Scientific Misogyny?
professeur d’Histoire des sciences / directeur d’études

(Oxford University / EHESS)

Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquente

Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquente. Il genere e la nascita della criminologia, Roma, Carocci Editore, 2019, 339 pp.

About Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquente. Il genere e la nascita della criminologia (2019)

In her book Les Femmes en prison (1843, p. 327), Josephine Mallet quoted passages from a talk Louis-Mathurin Moreau-Christophe, inspector general of prisons during the July monarchy, gave to novices entering the order of the Soeurs de Marie-Joseph, established in 1838 to administer surveillance and salvation to female inmates. Moreau-Christophe warned that “la peine d’emprisonnement que vous croyez de date fort ancienne, est d’institution toute nouvelle”. It was only relatively recently, he argued, that prisons had become a major, if not the major institutional measure to deal with criminals. As a consequence, the number of prisoners had grown exponentially. The size of the female population behind bars constituted a further, major institutional and moral problem, requiring specialized personnel to be addressed: a female religious order was the perfect answer.

The first two chapters of Silvano Montaldo’s Donne delinquenti survey the many ways in which during the early decades of the nineteenth century a variety of commentators active across Western society addressed the problem of how to deal with the growing prison population, the female inmates in particular1. The female criminal posed particular problems. Whether idealised as mothers or vilified as beings lacking sufficient mental capacities to conceive a crime, female prisoners elicited special attention from early social scientists, Adolphe Quetelet in particular, medical commentators, and philanthropists often motivated by religious considerations. Thus, for instance, the Catholic Josephine Mallet based her reliance on religious assistance by deploying physiological and neurological arguments pointing to the organic weakness of females. She relied on the physician and polygraph Jean-Baptiste Felix Descuret’s 1841 La Médecine des passions to repeat that women’s nervous and reproductive constitution made them particularly vulnerable (p. 63-64).

Chapter one devotes close attention to commentators from across Europe and the United States: to name a few, the British quaker Elizabeth Fray, who denied that female criminals were the victims of constitutional faults; Fry’s Italian correspondent, Giulia Colbert Falletti Marchesa di Barolo, a strict religious disciplinarian; Eliza Farnham, a devotee to phrenology, who could not exclude that among the women she had studied at Sing Sing there were some irreparably condemned to crime by their cerebral configuration.

Chapter two, “Un ventennio di dibattiti” (p. 71-108) accounts for a breath-taking list of commentators mobilizing what they considered as the latest scientific resources in order to explain the growth of violent crimes – and crime in general – in European and North American societies. During the 1840s and the 1850s, the debate on the threat posed to social stability by the classes dangereuses constituted the often-implicit scheme of reference for researches into mental ailments, heredity, and gender difference. Concerning heredity, Prosper Lucas Traité philosophique et physiologique de l'hérédité naturelle (1847-1850), a book much admired by Darwin, suggested that the study of family lines could help establishing the transmission of criminal predispositions: in many cases, for instance, people affected by a homicidal monomania counted violent criminals as their relatives or ancestors. In his widely read Traité des dégénérescences (1857 – the publisher, Baillière, sold it through its branches in the British Isles and the United States), Bénédict Morel drew on Lucas to theorize the effects of “degeneration”, which he described in natural history and moral terms.

Gabrielle Bompard, involved in the famous “Malle sanglante de Millery” crime
Anonymous “Incendiaire”

On the left: Gabrielle Bompard, involved in the famous “Malle sanglante de Millery” crime

On the right: Anonymous “Incendiaire”

As it clearly emerges from the examples above, the social analysis of criminal phenomena and prostitution was inextricably linked to debates in the medical and the natural sciences, involving a variety of disciplinary endeavours we would hardly call “scientific” today (phrenology, physiognomy, craniometry…) which did however, carry considerable intellectual and social authority during the early and mid-decades of the nineteenth century. In their works, Morel and Lucas, to stay with our two examples, commented on, and utilized a vast array of contemporary “scientific” sources. It could indeed be argued that to the historian, their interest lies not only in what they said, but also in what they read – for instance, in the early 1850s Morel was still influenced by Buffon, whom mainstream natural scientists disparagingly considered by then as entertaining literature. Morel also appeared to have read Julien-Joseph Virey and Bory de Saint-Vincent on the question of the races of mankind, though he personally agreed with Buffon that there was only one species to the genus, which processes of degeneration had adapted to different climates.

Montaldo ably steers the anachronistic Scylla of adopting present-day categories of scientific legitimacy by not denouncing the frivolous irrelevance of (to us) pseudo-scientific arguments deployed in debating crime and female crime. He also keeps at a safe distance from the Charybdis of accusing nineteenth century “science” and science in general of being the “cause” for the inhuman treatment of criminals, prostitutes, or the numerous victims of colonialism and imperialism. A point we will discuss again below.

As far as the main focus of Montaldo’s book is concerned, the final sections of chapter two devote a fair amount of attention to debates on prostitution in Western societies, and pave the way to chapter three, where the author monitors the emergence of the belief that prostitution was the female equivalent of male crime, a conclusion Lombroso later claimed as its own. Chapters 3 to 6 concentrate on Lombroso, his school – including Gina, his daughter, a priceless personal editor and research assistant – and Guglielmo Ferrero, Lombroso’s misogynist son-in-law and co-author of La donna criminale.


Paola and Luigia (Gina) Lombroso

Readers may find the first two chapters difficult to read. Authors, countries, and disciplines succeed each other at a sustained pace. The one hundred or so pages taken up by chapters 1 and 2 could easily have been multiplied by two, to do full justice to the breath-taking number of sources mobilized. I found myself regularly searching the index of names to chase where someone had appeared for the first time and to remind myself of what they had written or argued for. To anticipate a general criticism – which in no way impinges upon my admiration for Montaldo’s magisterial tour de force – the lack of a bibliography makes the reading even more difficult, since the footnotes, using the well-established, space-saving practice of “op. cit.”, makes it time consuming and tedious to find the full title of a work often mentioned a hundred pages earlier. A bibliography at the end of the volume would have greatly assisted readers, without mentioning the fact that it would have been the best guide available in any language to the literature on crime, and female crime in particular.

Chapters 3 to 6 make easier reading: the focus on Lombroso, his friends and foes, career and publications guides the reader through a landscape of debates and actors as crowded as the one sketched in the first two chapters, albeit structured by the narrative of the rapid ascent of Lombroso to international acclaim – and vituperation. Montaldo has profited from decades of studies on Lombroso and comments generously on previous work. He has however added a systematic overview of contemporary debates on crime, pointing out the many elements of the synthesis provided by the Italian “father of criminology” already present in the relevant literature at the European and transatlantic levels. Montaldo’s successful strategy is to avoid the easy (and often misleading) teleology of looking for precursors, choosing instead to deal with the many different options under discussions on a wide range of issues contemporaries saw as pertinent to the analysis of crime. It is the wider picture that helps Montaldo to add important new insights into Lombroso’s choices and strategies, in his attempt – doomed to failure – to win over potential allies and convince critics.

Chapter 3 introduces the reader to the formative years of Lombroso, his selective readings, especially of French sources, up to the success and controversies elicited by his 1876 L’uomo delinquente. Chapter 4, “La crisi dell’antropologia criminale” concentrates on the critical reactions to Criminal Man in Italy and in Europe, with particular reference to the stern opposition from French and Italian authors such as Gabriel Tarde or Napoleone Colajanni, Lombroso’s nemesis at home. Chapter Five, “Un nuovo trattato per risorgere”, documents Lombroso’s choice to re-assert the centrality of his brand of criminology by writing, assisted by Ferrero, Criminal Woman. Chapter 6, “Successo internazionale o fiasco?”, evaluates the impact of the book and the scathing comments it mustered across Europe. Yet, it should be stressed that the growing isolation Lombroso experienced within the criminological community and the attacks he suffered from prominent colleagues did not prevent his work from becoming a sort of reference text for judiciary and police personnel in several European countries and the United States. Lombroso became a household name throughout the Western world. The final chapter also provides a thoroughly documented overview of translations in several languages, and of the negotiations Lombroso and Ferrero undertook to ensure the international circulation of the book, often accepting major cuts to the text.

The critical survey of Lombroso’s criminological theses – the born criminal, his or her craniological, anatomical and physiognomic identifiers, their quasi-zoological classification… – is accompanied by perceptive analyses of Lombroso’s rather shrewd, albeit not always successful, manoeuvres to control journals and publishing houses, or to steer in its favour discussions held at the earliest international congresses of criminal anthropology, the first one in particular, organized by the Italian school in Rome on November 17-25, 1885. The second congress (Paris, August 10-17, 1889) witnessed concentrated attacks on Lombroso, who did not expect the onslaught, and was deeply mortified by it. To one contemporary, the Belgian Isidore Maus, the third congress, held in Bruxelles in 1892 (7-14 August) recited “l’oration funèbre” of the Italian school (Revue Philosophique de Louvain, 1, 1894, p. 97). Significantly, Lombroso and 40 other Italian signatories had written beforehand a letter to the organizers, declaring that they would not attend. The lesson of 1889 had been learned.

Of particular and specific interest to the main focus of the book are the many passages devoted to reconstructing debates on the place of women in contemporary society. A majority of commentators throughout the Western world had no doubt: the natural sciences, anatomy, neuroanatomy and the biology of reproduction in particular, held the key to the understanding of the subordinate place of women in all known human groups. Darwin himself was to some extent more sympathetic towards slaves than women, though he could not exclude that upper-class females, through continued education, could eventually (albeit only partially) overcome their constitutional mental deficiencies. He too, like Lombroso, relied on a devoted daughter for proof-reading and translations. Still, intelligence was indispensable to men, but not that important to the survival of women. A position Lombroso and Ferrero were prepared to endorse.

To a majority of male commentators, whether or not trained in the various “sciences” debating the issue, the subordination of women was not a social problem, but a natural fact. As the Russian-born, Italian political agitator Anna Kuliscioff perceptively noted (echoing Karl Marx), “this tendency to consider as deep, biological characters the accidental effects of social contingencies prevailing in a given historical moment, constitutes the eternal Achilles’ heel of the anthropological school” (cit. p. 215). Montaldo has written perceptively and with humour on Lombroso’s dealing with powerful female personalities who represented a clear indictment of his misogyny: the Russian expert on prostitution, Praskov’ia Nikolaevna Tarnovskaia, Anna Kuliscioff, Clemence Royer, the French translator of Darwin, or Frances Kellor, the Chicago sociologist, and Gina, his daughter and indispensable assistant. As a compliment to his wife, even the unrepented misogynist Ferrero graciously acknowledged that Gina showed “none of the usual stupidity displayed by women” (p. 196).

Portrait of Pauline Tarnowsky (Praskov’ia Nikolaevna Tarnovskaia)

Portrait of Pauline Tarnowsky (Praskov’ia Nikolaevna Tarnovskaia)

dedicated to Celestina (Nina) de Benedetti (Cesare Lombroso’s wife)

Donne delinquenti is a major addition to nineteenth century studies. As it is by now clear, its interest transcends the question of crime, and of female crime in particular, and addresses wider issues within the contemporary social and intellectual context. Montaldo rises many questions that the historiography on the nineteenth century, and historians of science in particular, are still reluctant to tackle in full. To limit our discussion to one point, Montaldo himself appears at times to abandon his equanimous treatment of “scientific” and “pseudo-scientific” arguments even though, as already noted, many of the authors he comments upon rarely saw any significant epistemological difference between anatomy and physiognomy. When referring to the “cyclone Colajanni” battering Lombroso, Montaldo attributes the rapid decline of the criminologist’s fortune to his “increasingly obvious scientific frailty” (p. 161). True, Italian and French critics insisted on Lombroso’s cavalier use of statistics, his reluctance to abandon discredited features of craniology, his rhapsodic style and lack of logical consistency, or his crude attribution of diminished sensibility to criminal women and women in general – a dismal detail linking misogynist literature to anatomical “proofs” of the inferiority of coloured populations.

The frailty of Lombroso’s “scientific” procedures did not escape Gina’s sharp mind, when she recalled that her father had been a man of passion, intuition, always looking for a “fact” adding further confirmation to what he always knew and never doubted. Lombroso expected from collaborators “that they let themselves guide by facts before elaborating a synthesis, never to formulate a thesis and look for a demonstration”. Yet, Gina unwittingly gave the game up when she explained what her father understood to be the correct scientific method of collecting “facts”. Lombroso gave Ferrero “a heap of books to read, of different kinds, ethnographical, anthropological, literary; biographies, novels, travellers’ narratives – asking him to deduce from them the psychological features of the normal woman” (p. 190). “Facts” were for the most part read, not produced nor constructed, and never verified. This was probably the reason why Lombroso’s statistics were often based on a limited number of cases: he had already reached his conclusions, drawn from the “facts” he was eagerly looking for through perusing a huge body of miscellaneous literature. He only needed a small sample of confirmations to establish the scientific foundation of his deeply held prejudices.

During the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Lombroso was not alone in privileging reading about observations, experiments or measurements rather than conducting them himself (which at times he did or asked pupils to engage in). His frailty in this respect was a feature he shared with a wide spectrum of scientific authors, popularisers, contributors to periodicals and encyclopaedias. Throughout the century, armchair naturalists, anthropologists, and race theorists produced works that enjoyed considerable success and carried authority with the common reader and not a few colleagues, based on exercises of compilation. Reviews were typically more read than technical books, and attention was usually concentrated on the guiding ideas announced or promoted, rather than on the evidence (often anecdotical) on which they were formulated. If we compare the style of “scientific” work and argument privileged by Lombroso, with the ones deployed by Arthur de Gobineau in his widely read Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853), by Francis Galton in Hereditary Genius (1863), or by many works produced later in the century by Gustave Le Bon, we are faced with a similar, complex mixture of prejudices and anecdotal “facts” supposedly validated by “scientific” observation and statistical manipulation. It is worth remembering that Gobineau fascinated Mantegazza, Galton’s laughable statistics (in 1863) impressed Darwin, and Le Bon, to us the epitome of prejudice and bigotry, was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his home-made experiments on radiation.

Montaldo is of course absolutely correct to perceptively detail contemporary critiques of Lombroso evoking his logical and scientific idiosyncrasies. The question is whether his defects were perceived to be such by all colleagues and members of the reading public throughout the Western world. After all, explicit or implicit reference to Lombroso underpinned, and still does, recurrent attempts to deny all social causation to crimes, in order to establish a biological justification for unlimited repression and incarceration. The wider issue involved here calls for a deeper appreciation of the many meanings the word “science” embodied during the nineteenth century, the close contiguity between research and popularization, the active role of readers’ choices in shaping the editorial policies of periodicals and publishing houses. Up to the last decades of the century, the cultivated common reader continued to eagerly consume general views of nature and natural views of humanity and society. The common reader and the specialist alike appeared to pay less attention to technical, scientifically accurate books than to popularizations, when the confirmation of social, race and gender prejudices were concerned. The often massive technical volumes Darwin or Haeckel published during their careers were hardly an editorial success, whereas their works aimed at the general public contributed significantly to their wealth: the scientific/cultural debate dealt with the latter, rarely with the former. Ultimately, the common reader appeared to cherish assumptions the scientific author often shared. Lombroso was no exception.

More than from scientific frailty, Lombroso’s reputation probably suffered from changes in disciplinary configuration and priorities. Within the broader context of the 1880s and the 1890s, the obsession with the natural foundation of all social and human phenomena suffered a backlash from various intellectual and cultural constituencies. Even “Madonna evoluzione”, as Antonio Labriola put it, paled when facing the so called “bankruptcy” of science. This did not prevent many crudities Lombroso had worked hard to formulate as scientifically grounded conclusions trickling through professional (doctors, members of the judiciary and the police, politicians) and popular culture for decades to come.

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Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquente. Il genere e la nascita della criminologia, Roma, Carocci Editore, 2019.