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Disorderly Families: Infamous Letters from the Bastille Archives 
by Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault, edited by Nancy Luxon, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton.
Minnesota, 328 pp., £28.99, January 2017, 978 0 8166 9534 8
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At​ the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dr Manette is ‘recalled to life’. His death was figurative – he had been held in the Bastille for 18 years by lettre de cachet. The king’s sealed letter, authorising the detention of a man or woman without trial for an indeterminate period of time, was one of the Ancien Régime’s most reviled mechanisms. The letters began to be used by the king for the maintenance of public order in the 16th century, became more frequent in the 17th, and stopped suddenly in the 18th during the revolution. Among those imprisoned by lettres de cachet were the Marquis de Sade, at the request of his wife and mother-in-law, for rape and murder; the Comte de Mirabeau, at the request of his father, for kidnapping and eloping with a married woman; and Voltaire, at the request of the Chevalier de Rohan, whom Voltaire challenged to a duel, for being a violent menace.

In his essay ‘Lives of Infamous Men’, Michel Foucault argued that the fame of these victims of lettres de cachet is misleading: ‘Their infamy is only a modality of the universal fama.’ True infamy ‘mixed neither with ambiguous scandal, nor with secret admiration, compounds no kind of glory’ and can only be found attached to otherwise obscure lives: ‘Lives which are as though they hadn’t existed, lives which only exist from the clash with a power whose only wish was to annihilate or at least to efface them, lives which only return to us through the effect of multiple chances – these are the infamies whose few remains I wanted to collect here.’ Foucault imagined a ‘great compilation of infamy’ from almost everywhere and every time. He hoped for ‘an anthology of existences’, ordinary misfortunes and adventures, ‘brief lives, chanced upon in books and documents’, singular lives, vies poèmes, whose poetry consisted in the few words through which they avoided oblivion and became part of recorded history.

Foucault had two lives in particular in mind as he began to map ‘not even the skeleton of a genre’. In an early 18th-century internment register in the Bibliothèque Nationale he discovered a reclusive usurer and a sodomite friar. Mathurin Milan was sent to the hospital of Charenton on 31 August 1707: ‘His madness has always been to hide from his family, to lead an obscure life in the country, to have lawsuits, to lend usuriously and recklessly, to walk his poor spirit upon unknown paths, and to believe himself capable of the very greatest works.’ Jean Antoine Tousard was sent to the château of Bicêtre on 21 April 1701: ‘Apostate friar, seditious, capable of the greatest crimes, sodomite, atheist if it were possible; this is a veritable monster of abomination that there would be less inconvenience in suppressing than in letting go free.’

These remnants of lives– compressed, factual, fleeting – moved Foucault more than literature. Unlike Dr Manette, the usurer and the sodomite had really existed, and Foucault felt ‘the relentlessness and the ruin’ under these few words ‘polished like stone’.

The Bastille archives, which included the records of the Parlement de Paris, the king’s household and the police, were pillaged, scattered or burned in the days following the storming of the fortress on 14 July 1789. Beaumarchais and Restif de la Bretonne, among others, cried: ‘Save the papers!’ The National Assembly appointed commissioners to protect them and the Commune de Paris appealed to citizens who still had documents to return them. Approximately 600,000 paper records were turned in. Foucault worked in the resulting archive (supplemented by the records rescued by the Russian diplomat and bibliophile Pierre Dubrowsky) for much of his writing life. He began his research for the History of Madness there.

Foucault returned to the Bastille archives and the idea of ‘a great compilation of infamy’ after the publication of Discipline and Punish and The Will to Knowledge, the first volume of his History of Sexuality, and in collaboration with a junior colleague, Arlette Farge, began to work on an edition of lettres de cachet solicited or issued by members of the prisoners’ families. In her afterword to the first English translation of Disorderly Families Farge, who had originally studied to become a magistrate specialising in juvenile law before focusing on food theft in 18th-century Paris, describes as a revelation and a comfort reading the original essay, ‘Lives of Infamous Men’, which Foucault had published in 1975, the same year as Discipline and Punish: ‘Reading about the emotional and physical resonance Foucault experienced was a revelation for me, encouraging and comforting. All the more so because, as a woman, known for being sensitive, my perspective as a historian was often put in doubt, sullied by attributes that historical science didn’t want to understand and on which it had casually shut the door.’

At first, Foucault wanted to assemble the letters as a tableau in which ordinary people tried to direct the king’s power towards their grievances: ‘a tableau wherein misery would challenge glory’. Farge thought some kind of analysis was necessary and they agreed to divide the letters into two categories: ‘Husbands and Wives’ and ‘Parents and Children’. They assembled 94 letters from the years 1728 and 1758.

Foucault knew that lettres de cachet might seem monotonous to modern readers. They are repetitive: first because of the standard formulae which individuals, or the scribes employed by them, resorted to when addressing the king. One spouse or parent after another ‘humbly represents’ to the king or ‘remonstrates’ to him about the insecurity their partner or child’s dissolute behaviour has plunged them into. In return for the king’s intervention the petitioner promises that he or she ‘will never cease to pray to God for the preservation and health of Your Highness’. The second reason is that the causes of their relative or partner’s dissolution, sex or alcohol, never change. The claim that the petitioner is no longer safe recurs along with the implication that it is the role of the police, and ultimately the king, to intervene.

In ‘Lives of Infamous Men’ Foucault quoted the Duc de Chaulieu’s quip that ‘in cutting off the head of the king the French Revolution decapitated every paterfamilias.’ Disorderly Families provides evidence to the contrary: lettres de cachet were not always solicited by men, and ending the practice removed an alternative to expensive and cumbersome lawsuits. While it was the case that under the Ancien Régime a man who knew how to play the system could use a lettre de cachet to become a tyrant in his own home, so too could a woman. More important, a woman being beaten by her husband could hope that a lettre de cachet, a legal version of ‘the king’s touch’ that was thought to cure leprosy and other diseases, might transform her situation. Suzanne Baillet, a servant married to another servant, Louis Couillot, requested his imprisonment by lettre de cachet in 1758. She explained that ‘the ordinary paths to a legal separation (séparation de corps)’ was closed to her because of ‘extreme poverty’. After she had spent five days in childbirth, her husband came home in a state of drunkenness and seized her by the hair, dragged her round the room, and left her for dead, though a surgeon’s wife who was staying in the house intervened. Suzanne claims that her husband, who had brought no money to their marriage, or made much since, spent her own trying to cure his venereal disease. He threatened to murder her, kicked her in the ribs and beat her with a large andiron, giving her three sizable gashes to the head. She included a declaration from a surgeon attesting to the fact that he bandaged these wounds. Her letter concludes:

Those who know her give her reason to hope that you might by your authority and your justice wish to compensate for the insufficiency and the impossibility of appealing to the law to free her from the tyranny of a cruel and inhuman husband, who every day seeks to take her life, either by having him locked away, or by expressly forbidding him under grave penalties to ever set foot in the supplicant’s house. She will never cease to wish for the precious preservation and prosperity of Your Highness.

Suzanne Baillet’s letter was countersigned by neighbours and witnesses, and sent together with a sentence from her landlady: ‘I former landlady certify that Mme Bouillet [sic] occupied a room for 13 years with all of the conduct of a perfectly honest woman where she was beaten by her husband.’

Whether Couillot was imprisoned as a result of his wife’s appeal isn’t recorded. Nor is there any way of knowing for sure if her allegations were true or false, accurate or exaggerated.

The commonest cause of a parent soliciting a lettre de cachet against a child was a dissolute son, in his early twenties, still at home, earning no money and spending plenty; or else a debauched daughter who had left home to live with an unsuitable man or work as a prostitute. One father wrote to the police to complain that his 21-year-old son, an apprentice locksmith, ‘could not stay with any master to finish his apprenticeship: he trafficks with a band of vagabonds and libertines, he goes roaming with them after dark, often staying out all night, and when he returns to his father’s place after 11 o’clock or midnight, he is so drunk that he will not hear reason, he curses and renounces God and threatens to kill his sister.’

Another complained of his son, a ‘journeyman saddler, age 25 and a half, who harbours within himself every bad inclination’, including stealing from his parents. Daughters accused of prostitution sometimes defended themselves by claiming that their parents had been complicit, benefiting financially from their work. When parents used lettres de cachet they hoped for reform and rehabilitation. And if all else failed, there were always the colonies, where disappointing young adults might be sent to start a new life.

Despite the obvious criticisms, using lettres de cachet for reasons of family discipline was relatively uncontroversial and in the debate in the National Assembly about whether or not to abolish the lettre de cachet altogether those that came from family members were distinguished from other kinds as though, Farge and Foucault write, ‘in these cases, the king exercised a more legitimate power than when he locked up his enemies.’ Robespierre complained that the discussion was always about ‘persons imprisoned at the solicitation of their families’, instead of those who ‘were often detained for their virtue alone, for having allowed themselves to let slip a few indications of energy and patriotism’. ‘You will not extricate the wretched from the dungeons of despotism to transfer them to the prisons of justice,’ he warned. It was left to the Abbé Sieyès to draft a plan for reconfiguring the Ancien Régime’s rickety processes of justice, and he too separated ‘domestic reasons’ from the rest.

Sieyès dreamed of a system of parental correction, agreed on by the family following a meticulous police investigation enforced by the courts. On the one hand, at least eight family members would be consulted to establish the facts behind the complaint. On the other, the police and the judiciary would investigate. Finally the chambre de police would play the role of public official before a criminal court and decide whether or not to imprison in the light of the evidence. Farge and Foucault wonder if the intention behind this complicated plan was to discourage people from pursuing their personal grievances through public institutions, or to rehabilitate the lettres de cachet. Either way, it ended in legally organised parental correction under the Civil Code of 1803, but not before it had passed through the Terror and its festival of denunciations, all in the interest of public safety.

The reception of Farge and Foucault’s collaboration, when it was published in 1982 in France, was frosty. Farge puts this down to bafflement that Foucault, who had not published a book since 1976, should produce a slim volume of letters with a scarcely known female scholar. The book launch was at the Gallimard offices on the Left Bank and Farge remembers saying very little, even though there were speeches and journalists were present. Following publication, there was one short review. ‘Foucault was deeply saddened and appalled by this rejection and blanket silence,’ she recalls. Of Farge’s colleagues, only Jacques Revel said anything at all about it to her. Undiscouraged, Farge and Foucault planned further volumes on family secrets, demands for release, and texts written during imprisonment. But in 1984 Foucault died of Aids at the Salpêtrière.

Farge has lived to see historians recognise Foucault’s enormous contribution to their discipline, and to see emotional sensitivity become more important in historical research and writing. She went on to write The Allure of the Archives, and is now considered one of France’s finest historians. But still she notes that ‘little appears about our project’ in the great flood of writing on Foucault. Gallimard reprinted Disorderly Families for the thirtieth anniversary of Foucault’s death, which led to this first English translation by Thomas Scott-Railton, 34 years after the book was published in France.

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