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She Said, He Said: Situated Oralities in Judicial Records from Early Modern Rome

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Abstract In practice, early modern culture was for most Europeans more oral than written. Yet spoken words, especially those of ordinary people, are, for scholars, tantalizingly elusive. Testimonies, recorded verbatim, in judicial proceedings for the city of Rome and other Italian jurisdictions offer rich repositories of oral expression uttered by women and men of diverse ages and social positions. Yet to explore these documents as terrains of speech and oral culture, we must attend closely to the processes by which these words were assembled and transcribed. Everyday talk that we hear in the trials was deeply situated: in the intricate hybridity of oral/written cultures that characterized much of the early modern world; in the layered oral and written formats of judicial process; and in the social and gendered circumstances of the speakers. These frames shaped the orality that we see in the trials, but did not obliterate individual agency in speech.

1. FN11 Elizabeth Cohen, “Between Oral and Written Culture: The Social Meaning of an Illustrated Love Letter,” in Culture and Identity in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800): Essays in Honor of Natalie Zemon Davis, ed. B. Diefendorf and C. Hesse (Ann Arbor, 1993), 181-201. The trial is found in the Archivio di Stato di Roma, Tribunale criminale del Governatore, Processi, xvii secolo, busta 18 (1602), ff. 715-40; the letter, ff. 718r-v. About the archival series and citations, see note 18.
2. FN22 Archival doodles, and erotic ones in particular, have come recently to scholarly notice. For early Italian examples and bibliography, see Guido Guerzoni, “The Erotic Fantasies of a Model Clerk: Amateur Pornography at the Beginning of the Cinquecento,” in Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy, ed. S. Matthews-Grieco (Burlington, VT, 2010), 61-88. For a medieval Provençal instance, see Steven Bednarski, “Aux marges de la justice: Les marges décorées des registres provençaux du XIVe siècle,” Provence historique t. 49, f. 235 (2009), 12-13.
3. FN33 Testimonies conflict on the details, but Giovanantonio delivered at least one other letter to Margarita. In her testimony, Margarita claimed to have consulted Christofara, a family friend who was staying in the house in loco matris since her mother had been out of town when the first letter arrived. Christofara then suggested that the girl have it read by the brassmaker. Apparently, any earlier letters lacked the provocative embellishments that launched this trial. Processi, xvii secolo, busta 18, ff. 721v-22, 726-27v.
4. FN44 Here I digest from the classic contributions of Michel Clanchy, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Peter Burke, Jack Goody, Roger Chartier, and others. In addition to works cited in the Introduction to this issue, see M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, England 1066-1307 (Cambridge, 1979); Jack Goody, The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, 1987); Roger Chartier, The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France (Princeton, 1987).
5. FN55 To include the visual languages of pictures, rendered in various media, would yield a fuller view, but that is beyond my reach here.
6. FN66 Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, 1982). Peter Burke brought early attention to vernacular languages and their uses in early modern Italy: Historical Anthropology in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge, 1987).
7. FN77 On soundscapes, Alain Corbin, Village Bells. Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth Century French Countryside (New York, 1998); Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the “O” Factor (Chicago, 1999); Flora Dennis, “Sound and Domestic Space in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Italy,” Studies in the Decorative Arts 16 (2008-2009): 7-19; also “Resurrecting Forgotten Sound: Fans and Handbells in Early Modern Italy,” in Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and Its Meanings, ed. T. Hamling and C. Richardson (Burlington, VT, 2010).
8. FN88 Elizabeth Horodowich, “Body Politics and the Tongue in Sixteenth-Century Venice,” in The Body in Early Modern Italy, ed. J. Hairston and W. Stephens (Baltimore, 2010), 195-209. On broader cultural resonances of the tongue as body part, see Carla Mazzio, “Sins of the Tongue,” in The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporality in Early Modern Europe, ed. D. Hillman and C. Mazzio (New York, 1997), 52-79.
9. FN99 Peter Burke, “The Language of Gesture in Early Modern Italy,” in A Cultural History of Gesture, ed. J. Bremmer and H. Roodenburg (Cambridge, 1992), 71-83; Angus Trumble, A Brief History of the Smile (New York, 2004).
10. FN1010 For example, in Venice, trades and even neighborhoods had distinctive dialects; see Robert C. Davis, Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal: Workers and Workplace in the Preindustrial City (Baltimore, 1991), 89.
11. FN1111 On the interactions of oral and written in the case of popular religious prophecy, Ottavia Niccoli, “Manoscritti, oralità, stampe popolari: Viaggi dei testi profetici nell’ Italia del Rinascimento,” Italian Studies 66 (2011): 177-92.
12. FN1212 Examples from the Roman street: Processi, xvi secolo, busta 256 (1592), “non stettero un detto d’un Ave Maria”; busta 311 (1598), f. 125, “poteva essere doi credi, ch’io ero arrivato li.” Processi, xvi secolo, busta 309 (1598), f. 315v: one man used the same measure to describe the duration of his sexual arousal: “‘io gle l’ tenni puntato adosso et ritto p. spatio de un credo.” In judicial minutes, torture sessions were often measured by prayer lengths: Processi, xvi secolo, busta 31 (1557), f. 448v; busta 75 (1561), f. 54; Processi, xvii secolo, busta 28bis (1603), f. 540v.
13. FN1313 Guido Ruggiero, Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power (New York, 1993), 99-107; Thomas Cohen and Elizabeth Cohen, Words and Deeds in Renaissance Rome: Trials Before the Papal Magistrates (Toronto, 1993), 189-99.
14. FN1414 Pietro Trifone, Rinascimento dal basso. Il nuovo spazio del volgare tra Quattrocento e Cinquecento (Rome, 2006); on language and social position, see chapter 5. See also, Pietro Trifone, Storia linguistica di Roma (Rome, 2008). Maurizio Trifone, Lingua e società nella Roma rinascimentale (Florence, 1999), vol. 1, publishes a corpus of Quattrocento and early Cinquecento Roman texts that underpin these analyses.
15. FN1515 Molly Bourne, “Mail Humour and Male Sociability: Sexual Innuendo in the Epistolary Domain of Francesco II Gonzaga,” in Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy, ed. S. Matthews-Grieco (Burlington, VT, 2010), 206-10.
16. FN1616 See Allen Grieco, “From Roosters to Cocks: Italian Renaissance Fowl and Sexuality,” in Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy (2010), 91-93.
17. FN1717 Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (New York, 1985); The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller (Baltimore, 1980). In “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method (Baltimore, 1989), 96-125, Ginzburg describes a methodological construct with potential utility for hunting the oral in written texts; as defined, “clues” are distinctive, sometimes discordant, small patterns of expression that stand out from a work’s less exceptional background.
18. FN1818 These materials are held at the Archivio di Stato di Roma, Tribunale criminale del Governatore, in several series. The Processi, trials for information, are inventoried in series by century. In addition to the trial records proper, two other series, Investigazioni and Costituti, contain complaints and records of preliminary interrogations. Many of the entries in the Investigazioni and Costituti involve fairly minor offenses, including local squabbling without serious violence or bloodletting, that would have been dealt with by summary decisions rather than full-fledged trials. Consequently, these series deliver much everyday talk, of certain sorts, and supply many of the examples for this essay. None of these series include either legal arguments about the evidence or sentences. All citations here are by series, volume, busta, and folio. On the institutions and practices of papal justice, see Irene Fosi, Papal Justice: Subjects and Courts in the Papal State, 1500-1750 (Washington, D.C., 2011).
19. FN1919 In a singular and unusually fruitful example, Trifone, Rinascimento dal basso, chapter 7, studies a Roman witchcraft trial from before 1540. A comparison between the scribal record and a very rare confession evidently written by the witch herself forms the basis for a detailed analysis of socially inflected Roman vernacular. Although these records date fifty years earlier than most of my texts, some of the words and “unorthodox” spellings that appear in Trifone’s glossary are familiar in the later documents.
20. FN2020 For example, Thomas Kuehn, “Reading Microhistory: The Example of Giovanni and Lusanna,” Journal of Modern History 61 (1989): 512-34; also, “Understanding Gender Inequality in Renaissance Florence: Personhood and Gifts of Maternal Inheritance by Women,” Journal of Women’s History 8 (1996): 58-80.
21. FN2121 For some interesting thoughts on truth speaking, dissimulation, and sincerity in judicial and other contexts, see John Martin, Myths of Renaissance Individualism (Houndsmills, UK, 2004).
22. FN2222 Words uttered under torture constitute a special category of judicial orality; for examples transcribed and translated, see Cohen and Cohen, Words and Deeds, 121-23, 231-32. In Rome, the most common form of judicial torture was the corda in which the witness was suspended on a rope from his, or more rarely her, arms bound behind the back. Legal rules specified that torture should not be applied where it would cause permanent damage, including to pregnant women.
23. FN2323 On notaries, see Laurie Nussdorfer, Brokers of the Public Trust: Notaries in Early Modern Rome (Baltimore, 2009).
24. FN2424 In addition to transcription errors, the testimonies incorporate patterned variants of spelling for the vernacular that specialists might associate with different dialects. For example, some scribes write the “correct” “mangiare,” while others use the romanesco “magnare.” These habits appear to belong, more than to the witnesses, to the notaries themselves drawn from diverse locales. How much notaries also standardized wordings is an interesting question.
25. FN2525 For example, Processi, xvi secolo, busta 48 (1559), f. 665.
26. FN2626 Processi, xvi secolo, busta 309 (1598), f. 301, “che volete che io sappia io, e alta quanto questo camino desegnans altitudinem signi camine quinq. palme in ca.”
27. FN2727 Trifone, Storia linguistica di Roma, 35-59.
28. FN2828 Elizabeth Cohen, “Back Talk: Two Prostitutes’ Voices from Rome c. 1600,” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2 (2007): 116.
29. FN2929 Concerning language, see Thomas Cohen, “Three Forms of Jeopardy: Honor, Pain, and Truth-Telling in a Sixteenth-Century Italian Courtroom,” Sixteenth Century Journal 29 (1998): 975-98. Spaniards and Sicilians were often associated. On the other hand, regional identities could also appear quite vague; one woman from central Italy described a peer, “una mia commadre, chiamata Giovanna, che non so si e fiamenga o romana, che faceva la lavandara”: Costituti 567 (1606), f. 95.
30. FN3030 The Brescians: Processi, xvii secolo, busta 36 (1604), f. 213v. The woman servant: Processi, busta 25 (1603), ff. 440v, 455v, 456, 459, 462; all agreed on a northern accent, though some suggested lombardo or piamontese, while others guessed bolognese. Language identification was not an exact science.
31. FN3131 Investigazioni 351 (1605), f. 64v; for romanesco, see also Processi, busta 26 (1603), f. 156.
32. FN3232 Processi, xvii secolo, busta 57 (1607), f. 974 “dovete sapere”; Costituti 567 (1606), f. 58, “Io dirro a V[ostra] S[ignoria] liberamente quanto passo.”
33. FN3333 Processi, xvii secolo, busta 35 (1604), f. 231v “Io non so ne mi posso imaginare la causa per la quale io sia stato preso.” The word “imagine” followed the form in which the question was often posed.
34. FN3434 Processi, xvii secolo, busta 116 (1613), f. 71v, “VS faccia quelch’ vuole, ch’io potrei pensare mille anni, che io non me ne posso racordare et non posso dirgli altro.” I thank John Christopoulos for this reference. With similar talk of big numbers, a woman told the court, “se cento volte me la mostrate non la recognoscera mai (if you show me 100 times, I’ll never recognize it)”: Processi, xvi secolo, busta 256 (1592), f. 548.
35. FN3535 Processi, xvii secolo, busta 57 (1607), f. 978v, “per questa mano battizzata tangens manum ludius? io non ci e mesi niente ne polvere ne altro sopra l’orzilla ma questo è una persecutione che me fanno detto Pacino e Venantio.”
36. FN3636 Costituti 506 (1601), f. 20v, “non posso dir altro et li testmonii ne Lazzaro istesso dirra altrimente.” Defending the truth of her testimony, another woman, a prostitute, swore “per la croce di Christo” and invoked jeopardy, “Dio mi abrugi” and “che S. Antonio me possa abrugiar”: Costituti 597 (1609), f. 13v, 15.
37. FN3737 Processi, xvii secolo, busta 311 (1598), f. 127; another example, Costituti 567 (1606), f. 58. The multiple idioms using parole to mean “spoken words” index the importance and complexity of oral communication in ordinary social life. To have “words” with someone may indicate a relationship of amity or of enmity. Not to have words with someone indicates strained relations.
38. FN3838 For example, Processi, xvii secolo, busta 28bis (1603), f. 526v; busta 85 (1610), f. 416.
39. FN3939 Investigazioni 353, ff. 59r-v (May 1605). Ludovico, a rosary-maker, said “che vuol dire che voi havete gridato in casa mia con le mie donne, et colui [the other man] risposi si che ho gridato perche hier sera mi fu bussato alla porta, et il rumore credo che venga da casa vostra, et Ludovico rispose, da casa mia non vien romore, et lui rispose, basta da casa tua viene il bordello, et Ludovico gli rispose, tu non dici il vero, et colui li volto la schina dicendo, basta ci reparlaremo, et se ne ando via.” The words of this exchange track the rising animus between the two speakers: from the more polite “vostra” to the familiar “tua,” from “rumore” to “il bordello.” The repetition of “basta” also expresses anger. Nonetheless, this time the two combatants break the progression, as the second man, by turning his back, gestures a withdrawal, but promises a future reprise.
40. FN4040 Elizabeth Cohen, “To Pray, To Work, To Hear, To Speak: Women in Roman Streets c. 1600,” Journal of Early Modern History 12 (2008): 289-311.
41. FN4141 Investigazioni 353, ff. 55r-v.
42. FN4242 Investigazioni 353, f. 63v (June 1605), “che viene in casa mia spesso a portarmi delle nove, et cosi me disse, non sai madonna Martha questi del Longarello gridano con madonna Dorothea et li fanno il bordello alla porta et gli dicono bocca de ravioli.” These testimonies come after the dispute between Ludovico the rosary-maker, nicknamed Longarello, and Pompeo has escalated into a house-scorning. Ravioli was a prized dish; I do not know why “ravioli mouth” would be an insult.
43. FN4343 Ibid., “cosi io gli dissi che havevano torto a farli queste cose perche madonna Dorothea era persona quieta, et da bene et faceva servitio a tutt’il vicinato, et che di lei non se ne poteva dir male et detta Lucia va sempre per le strade et per le case di altri sapendo le novelle che e mala lengua anzi che io l’ho dato licenza da casa mia con dirla che io non voglio ciarlare per casa.”
44. FN4444 For example, a neighbor gives oral instructions to a barber on how to distill olio di solfo: Processi, xvi secolo, busta 257 (1592), ff. 208r-v.
45. FN4545 Investigazioni 353, f. 64.
46. FN4646 Ibid., ff. 64r-v “io ve dico la verita et se madonna Marta dice il contrario dice la bugia.” After hearing Marta’s testimony read out: “ve dico che quello che lei dice non e vero perche io non li ho detto tal cosa et non so perche se faccia questo”; when pressed again, “Io vi replico che io voglio l’anima mia per me et se lei lo dice se ne mente per la gola perche io non li ho detto tal cosa perche non lo so.” Another woman invokes her soul: Processi, xvii secolo, busta 12 (1601), ff. 947v-48. With a parallel logic, a coachman’s wife testified, “se non fusse il vero non lo direi che essendo io gravida come sono non farei giurimento falso”: Processi, xvi secolo, busta 256 (1592), f. 553v.
47. FN4747 Processi, xvi secolo, busta 256 (1592), f. 544v; Processi, xvii secolo, busta 35 (1604), f. 232v; Investigazioni 383 (1608), f. 35.
48. FN4848 Ong, Orality and Literacy, 37-57, drawing here on studies of living oral practitioners, offers a suggestive list of traits characterizing expression in an oral culture (sequence altered by me): additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic; redundant; conservative; close to human lifeworld; situational rather than abstract; agonistically toned; empathetic rather than objectively distancing. While I cannot systematically test these categories against the trial testimonies, it is worth noting resonances with some features of the Roman texts.
49. FN4949 Processi, xvi secolo, busta 311 (1598), f. 125v; xvii secolo, busta 36 (1604), f. 27v.
50. FN5050 Processi, xvi secolo, busta 311 (1598), ff. 130v, 131; Costituti 593 (1608), f. 17v; Investigazioni 389 (1610), f. 157v. Processi, xvii secolo, busta 23 (1603), f. 194; Investigazioni 383 (1608), f. 114v. For the use of doubling in a ribald letter, see Bourne, “Mail Humour and Male Sociability,” Italian transcription, 217, n. 26.
51. FN5151 Investigazioni 383 (1608), f. 102v. A soldier, removing some smoldering manure from beside a wall near Piazza Padella, said this to a woman who accosted him, “et me disse messer Felippo, havete del fame, et replicando io che havevo del fumo, perche ‘chi ha il mal vecino ha il mal matino’.” Curses: Investigazioni 384 (1608-1609), f. 138v; Investigazioni 387 (1609), f. 35. A taunt with proverbial resonance illustrates how even familiar word patterns could be differently remembered; the husband of the offended woman reported, “tal carne, tal coltello,” while a female neighbor testified, “le precise parole tal pane, tal coltello”: Investigazioni 366 (1606), ff. 36v-37.
52. FN5252 For gestures and sounds: Investigazioni 351 (1605), f. 53v; Investigazioni 382 (1608), ff. 8v-9; Processi xvi secolo, busta 311 (1598), f. 127; Processi, xvii secolo, busta 12 (1601), ff. 766r-v.
53. FN5353 The language of insult is the slang and street talk that judicial records show most extensively. It is also among the most difficult to translate with an apt sense of register. Vituperation is not, however, the only problematic topic for the translator. Discussion with Italian colleagues over the best rendering in context of words about love such as amorevolemente remain unresolved. Indeed, I am inclined to be cautious even about whether I have transcribed accurately some of the least familiar, and perhaps most oral or dialectical, phrases in these records.
54. FN5454 Some discussions have contrasted differences in insults cast against men and women: Trevor Dean, “Gender and Insult in an Italian City: Bologna in the Later Middle Ages,” Social History 29 (2004): 217–31. I do not mean that there were no gendered differences, but rather that, in Rome circa 1600, for men and for women vituperation ranged over a spectrum that included several common themes.
55. FN5555 See note 51.
56. FN5656 Investigazioni 383 (1608), f. 72.
57. FN5757 Investigazioni 384 (1609), ff. 139v-40, “se non stanno in cervello et non lassano stare Madalena, le faro le piu scontente donne del mondo.” ”Stare in cervello,” meaning “to get your head straight,”” was a common colloquialism referring to men and women: Processi, xvii secolo, busta 36 (1604), f. 5v; busta 37 (1604), f. 834v; busta 44 (1605), f. 147v.
58. FN5858 Investigazioni 389 (1610), f. 157r-v. The prostitute is quoted by two different women witnesses: 1) “non lo voi dire furbetto, questa poltrona bisogna castigarla che se mette sotto ad ogni d’uno”; 2) “che ne te pare di questa poltrona basta basta, dimane la farò accorgere io seco chi haverà da fare, glie sarebbe meglio che se fasse impicciata con il gran diavolo.” Another rhetorical invocation of the devil came from a male victim who blamed a house-scorning on envy “instigato dal Demonio”: Processi, xvii secolo, busta 19 (1602), f. 1013.
59. FN5959 Investigazioni 385 (1608), ff. 66v, “poltrona bugiarona, io te ho fatto il ruffiano, lo sa bene tu, et tu sei stata sbattuta, et io fu pagata alla barba tua.” Another witness quoted the procuress listing her take, f. 64v, “me ho portato burro(?), grano, presutti, cascio sino al sale me ho reportato oltre alli quatrini che ho havuti.”
60. FN6060 Ibid., f. 64v, “in maggior me dispregio et lo diceva publicamente.”
61. FN6161 Costituti 599 (1609), f. 3; Investigazioni 387 (1609), f. 226.
62. FN6262 Investigazioni 314 (1602), f. 198, “l’ho anco sentita piu et piu volte dir più et diverse parole sporche come nominar di continuo il membro et dir alli homini becco fottuto et la sorella chiamarla publicamente bagascia et in somma fa il bordello come se stesse nelli luoghi.”
63. FN6363 Processi, xvii secolo, busta 19 (1602), f. 1013v.
64. FN6464 On language about sex, see Ruggiero, Binding Passions and Grieco, “Roosters to Cocks.” For a raunchy song reported in testimony, see Processi, xvii secolo, busta 36 (1604), f. 213.
65. FN6565 To “sleep” with someone means to share a bed or spend the night; it may imply sex, but need not. Conversely, a witness may say he or she had sex, but did not sleep with the partner; for example, Processi, xvii secolo, busta 35 (1604), f. 233v.
66. FN6666 Costituti 598 (1609), ff. 28-29, “dicendo che volevano che io li desse da fottere, et replicando io che non gli ne volevo dare, et me uscissero di casa perche li homini in quel tempo non potevano stare in casa di cortigiana.” This testimony came shortly after Easter.
67. FN6767 Ibid., “quando me negotiò una volta me diede tre giulii et due volte dui giuli per volta.” A giulio is a small silver coin, worth circa 10 to the scudo.
68. FN6868 Costituti 506 (1601), f. 115.
69. FN6969 Ibid., f. 116, “Io ho visto benissimo d. Elena Varese et toccatala dalle parte de potta ad effetto di conoscere et vedere si è zitella et vi dico che havendo fatto le diligenze solite lei non e zitella altremente perche ha rotto il panicolo et ha la natura larga, cose che non hanno le zitelle.”
70. FN7070 Ibid., f. 116v, “La scappatella è stata che me ha conosciuta carnalemente doi ò tre volte, in piu volte in casa mia.”
71. FN7171 Querele 8 (1607), ff. 48-49, the student “ha cavato il membro, et perche io portavo la spada mi ha chiamato dicendo, O cortellatore, daresti quanto cortellate a questo cazzo,” to which the witness replied, “tu le fai dare de dietro tu, le cortellate.” Although a nuanced homosexual subculture, like that Michael Rocke has described in Renaissance Florence, has not yet been documented for Rome, given the probable youth of the students in this example, the suggested transaction fits a recognizable structure of male-male relations. In another context, a man was jailed after sassing the cops; he explained his words to the judge, “non porto altra arma che quella che me ha fatto mia madre . . . intendevo di dire che non havevo altra arma che il membro (I carry no arms except the one my mother made me . . . I meant to say that I had no weapons except my member)”: Costituti 597 (1609), f. 193.

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