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Book Review by Elaine Avila – Women, Crime and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal

Women, Crime and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal

Women, Crime and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal – Book Review by Elaine Avila

For her new book, Women, Crime and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal, Dr. Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, a professor at the University of Winnipeg, 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 16th and 17th centuries–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.

Dr. Abreu-Ferreira is expert as using various types of records during the early modern period to find concrete evidence of female agency. In one of her articles, “Fishmongers and Ship owners: Women in Maritime Communities of Early Modern Portugal,” she examines port registries and municipal tax registries, finding 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.

Women, Crime and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal is equally revealing. Abreu-Ferreira’s careful analysis reveals that women were involved in crimes as perpetrators, abettors, victims, and survivors. Dr. Abreu-Ferreira has grouped the cases into two main groups: 1) physical injuries and homicides, and 2) sexual crimes. She provides useful and evocative sub categories such as “A Dubious Compromise,” “Parents in the Dark,” or “Inappropriate Gifts.” Women were able to use 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 coerced into using the legal system: forced by their parents to accuse their lovers, by their employers to recant an indictment against an attacker.


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.

For example, in the case of Luzia, a servant girl from Porto, who filed a “perdão de parte” on 4 March 1666, Luzia seems to have been forced to recant to keep her job.
At first, she won her case against one Francisco Cardos Manto, who mistreated her and injured her with a knife. Her attacker was found guilty, sentenced and jailed. But then her employer, Francisco da Mota Rebelo, ratified and signed her forgiveness document, which reads:

“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)

Then a surgeon with an English name, Henrique Franklin, signed the pardon on Luzia’s behalf. Neither Luzia nor her female employer, Maria da Silva, could write. These men signed the document for them. Why did Luzia recant? From the perdão de parte, we can infer that it had something to with the context (Cardo Manto was a married man, had children, did not have much property). From the situation (the pardon being filled out in her employer’s home), it is not a stretch to think Luzia was coerced in some way. As with many of the accusations and pardons that Dr. Abreu-Ferreira examines, we are missing information from the case.

Yet this legal case gives us far more knowledge about our ancestors than we might get from our usual sources, such as a name written in a bible in a village church for a wedding or a birth. These names tell us nothing about an ancestor’s profession or personality, while these legal cases provide windows into the conditions of their lives. When Dr. Abreu-Ferreira is able to match a “querela” with a “perdão de parte,” the results are even more revealing.

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)

Why did they recant? Was it a financial arrangement, or to make peace with their neighbor? We do not know. Their language in the forgiveness document greatly minimizes 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.

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’sHistória 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, so
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. Yet it is often 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 “perdões de parte” Abreu-Ferreira studies tend to minimize the crimes to extreme effect. 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. 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). It seems ironic— we barely get to hear our ancestors even though we have their verbatim testimony. We can’t learn much about forgiveness from reading forgiveness documents (“perdãos de parte”) because they are re-enactments of “well rehearsed” scripts.

What can we learn from 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 powerful, 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 affect of including these women will be-Who knows what is possible? Who knows what stories we might tell? What silent women might now speak?

Elaine Avila is a Canadian/American playwright of Azorean descent.

Elaine 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.

This review was originally published in The Portuguese American Journal.
Reprinted with permission.

Original Article Published in The Portuguese American Journal >>> Read Original Article


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