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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"As Men Do with Their Wives": Domestic Violence in Fourteenth-Century Lucca

  • Author(s): Wieben, Corinne
  • et al.

Marriage disputes, such as those contained in the records of the episcopal court of Lucca, offer a glimpse into the meanings and effects of domestic violence in the fourteenth century. In one case in particular, the case of Guilielino and his wife Sitella, violence is the centerpiece of the marriage dispute. In this conflict, Guilielino, complaining that Sitella had left his household against the law of marriage, petitioned the court to force the restitution of his wife and marital rights under penalty of excommunication. Guilielino and Sitella’s testimonies indicate that both parties sought to exploit social and legal preconceptions of gender. Guilielino insisted that the violence in question was not excessive, but moderate and appropriate for a husband who must correct his wife, while Sitella described Guilielino as inhuman and depraved, impugning his ability to provide for her or to control himself. To Guilielino, violence was a tool for correction and a means of confirming his masculinity. Sitella used language that indicated her own helplessness, describing occasions on which Guilielino threatened her, beat her, deprived her of food and drink, and tried to kill her, all while emphasizing her obedience. The episcopal court, torn between preserving the indissolubility of marriage and protecting a member of its diocese, granted Sitella a separation a mensa et throro, from table and bed, freeing her from her marital obligations, but also preventing her from remarrying. Violence thus served several functions in this case: as a tool for reinforcing gender relations, as a means of legally justifying abandonment, and as the impetus for creative legal solutions within the episcopal court.

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