Portuguese American Journal

Book: ‘Women, Crime and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal’ – Review

Review by Elaine Avila, Contributor (*)

‘Women, Crime and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal’ is a superb book, focusing on two types of crimes involving women in the 16th and 17th centuries:

1) physical injuries and homicides, and

2) sexual crimes.

Dr. Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, a professor at the University of Winnipeg, is a specialist in unearthing female agency during the early modern period. In one of her articles, “Fishmongers and Ship owners: Women in Maritime Communities of Early Modern Portugal,” she finds that women in coastal communities in Northern Portugal were active businesswomen, often owners or co-owners of ships. For another scholarly article, “From Mere Survival to near Success: Women’s Economic Strategies in Early Modern Portugal,” she studies infractions recorded in municipal books, revealing that tradeswomen, especially “regateiras” or market women, were as not intimidated by laws and officials as historians assumed previously. To write her new book, Dr. Abreu-Ferreira has gone deep into the archives of mainland Portugal and the Azorean island of São Miguel to delve into two types of Portuguese legal documents from the early modern period –the “querela,” an official accusation of a crime, and the “perdão de parte,” in which the victim of a crime officially forgives the perpetrator. The documents contain verbatim legal testimony from Portuguese women and men of the era, recorded by scribes, providing many of us with the oldest textual link to the words of our ancestors.

Her study is thorough and wide-ranging. Documents in these two archives involve legal cases throughout the mainland and the Azorean archipelago, across the class spectrum. Abreu-Ferreira researched 224 pardons or “perdões de parte” from 1544-1754. Eleven were from the Azores, 99 from Évora, 38 from Faro, 15 from Lisbon, 44 from Porto, 17 were from Viana do Castelo. It is not always easy to focus on the women. In the crimes involving physical injury and homicide, there were 77 female pardoners to 164 male pardoners; and 11 women were pardoned for their crimes, in comparison to 234 men. But Abreu-Ferreira’s careful analysis reveals that women were involved in crimes as perpetrators, abettors, victims, and survivors. Women employed the legal system for restitution, to alleviate the negative effects of crimes committed by men closest to them, and under duress. In some cases, women were forced by parents to accuse their lovers, by employers to recant an indictment against an attacker. Dr. Abreu-Ferreira has grouped the cases under evocative subheadings like “The Poor Orphan,” “The Rich Orphan,” “The Orphan Goes Astray,” or provocative ones like “Inappropriate Gifts,” “A Dubious Compromise,” or “Parents in the Dark.”

Dr. Abreu-Ferreira also studies 94 “querelas” from 1629-1652 from São Miguel in the Azores, involving 489 listed witnesses, 159 women and 330 men. An excellent historian, she is careful to point out that these are fairly small samples, and that we need to be careful not to draw sweeping conclusions from them. Even with a small sample, some insights can be gleaned. Surprisingly, women in early modern Portugal had more agency than some of their counterparts in other parts of Europe. Men were often at sea, conscripted in wars, or on colonizing missions, so women were often allowed to act legally on behalf of the family. This agency was mitigated because women often knew, were married to, or were economically dependent on those who committed crimes against them, which put unusual pressures on them to forgive them.

womenFor example, Luzia, a 22 year-old servant girl in Porto, had won her case against a man named Francisco Cardoso Manto, because he mistreated and injured her with a knife. Once he was jailed, she reconsidered:

“Given that he was a married man with children and that to gain his freedom he would have to dispense of a lot of property which he did not have, and that if he injured her it was accidental, and he was moved by passion provoked by words, she did not wish to accuse him and with this document [she] wished to pardon him.” (62-63)

Luzia seemed autonomous when she filed her complaint and won her case. Yet her “perdão de parte” revealed she might not be able to act on her own behalf. The pardon had to be ratified by her employers. The man of the house and his colleague signed it, because none of the women involved in the case could write. Why did she withdraw her complaint? Was it a condition of her employment? As with many of the accusations and pardons that Dr. Abreu-Ferreira examines, this information is lamentably not available. She is especially limited when it is impossible to match a “querela” with a “perdão de parte”. When she can, the results are revealing.

For example, sisters Caterina and Maria Rodriques of Estemoz filed a complaint when a barber, Manuel da Fonseca and his companion broke into their home and pounded them with their fists. Manuel was arrested. In their accusation, it was mentioned they were “sewing at home”, a common way of indicating that they were innocent victims (65). But by the time the sisters granted da Fonseca a pardon, their story had changed. As the sisters’ notary transcribed,

“But since the incident was accidental and based on a recent argument and previously they had been great friends and next door neighbors and there being between them a special friendship and the said blows and injuries had not caused any scares or deformities but a light scratch on the face and from everything she was healed and both (sisters) accepted that they were entirely to blame for the incident and that they caused it and they pardoned Manuel.” (65)

Their language greatly minimized the incident, in what Dr. Abreu-Ferreira describes as a kind of collective amnesia women were sometimes pressured to employ.

The laws of the time also protected women and gave them a means to improve their lives, especially in cases where their patriarch ran afoul. On 25 March 1538, the crown gave back $43,960 reis to Ana Pires of Lisbon. This money reinstated a penalty her husband, ship pilot Pantaleão Fernandes paid when he was “found guilty of stealing spices in the Azores from ships coming to from India that belonged to the Crown, for which crime he was sentenced to four years of exile and the loss of half of his family estate.” Ana won her case and got half of the family estate back. In her case, she pointed out she was a poor woman with children to maintain, with her husband in exile in India. (59) Ana Pires may have had a limited agency, but still managed to protect herself and her children from her husband’s crime.

The law protected wives from husbands, not vice versa. As Dr. Abreu-Ferreira writes, “seemingly there was no concern about women alienating family property without their husbands.” (59)

In Dr. Abreu-Ferreira’s chapter on sexual crimes, we learn that female adultery, rape, incest and sodomy were all subject to the death penalty. These sentences were rarely carried out, except, terrifyingly, in the case of sodomy (101). Seduction and abduction also received heavy penalties, with “exile to Africa for the elite culprit and death for the plebeian” (145). Women’s roles in sexual crimes fall into two categories: 1) women accused (adultery, concubinage), and 2) women as accusers of harm inflicted upon them (concubinage, rape). The documents in Abreu-Ferreira’s study do not cover priests or clergy who slept with women. These issues were handled by the Church, and usually persecuted the women involved, not the priests. (129)

Sex under any circumstances with a virgin or widow placed a man under obligation to marry a woman, if she wanted it, or to pay her dowry. Many cases obliged a man to fulfill his promise of marriage or to pay up. In one case, “Francisco’s ignoble behavior, therefore, was not that for three years he had pre-marital sex with Agueda, but that he no longer cared to contract the promised marriage. In early modern Portugal, this was a crime” (150). A father was held financially responsible for raising his children, or in one case, by enforced custody after his child was weaned. This was true even if the man decided not to marry the woman he impregnated.

A married woman had little recourse if her husband committed adultery, unless she could prove that he was negligent of his duty to support his family. A wife often denounced the husband’s female companion. These accusations could lead to the female companion being thrown in jail. In 1630, Manuel Mendes was denounced by 13 witnesses for returning to São Miguel from a trip to the island of Terceira and going straight to his mistress’s home. (140)

Rape penalties were severe in early modern Portugal: a man of any rank or station, who raped a woman of any rank or station, could be sentenced to death. Those who helped with the “força,” male or female, also could receive the same penalty. Additionally, the role rape survivors were supposed to play was extreme. Abreu-Ferreira quotes Marcello Caetano’s História do Direito Português:

“Women were expected to come forth after the violation in a very public way. In certain regions, the custom in the Middle Ages was for the “mulher forçada,” or raped woman to go immediately following the assault to the nearest village or town, tearing at her hair, howling, and telling everyone she encountered along the way that so-and-so raped her, naming him if she knew his name, and if not, providing identifying marks. When she reached the town or village where there was a judge, she was to go directly to him, tell him all about the incident, and file an accusation on the manner in which she was raped and tell all those she encountered along the way the identity of her rapist, and in that manner she could prove the rape. Thus, the onus was on the woman to make a spectacle and attract the public gaze, an ordeal that compounded her terror and humiliation, a process that undoubtedly succeeded in silencing many rape victims.” (145)

Using legal documents as a basis for a historical study can be limiting. Abreu-Ferreira provides insight into the milieu by citing histories and legal documents from continental Europe. She also draws on literature of the time to provide greater context: quoting 16th century writers such as poets Veronica Franco, Sor Violante del Cielo and playwright Gil Vicente. Despite this, is sometimes difficult to infer what was happening or how people truly felt. The accusations are worded in extreme terms, in hopes of winning a case.

The “perdão de parte,” is extraordinary and unique to the Iberian Peninsula. Through studying these forgiveness documents, it might seem that we could learn about soul searching and compassion. This is not the case. Abreu-Ferreira’s work reveals that many “perdões de parte” were likely obtained through financial arrangement or coercion. Those found guilty of a crime had strong reasons obtain a “perdão de parte”: to avoid jail time, financial penalty, or being shipped overseas in one of Portugal’s many colonial missions. The document from the victim was simply the first step in obtaining a pardon from the King, Duke or other authority. The “perdões de parte” Abreu-Ferreira studies tend to minimize the crimes to extreme effect. As Abreu-Ferreira writes, in the “querelas”, “the performer was center stage, re-enacting a well-rehearsed script, in the other (the “perdão de parte”) the players were still on stage, but the curtains had been drawn, and we barely got to hear their murmured assents and discontents” (Abreu-Ferreira, 175).

What can we learn if not about forgiveness? What do we have access to, if not the precise actions or revelatory words of our ancestors? Dr. Abreu-Ferreira’s study unearths stories, even if partial, that might have been lost in time forever. Her book is impactful; it examines our legal inheritance, which reveals a great deal about female agency, family and village dynamics, and roles between the sexes. Dr. Abreu-Ferreira writes: “ultimately…behind the theatrics…lay real people who had undergone real suffering.” (175).

Dr. Abreu-Ferreira’s study is essential, for anyone interested in Portuguese history, the evolution of law, women’s lives during the early modern period, and those who love unearthing true stories. Her book advocates for the inclusion of women in history. There are excuses why women are left out—women’s lack of education, inability to vote, illiteracy, the demands of backbreaking work, childrearing, or childbirth. Certainly these are enormous obstacles, but when the contributions of women are eliminated or erased, it affects everybody. Women’s worth is thrown into question; women continue to be ignored and disregarded. The ways family’s subtlety or not so subtlety erase or downplay the contributions of women is detrimental, even dangerous. As Dr. Abreu-Ferreira describes:

“Growing up I often heard my mother tell of how my father as a young man wanted desperately to leave Madeira, to escape the abject poverty to which he was born, hungry to emigrate to some place where he stood a chance of improving his lot… and my mother proudly recounted how it was her father who provided that guarantee….One day, as I poured over the piles of archival documents I had collected over the years, the penny dropped: what did she mean her father provided the guarantee? A visit to the village archives confirmed my suspicious. The guarantee in question contained a pledge that had an impact on the little plots of land my maternal grandparents had up the northern coast of Madeira, property that belonged to both spouses…My mother’s retelling of that transaction speaks volumes about the power of memory, the insidious character of patriarchy and the challenges for women’s memory. There were and are consequences to this ideological practice, not least of which is the erasure of women’s history from the public consciousness. At worst, such ideological premises could and did lead to some serious harm…”

Professor Abreu-Ferreira then describes how this silencing was part of an act of domestic violence in her family, giving powerful context to her rigorous and excellent historical study. (181)

Dr. Abreu-Ferreira has restored Portuguese women of many classes to the historical record and unearthed evidence of what women did and said from earlier time periods. It is incalculable how positive the effect of including these women will be—Who knows what is possible? Who knows what stories we might tell? What silent women might now speak?

ElaineAvilaElaine Avila is a Canadian/American playwright of Azorean descent. Her plays include: Jane Austen, Action Figure, La Frontera/The Border, Lieutenant Nun, Portuguese Tomato, Burn Gloom, Kitimat, Lost in Fado. Selected awards: Victoria Critic’s Circle for Best New Play, DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon Short Play Award, Best New Play/ Audience Favorite Festival de los Cocos, Panama City. She has taught in universities from British Columbia to Tasmania, China to Panamá. She is an Associate of the Playwrights Theatre Centre in Vancouver, Canada and Playwright in Residence at Western Washington University. Publications: NoPassport Press (Jane Austen Action Figure and other Plays, 2012) Canadian Theatre Review, American Theater, Contemporary Theatre Review, Lusitania, Howlround, Café Onda.