Friday, February 5, 2021

Christopoulos on abortion in early modern Italy

John Christopoulos (University of British Columbia) has published Abortion in Early Modern Italy with Harvard University Press. From the publisher: 

In this authoritative history, John Christopoulos provides a provocative and far-reaching account of abortion in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. His poignant portraits of women who terminated or were forced to terminate pregnancies offer a corrective to longstanding views: he finds that Italians maintained a fundamental ambivalence about abortion. Italians from all levels of society sought, had, and participated in abortions. Early modern Italy was not an absolute anti-abortion culture, an exemplary Catholic society centered on the “traditional family.” Rather, Christopoulos shows, Italians held many views on abortion, and their responses to its practice varied.

Bringing together medical, religious, and legal perspectives alongside a social and cultural history of sexuality, reproduction, and the family, Christopoulos offers a nuanced and convincing account of the meanings Italians ascribed to abortion and shows how prevailing ideas about the practice were spread, modified, and challenged. Christopoulos begins by introducing readers to prevailing ideas about abortion and women’s bodies, describing the widely available purgative medicines and surgeries that various healers and women themselves employed to terminate pregnancies. He then explores how these ideas and practices ran up against and shaped theology, medicine, and law. Catholic understanding of abortion was changing amid religious, legal, and scientific debates concerning the nature of human life, women’s bodies, and sexual politics. Christopoulos examines how ecclesiastical, secular, and medical authorities sought to regulate abortion, and how tribunals investigated and punished its procurers—or did not, even when they could have. Abortion in Early Modern Italy offers a compelling and sensitive study of abortion in a time of dramatic religious, scientific, and social change.

Praise for the book: 

 “A major contribution—subtle, erudite, and wide-ranging. Christopoulos’s sophisticated handling of the complexities and ambiguities surrounding the termination of pregnancy in early modern Italy makes this book not merely for scholars interested in abortion but also for anyone who studies the workings of early modern society more generally. Abortion in Early Modern Italy demonstrates the abilities of a first-rate historian.” - Mary Lindemann

“While most studies of the early history of abortion adopt the perspective of medical, ecclesiastical, and secular authorities, this important book gives equal attention to the motivations and experiences of the women and men involved in procuring, facilitating, or testifying regarding abortions. Through exhaustive archival research, Christopoulos has managed to excavate the voices not only of the pregnant women themselves, but also of their accusers, their partners, rapists, and seducers, their families, their healers, and other members of the community.” - Katharine Park

“In this beautifully researched book, punctuated by vivid microhistories, John Christopoulos offers a complex and nuanced perspective on the meaning of abortion in early modern Italy. He puts a human face on the decisions made by men and especially women, by church and state, and by judges, lawyers, and medical experts, allowing us to see how this quintessential Catholic society grappled with the status of the unborn and reproductive rights. Christopoulos thoughtfully reminds us that the past is full of surprises, sometimes where we least expect them.” - Paula Findlen

“A brilliant, field-shaping book based on extraordinary archival research and great analytical insight. John Christopoulos not only remakes our understanding of struggles over reproduction in early modern Italy and Europe, but also provides an important intervention in the long and broad transnational history of abortion. In centering abortion, this beautifully written book also illuminates in new ways our understanding of a wide range of early modern themes from church and state to science and local communities.” - Julie Hardwick

Further information is available here.

--Mitra Sharafi