The fourth session of the ANZAMEMS PGR/ECR Reading Group took place on Zoom on Tuesday 2 May. This week’s reading, kindly recommended to the group by Natalie Tomas (Monash), was Tamar Herzig’s article on ‘Slavery and Interethnic Sexual Violence: A Multiple Perpetrator Rape in Seventeenth-Century Livorno’, The American Historical Review, 127/1 (2022): 194–222, which studies the 1610 rape of a group of 14 enslaved Jewish women by Muslim slaves and Catholic forced laborers in the slave prison (Bagno) at Livorno. Using written sources which respond to the rape, Herzig argues that it was orchestrated by the high-ranking physician Dr Bernardetto Buonromei in order to put pressure on the city’s Jewish community to pay high ransoms for the women. Herzig places the rape in the context of the Mediterranean slave trade and of the place of Jews in the Italian city, and skilfully mines limited primary source material to shed light on the event and its consequences.
The group praised Herzig’s research and writing throughout the session, noting that the article offers an example par excellence of how historians can work with and not against archival silences. The main sources taken up by Herzig were the petitions of the Jewish leaders (massari) to Grand Duke Cosimo II. These supplications do not describe the rapes themselves, but instead underline their graphic results of sexual violence for the women, with one attempting to kill her daughters and then herself in response. The group also appreciated Herzig’s attentiveness to the strategies of rhetoric silencing deployed in Buonromei’s response to the allegations, which essentially served to erase the traces of the violence done to the female slaves. For instance, Buonromei uses the plural masculine form, ebrei (Jews), to refer to the slaves, and makes reference only to forms of punishment administered to men (e.g. head-shaving). Our members found this example of the contemporary historical erasure of the Jewish female slaves in real-time particularly fascinating, as the process is usually understood as something which is enacted retrospectively.
Herzig described the Jewish population in the free city of Livorno at the time as “thriving” and segregated into a semi-autonomous community, but as nonetheless lacking in power or status in important ways. Whereas Muslim slaves could expect decent treatment, or else the Maghrebi authorities would in turn retaliate against Catholic slaves, enslaved Jews had no sovereign Jewish power to call down in the event of maltreatment, and were also unable to gain their freedom via exchange with their Christian counterparts. The reading group mused that the existence of a Jewish nation or government in the seventeenth-century may have ensured a better treatment of Jewish slaves in Italy. We also acknowledged that the treatment of Mediterranean slaves was really based on financial or business reasoning, rather than human motivations. Both Cosimo and Herzig honed into the financial element of securing ransoms from the Jews of Livorno for these Jewish female slaves. However, it was pointed out that the Jewish community had only a small fund and a firm cap on ransoms, while the slaves had been captured with their families and so had no kin to pay ransoms, meaning that Livorno could not expect profitable ransoms for the women. The rapes could also have had a wider motivation of leveraging fear amongst the city’s minorities. However, Buonromei was probably unaware of the financial state of the Jewish community and expected them to be able to pay up.
We also considered the complete lack of censure or prosecution which Bounromei faced; following the supplications, he remained in his role in the slave prison and continued to enjoy Cosimo’s favour. This is unsurprising, as the Grand Duke was unlikely to side with the enslaved women (and by extension, with the Jewish massari) against a state official. As the women were slaves, it was unlikely that the rape would be prosecuted. We also noted that, as slaves, they were assumed to lack honour, so (theoretically) could not be “dishonoured” by the rape. This led to a discussion about the nature of honour, during the course of which the following questions were posed: Was the honour at stake in this multi-perpetrator rape a communal honour wherein the Jewish men were shamed by the attack on their women? Was ransoming a restoration of personal honour, meaning that slavery’s loss of honour was only temporary, but was rape a permanent alienation of honour? Was honour attached to agency, or to a lack of it, in women?
The group also questioned what the women’s value as slaves would have been at the time – Herzig gives no sense of their monetary worth or the market value of slaves in seventeenth-century Livorno. We understood it was more profitable to ransom slaves than sell them to buyers. Herzig did note that those who converted to Catholicism could not be sold, and that the babies of slaves were baptised, leading mothers to either accept conversion too or else be separated from their children. This led to a discussion on the practice of appropriating children into religion at birth, which was very widespread, and of using socio-economic incentives to seek Jewish conversions to Catholicism. On this subject (but through a nineteenth-century lens), Natalie Tomas recommended the following book: The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, by David I. Kertzer.
Emily Chambers (University of Nottingham)
The next session of the reading group will be on Tuesday 23 May, 4:00pm (AEST), on the theme of Language and Translation. All ANZAMEMS members are welcome.
If you’ve missed any of the past sessions, summaries are published on the ANZAMEMS newsletter: https://www.anzamems.org/?cat=408