A Murderous Marriage – Women in 17th Century Naples – Guest author Deborah Swift

May 17, 2021 3:35 pm by

Welcome to guest author Deborah Swift, who writes here about her new book The Poison Keeper. Over to you, Deborah!

My main character Giulia Tofana was supposed to have caused the deaths of 600 men in 17th Century Italy. To find out why, I had to research women’s lives at the time and find out the forces that might lie behind such a crime. Here are some things I discovered about women’s lives that led me to realize they were constrained in very particular ways by the patriarchal city in which they lived.

The contract of Marriage

Marriage was all about joining two families for successful political or monetary advantage. Because dowries were competitive, it was in a father’s interest to provide the best dowry possible, because marriage partners were chosen for their assets in terms of wealth and land. Marriage not only reflected order, it was supposedly a civilizing influence and an institution on which the whole of Neapolitan society rested. A possible union between the two parties was set up many years before the actual wedding, and often by a professional broker. The agreements between the two families were put into a written document until the bride reached puberty, and until the required dowry could be saved. Dowries consisted of goods such as elaborate and costly clothing, gold bullion and jewellery as well as items of furniture. Some wealthy families also donated dowries for poor girls who had no hope of marriage without their help.

It was customary for the groom’s parents to provide furnishings and works of art for the new couple’s bedroom – the bed, clothing chests, cupboards, religious paintings and mirrors.

Too many daughters

At this time, retaining the family estate was the most important thing for any aristocratic, or aspiring family. In order that the family wealth should not be divided, sometimes only one daughter could be dowered. Despite the lack of any kind of reliable birth control, too many daughters was considered a great misfortune, and the dower box would be assigned to only one daughter, usually the eldest.

The Youthful Bride

Brides were often much younger than grooms. Girls as young as twelve or fourteen were often married to men in their thirties, or even older if the husband had already been married before. This was because a girl’s youth would ensure her virginity, and this was vital to ensure a blood succession. The difference in age between man and wife meant that it was hard to build any sort of equal relationship, and the girls were often horrifically abused. Young men on the other hand were free to be promiscuous, to visit prostitutes or courtesans, the wife’s only duty being to produce an heir.

Marriage or the wall

There were few choices open to women in this era. A popular phrase was – Marriage or The Wall, the Wall being a convent. There were many convents in Italy populated with society’s unwanted daughters. For some women, convent life was preferable to marriage to an old and unpleasant husband; for others they chafed against the restrictions of nunnery life and the fact they were locked away against their will.

Nunneries were places were some learning could go on, and many nuns wrote letters, translated scriptures, and kept a keen interest in the new Theology coming from the Counter Reformation.

Merry Widows

The best chance for autonomy for a woman was to be a widow. There were many widows in Italy at this time, partly because of the fact the husbands were so much older so the wife usually survived them. She would then be financially independent, and could choose to re-marry, or if beyond child-bearing age to carry on her husband’s business, or her own.

It is scant wonder then that in this climate there was a demand for ‘inheritance powders’ – something that would hasten the husband’s end – particularly so in households where young women had little freedom and were treated badly by their spouses. Society at this time was a violent one, beating one’s wife was considered a good way to get her to fulfil her marital vow of obedience.

In this society it is easy to see how the profession of ‘poison keeper’ arose and why women were so determined to keep it secret from their husbands.

Thank you Charlotte, for hosting my guest post.

Find Deborah on Twitter @swiftstory or on her website www.deborahswift.com

The Poison Keeper : BUY THE BOOK or read with KindleUnlimited subscription

Thank you for a fascinating post, Deborah!

Read my review of The Poison Keeper here

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