Various aspects of women’s lives in the 18th century have been documented by historian Yosanne Vella, revealing so many aspects of women’s lives, including the work they did, their involvement in religion and magic, as well as their encounteres with other members of society, their crimes and when they themselves fell victims of crime. Here are six stories from real court and administrative records of the age
Women at the tail-end of Malta’s historical dominance by the Knights were not economically inactive, and registers consulted by historian Yosanne Vella reveal a considerable 199 out of some 829 shop permits, that were run by women.
Throughout the 1700s, women could be found working in wine taverns with other family members when husbands or fathers were out at sea corsairing and looting Muslim ships – licensed piracy was during this century the second most important job for the Maltese after agriculture.
But as these six stories show, far from passive members of society, women occupied many other shades of life in the kaleidoscopic society of the 18th century.
The Inquisitor’s Archives are replete with cases of women accused of sorcery, the preparation of love potions, magic perfumes or claiming to heal by magic, yet only a few cases mention specifically the ‘Devil’. In 1749 Andrea Schembri from Naxxar reported a woman had been to his house to cure his sick wife: he alleged of hearing the widow Maria Gusman whisper three times: “Devil, cure the body and take the soul”… that same year, Gusman owned up to the Inquisitor of having personally invoked the Devil as a young girl 10 years earlier.
Love potions from the Manderaggio
In another case from 1721, the two sisters Maddalena and Anna, together with their friend Catherine, confessed of having concocted a magic potion of salt, charcoal, palm leaves, olive leaves, fire and water in a bid to make them charming and attractive. They said they had made it with Grattia, a 60-year-old woman from Żebbuġ but who lived in Valletta’s Mandraġġ, who had claimed she had the approval from the Church for this potion.
In 1715, the woman Grattia Farrugia from Qormi who was known as a healer tried curing Anna Grech’s neck pain – caused by a tumour no less – by boiling olive and palm leaves with the pieces of wood from a broom, in water on a fire. She placed the mixture on Anna while recalling Christ’s Passion and the Holy Trinity. Before throwing away the liquid in the fire, she asked Anna’s aunt Francesca to look deeply in it and to see if she could see the face of anyone she knew. Grattia was warned several times to stop using her magical cures, until she was imprisoned in 1749 in the Bishop’s Court.
Women in crime
Women were naturally also implicated in crime, and displayed great skill and cunning as much as their male counterparts. Using fairly elaborate cons, one Paulica Demicoli in 1744 managed to steal various objects from Thomas Mifsud of Bormla: specifically four walking sticks, men’s and women’s silk stockings of various colours, an Indian blanket, a white embroidered sheet, 13 Maltese cotton caps, two pieces of Indian curtain and a cutting of bed hangings made of green wool.
Demicoli managed this by tricking Mifsud’s young daughter Maria by paying her a scudo to simply hand over the goods and another scudo after gaining her confidence and even claiming that a young man named Felice was interested in asking for her hand in marriage. Upon learning of the daring theft, Thomas Mifsud filed a case to fore Demicoli to return the goods she had ‘acquired’.
Victims of crime
18th century court records reveal through investigations of rape cases where female victims were treated as “fallen” women. In many cases, the rapist was often a neighbour, fiancé or a relative. Some women were persuaded into collaborating by promises of marriage, such as one Catherina Frendo, who later complained that the man had not kept his promise. Not all women agreed to marry their assailant after being raped even if he was available: one Giovanni Maria of Qormi, in 1705 told a court that he had raped Gratia Psaila knowingly, since she would be then unable to marry anyone else other than him. But Gratia refused to marry him.
Knights and mistresses
While the Order’s Knights were expected to be celibate, it was not uncommon that this elite rank entertained illicit relations with women. However, it was also true that women were wary of attracting the unwanted attention of Knights, that would have earned them social scandal. In 1723, one Maria Dwieli was approached by a Knight of the French Langue while she was praying at the altar of the church of St John in Valletta: the Knight had asked her to visit his house. Maria changed the church she frequented to avoid the Knight’s advances, but his persistence led her to file a report to the Inquisitor, fearing that her reputation would be tarnished and that this could have cost her the prospect of a good marriage.
Source: Women In 18th Century Malta, Yosanne Vella (SKS)