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Sex Crimes, Honour, and the Law in Early Modern Spain: Vizcaya, 1528-1735.

Sex Crimes, Honour, and the Law in Early Modern Spain: Vizcaya, 1528-1735. By Renato Barahona (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. xxi plus 274 pp. $60.00).

This is a study of roughly 350 cases involving sexual misconduct from the province of Vizcaya, one of the Basque provinces of northern Spain. It is based primarily on records housed in the archive of the Real Chancelleria in Valladolid, where cases heard in Vizcaya came on appeal. As he explains in the intellectual autobiography included in the introduction, Barahona began this project almost forty years ago, when he was a graduate student working under Fernand Braudel. Braudel had learned there were huge numbers court documents from Vizcaya no one had touched, and on his recommendation Barahona set out to investigate criminality in this Basque province. He found tens of thousands of unorganized dossiers, many of them crumbling and most of them incomplete. The archives were cold, dark, and open only sporadically (a situation that will be familiar to many readers who have done time in smaller European archives, or even some larger ones). As he notes very self-revealingly, his paleographic skills and understanding of Basque and Spanish history were not up to the broad task, and he went off into other areas of Basque history for decades. By the time he returned to the topic, the archives had heat, light, and a computerized catalog of holdings, making a study like this not only possible but actually pleasant to undertake.

The book that has resulted after this long detour is certainly a much narrower one than originally planned. It looks at 240 lawsuits involving estrupro (defloration), 70 involving amancebamiento (cohabitation without marriage), and about 35 involving other forms of sexual misconduct. The 240 estupro lawsuits provide evidence for the book's first three chapters, which examine courtship practices, the language of sex, and the role of coercion and violence in sexual encounters. A fourth chapter focuses on the cohabitation lawsuits, and a fifth discusses the way issues of honor and dishonor play out in various types of lawsuits. The book ends with a conclusion comparing the sexual behavior of people from Vizcaya with that of people elsewhere in Spain, and includes several appendices.

As the topics of the chapters make clear, this study is not simply narrower than originally planned, it has a very different focus. Decades ago, sexual misconduct was generally viewed within the lens of criminality, and analyses emphasized the institutional structures that dealt with crime and meted out punishment; it was criminal misconduct that just happened to be sexual in nature. Since then the history of sexuality has emerged as a dynamic historical field, and the issues covered in this book are treated primarily through that lens. Their status as legally-actionable misconduct is still important, but primarily as a demonstration of the way in which a particular society regulated sexuality and set boundaries.

We have also become much more interested in what people said they did, that is, how they interpreted their actions. Their words have allowed us to evaluate more fully the social and cultural meaning of sexual and other types of behavior. Barahona's attention to language comes out in his separate chapter on the language of sex, and also in his inclusion of numerous quotations from the cases, most of these in both the original Castilian and in English translation. (The court records are all written in Castilian, and Barahona notes that only five cases mention the presence of a translator for litigants who could only speak Basque.) His discussion of language highlights the effects of the "linguistic turn" in historical analysis, but his attention to (and occasional outrage at) actual events makes it clear that he does not think that words are all we can know.

What do these Basque cases reveal? Most of the details of actual cases will not be very surprising. The majority of the cases, both those of defloration and those of cohabitation, involve women who were of lower social standing than the men. Seduction by promise of marriage was very common, as was abandonment after that seduction had been successful. Informal vows of marriage continued long after Tridentine reforms were introduced. Seduction sometimes turned into abduction, and verbal coercion was often accompanied by assault. One third of the estrupro lawsuits discuss violence, usually with vague references to physical assault, but sometimes more explicit discussions. Violence was especially common against women in dependent and subordinate positions, especially domestic servants. At times it could be horrific, and involve the complicity or assistance of other upper-class males. Especially gruesome were several cases in which pregnant servants were bled multiple times by physicians to induce abortions. This violence only very rarely led to charges of rape, which Barahona notes is also true in other early modern societies.

Though the cases themselves fit with patterns found throughout early modern Europe (and in other times and places as well), the language that the litigants use, and Barahona's analysis of this language, does deviate somewhat from what one would expect. Studies of shame and honor in Mediterranean societies have argued that, especially for women, honor is a commodity that is determined only by sexual status, and once lost, can never be regained. Barahona's study makes clear that the women who brought these cases to court had a much more pragmatic view of their honor. It could be lost, yes, but then regained, or mostly regained, through money. Honor was a commodity, and most of the women who brought cases to court were successful in gaining monetary compensation for its (temporary) loss. Their situations were only rarely viewed as bringing dishonor on the family as a whole; family members were active and public participants in these legal cases. Recent scholarship on Basque women--which Barahona mentions but does not discuss in great detail--has highlighted their opportunities for independence in a culture in which the men were gone for long periods of time fishing and whaling. Barahona's findings support this view, though his final comparative remarks indicate he thinks that the situation in other parts of Spain might well be similar, and that the study of actual cases might lead us to rethink the whole issue of female honor in all Mediterranean societies, not just the part of northern Spain that bordered the Atlantic.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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Author:Wiesner-Hanks, Merry
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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