Source: Criminal Trials of Slaves in Venice
These two documents are drawn from the register of criminal cases judged by the Council of Forty in Venice. The Avogaria was the office responsible for prosecuting what people at the time considered to be major crimes on behalf of the commune of Venice in order to uphold public order and morality. The Council of Forty would hear the evidence, vote on the guilt or innocence of the accused, and determine how the guilty should be punished. The first case, the trial of Bonaventura, was fairly typical in both accusation and procedure. The second case, that of Bona, was high-profile. It attracted enough attention and caused enough scandal among the patricians of Venice that the Senate passed a law banning slaves from working in apothecary shops or handling poisonous substances. It also led to a number of copycat crimes or copycat accusations in the following decades, but it is not possible to determine today whether those subsequent poisoning accusations against enslaved women reflected actual instances of poisoning or the fears of patrician families and the difficulty of determining the cause of a sudden death.
Document 1: The Trial of Bonaventura
Translated from the Latin by Hannah Barker. Venice, Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Avogaria di Comun 3645, Raspe 1393-1406, fol. 14v. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
February 18, 1400
Bonaventura, Tatar servant of the nobleman Sir Antonio Belegno, against whom there was a proceeding by the lord advocates of the commune in and on account of that while she was living and staying in the house of Master Blasio Ceroici in the parish of St. Cassian in his employ, the said Tatar Bonaventura, not fearing God, law, or holy justice, in a bad way late in the nighttime around Prime brought into the house of the said Master Blasio her master Giacobello Gambaro, goldsmith, stepson of Sir Giovanni Gambaro, who was wooing on account of a certain daughter of the said Master Blasio by the name of Barbarella, bringing in the same Giacobello striving towards a bad end, so that the same Giacobello dared to hide himself under the blanket of the bed of the said Bonaventura in the room in which she was sleeping, committing dishonest shame and infamy of Master Blasio, of his daughter Barbarella, and of his entire household, just as was plainly revealed about all the aforesaid things by the process of the court and by his confession. It was pleaded in the Council of Forty in which it was put as a resolution. If it seems to you on account of that which was said and read that it should be proceeded against Bonaventura, the Tatar servant of the nobleman Sir Antonio Belegno, who was staying with Master Blasio Ceroico in his house in his employ, who at nighttime in bad way brought in Giacobello Gambaro, stepson of Sir Giovanni Gambaro, under the bed in which she was sleeping in the house of her said master, to the shame and burden of Master Blasio and his household as it was said. For having given and received 45 ballots in that council, 3 were abstentions, 9 were against, and the rest, namely 33, were for the resolution. And thus it was decided concerning the proceeding against her. It was considered that she stayed in prison for three months and more. It was decided finally with many resolutions having been put forward that this Bonaventura would receive 25 lashes in the torture chamber and stay for two months in prison.
 I.e. the Avogaria.
 His title indicates that he was a teacher.
Document 2: The Trial of Bona
Translated from the Latin by Hannah Barker. Venice, Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Avogaria di Comun, Raspe, reg. 3646, fol. 81v-82r.
1410 May 19
Bona the Tatar, slave and servant [sclava et serva] of the late nobleman Sir Nicola Barbo, once born of the notable and noble man lord Giovanni Barbo, honorable procurator of S. Marco, against whom there was a proceeding by the lord advocates of the commune and its office in and on account of that when this same Bona made herself be impregnated in the house of her said lord in the neighborhood of S. Pantaleon by a certain servant [famulus] who was staying in the house of her lord, and when her aforementioned lord who was recovering because he had been ill for a long time, knowing that same Bona to be pregnant during this past Lent, he beat her forcefully with a bigolo from the water. The aforementioned Bona, incited by a diabolical spirit, being in despair, with the will and intention of poisoning and killing her same lord, determinedly and with a considered will bought arsenic from a boy who was staying in a spice shop located in the neighborhood of St. Pantaleon, and gave that same arsenic to her said lord to eat in two places, putting it in food and in medicine [or herbs] which were given to her said lord, from which poison given to him they were not able to prevent him dying and ending his life, as was revealed fully and widely concerning all the aforesaid things by the process of the court and by her confession. It was brought forward and pleaded in the Council of Forty in which it was put as a resolution. If it seems to you on account of those things which were said and read that it should be proceeded against Bona, Tatar and servant [serva] of the late nobleman Sir Nicola Barbo of lord Giovanni, procurator of S. Marco, who, incited by a diabolical spirit with considered will and determination to kill the same late sir Nicola Barbo her lord, she poisoned and gave toxin and poison to the said Sir Nicola, from which the same Sir Nicola Barbo her lord deceased and died violently as it has been said. Now with the 37 ballots having been given and received in the same council, 3 were abstentions, 0 were against, and all the others, namely 34, were in favor. And thus it was decided concerning the proceeding against her at last with the different decisions proposed being taken. That this Bona should be led by the canal with a plate tied over a pallo as far as St. Croce with a crier who will cry her guilt continuously. And from there let her be drawn on the ground at the tail of a horse as far as S. Marco in the middle of the two columns. And there, tied to a pallo, let her be burned up according to custom, that she may thus die utterly and her corpse be turned into ash. And thus on the same day the above-written [instructions] were given for execution.
 This was one of the most important governmental positions in Venice. The procurators of S. Marco were charged with the administration of St. Mark’s Basilica, the legal protection of orphans and the insane, and the execution of wills.
 I.e. the Avogaria.
 In Roman contexts, the term famulus might refer to a slave. By the fifteenth century, however, it was used mainly for free servants, especially those serving to learn.
 A wooden harness or yoke placed across the shoulder to carry two buckets of water.
 I.e. dragged behind a horse.
- Who lived in the two households described in these trials? How many slaves or servants were present in each household? What kind of work did they do?
- What is the charge or accusation in each case? What legal question is being asked, and what answer did the Council of Forty give?
- The first trial does not offer an explanation for why Bonaventura decided to let Giacobello into the house. What possible explanations can you imagine? Think about the possible roles of Giacobello, Blasio, and Barbarella in this situation.
- In the second trial, why did Bona decide to kill Sir Nicola? Why was her punishment so public, elaborate, and harsh?
- What does each trial show about how slaves’ actions affected the collective honor or reputation of the household? What does each trial show about how slaves’ actions affected their own honor or reputation as individuals?
Related Primary Sources
- Execution of a Mamluk Slave Woman
- Felix Fabri’s Wanderings in the Holy Land
- ‘No One Sees and Every Man Does as He Sees Fit’: Slavery and Masculinity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt
- A Slave Sale Contract from Venice
- The Slave Women of al-Manṣūr Ḥajjī
Related Secondary Sources
- Meek, Christine. “Men, Women and Magic: Some Cases from Late Medieval Lucca.” In Women in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, ed. Christine Meek, 43-66. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000.
- Schiel, Juliane. “Mord von zarter Hand. Der Giftmordvorwurf im Venedig.” In Mediterranean Slavery Revisited (500-1800)/Neue Perspektiven auf mediterrane Sklaverei (500-1800), ed. Stefan Hanß and Juliane Schiel, 201-228. Zurich: Chronos, 2014. [In German]