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Silvana Seidel Menchi and Diego Quaglioni, eds. Matrimoni in dubbio: Unioni controverse e nozze clandestine in Italia dal XIV al XVIII secolo.

Bologna: Societa editrice il Mulino, 2001. Pbk. 581 pp. index, bibl. 37 [euro]. ISBN: 88-15-08643-9.

Silvana Seidel Menchi and Diego Quaglioni, already well known for their recent collected volume on conjugal strife and separation, have once again assembled a strong collection of essays on marriage in pre- and post-Tridentine Italy. The seventeen essays of Matrimoni in dubbio: Unioni controverse e nozze clandestine in Italia dal XIV al XVIII secolo represent the second part of the ambitious research project organized by the Universita di Trieste on "matrimonial court cases in the ecclesiastical archives of Italy." By studying the intricate ecclesiastical court records, the authors collectively question the improbable uniformity of marriage practices in early modern society and point instead towards the multilayered complexity of matrimoni in dubbio, indeed "doubtful marriages."

Seidel Menchi and Quaglioni open the volume with excellent overviews of the transformation of the institution and practice of marriage and of its civil and religious definitions before and after the reforms of the Council of Trent. In the remaining fifteen essays legal analyses of canon and civil disputations concerning marriage (Giuliano Marchetto, "Matrimoni incerti tra dottrina e prassi" and "II 'matrimonium meticulosum'") intertwine with personal accounts that rely on individual court cases. Microhistories of women and men of different social classes take the reader across the capital cities and the provincial towns of central and northern Italy and into the courtrooms of ecclesiastical trials covering a chronological span that goes from the fourteenth to the early eighteenth centuries.

Cecilia Cristellon, Paola Benassi, and Giovanni Minnucci offer an interesting analysis of one single court case from three different perspectives. While the first two essays unravel the complex court records of Maddalena--who, still a child, was forced into marriage by greedy relatives--and the principal characters, the third essay offers a legal analysis of the final verdict. Their findings are echoed in Christina Meek's essay, which show that underage girls, often orphans, were forced into marriages that were never consummated. The motive behind these marriages was often financial but in all the cases these young girls were passive victims of broader schemes of deceit and exploitation.

The dubbio (doubt) that ecclesiastical courts cast over the legal soundness and legitimacy of these unions turned on the young age of the brides and the failed consummation. On the basis of these two crucial prerequisites ecclesiastical courts invariably annulled the marriage. Consummation of marriage, however, as the case of Ursina studied by Cecilia Cristellon in her second contribution to the collection shows, was not by itself the only condition for legitimating a marriage. Instead, in the eye of the church, consensus between equals was a third decisive factor for a legitimate union. But how was consensus defined? In the complex case studies analyzed by Anna Maria Lazzeri, Silvana Seidel Menchi, and Lucia Ferrante, marital prenuptual agreements based on reciprocal consensus and often sealed by consummation acquired the same validity as a formal marriage promise. Often, the legitimacy of these agreements went beyond the personal acknowledgment of the two parties and instead spilled into the streets where neighbors and relatives were drawn as mediators and witnesses.

The last five contributions (Sara Luperini, Daniela Hacke, Dea Moscarda, Luca Faoro, and Chiara La Rocca) introduce the reader to the 1563 post-Tridentine reform, which structured marriage regulations and established new criteria for legitimacy. According to Luperini, failing to follow the new normative practice that called for an official and public ceremony in front of the church doors became a criminal offense which was prosecuted by both ecclesiastical and criminal courts. Rather than imposing the desired disciplining of marriages, however, these new regulations were often exploited to terminate an undesired marriage. The now strictly regulated marriage, Hacke tells us, had also an important effect on sexual practices, which were now forbidden before the public and official service. Already by the early seventeenth century the contours of a new gender difference were taking form as the ritualized marriage drew up the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate sexual practices and accordingly between honorable and dishonorable women.

The wealth of detailed information narrated by the authors overshadows, at times, the larger picture and obscures the layers of multiple interests involved in this historical process as if decisions occurred beyond the control of the people involved in this process--and indeed outside their own lives. The essay by Stanley Chojnacki ("Valori patrizi nel tribunale patriarcale: Girolamo da Mula e Marietta Soranzo [Venezia 1460]") reminds us that beyond the multilayered complexity of ecclesiastical court cases on marriage ensued a struggle for power that engaged the supremacy of church regulations over parental authority, and the right of individual choice over family interests. As the case of Venice shows, during the fifteenth century increased control of the patrician government over marriage and its regulation led to a compromise between the dictate of the church and patrician family ideology.

This summary only partially captures the complexity of the stories told by the authors, which challenge the assumption that marriage practices of today are deeply intertwined and naturally rooted in a homogeneous and universal model. This assumption has often been invoked to justify a normative hierarchy that defined marriage as a longterm static and monolithic institution. Prior to the Council of Trent, according to the authors, ecclesiastical courts, and legal experts revealed practices of marriage that not only relied on the principle of individual consent but also presented multilayered definitions that defied and departed from the normative directives imposed by the Counter-Reformation church during the seventeenth century.


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Author:Benadusi, Giovanna
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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