Book details: Nicoleta Roman, „Deznădăjduită muiere n-au fost ca mine“. Femei, onoare și păcat în Valahia secolului al XIX-lea (‘Hardly ever has there been a more helpless woman like meʼ. Women, Honour, and Sin in Wallachia of the Nineteenth Century), București, 2016, Humanitas, 407 pages (bibliography included).

The cover of the book we are discussing here, reproducing a painting by the assimilated Jewish painter of realist inspiration, Nicolae Vermont, is telling for its overall message. In the image, a woman of modest means, judging by her clothing and the surrounding objects, most probably a servant, sits on the bedʼs margin, deeply sunk in her thoughts; seemingly nothing can distract her from her destitute posture, not even the light invading the room on one side, and emphasizing its picturesque corner, and far less the religious representation that one can guess on the wall, in the darker side of the painting.

Accordingly, ‘Hardly ever has there been a more helpless woman like meʼ. Women, Honour, and Sin in Wallachia of the Nineteenth Century aims at showing a glimpse of the woman in the most critical stage of her social emancipation, namely the moment when she slowly starts to get rid of the economic, educational, and moral pressures that her parents or her partner were imposing on her, the moment when she gradually acknowledges that she has to rely on her own powers in order to decide for her own life, removing thus traditional poles of support and guidance like family and religion.

Similarly to Vermontʼs drawing, the actors of this book are mostly women of ‘lower conditionʼ: so-called serfs, coming from Roma communities[1], poor village inhabitants in search for seasonal work in the city, unskilled midwives and nannies, wives of small craftsmen. All originate in small cities or county towns of Wallachia, the principality located North of the Danube River, which was under the influence of the Ottoman Empire until well into the nineteenth century. The reader has the chance to see how these women evolve in a double role, as accused but also as accusers in some trials. This very context (e.g. of the court) is important because the changes in the womenʼs status, more precisely in their legal identity (e.g. initially as daughters of their fathers, as wives of their husbands, or as lovers of their ‘protectorsʼ[2], and, only after, as individuals) is reflected in the transformations that Wallachian, and, by extension, Romanian society at large experinced in the first half of the nineteenth century. In other words, the saga of ordinary women seen in their attempts towards acquiring the status of a citizen[3], when trying to replace the family, that is the private environment with the public one[4], is mirrored by the developments connected to the switch from the ecclesiastical type of justice to the secular one.

This transformation occured at the beginning of the 1830s and it was the result of a series of regulations introduced by officials of the Russian Empire who administered Wallachia in some troubled years following yet another Russian-Turkish War in the region[5]; these laws were called The Organic Regulations and they marked the conversion from the religious-customary to secular-institutional framework. Under the Byzantine legal system, in which the political authority was invested with religious attributes, and the other way round, family conflicts fell within the competencies of the Church, hence the womanʼs body was the propriety of her family, of the community, of the church (p. 278). Apart from introducing prescriptions that would help the spread of literacy in society, the birth of the sanitary system, the need for regular surveys of the population, the training of proficient personnel in charge of social assistance activities, the subordination of the priests to the state, and many other actions that went as far as the reorganization of the Wallachian urban landscape, The Organic Regulations had the merit of initiating the system of the rights and sanctions that governed the domestic environment (e.g. the relations between the two partners, the statute of the house  servants). Obviously, these laws were part of a process that experienced numerous adjustments until the mid of the century like the establishment in the 1850s of the county hospitals, of the medical schools, of the specific bodies in charge of social assistance and womenʼs health like orphanages, maternities (pp. 300, 301). Wallachia was now part of the general continental movement that witnessed an increase of the human rights coverage, trend that culminated with the 1848 Revolutions.

‘Hardly ever has there been a more helpless woman like meʼ tells indirectly the story of these years of paramount importance for the birth of what later came to be known as the modern Romanian society. Consequently, the title is somehow misleading since the work does not deal with the dynamics of the second half of the nineteenth century; the cited court cases and the patterns identified are realities of the first half of the century, while the other half is treated by general remarks (p. 384). At the same time, it is good to stress that this is not a critique, since the period corresponding to the establishment and the strengthening of the state institutions (to which, we repeat, the attempts occuring in the first part of the century brought an important contribution) makes enough material for a book in itself. Moreover, after 1859, once with the union between the two, so-called, Danubian Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, the latter became part of a wider context, hence the figures translating the Wallachian realities were matched with those of the other Principality. In fact, the many changes occuring in the status of Wallachia throughout the nineteenth century requires attention when referring to Wallachia as a political entity (e.g. having political institutions), as a historical province, or as a regional area within an unified state.

All things considered, the present book by Nicoleta Roman has the indisputable merit of presenting less known voices of the society, at a time when, as surprising as it may seem, there are still written histories focused overwhelmingly on the elites and political institutions as such. Romanian historiography abounds in memoirs and literary pieces written by the female representatives of the aristocratic or upper-bourgeois families, hence the investigation of the cases of those humble women coming from destitute provincial towns is twice salutary; first, because it fills the just mentioned historiographical lack, and, second, because it brings in front of the reader lesser known towns of Wallachia like Craiova, Romanați, Alexandria, which are otherwise hardly mentioned nowadays in the sources dealing with the nineteenth century[6].

By presenting the condition of women of ‘lower originsʼ and their interaction with the institutions of the time, the book deals with some general features of Romanian modernization. The fact that the legal system was under the authority of traditional figures like the clerics and the boyars made it more vulnerable to personal interference in the juridical process, or it even transfomed the juridical process in a personal affair (p. 250) in which the people involved in the conflict found themselves in unequal positions towards the authority, and this latter judged them depending on his caprice; sadly, intimidation, the law of the fittest, gender and wealth discrimination (p. 165) continued to accompany the Romanian juridical system for a good part of the modern period. Secondly, the book hints to the early existence of a parasitical bureaucracy, concept that was copiously exploited in the second half of the nineteenth century by intellectuals affiliated to Junimea circle, it is true, sometimes with chauvinistic intentions; even if the expressed intention of the author is to talk about the beginnings of the hospitals as institutions in Wallachia, a simple look on a hospitalʼs budget (p. 358) shows the bad management in a public hospital, namely the expenses incurring from medicineʼs purchase represent just a tiny part in comparison to the expenses incurring from the personnelʼs salaries (around 40-45%) and those occasioned by the so-called ‘extraordinary circumstancesʼ (almost 50%). Thirdly, the book comments on the significant gap existing between the city and the village, situation reflected in the court as well, since, as the author points out, the decision depended on where the trial was taking place: in a city, thus closer to the center of political power or in the suffocating world of the village where everything concerning a woman was reduced to matters like appearance and reputation; the author infers that in cases like the one of Janeta Scodacek, a real thriller of the nineteenth century (pp. 214-222), the decision on punishing the culprits would have been different had the conflict been presented in the court of a bigger city, and, last but not least, had the victim (her family in this case) been from those that enjoyed influence among the involved local authorities.

As hinted before,‘Hardly ever has there been a more helpless woman like meʼ takes into discussion both religious and secular documents of the beginning of the nineteenth century such as surveys, ecclesiastical certificates, regulations of the courts, the procedures of the domnitorʼs[7] chancellery; they were written in Cyrillic but also in the so-called transition alphabet (e.g. mix of Cyrillic and Latin). These primary sources are nicely blended with older and newer contributions in cultural, and social history, or in the field of the history of mentality, as applied to the eighteenth and nineteenth century realities of South-Eastern Europe. Therefore, parts of the travelogues published in the comprehensive anthologies edited by the team of whom we just mention Paul Cernovodeanu, Maria Holban or Georgeta Filitti-‘Foreign Travellers about Romanian Principalitiesʼ, are presented together with contributions by Alin Ciupală, Dan Horia Mazilu, Ștefan Lemny, Constanța Ghițulescu, Adrian-Silvan Ionescu, Violeta Barbu, Ligia Livadă Cadeschi. Apart from Ciupalăʼs materials on womenʼs emancipation in Romanian society, each of these studies touches upon a specific topic of microhistory, more precisely of the history of private life, area of investigation dear to the School of Annales: widowhood; marrital relations and sexuality; types of sociability, the symbolism of old institutions of social assistance, and their role in the birth of the modern system of social care. We have to add that the author of the book, herself, specializes in the history of the childhood, and of its significance within Romanian society and family during modern age. The work employs, as well, sources dealing with the status of women in the Western part of the continent, in the period of interest; anthropological and structuralist contributions like those of Claude Levi Straussʼ are also quoted[8].

‘Hardly ever has there been a more helpless woman like meʼ is made up of five parts that aim at describing elaborately all possible identities of women in the first half of the nineteenth century, starting with their private environment and ending with their public interactions, and, on top of these, the discrepancy existing between the way they perceived themselves, and the way they were perceived by the others.

The first part, pp. 27-79, comments on the legal status and the image in the public mind that women enjoyed at the beginning of the nineteenth century: trapped in a discourse that enforced two extremes, virtue or vice, the woman was relegated to the private realm as obedient daughter and loving mother or wife, or, on the opposite, to the periphery of society, as an outcast due to her sexual charms and ignorance; this simplistic picture was many a times reinforced by the opinions of the foreign travellers to the region who fell prey to their Romanticized view of women populating the lands under Ottoman influence (pp. 71-72).

The second part, pp. 81-188, tackles the issue of women who, by birth, by accident or by misfortune, were obliged to live in confinement, be it the private area as the house or the monastery. The existence of the widows and of the orphans was monitored by the community since their case fell under the latterʼs  financial care: the remaining family members, the distant relatives, the Church, or the other members of the parish. The codes of behaviour agreed by the community were strictly followed, long after the establishment of the institutions of social assistance of secular inspiration. There was, however, an instance in which women could benefit from a certain degree of autonomy, and that was, as strange as it may seem, the abduction. If at the beginnng of the century, this was seen as a damage against the property of the girlʼs family (e.g. the daughter was seen as property), gradually, the woman started to be involved in this act, the abduction becoming the way in which the young couple wished to make their will known in front of often narrow-minded parents. Even in the ‘sacredʼ domestic realm, the things were not much better for the less financially priviledged because the house was often too small, and the closeness with other people like the parents/the in-laws or the servants left the couple without intimacy. The disparity in housing conditions between the city and the village did not necessarily bring more relaxed relations between the members of the family on the one hand, and between these and the servants, on the other hand[9]. In the period covered by the book, the conflicts between the partners were first addressed by the family, then by the community, and, in the event of a divorce, the religious authority was intervening. As shown before, the Church had discretionary powers in this realm until 1830.

The third part, pp. 189-266, refers to those circumstances in which women could perform waged labour.  In other words, the chapter describes the slow transfer of womenʼs responsability from the private to the public sphere. It is not a concidence that these professions were related to the needs of the family like child delivery, upbringing of children, and household maintenance-midwife, nanny, governess, maid, servant. The steps towards the professionalization of these occupations are also described, including the opening of the first institutes that would offer specialized training, and would issue a code of good practice, the establishment of the first private maternities, those legal cases that had as consequence the establishment of an official statute for the servants, etc. A subchapter is dedicated to the female serfs, and to their strategies of survival in a society that was reluctant to recognize their right to be free human beings, and, then, citizens (pp. 263-264).

The fourth part, pp. 267-380, deals with those instances in which the woman is considered to have broken the law. The desperate situations in which the mother kills her newborn, poisons her husband, or submits to prostitution or stealing from the landlord should be seen in connection to a society that thinks of woman in terms of inclusion or exclusion, no middle way. From their statements in front of the court, the reader catches a glimpse of their predicament. In fact, it is due to the appearances in the court (it is good to add that each chapter highlights a specific legal case) that light is thrown on lives of people otherwise inexistent for society. Many of the deeds singled out in this fourth part happen in the world of village, a world guided by rituals and magic, which became a serious contender to modern lifestyle. The case of what we generally call witchcraft is telling and interesting at the same time: Wallachia did not experience the witch-hunt of the Western countries in the Middle Ages (p. 326), with the known political and social implications, the Church in this area was rather tolerant, if not indifferent to both white and black magic practices. Nevertheless, the result was that these practices survived long into modernity, delaying the legitimacy of the doctors and science in front of the village inhabitants.

The last part, pp. 381-392, is a concluding essay that re-takes into discussion the social roles attributed to women, as well as their saga in the quest for modern identity, in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is also a description of the state of the art in which concerns womenʼs rights in the given period, hence an anticipation of what will come in the second part of the century, when womenʼs fight for individuality will turn political, here like elsewhere in Europe.

By the help of the archives, the author re-creates the world of these humble women, particularly the way they speak, or, better said, the way the paternal, marital, or religious authority speak in their name. Indeed, it is not an easy task to make the vocabulary of the beginning of the century comprehensive and actual for todayʼs reader. While we are aware that the book addresses an audience, wider than the one of the scientific community, it should be mentioned that it makes too many concessions to the journalistic style. The use of the label ‘Romaniansʼ when supposedly refering to the ordinary inhabitants of Wallachia, of anachronisms like concepts as ‘motivationʼ (p. 349), ‘social discriminationʼ (p. 200), or of translation of  English  phrases, which really became common places, like ‘home sweet homeʼ, give the reader the impression that he/she listens some popular newsreel, like those of what we may call tabloid TV channels.

Another seeming compromise made for the sake of the wider audience consists of not developing enough some topics. For instance, the cultural assimilation of the Greek elite by the local one in the eighteenth century, or the matrimonial strategies of the local boyar families in relation to the Russian officers, in the beginning of the nineteenth century (p. 158)[10], or the thesis according to which the Greek or Russian chiefs of the local church proved little understanding for the pre-Christian rites of Romanian peasantry  (p. 304) represent as many opportunities for discussion, simply because they are not often re-iterated by the most recent sources dealing with the nineteenth century.

A second line of criticism refers to a somewhat simplistic usage of the ‘center-peripheryʼ dichotomy, perhaps too much indebted to the theories of the 1980s in the field, but not to the newest post-colonial approaches. Accordingly, the book suggests that the periphery emulates by necessity the center, whereas the relation ‘center-peripheryʼ is exclusively one of a hierarchical chain of imitations (pp. 222, 342), in which the remotest periphery, by its very distance from the center, degrades the imitation of the subsequent imitations of what once in one center was the original. Apart from the existence of multiple ‘centersʼ and ‘peripheriesʼ, history showed that in this ‘less developed regionʼ periphery was the creative adapter, if not initiator, of brand new ideas, and that, overall, the exchanges between the West and the East were far more dynamic than the classic Marxist theory supposes.

All in all, the book is a valuable contribution to the womenʼs history in South Eastern Europe, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It definitely makes a good piece in a wider comparative endeavour at regional level. Apart from the already cited, in the book, Susan Zimmermann, whose studies on gender related poverty and prostitution in Budapest showed new insights on the condition of Central-European women in the second half of the nineteenth century, the contributions of Markian Prokopovych, and particularly those of Keely Stauter-Halsted would be reliable research companions of the reviewed book. Since ‘Hardly ever has there been a more helpless woman like meʼ alludes to the relation existing between ethnicity and the female procurer occupation (pp. 360-361), the article of K. Stauter-Halsted on ‘Jews, Prostitution, and Racial Purityʼ in Lʼviv, at the end of the nineteenth century, can be considered a proper epilogue of the instances discussed by Nicoleta Roman. This is because Stauter-Halsted underlines the direct connection exsiting in the public mind between ethnicity and social issues like prostitution, alcoholism; in spite of what statistics was saying, namely that the deviant acts occured proportionally among the population of various ethnicities, the dominant community, the Poles in this specific case, gave to prostitution a racial meaning, thus expressing its ‘anxities about the cleanliness and future health of the nationʼ[11].


[1]Although the official abolition of serfdom is dated as early as 1746, during the term of the Phanariot ruler Constantin Mavrocordat, the system of serfdom continued undisturbed until the middle of the nineteenth century. The serfs were usually performing house-related tasks, which were segregated on gender, women being chambermaids or cleaning ladies, while men were in charge of preparing the coffee and the hookah of the master (e.g. according to the Oriental custom). The everyday life of these people is humorously presented in Aferim! the movie directed by Radu Jude (2015), and by The Phanariot Manuscript, a wonderful, very informed historical fiction written by Doina Ruști (Polirom, 2015) who, based on a real document of the epoch, sets before the readerʼs eyes the life of Bucharest in the year1796. The condition of the serfs, in a non-fictional way, is treated by the anthropologist Andrei Oișteanu in one chapter of his recent Sexuality and Society. History, Religion, and Literature (Polirom, 2016), entitled ‘The Right of the Boyar over his Roma Female Serfsʼ, pp. 468-505.

[2] The author comments that ‘(…) the head of the family had the right to decide whether his wife could work or not. (…) For the married women, their husbands were speaking and negotiating, as for the unmarried ones, their parents were speaking and negotiating. (…)ʼ (p. 229).

[3] Full citizen rights like the right to vote was obtained in Romania very late, in 1938, in the last days of a democratic, constitutional order. Soon after, a royal dictatorship based on a single party system was enacted. Women of higher and lower social status alike continued to be subjected to biases from the part of a misogynic society, if one considers that at the time, the elite had predominantly Far Right political sympathies. The full citizen rights were obtained in mid 1940s, once with the installment of the Communist regime in the country. Yet, as we know, many of the rights remained on paper.

[4] As the author points out, it was not a coincidence that the first of their jobs were related to the private realm, p. 387.

[5] This one of 1828-1829; there were several wars between the two powers which ended by the imposition of Russian Empireʼs influence in South-Eastern Europe in the detriment of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the modern epoch, the latter became more and more obsolete at institutional level, to which we add the nationalist tensions of the nineteenth century, like those produced by the more politically minded people in the Empire such as the Greeks.

[6] When describing economic and social dynamics of the Danubian Principalities in the epoch, most of the sources focus on the capitals. Even today, there are no up-to-date historical monographs of cities with less numerous population, like Craiova, once an important trade center in the region.

[7] The official title of the ruler of the Principality; it survived in the publicʼs mind long after the arrival of Carol of Hohenzollern.

[8] For details related to the specific studies of the mentioned authors, see footnotes from pages: 19, 45, 60, 68-70, 72, 74-77, 103, 114, 147, 236, 238, 281.

[9] The place of the servants in the household organization and their rank in the servantʼs hierarchy represented distinct realities if compared to the Western realm, in the sense that the physical closeness to the landlords, but also the less rigid etiquette among the local Wallachian aristocracy, made the servants more participative in the landlordsʼ private lives (pp. 147, 319).

[10] It is true, these issues were studied in the past by scholars of whom we mention, again, Paul Cernovodeanu, yet, their investigation from new perspectives would be but rewarding.

[11] Keely Stauter-Halsted, “A Generation of Monsters”: Jews, Prostitution, and Racial Purity in the 1892 Lʼviv White Slavery Trial” in Austrian History Yearbook 38 (2007): 25-35, p. 34.

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