High time we debunk the stereotyped images of Maltese women of the past

Historian Yosanne Vella says the women she finds in 18th century registers and documents are not just the gentle women Favray portrays in The Visit but women engaged in paid labour, self-employment, and often falling foul of the law

Yosanne Vella
1 July 2016, 8:06am
Maltese gentildonne as portrayed by French artist Antoine de Favray
Maltese gentildonne as portrayed by French artist Antoine de Favray
Women in Malta have been cast as the stereotypical, well-behaved loving mother or wife.

In many cases they have been exactly not that.

For the past 20 years I have published a number of papers on women in Malta in the 18th century and I have now reached a stage where I think I can look back and share some conclusions: hundreds of these women got into all sorts of trouble, almost equally to the number of men at the time.

At the start of my research I had suspected that there was truth behind the stereotypes of Maltese women past and present: the good, well-behaved religious wife and mother who did not venture far from home. 

If anything, some history sources coming from the 18th century confirm this image of Maltese women living in Malta 300 years ago. Antoine Favray, the 18th century French painter living at the time in Malta, displayed in his painting ‘The Visit’ beautiful gentle ladies in a domestic setting, their lives centred solely on being mothers and wives, meeting occasionally to chat amicably with other women in a loving and caring environment.

But this is a painting, not a photograph. We will never know how much artistic licence Favray used. Sources like Agius De Soldanis reported conversations between high-class women and conversations by peasant and village women and these also display quite endearing female chats on husbands and children. But were they real or a figment of De Soldanis’s imagination? When men exit the scene the women’s conversation can be quite different than when they are around – where was this librarian cleric hiding when these conversations supposedly took place?

"It is high time the stereotyped images of Maltese women in the past are debunked. Naturally gender is socially constructed and there is no way these women were not also part of their society’s gender construct"
After several publications based on hours of work on 18th century manuscripts and documents, I have come to know hundreds of women quite intimately and – to quote Bette Davis in the classic All about Eve – fasten your seat belts, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Criminal reports and court proceedings of the 18th century contain a large number of women, almost equal to the number of men getting into all sorts of trouble. Although their own legal rights were limited, women, regardless of marital status, could be sued in the same way as men.

Court records show that women were sued in civil law in such matters as the non-payment of debts and illicit gambling in their taverns. Accusations against women both from Valletta and the villages included those of abusive and blasphemous conduct, drunkenness, theft offences, molesting, fighting and beating up people. Punishments took the form of fines, warnings as well as imprisonment, incarceration in a conservatorio and even exile to Gozo.

A frequent charge brought against these women was theft. Women were charged not only with petty thefts, mainly foodstuffs, household goods and clothing but also with stealing gold, silver and jewellery. Many women worked as servants and this provided a good opportunity to steal in an unperceived way. When it came to robbing and stealing women at times worked with accomplices. 

In 1794 Joannes Mamo of Valletta found the doors of his house open and on entering his dining room found various silverware missing. A neighbour told how she had seen a man dressed in white and two women open and enter Mamo’s house. Later on, Caruana, a Valletta jeweller recalled how two women had tried to sell him two silver posate.

Some women, like Maria Schembri, behaved in a disorderly way after drinking too heavily. In 1793 she was accused of punching Fidele Giordomaina in the face while in a drunken stupor. Juliano Tarchi, an Italian buonavoglia, was stabbed with a knife by Rosa Bugeja in 1715, after he had touched her face and arms in a joking manner. She was detained in prison for 20 days.

"There are various cases of incidents where Maltese women were brought in front of the Maltese Inquisitor’s tribunal accused of dabbling in the occult"
One particularly vicious fight occurred in 1738 between Teresa Borg and Maria Guliermo. It all started when Teresa remarked that Maria’s six-year-old son was a bastard. Teresa went shouting and banging on Maria’s door. Maria and her mother came out and a vicious fight occurred, with the mother being pushed to the ground and Teresa being bitten by Maria.

Some women disturbed the neighbourhood so much that they were evicted from their house. This happened to Liberata Vassallo from Valletta in 1781. She lived in Strada Stretta and her house faced one of the windows of a hall of the Sacra Infermeria. The Principal of the hospital complained that Liberata and her women friends were disturbing the sick with their noise, singing, shouting, dances and scandals.

Victims of crime

Of course women were not just troublemakers but also victims of crime, especially violent crime. Some women were appallingly injured; they suffered broken bones, knife wounds and severe bruising; some were hit on the head with furniture, others were whipped, thrown to the floor or bashed against the wall. Women were attacked by relatives, neighbours and sometimes by strangers, the attackers tended to be male but at times women could also fall victim to physical attacks by other women.

There is an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity in these 300-year-old cases, unfortunately not too dissimilar cases that still make the headlines today. It is not difficult to recognise similar women victims in our own societies and other societies around the world. However, these women showed they were definitely not passive victims, but women who took their aggressors to court, and were willing to risk social stigma and seek justice.

There is an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity in these 300-year-old cases, unfortunately not too dissimilar cases that still make the headlines today I’m left in awe with their actions and their heroic everyday struggles are inspiring. Women like Maria Ottaviano in 1798 and the jewellery shop owner Maria Caruana who started the legal proceedings against the thieves who had stolen their money or goods. It certainly took courage for women like Felicita Zammit in 1792 and Catharina Bonare in 1714 to accuse their husbands – or in Rosa Pierri’s case in 1745 her lover – of beating them. And one especially appreciates the risk that prostitute Maria Mizzi took in 1715 when she started a court case against a dangerous man, Albimo Vassallo, who solicited clients for sex. It was also brave of several raped women who reported their attackers and one cannot not admire the audacity of Gratia Psaila (1705) who refused the option of marrying her assailant.

Antoine de Favray’s ‘The Visit’, confirming a stereotypical view of Maltese women in the 18th century, but Yosanne Vella’s research shows that women of the time were not just confined to their homes and parlours
Antoine de Favray’s ‘The Visit’, confirming a stereotypical view of Maltese women in the 18th century, but Yosanne Vella’s research shows that women of the time were not just confined to their homes and parlours
Women in business

Another myth I think needs shattering is that about women not working outside the home. One of the main strengths of Malta’s economy in the 18th century was agriculture. This was one area where women were employed, working on family farms as daughters and wives but also in paid labour. 

Paid work in agriculture for either men or women was not a typical arrangement for 18th century Malta; but a register I found proves that women did in fact do this type of work. This register shows a list of labourers employed at Marsa to work in fields owned by the state, that is, by the Order of the Knights of St John, in the period August 31st, 1771, to May 7th, 1774. It contains information on the weekly wages paid to the employees. 

About a quarter of the labourers were female, grouped together at the bottom under the heading “women”. From their surnames one can only conclude that a number of the male workers must have been related to the female workers, and in all probability were their husbands. Unfortunately the work they did is not specified but here you have a clear case of working married women.

As in other European countries, textile production was particularly demanding of female labour. There are various examples in the records of Maltese women who were cotton spinners or weavers, or who worked in the cotton business. In 1786, Maria Lafortuna quarrelled with Grazia Micallef, who lived near the staircase upon the bastions of Marsamxett over the payment for cotton. Maria Lafortuna had apparently given Grazia two rotolos of cotton to work for her and she gave her 14 tari in advance.

Grazia must have been a spinner and this shows that even in Valletta women must have engaged in spinning on behalf of other people. It is also interesting to note that Grazia was in the employment of another woman.

Women were also frequently shop-owners. The records reveal a number of women complaining throughout the eighteenth century that somebody had damaged their shop or that their shop had been broken into and robbed. Maria Camilleri declared in 1796 that “I have a grocer shop” and she reported that it had been “robbed”. Further evidence of women shop-owners in an 18th century manuscript shows lists of shop-owners’ licences. This register was issued by the authorities for the keeping of shops in the period 1788-1796. It is subdivided into sections and out of the 829 permits in the register, women were directly involved in 199 (24%) of the cases. Women owned businesses in partnership or alone in cotton production, haberdashery, coffee shops, delicatessen dealing, millers and taverns.

 

The holy and the profane

Women can even be found the highly influential dimension of the Roman Catholic faith and its values in Malta. One way women could attain religious status was to join religious orders and become a nun. Religious life for Maltese women was also possible when they did not take monastic vows yet chose to live ascetic lives as lay sisters or members of Tertiary Orders, sometimes referred to in Maltese as Bizoche.

One such woman, mentioned by De Soldanis, was Teresa Muscat. In order to follow the wishes of her brother and her parents, she married Francesco Cagniolo in the parish of Attard in 1681. Soldanis relates that, despite the good example of his wife, her husband led a loose life and left her a widow after just a few years. The widowed Teresa took the dress of St Francis and accompanied by two bizoche tertiary sisters, Sister Giacoba and Sister Rosa tal-Ktell, she dedicated her life to penance and solitude. Soldanis notes that she was always to be seen alone or in the company of the bizoche.

On the other hand in 18th century Malta, the belief in magic and its power was fairly widespread and Christianity never succeeded in uprooting it entirely. There are various cases of incidents where Maltese women were brought in front of the Maltese Inquisitor’s tribunal accused of dabbling in the occult. This is how women fared in a strong Catholic society, in these two very different trajectories where women enter religious life, and the other where women use magic as part of religious ritual.

Several cases of women from the Inquisitors’ archives previously unrecorded by other historians include, to cite just one example in 1710, Beatrice, who was married to a Neapolitan, and threw a paper packet in the face of a Maltese woman. This packet was found to contain white powder, olive twigs and birds’ feathers.

Beatrice did this to put a curse on her victim’s family after the other woman’s brother, Francesco, a barber, had ended his love affair with her and was about to marry a certain Elizabetta. In an example from 1721, two sisters, Maddalena and Anna, together with their friend Catharina, stated in confession that they had collaborated with an older woman, Grattia, in the making of a magic potion with salt, charcoal, palm leaves, olive leaves, fire and water. This mixture was supposed to make them charming and attractive. 

In such instances women were not rejecting religion in favour of magic, but rather folk beliefs and superstitions were being incorporated into religious beliefs and rituals. Like two faces of the same coin, both religion and magic appealed to women because they could offer an alternative to the limited mother/wife role imposed on them by their society. Both these roles were alternatives to traditional gendered roles of women and in fact in some ways served to empower women.

I find my 18th century women fascinating and it is high time the stereotyped images of Maltese women in the past are debunked. Naturally gender is socially constructed and there is no way these women were not also part of their society’s gender construct; similarly even today women like myself also behave and act within the accepted gender role assigned to us by our society.

I’m sure there is truth in the romanticised paintings and recorded conversations of 18th century men about women. But irrespective of what society dictates about women’s roles and behaviour, the personalities and characters I encountered manage to shine through. 

Yosanne Vella is a historian. Her latest publication on women’s education in 18th century Malta is published in the Sacra Militia: The Journal of the History of the Order of St John, issue 12

Prof. Yosanne Vella is an Associate Professor at the More from Yosanne Vella