Gender and Civic Authority: Sexual Control in a Medieval Italian Town

By Lansing, Carol | Journal of Social History, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Gender and Civic Authority: Sexual Control in a Medieval Italian Town


Lansing, Carol, Journal of Social History


One of the changes that marks the rise of effective self-governing communes in late medieval Italy is a new attention in the civic courts to cases involving sexual morality. Town officials began active pursuit of offenses that included not only prostitution and sodomy but adultery. These efforts suggest that the creation of civic authority was influenced by understandings of sexual morality and sexual difference. Most scholarship on the late medieval Italian towns still effectively divides public from private spheres. Women, family, and sexuality are all understood as private life, distinct from questions of state authority.(1) This division has at times prevented scholars from grasping fascinating and revealing connections.

One example is research on the medieval Italian magnates, noble patrilineages considered by their contemporaries the worst threats to public order. Scholars have not examined the links between laws restraining the magnates and laws on issues like sodomy and female dress.(2) Lawmakers addressed noble violence and faction as threats to public order, and then turned directly to women's hems. The connection seems odd to modern readers, but thirteenth-century understandings of violent disorder were different from modern ones. Society and politics were grasped in terms of moral theology. Medieval lawmakers considered women's hems and factional warfare closely linked: a root cause of the lack of order was concupiscence, sensual appetites resistant to rational control.(3) Further, concupiscence at least since Augustine of Hippo was associated with attributes considered feminine. Medieval Italian lawmakers in some ways based the new guild republics on an analysis of public order that linked violent disorder with gendered attributes.

This article is an effort to open up a new avenue for analysis of medieval state formation. Medieval historians have been slow to respond to Joan Scott's 1985 call for research into the use of gender to signify relations of power.(4) But in fact, the medieval Italian city-states invite this kind of analysis because of their use of the vocabularies of the patriarchal family and of Christian moral teaching. I would like to suggest that town governments pursued sexual crimes in part because lawmakers believed that one cause of disorder - in the state as within the family - was concupiscence, which they associated with feminine nature. The creation of just order and authority required the restraint of sensual appetite.

I. Sexual criminality, gender and state formation

This approach brings together material from three fields of research in medieval history: sexual criminality, state formation and gender. The last two decades have seen a number of studies of late medieval sexual criminality, although research on adultery cases remains scanty.(5) The emphasis has been on the targets of the laws. Michael Rocke, in a major study of sodomy cases in Florence, suggests that laws on sodomy were not to assure the restriction of a deviant group; he found little evidence of a gay subculture or a concept of sexual identity in fifteenth-century Florence. Rocke does link changing legislation and the degree of enforcement of laws on sodomy to specific transitions in Florentine rule.(6) There are a handful of recent studies of prostitution. Most emphasize the fifteenth and even sixteenth centuries, and center on institutionalization, the late medieval creation of civic brothels.(7) The work of Ruth Karras has been most influential. Karras views the regulation of brothels in terms of the control of female sexuality: a woman who was not under the control of a single man had to be a "common woman" available to all.(8) As Luise White has argued on the basis of her research on prostitutes in colonial Nairobi, studies of prostitution tend to be shaped by ideas about victimization. She urges instead an emphasis on women, their earnings and their families, analysis that does not "isolate women in the categories of deviancy and subculture. …

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