Welcome to my blog. Please feel free to roam around and learn a bit more about Portuguese History. To find your interests, please, have a look at the right side of the page, where you can find all the posts arrenged into labels, such as "Society", "Politics", etc. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


The Devassas

(Taken from the book “História da vida privada em Portugal – A Idade Moderna”, by José Mattoso)

Portugal, during the Modern Ages, is considered to have been a Religious State, this meaning that religion had not only a big importance in people´s lives, like believes, ceremonials and traditions but also that the Catholic Church controlled every aspect of the private, social and political life of each Portuguese.
Portuguese Church had several means to identify each singular person from a civil perspective, it was the singular responsible for documenting parenthood and the nations geographical/political administrator. Still today a freguesia is the last administrative unit in Portugal, having the word an origin in this time-period. Every year, around Easter, there would be local census all over the country and the information would be kept in the parishes' registers. In this way, the Catholic Church didn't had only a role in people's believes but also in the social infrastructures of the time.
Other parts of Europe, like Bavaria and Italy, also very Catholic, weren't as extreme. Portugal, the closer it came to the 18th century the least secular it became, in opposition to the rest of the Continent. Other countries suffered a separation of State and Church and had several social and political functions removed from the control of Church, having these become entirely State affairs, as seen in the liberal and republican movements in France, for example. But not Portugal. Law, order, justice and other similar were believed to belong entirely to Church. Everybody agreed on it, it wasn't an imposed thing. So, social management “techniques” like, inquires done by the local parishes, Inquisition (Portuguese Inquisition lasted almost 300 years, officially from 1531 to 1821), military orders, charity, ancestry, justice, are a few examples how real power (the Crown) and religious power intertwined.

Women in Church, by Félix Doumet, 1806.

One of the best ways that the Portuguese Church had to control the population was through the so called Devassas, inquests (today this Portuguese word is used to describe women of bad reputation/intention). It was sort of a preventive inspection that wasn't necessarily provoked by suspicion or complaints. It was a supervisory activity to control the population's morals that happened regularly all over the country. Religious representatives would organize local “courts” were everybody could talk or accuse neighbours, family and friends alike about everything that we today consider private, from who-looked-to-much-at-whom to who-had-children-out-of-wedlock. And not only sexual affairs were discussed but also petty crime. These inquests would last a few days and the Church would apply punishment like penitence, fines or imprisonments. In fact, many prisons in Portugal were controlled by Church. Since confession was protected by secrecy, the Devassas were a good way to turn the private into public and these inquiries were a good way to avoid a long judicial process, since the accused would confess publicly the sins and sign a document. Canonic law before secular law (which didn't existed in Portugal).
So, Church had a great impact in the way people interacted with each other, like marriage, sex, reproduction, population growth control,etc. In fact, unlike other countries, the time between sexual matureness and marriage was immense (over ten years) in Portugal. People married late and it wasn't uncommon for young men not to have any sexual experience until then. The average age people married in Portugal in the 18th century was about the age of 28 years. Within wedlock, not many children were born, since women became mothers late and not in their prime any more and many women didn't even married at all. But one thing is to do what religion told you (which was completely anti-natural), the other thing is what really happened in Society. In fact Portugal was the country, in Europe, that had the most baby hatches.
Not only was there a religious aspect that controlled marriage but also an economical one. Young people were economical dependant from their parents and only married when they inherited the family property. Many young women and female orphans were granted dowries by charity to ensure they had a less “sinful” life and could marry. And since 2nd born sons almost didn't inherit, male migration inside the nations borders was common. Young men would travel to the big cities to look for work and to learn a new trade.

Marquês de Pombal, Earl of Oeiras, drawing by C. Legrand.

Some changes in society appeared with internal and external influences, mid 18th century. The French Revolution and, internally, a man that had more power then the king D. José the 1st: Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis de Pombal, Earl of Oeiras, Minister of the Kingdom. He was a declared secularist that tried to install in Portugal the different modern fashions that emerged in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. He tried to control the power of Church, by imposing many secular laws like to minimize the number of young men and women (mostly noble) to enter religious orders, by abolishing many orders and by founding secular schools. And some change happened in fact. But the earthquake of 1755 made the people return to their old ways and to look at any change with suspicion.
This was the social life in Portugal in one, and the most important, aspect but if here social conformity about morals was taken to extremes, the opposite happened in the colonies, mostly in Brazil, where puritanism hadn't much success but that would be a whole different chapter.

Visiting female convents was very fashionable in the late 18th to early 19th century. Here's a drawing by Thomas Rowlandson in "Pastimes in Portugal or a visit to nunneries", 1811.

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