A Cell of their Own: The Incarceration of Women in Late Medieval Italy

A Cell of their Own: The Incarceration of Women in Late Medieval Italy

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A Cell of their Own: The Incarceration of Women in Late Medieval Italy

Guy Geltner

SignsVol. 39, No. 1 (2013)


A rare consensus among scholars working across disciplines, regions, and periods concerns women’s seemingly perennial marginality and gross under-representation in criminal processes. Explanations differ, running the gamut from women’s law-abiding nature or their superior talent for concealing crime, to a lack of motives combined with limited opportunities, to the hegemony of patriarchal, gender-biased systems skewing detection, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Whatever the case, it has shaped a common view of the prison, the cornerstone of modern penology, as “a no-woman’s-land” or, alternatively, as “no place for a lady”.

Historically, however, the relations between women’s involvement in crime and their presence and handling in prisons follow a complex pattern. Female offenders composed a small minority among inmates wherever and whenever prisons have left pertinent records, from their initial proliferation in late medieval Europe, through the early modern period, and to the present. Yet, throughout the prison’s long history, women’s marginality posed far more than a bureaucratic nuisance fostering apathy and neglect. Rather, female inmates’ presence, while modest, was often considered pernicious and at times required more resources per capita, especially when fully segregated, if similar conditions of incarceration to those of men were to be observed.

The tragic asymmetry between male and female prisoners reached a high point in the early nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. As one prison chaplain famously remarked in 1833: “To be a male convict in this prison would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death”. Historians have done much to corroborate this stock quotation, which purports to capture the impetus for the proliferation of women’s prisons in the antebellum United States as a reaction to the dire state of local penitentiaries there and following similar trends across the Atlantic. Yet what such accounts often imply is that reformers such as Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) in England and Dorothea Dix (1802–87) in the United States challenged perennial wrongs. For modern scholars tend to assume that the premodern prison, in Simona Trombetta’s words, was a “Babylon” and inmate conditions in it must have been, in the opinion of Meda Chesney-Lind, employing the ultimate pejorative, “medieval”.

See also our interview with Guy Geltner

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