give the soul

Image_Adir Sodré


Commentary on the book by Adriano Prosperi

In December 1709, Lucia Cremonini, a young woman residing in Bologna, gave birth to a baby boy. He was the son of a very brief and extemporaneous relationship that he had with a priest, during Carnival that year. On the day of delivery, the newborn was killed. Lucia confessed to the heinous and violent crime. It had been an act of necessity, to avoid loss of honor. This, in the most humble strata of society, was not inherited, it did not come in the blood of the cradle. Lucia couldn't see hers lost and destroyed forever. It was of no use to him. In January 1710 she was hanged at the Piazza Maggiore from Bologna. In the space of about a year, from one Carnival to another, the square where he had played became the stage where a crowd watched his death.

All of this is in the case file that allowed Adriano Prosperi to recreate this drama in give the soul (Companhia das Letras, 2010). From there he left for an enticing research on infanticide, life, baptism, the soul, justice, forgiveness. This, as it was written, is the act that can “annul all the past” and, as the author recalls, avoiding mistakes so common in the approaches of so-called historical novels and films, a feeling that, like all others, also had a history .

In addition to these broad and decisive issues, others of more circumscribed projection were addressed. The following list does not exhaust them: the massacres perpetrated on Jewish communities under the accusation that they had performed rituals in which they killed a Christian boy; the witches' sabbaths; priestly celibacy; the carnival celebrations; the way to behave the look; relations between the sexes; the passive role expected of women in relationships with men; catechetical teaching and instruction in general (including that of affections); the experience of the time of pregnancy; the perfection of the human body and “monstrosities”; the fate of children killed without baptism; the medical-theological practices and debates about the cesarean section, understood not as a simple medical act, but as a religious procedure whose function was to “give a soul” to a creature (that is to say baptize it in order to be saved); abortive practices and theories about fetal development and the origins of human life; the ritual staging of a capital punishment; the social memory of the rites; the practice of “comforting” those sentenced to capital punishment. Deep down, based on the specific case of Lucia Cremonini, and in the exercise of its understanding, the research became kaleidoscopic, transforming itself into an approach that approaches what could be considered a utopia: the elaboration of a total History (despite of it having already been proposed by Karl Marx, in terms different from those practiced here).

This study is of true comparative history, and visits examples from England to Germany, from Sweden and Denmark to Italy, touching, among others, China, Slavic folklore, and even Africa. In incursions that with enormous lucidity and well-founded traverse time, from classical Greece (XNUMXth-XNUMXth century BC) to the present, with decisive fixations in the Roman period and in the key years of medieval patristics, to hear voices that lastingly projected throughout Western civilization.

Another very strong mark is the profound articulation of History, not exclusively Lucia's, with life. Prosperi recalls with admirable beauty and sensitivity how History cannot limit itself to reconstructing the past. He needs to "embrace" reality, knowing that it was fixed in time, not subject to change. But that time left traces that can be “embraced”, that is to say “understood”.

In Lucia's trial, the judges wanted to reconstruct the crime, leaving aside fundamental questions: why did she act like that, what would the soul mean for that young woman and for her contemporaries? etc. In this book and from the decoding of signs, the author did not limit himself to reconstructing the story of a crime, “leaning over the shoulders of the judges”. He went further to understand what happened. To find out who Lucia was and how a singular story can stop being seen as a banal and irrelevant episode, to be thought of as something unique, as “a color destined never to reappear”.

This is a book in deep dialogue with the present. A time of vertiginous information production, which increasingly relegates to the background (distressingly) the suspension of time that the act of thinking demands. But also a present where there are mysteries that continue to disturb the conscience of the human experience: death and life. And it is precisely in the context of the burning debates in many contemporary societies about the voluntary termination of pregnancy, genetic engineering, cloning, embryo preservation, euthanasia, or even the death penalty, that this study arises.

Not as a media and fashion response, aimed at the ephemeral universe of the information space on which public opinion, in general, feeds. But as the result of those who recognize the complexity of the world, the instigating challenge of its knowledge and the profound contamination of the present by the past. Deep down, it is about the awareness of those who know that without History it is impossible to fully understand what one is in each present, and how the growing devaluation of the same History that is installed in Western societies – for which historians are also responsible (perhaps the main culprits) –, is slowly destroying the possibilities that still remain of constantly thinking about what we are, understanding why we have become that way.

To understand this impact of the past on the present, it will suffice to recall the lasting importance of a decision by the Congregation of the Roman Holy Office of March 4, 1679. It condemned defenders of the legality of induced abortion before the phase in which it was considered that abortion The fetus had a soul, which led to an increase in the rigorism of the Church's positions on the subject and was at the root of the emergence of an internal contradiction in Catholic discourse itself, as Prosperi rightly notes. It was maintained that an unbaptized child did not have a soul, and it was defended that from the initial stages of conception the creature was animated, which justified the denial of contraception. It was this ambiguity that gave special attention to another word: person. When did a being become a person?

The architecture of the book is surprising and original, despite being marked by traces of a narrative story. Everything was very well thought out, taking advantage of the precious Italian sources, the suggestions of “micro history”, the approach to the contexts in which they are inscribed and determine individual choices. The work has three parts. The first is called “The story” and consists of three chapters. One to explain Lucia's court case. The remaining two devoted to the analysis of the history of infanticide. It begins by clarifying that the mother was not always the protagonist of the accusation of infanticide. It ends by dealing with the passage of infanticide from sin to crime.

It was in European Modernity – in the continuation of an open debate in the Roman world, according to some under pressure from the Christianity that was born in it (but remembering that Ovid had already condemned infanticide practiced by women who wanted to preserve their beauty) –, that was forged , in the wake of “Roman family law, the accelerated advance of state powers towards the control of pregnancy and birth”, a set of increasingly severe criminal measures against the practice of infanticide. This happened at the same time that both the Church and the State intended to circumscribe sexuality within marriage. Now, when sin gave way to judicial crime, it had only one protagonist: the woman, mother without having a legitimate husband. And the planned punishments were of the most severe violence, insufferable for today's sensibility.

In 1405, Francesca of Pistoia was sentenced to death. She walked all the way to the gallows, riding backwards on a donkey and carrying, around her neck, a bag with the baby she had killed. Others were buried alive, impaled, burned, in spectacles designed to dissuade through terror, a recipe also used in inquisitorial autos-da-fé applied to heretics. A pattern that began to change in the Age of Enlightenment, when some authors, including Goethe, opened the doors to a path that replaced the harshness of punishment of the infanticide mother, with an attempt to understand the anguish and suffering of those who took away the life to the children.

The author is acutely aware of the difficulty of making a history of infanticide, due to the scarcity of traces that these acts have left in time. Hence, the inquiry was made more by the elaboration of “outlines” and inventory of “problems”. Also here, the book is of enormous importance as a path to the possibilities of History, assuming a very instructive and even pedagogical dimension.

The second part is entitled “The actors: People and not people” and is composed of two groups of six chapters each. This is an absolutely fascinating part of the book. As a historiographic problem and as architecture and conception of the narrative. It was intended to know more about the protagonists, but given the scarcity of sources that would talk about them, society was asked and what can be known about it in similar situations. This is how a plot was built in two stages, thought from the steps of the process that give title to the chapters, in a creative, original and rare beauty construction. To talk about the mother and her motives, the “little boy” who had a microscopic life but who existed. All done from the name and its relationships, following the suggestion by Ginzburg and Poni in a classic work on “micro history”.

The third part is entitled “Justice”. In three chapters, the sentence of the process is analyzed, the monitoring of Lucia's final hours and the meaning of the entire execution ritual, as well as the individual and community process of repentance and forgiveness associated with an act of condemnation to death.

All this is served by an imperial erudition that goes from Aristotle to Habermas. What is to be expected from an author who occupies a unique place in Italian historiography and who has already produced unavoidable works, some of which, strangely, are not indicated to the reader in the very brief and even incorrect biographical presentation that is made in the book. Incorrect, as Prosperi is a professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa) and not at the University of Pisa. It is incomprehensible not to mention the monumental Tribunali della coscienza. Inquisitor, confessor, missionary (1996). By the way, if in general the translation is of a good level, there are details to be corrected: “obstetras” for “midwives”, in Portuguese one does not say “portar um nome” (p. 103), nor “cortejo” for “courtship” ( p. 132), there were no “vice parish priests” but coadjutors (p. 242).

Other reviews are spot on. It is strange that when referring to the mildness that characterized the Spanish and Roman inquisitions regarding the repression of witchcraft, one did not refer to the mildest of them all in this matter: the Portuguese. One does not always understand the justification of some incursions, which perhaps go a little beyond the need for contextualization that history claimed. For example, the post-Tridentine debate, between Catholicism and Protestantism, regarding priestly celibacy is not essential to understand the positions of the priest who maintained relations with Lucia. The biggest problem, but an impossible one to solve as the work was conceived, is the lack of a clearer compartmentalization of the knowledge revealed here. This is not a work for beginners and when revisiting it to find specific information, the reader will be required to have a great memory or carry out a careful and personal cartography of the topics covered.

Paradoxically, despite the genius of the book, it appears at the end of the reading that, objectively, the historian may know less about Lucia's life than about the day that preceded her death and the moment of her execution. That moment, where the profound gap between the state of need that led her to commit infanticide and the resignation and piety with which she said “Jesus” before dying was also clear. Even if that word was the result of an “obligatory theatricality”.

Because, as paradoxical as it may seem in the eyes of the culture on death that is dominant today, by dying like this, Lucia redeemed herself. She died to save herself and purify the community, just as happened with the death of her Christ. Lucia “gave back her soul”, just as she had given it at the beginning of her life through baptism. And thus ended a cycle that the author took advantage of, in death/at the end, to return to the beginning of the story, to return to the beginning of the book and to place the reader before the most central of all questions: giving the soul.

* Jose Pedro Paiva is a professor at the Institute of History and Theory of Ideas at the University of Coimbra and author of Witchcraft and superstition in a country without a witch hunt: 1600-1774 (Editorial News).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. March 11, 2011,


Adriano Prosperi. give the soul. Sao Paulo, Companhia das Letras.


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