Jewish women raped by Muslims and Christians in medieval Italy to obtain ransom from local Jews: study

Wealthy Italian Jews were blackmailed into buying the freedom of black Jewish slaves from Africa by being locked in a prison to be gang-raped by Muslim inmates and Christian slave laborers.

The shocking crime was uncovered by historian Professor Tamar Herzig, Vice Dean for Research at the Entin Faculty of Humanities in Tel Aviv, Israel, who uncovered previously unknown evidence of the organized gang rape of a group of enslaved Jewish girls and women from North Africa.

It was performed in the Italian city of Livorno in the early 1700s and, she says, by a high-ranking civil servant in the Livorno slave prison named Dr. Bernardetto Buonromei, who was also able to silence all complaints, effectively erasing the memory of the victims’ suffering until now.

According to the documents examined by Herzig, in the summer of 1610 Buonromei ordered the assignment of a group of enslaved Jewish women newly arrived from North Africa to sections, contrary to the usual segregation of women and men in the men’s quarters of the slave prison. This order led to the multiple rapes of the enslaved Jews by Muslim slaves and Christian forced laborers. One report notes that one of the victims lost her mind and attempted to throw her young daughters out of the prison window and commit suicide.

Bernadetto Buonremi Livorno Italy
Etienne Li/Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Representatives of Livorno’s influential Jewish community sent protests to the Tuscan authorities against the unprecedented sexual abuse of their enslaved co-religionists, but all complaints and testimonies were soon silenced with the help of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who supported Buonromei.

The Grand Duke accepted the doctor’s claims that his actions were designed to increase the Tuscan state’s profits from the slave trade by ensuring future payment of high ransom fees for enslaved foreign Jews by the local Jewish community in Livorno.

Buonromei retained his position as doctor in charge of the slave prison and when he died a few years later the Grand Duke was so grateful that he paid for his tombstone in the main church of Livorno.

The Jewish community of Livorno was one of the wealthiest and most influential Italian Jewish communities in the 17th century, and their relationship with the rulers of the Tuscan state was usually strong. But according to documents uncovered by Herzig, the wealthy and well-connected members of Livorno’s Jewish community were nonetheless the subject of extortion by government officials like Buonromei. Herzig noted that the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany used the gang rape incident as a major spectacle of violence to put pressure on the Jewish community to agree to pay exorbitant ransoms for Jews captured in North Africa who were forcibly transported to Livorno.

Buonromei, who was Livorno’s first mayor before his appointment in the slave prison, is still revered as one of the city’s founding fathers. A street in Livorno is named after him, and a commemorative figure is paraded in the annual processions celebrating Livorno’s elevation to the city.

Professor Tamar Herzig
Professor Tamar Herzig, Vice Dean for Research at the Entin Faculty of Humanities in Tel Aviv, Israel, discovered that wealthy Italian Jews were being blackmailed into buying the freedom of black Jewish slaves from Africa by being imprisoned to be used by Muslim slaves Inmates to be gang raped and Christian forced laborers.
Noga Shahar/Zenger News

Herzig’s study was published in the prestigious journal American Historical Review. Herzig hopes that the publication of their findings in Italian media will lead to a change in the memory of Buonromei, a man who made his fortune in the slave trade and was personally responsible for the appalling abuse of enslaved Jewish women and girls.

Most studies of slavery in 17th-century Italy previously focused primarily on male galley slaves, who were said to suffer harsher treatment than enslaved women.

Studies have also focused on the Muslim-Christian rivalry during this period as the main motivation for the respective groups’ engagement in mutual enslavement.

But so far very little research has addressed the position of Jews as victims of the slave trade in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Herzig’s study is the first to reveal the attitude of Italian regime officials towards Jewish women from North Africa who were captured by Italian forces and taken to Italian ports as slaves – an attitude that has severely impacted relations between native Jews and Christians in Italian cities significantly influenced the time.

“Uncovering the female and Jewish aspects of the Italian slave trade is very important, since these issues were largely neglected in 16th- and 17th-century historical scholarship,” Herzig said. “I hope that by raising awareness of the phenomenon of enslavement of Jewish women, my research will lead to a reassessment of contemporary commemoration of slavers like Bernardetto Buonromei, thereby achieving some historical justice for the victims.”

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News. Jewish women raped by Muslims and Christians in medieval Italy to obtain ransom from local Jews: study

Rick Schindler

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