Married Maltese women of 500 years ago had more legal rights than their English counterparts, and an attempt by a grand master to water down their power was met with great opposition, new research has shown.
The research, by historian and founder of the Notarial Archives Foundation Joan Abela, is an attempt at starting to understand the origins of gender misrepresentation and perception of women as the weaker sex.
“History is the laboratory of life. To understand women’s rights as they stand today, we need to go back in time as far as we can, because the culture of prejudice that women experience to this day evolved gradually over centuries,” she told Times of Malta on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
“I traced and studied 50 marriage contracts, drawn up by notaries in the 16th century as I wanted to understand whether, at the time, married women had any rights or whether they lived in the shadow of their husbands, something that unfortunately some still do to this day.”
Abela’s research – the first of its sort for such an early period – allowed the historian to compare married women’s rights to women elsewhere.
“While nowadays, English women seem to be better represented than women in Malta, 500 years ago it was the total opposite. In the mid-16th century, English women lost all their legal rights when they married and only regained them if they were widowed. In England, married women’s legal rights were subsumed by their husband and they could no longer appear in court, make a will, or own and sell property.
On the other hand, married women in Malta could own property, appear before a notary and be party to various agreements, and, when their husband was abroad, alienate (sell or transfer property to another party) his property.
“This meant that ultimately, if their husband was held captive and required financial aid for his ransom, or the family just needed to keep its business going, women were allowed to sell the family’s assets or represent their husbands in legal matters provided their husbands would ratify these agreements once or if they returned home.”
And when in 1640, Grand Master Giovanni Paolo Lascaris tried to ban women from representing their husbands when they were abroad, he was met with protest – especially from men.
Property rights in case of divorce
Marriage contracts in Malta – whether done alla Maltese or alla Greca/Romana – the most popular types of dowry contract at the time, gave property rights to women even in cases of divorce.
According to the research by Abela, if women entered ‘Maltese-type’ of marriage contracts (alla Maltese), they retained their rights over the property gifted by their parents.
The property would only be divided – equally between the spouses and the offspring – if they had children – and only once these children turned 15.
500 years on, do we live in a society where we feel that if something is said by a man, it carries more weight than if it was said by a woman?
If the couple did not have any children and the woman died, the property was returned to her family.
The alla Greca/Romana contract was similar, with the exception of the division of the property three-way in case of any offspring.
This was the most popular contract in Malta, and it meant that husbands could not alienate the dowry, with wives retaining all their rights over their property.
Married women could alienate it as they deemed fit, or leave it as inheritance to whoever they wanted, unlike their English counterparts.
And if the women died or the couple divorced, the estranged husband was obliged to return the dowry to the wife in the exact condition it was gifted upon marriage, or better.
“This meant that if the husband alienated her property without her consent, or someone tried to claim it upon the death of her husband, a woman had the right to go to court and claim back the property. This type of contract gave Maltese women some form of guarantee of a decent life if widowed,” Abela explains.
The return of a slave
In one case, Abela recounts, Granata – the widow of Johannes de Falsono – is reported to have appealed a court decision ruling that a slave belonging to her late husband was to be transferred to one of his creditors, making up for bad debt relating to the sale of oil.
In her appeal, Granata says her marriage had been contracted alla Romana, so the slave was rightfully hers since it had been part of her dowry.
The dispute was ultimately settled through payment of an amount of money agreed upon by both parties, and the slave returned to the rightful owner.
But historic documents also show that women did not always fully exercise their rights.
“We know that women had a right to appear before a notary without being represented by a man and according to notarial documents, we know that they often chose not to exercise that right. They somehow felt that by being represented by a man, they would benefit from a better standing in front of the law.
“Five hundred years on, do we live in a society where we feel that if something is said by a man, it carries more weight than if it was said by a woman? Do we hold certain rights that we ultimately, and consciously, choose not to make use of? History is the best teacher, let us learn from it.”
Abela’s The ‘alla Maltese’ Marriage Regime and its Implications on Women’s Property Rights During the Mid-Sixteenth Century paper was published in Petra Caruana Dingli’s and Mario Gauci’s NON OMNIS MORIAR: Essays in memory of Dun Ġwann Azzopardi (Wignacourt Museum Publications).
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