Early modern Genoa boasted one of the most effective systems of public assistance in Europe. Two central institutions stood at the heart of this system: the Albergo dei Poveri (the poorhouse), brilliantly studied by the late Edoardo Grendi, and the Ospedale di Pammatone, the subject of this valuable work by Cinzia Bonato, Molto più che pazienti: L’ospedale di Pammatone e la popolazione della Repubblica di Genova nel XVIII secolo. The hospital, founded in 1422 and initially dedicated primarily to women, from the end of the sixteenth century began to welcome all sick people, free of charge, and specialized in the care of foundlings. In the introduction of the work, Bonato makes clear that she intends to study the hospital as a place of exchange, using Marshall Sahlins’s reciprocity model as a theoretical framework. The institution provided jobs and medical assistance for the Genoese population, legal help to women who had been raped or abandoned, dowries for impoverished young females, and care for foundlings. At the same time, the Pammatone represented an instrument to cultivate consensus in the community: the government used it to ease social tensions, the ruling elites to cement their authority, and merchants and craftsmen to do business. However, Bonato’s ambitious intent is only partially accomplished: in reality, the focus of the book is much more specific and follows an important event in the history of the institution. In order to reduce its growing expenses, in 1759 the hospital enforced a law, originally issued in 1481, that allowed the institution to prosecute the foundlings’ fathers and the men guilty of impregnating women out of wedlock who chose the hospital to deliver their babies. The mother’s word, or even a simple anonymous report, was all that was necessary for the hospital to force the biological fathers to pay for the support of their children. This law provided women a new degree of agency and independence, since other Genoese courts charged with the protection of female rights required that all legal procedures had to be initiated by a male relative of the plaintiff. The enforcement of the law triggered a flow of legal documents that are central to Bonato’s study, which focuses therefore on the second half of the eighteenth century. Through the analysis of 1,749 legal procedures, including 4,142 people mainly involved in cases of illegitimate births, the author identifies the socio-professional groups who took advantage of the hospital’s services, the reasons they sought assistance, and the variations in their interaction with the institution. This focus on professional categories, prominent also in Edoardo Grendi’s work, is essential to Bonato’s attempt to reconstruct variations in social behaviors. While the first part of the book is a short introduction to the institutional history of the Pammatone, the second part is a quantitative analysis of the data and a discussion of a series of case studies. In the most significant and compelling section of her work, Bonato examines the women of the three main occupational groups she identifies—servants, textile workers, and agricultural laborers—to understand how differently they reacted to the enforcement of the law of 1759. Bonato argues that the news of the increased jurisdictional power of the hospital spread at different speeds depending on the women’s family and professional networks. Female servants usually lacked a family network and were more vulnerable to sexual violence, frequently at the hands of their employer or one of his family members. However, because of weak family supervision, servants were able to pursue new friendships and create an autonomous network while also being exposed to new rumors and gossip. By the late 1760s, female servants became some of the first women to take advantage of the hospital’s service. Female textile workers, meanwhile, whose networks were usually limited to family and neighbors, arrived at the gate of the Pammatone ten years later, and agricultural laborers, who lived in tighter and more isolated rural communities, did not seek the help of the hospital until the late 1770s. Bonato demonstrates how the enforcement of the law and the success of the hospital in advertising its new jurisdiction among the women of the lower strata played a significant role in reducing the number of foundlings in Genoa in the second half of the eighteenth century, while during the same period, illegitimacy rates were increasing all over Europe. At the end of part II the author devotes an interesting chapter to the complex relationships between the foundlings, their adoptive families, and the hospital, while in the last section of the monograph she briefly discusses the jurisdictional tensions between the Pammatone and the other courts of justice in charge of similar cases. The book would have benefited from some additional refinements, including eliminating frequent repetitions and improving the organization of its arguments. A more structured introductory chapter briefly discussing the general lines of Genoese politics and society, the organization of the courts of law in the eighteenth century, and the role of the Pammatone within the system of public assistance, would have provided the reader with a useful broader context for the dynamics examined in the study. Still, Bonato has turned out an excellent work that has much to offer, not only to scholars who specialize in the history of public assistance, but also to all social and gender historians. Her study is complex and thought provoking and, through a rigorous analysis of the archival sources, sheds new light on the lives and behaviors of families and individuals in early modern Genoa. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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