A late seventeenth century case may mark a turning point in the West’s attitude to honour killings.
Recently, in my home city of Toronto, there was an alleged "honour killing" of a 16-year-old girl. According to "Girl, Interrupted" by Mary Rogan in Toronto Life, “Aqsa Parvez had a choice: wear a hijab to please her devout family or take it off and be like her friends. She paid for her decision with her life. When her father and brother were charged with her murder, it raised the spectre of religious zealotry in the suburbs. Is this the price of multiculturalism?
The article—in a magazine better known for its 100 best fashion, food, or entertainment deals—attracted controversy because some have contested the description of Parvez's alleged murder as an "honour killing", claiming that domestic violence spans all cultures.
Fair enough. But, to communicate effectively, we specify different types of murder. Assassination, for example, is a risk for persons of political importance. Euthanasia is a risk for debilitated people whose murderers believe they are helping others. Honour killing assumes that the female victim's behaviour has infringed the honour of male relatives.
Aqsa Parvez's alleged murder, in which her father and brother are co-accused, can therefore properly be described as an honour killing, and Canadian journalists have generally defended the designation.
Honour killing has doubtless occurred often enough in Western Christian culture, as Robert Browning's poem, My Last Duchess attests. However, one centuries-old incident may shed some light on its gradual decline.
In 1698, an Italian death penalty case was appealed to Pope Innocent XII. We would hardly know of the case today except that in 1860, British poet Robert Browning found on a bookstall in Florence the legal briefs. He called his antiquarian find The Old Yellow Book. His later long poem on the subject, The Ring and the Book, spread the story through the English-speaking world.
In 1693, an impoverished 40-year-old Italian count, Guido Franceschini, married 13-year-old Francesca Pompilia. Guido believed that Pompilia's parents, Pietro and Violante Comparini of Rome, were wealthy commoners.
As part of the dowry, the Comparinis insisted on the right to live at Guido's expense at his villa in Arezzo. When Guido discovered that the couple had only modest wealth, he began to make them unwelcome. They returned to Rome in April, 1694, leaving Pompilia behind. They then revealed, in a court case over the dowry, that Pompilia was not their child but the foster daughter of a prostitute.
The court ruled that Guido could keep the dowry, because the Comparini had deceived him. Of course, Pompilia was now merely an encumbrance to Guido, and he treated her accordingly. He even attempted to get her accused of adultery, using forged love letters.
Pompilia, understanding that her life was in danger, appealed for help to the Bishop of Arezzo and to the governor—without success. Then, when she realized that she was pregnant, she begged a popular local priest, Guiseppe Caponsacchi, to help her escape to Rome, where she could give birth more safely. Unfortunately, Count Guido caught up with them. Pompilia was detained in a nunnery, and Caponsacchi was banished for three years.
Under bond, Pompilia was permitted to give birth at the Comparinis' home on December 18, 1697. The boy, Gaetano, was taken away from her immediately after baptism. Two weeks later, on January 2, 1698, Guido and four hired thugs stabbed Pietro and Violante to death. They thought they had also killed Pompilia, on whom they inflicted twenty-two stab wounds. But Pompilia lived for four days, and testified against them—naming Guido as the ringleader of the murder squad.
Guido and his accomplices were arrested, brought to trial, and sentenced to death. Because Guido had taken minor orders in the Church, he appealed his case to the Pope, "In which it is disputed whether and when a Husband may kill his Adulterous Wife without incurring the ordinary penalty."
Guido's motive was probably custody of his son Gaetano, whose property he would get if both the Comparini and Pompilia were dead. But in his appeal, he alleged that the deaths had been honour killings, his excuse being Pompilia's supposed adultery with the priest Caponsacchi. (She was posthumously ruled innocent, but that case had not been heard at the time the Pope was asked to rule.*)
Guido was essentially asking the Pope to spare his life by ruling that honour killing is justified.
The Pope refused to interfere with the civil death sentence. Guido's execution, and that of his four accomplices, took place in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, on February 22, 1698.
We can never know for sure whether honour killings declined in Christian countries as a specific result of this incident, as opposed to a variety of concurrent causes. We can say certainly this, however: Honour killing was an allowable defence in Guido's day; otherwise, he would not have offered it. So the Pope's refusal to consider it meant "going negative" on honour killing. We must hope that other traditions will eventually follow suit.
*Pompilia was exonerated in a civil case brought later by the Convertites, an order of nuns, who sought to inherit her property on the ground that they had the right to the estates of immoral women. The court ruled that there was no evidence that Pompilia had been an immoral woman, and established her son Gaetano as her heir instead.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.