The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

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OK. This is not a classic. It’s not particularly well-written, and I’m not sure how well-researched it all is. Also, the glossary really ought to include a lot more words than it does: I’m having amusing visions of some confused readers having to Google particular words to find out that they are, in fact, Yiddish terms for, ahem, certain parts of the anatomy. However, there are some very interesting aspects to it – not so much, actually, what it says about the famous Venetian Ghetto as what it says about the much lesser-known subject of Jewish slaves in Malta.

The plot is a bit on the bizarre side. A Jewish midwife is summoned from the Venetian ghetto, in 1575, to assist in the delivery of the child of a Catholic countess. This would be illegal: however, she agrees on condition that she be paid enough to ransom her husband, who has been kidnapped as a slave by the Knights of St John in Malta. A baby boy is duly born, but the count’s jealous brother, now no longer his heir, plans to murder the baby and pretend that the murder was a Jewish sacrifice. The midwife murders the brother, rescues the baby, and hides in the house of her sister Jessica, who left the ghetto to run off with a Catholic (this bit presumably copied from Shakespeare, Jessica being the name of Shylock’s daughter who did likewise). Jessica has now become a courtesan. The two sisters pretend to have the plague, but the count’s other brother finds them and murders Jessica. Meanwhile, the count and countess really have both got the plague, and both died. Keeping up? Over in Malta, the midwife’s husband has been sold to a nun, then sold back by the nun, then escaped, boarded a ship, been caught whilst heroically rescuing someone who’d fallen down the rigging, and ended up back in Malta … where, luckily, he is down by the docks when the midwife and the baby, having taken ship for Malta (oh, and there was a bit on the ship involving the contraceptive practices of Bedouin camel-riders), arrive … and she buys his freedom and they go off to Constantinople. Like I said, a bit bizarre.

However, there are some genuinely very interesting aspects to the book. The most poignant one, given recent events, was at the end, when it was pointed out that, at that time, relations between Jews and Muslims were good. It’s something that’s struck me in a lot of places – Istanbul, Alexandria, Fez, Meknes, Marrakech – and how tragic it is that things are … well, as they are now. Also, whilst the Knights of St John are well-known to have fought against the Barbary pirates who took so many slaves, the fact that they themselves took the passengers of merchant ships hostage, as a way of raising money, is little-known. Many of those taken were, like Hannah the midwife’s husband Isaac, Jewish, and there were indeed Jewish societies, the main one being in Venice, for redeeming these captives, as shown in this book. I’ve been trawling the internet for more information about all this, and it seems that the last Jewish slaves in Malta were only freed when the island was taken by Napoleon.

(Isaac is told that the society has run out of money because it’s just ransomed 70 Jewish slaves from Salonika, now Thessaloniki. The story of these slaves is apparently true, and covered in a book written at the time … although the book was written in 1558, so the dates don’t quite work. I’ve had a look on Amazon to see if I can get a copy of it in English, but unfortunately it’d cost £57, for a 164 page book, and my budget doesn’t really extend to that!)

Also, some of what the author writes about Jewish religious practices and about the rules of the Venetian Ghetto would be interesting to people unfamiliar with them, and she also refers to the fact that the Ghetto was partly Ashkenazi and partly Sephardi, something that is often overlooked. And the plot may be bonkers but it is quite exciting. So don’t read this if you’re looking for a classic, but it’s worth a look.

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