EMoDiR Panel at the Sixteenth Century Society Conference (16-19 October 2014, New Orleans)


sex, food, religious identity:

defining social boundaries in early modern europe


Proponents: Dr. Stefano Villani, University of Maryland, College Park; Dr. Federico Barbierato, University of Verona (EMoDiR-Research Group in Early Modern Religious Dissents & Radicalism)

Chair: Prof. Philip Soergel, University of Maryland, College Park


The aim of this panel is to examine the early modern discursive constructions of religious dissent in Europe, looking particularly at regulation of food ways and social control over sexuality. Christian and Jewish regulations on food and sexual behaviors are modes to define religious boundaries. Examining such regulation and their transgression, whether deliberate or unintentional, permits us to investigate early modern socio-cultural identities.


  • Bernard Cooperman (University of Maryland, College Park): Religious Identity and Food Regulation in the Early Modern Ghetto.

Discussion of Jewish food regulation usually focuses on the religious boundaries between Jews and their neighbors, between kosher and non-kosher food and thus on the limits to sociability between the minority and majority. At the extreme, food has been presented by historians as the zone of taboo, uniquely subject to defilement by contact from "the other." But Jews regulated the type and amount of food to be consumed in order to express other divisions as well. Within the Jewish community itself, food could delineate class, ethnicity and propriety. Communal authority and religious norms of piety were also articulated by food laws. Food could express mundane friendship and food could be read as a symbolic vehicle giving expression to the otherwise mystically ineffable. In this paper, I will concentrate on cases drawn from Italian Jewish sumptuary laws, rabbinic responses, and volumes of religious guidance to explore the ways in which food became the bearer of multiple values among early modern Jews in Italy. “


  • Federico Barbierato (University of Verona): The Libertine and the Inquisitor: Sexual freedom and Heterodoxy in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century Venice.  

In Catholic countries during the early modern period, the heterodox discourse lingered on the sexual question as one of its most frequent motifs. Ecclesiastical restrictions, perceived as bonds to natural law, were challenged on many points, each based more or less on some theoretical foundation. The result was a widespread climate in which the possibility of sexual sin was denied, or at least its importance drastically reduced. On the opposite front, the Church went so far as to label any public manifestation of an inhibited sexuality as an attack on orthodoxy. With ever increasing loudness, between the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the clergy came to be considered as a social group that, via the phantoms of afterlife prize or punishment, kept society running on tightly controlled rails. The paper will aim at reconstructing the way in which, in early modern Venice, discourses concerning sexual liberty and the claim for free sexuality were to be found at all ranks of society and represented on of the Holy Office’s major reasons for concern.


  • Tamar Herzig (Tel Aviv University): Sex Crimes and Forced Conversion in Northern Italy

Drawing on recently discovered documentary evidence, this paper explores the double conversion of Angelo di Vitale and Salomone da Sasso, who were arrested in Mantua and Ferrara respectively in 1491, and agreed to be baptized in order to save their lives. The paper reconstructs the vicissitudes leading to the conversion of these two Jewish men and their entire families. Angelo had been denounced by his coreligionists in Mantua, and confessed under torture to having had sexual relations with a Christian woman. His relative, the renowned goldsmith Salomone, was also incriminated by Jews, and was convicted of sodomy in Ferrara only a few weeks later. I will analyze the opposite views, expressed by the marquis of Mantua and the Duke of Ferrara, who corresponded about the usefulness of pardoning these convicted offenders in return for their conversion. The last part of the paper will trace the fate of the neophytes and their children in the early sixteenth century, focusing on the daughters of Salomone da Sasso. I propose that the profession, in 1501, of one of these daughters in a new Dominican convent built by Duke Ercole d'Este (d. 1505) formed part of her father's attempts to construct a new identity as a zealous Christian, and to cleanse his reputation following his incrimination for sexual misconduct. Notwithstanding these efforts, a letter noting that three of Salomone's other daughter were still unmarried in 1521 attests to the infamy that continued to be associated with the family thirty years after the goldsmith's conversion. “Per quello che si dice, vogliono mangiare carne i venerdì et sabati” (‘From what they say, they want to eat meat on Fridays and Saturdays’).


  • Stefano Villani (University of Maryland, College Park): Unintentional Dissent: Heterodox Behaviors and Religious Identity among Protestant Converts in Early Modern Livorno.

Livorno, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in early modern Mediterranean, has been the background of many conversions to Catholicism by Protestant foreigners. Often the choice to convert reflected, more than the final result of a religious internal struggle, just the desire to fit in, following the decision to live forever in Italy. One of the heretical tenants that Protestants were asked to recant when converting was the notion that it was no “sin to eat meat on days prohibited by the Church.” The observance or transgression of holy days of precept, contributed visibly, because of its symbolic value, to defining identity boundaries between the Protestant and the Catholic world. Based on a systematic study of abjurations and on trials of the Holy Office of Pisa and Livorno, this paper will consider the expression of unintentional dissent by these new converts, dissent that often manifested itself in unorthodox attitudes such as eating meat on prohibited days.


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