity, or as a sinner who drew God’s wrath on Earth if they were not, was at the root of charitable institutions, as all of them place the preservation of women’s honor at the heart of their mission.

            The seminar ended with a question period where the issue of possible sources in which to see the experiences of these women emerged.  


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