Men’s Honour, Women’s Lives

Peter Burke

  • Trial by Impotence: Virility and Marriage in Pre-Revolutionary France by Pierre Darmon, translated by Paul Keegan
    Chatto, 234 pp, £10.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2914 X
  • The Boundaries of Eros: Sex, Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice by Guido Ruggiero
    Oxford, 223 pp, £25.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 19 503465 1
  • The Tuscans and their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 by David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber
    Yale, 404 pp, £32.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 300 03056 8
  • Women, Family and Ritual in Renaissance Italy by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Chicago, 338 pp, £25.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 226 43925 9
  • French Women in the Age of Enlightenment edited by Samia Spencer
    Indiana, 429 pp, $35.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 253 32481 5

‘And if you know of any impediments, either of consanguinity, affinity or spiritual relationship, or of any other reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, you are bound to declare the same to us as soon as possible.’ As a child, hearing the banns read out in church, I used to wonder idly what kind of ‘other reason’ there might be. In fact, the canon lawyers distinguish quite a number of such reasons, including force, error, insanity, homosexuality, and also impotence, the subject of Pierre Darmon’s study, published in French in 1979 and now available in English translation.

Darmon’s book, written with passion in a rather heavy Gallic rhetoric somewhat difficult to turn into fluent English, is at once a history of an institution of the old regime and a critique of it, culminating in a plea for the Catholic Church to allow divorce. It begins with a flourish: ‘Among the many groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Ancien Régime in France – the insane, the poor, sodomites, alchemists and blasphemers – the impotent have long been forgotten.’ With these words, Darmon carefully places himself in the tradition of the late Michel Foucault, his history of madness as well as his more recent, regrettably unfinished history of sexuality. But the book does not live up to the expectations aroused by the beginning.

Trial by Impotence deals in turn with the canon lawyers’ categories of impotence (natural and accidental; male and female; absolute, relative and ‘respective’); with marginal cases, notably with hermaphrodites; with the procedures followed in the courts; and, rather briefly, with the social status of the litigants. Although the author does not discuss the chronology of the trials in any detail, a picture of development over time does emerge from the book. ‘From the 16th century onwards,’ we learn, ‘the trickle of impotence trials took on the proportions of a tidal wave.’ The causes célèbres – Langey, Gesvres, Michel – came in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The ‘indecent publicity’ of these trials (‘Never did private parts have less privacy than those of the Marquis de Gesvres or Jacques François Michel’) led to criticisms of the system, which was in any case abolished after the French Revolution. It was, however, revived in the 19th century, and continues in vigour – if that is the word – today.

Darmon’s book is solidly based on the trial records and also on Early Modern legal and medical treatises, from Aguesseau to Zacchia. It includes a good deal of curious information, together with a number of memorable anecdotes – some comic, some tragic, and some nauseating. The author makes a few psychoanalytical observations, and a few remarks about the ‘myth of the hymen’ and the ‘myth of virility’, which are interesting in themselves but are not developed or indeed integrated with the details of the trials. A valuable piece of work in many respects, it fails to give the reader much idea why the law relating to sexuality was the way it was in pre-Revolutionary France.

The problem is that Darmon the moralist is constantly getting under the feet of Darmon the historian. The moralist sees everything in black and white (mainly black). He praises occasional ‘liberal’ attitudes but condemns what he calls – in defiance of his own chronology – ‘iniquitous Medieval severity’. Among his favourite adjectives, or his translator’s (but the difference between the French and English editions is not very great in these cases), are ‘reactionary’, ‘bizarre’, ‘obscene’ and ‘inefficient’. His targets are the lawyers and the Church, a church treated as if it were monolithic and diagnosed as if it were a suitable case for treatment: ‘obsessional’ and given to ‘voyeurism’ and even to ‘intellectual onanism’, whatever that may mean. The celibate clergy are described, without a hint of irony, as ‘phallocentric’. A reader does not have to be an apologist for the old regime, or even, for that matter, for the Church, to feel that Darmon’s moralising approach, much coarser as well as much more conventional than Foucault’s, prevents him from understanding, or allowing us to understand, how there came to be such trials and such a legal system.

A generation ago, it was the witch-trial which historians condemned without making the imaginative effort to understand the ‘logic in witchcraft’, as the late Max Gluckman called it. If a study of impotence trials aspires to be more than a piece of historical voyeurism itself, it needs to address this kind of question, but Darmon does not do so. Although his fourth chapter bears the title ‘The Impotence Trial in Context’, context is precisely what his study lacks.

Economic and social context for a start. Occasional references to the ‘social imperatives’ underlying trials and verdicts are never filled out. Although the author notes what he calls the ‘astonishing’ predominance of the nobility in the trials, he fails to discuss the inheritance system and its possible relevance to these cases. The legal context is not filled in sufficiently, as will be obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to compare this book with J.T. Noonan’s Power to Dissolve (1972), a major study of lawyers and marriage cases in the Roman curia which analyses the impact of the canon law system on the individual through a close reading of six cases spread over the period 1653-1923. Most surprising of all, the general cultural context is not given the attention it needs in order to make the description and the narrative intelligible. Surprising, because the author carried out the research for this book when he was a graduate student of the late Robert Mandrou, a historian of mentalities who had himself been a pupil of Lucien Febvre. Like his friend Marc Bloch, Febvre was a kind of historical anthropologist who insisted on the otherness of the past, and on the need to study the unspoken assumptions in different periods as a way of making this otherness intelligible.

To sense the difference between our own assumptions and those of Early Modern Frenchmen, we have only to turn to a legal treatise such as Pierre Ayrault’s Des Procez Faicts au Cadaver (1591), which defends not only the trials of corpses but those of animals and inanimate objects as well. That was how some lawyers reasoned in the period when the trickle of impotence trials was turning into a flood. In these trials, a recurrent theme was that of the impotence caused by witchcraft, especially the so-called nouement d’aiguillette, interpreted by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in one of his most brilliant essays as a symbolic act in which a cord was tied by an ill-wisher during the wedding, in imitation of the current practice for castrating bulls. Another problem which seems to demand an approach in terms of the history of mentalities (or cognitive anthropology) is that of the hermaphrodites discussed in Darmon’s third chapter. In the 18th century, a certain Grandjean (‘Anne’ or ‘Jean Baptiste’ according to taste), was treated as a ‘profaner of the sacrament of marriage’ and placed in solitary confinement because he/she ‘could be incarcerated neither with men nor with women’. Darmon deals well with the tragic fate of the individual, but he seems to lack any sense of the problem posed for contemporaries by this kind of challenge to cultural boundaries. As Mary Douglas has observed of a similar case (Corbett v. Corbett, 1971), it is an example of a much more general process by which ‘physical nature is masticated and driven through the cognitive meshes to satisfy social demands for clarity.’

Some historians of sex and marriage are of course well aware of the need to defamiliarise the subject and to examine the attitudes embedded in social and legal practice. The late Philippe Ariès, for example. Or Jean-Louis Flandrin, whose study Le Sexe et l’Occident (1981) is a collection of essays on changing attitudes which well deserves translation. But Darmon is not in the Flandrin class.

Nor is Guido Ruggiero, although his book on sex crimes in ‘Renaissance’ – or late Medieval – Venice is extremely welcome for its systematic attempt to squeeze information about changing attitudes to sexuality from the judicial records. Ruggiero deals in turn with fornication, adultery, rape and sodomy, not forgetting what he calls ‘sex crimes against God’ – which include not only sexual intercourse on the part of priests and nuns but also copulation in church (under the organ of San Barnaba in one instance). Such actions were seen as injuries to the honour of God, just as sexual intercourse with a married woman was considered to injure the honour of her husband, while fornication with an unmarried girl damaged the honour of her father. Only in rape cases was the girl considered the real victim, and even then the case would only be taken seriously if she was of noble family or under 12 years old. The sex cases which were taken most seriously – to judge by the penalties – were those involving ‘sodomy’: in other words, either homosexuality (said to have been common among Venetian as among other sailors); intercourse with animals (not a Venetian speciality); or, finally, copulation in what would later be notorious as ‘the Italian manner’. In 1481, a fisherman was beheaded for what the court described as ‘frequent sodomy with his own wife’. Despite the risk of being burned alive, however, the gay subculture, centred on barbers’ shops, was, we learn, ‘more public and perhaps more widespread’ in 15th-century Venice than ever before.

Ruggiero seems to know the Venetian judicial records well and he asks some searching questions. He pays attention to the changing rhetoric of the trials, and he tries to use records of sexual deviance (the ‘Renaissance culture of illicit sexuality’, as he calls it, not altogether happily) to throw light on what was considered normal. He argues, for instance, that there is more evidence of love, courtship and the independence of women in 15th-century Venice than historians have traditionally been prepared to admit. A second interesting conclusion is political, to the effect that Venetians – from nobles to craftsmen – were beginning to turn to the courts for help, while fornication and adultery were coming to be seen as offences against the honour of the ‘state’. It is a pity that here and elsewhere, despite his emphasis on the nuances of language, the author fails to quote the original Latin.

There is much to be said for Ruggiero’s study, although it lacks finesse and tends to exaggerate minor shifts into major trends and to jump to broad conclusions on the basis of only a few examples. He falls between the two stools of the modest investigation of a particular series of documents and the ambitious exploration of all the sources bearing on a particular problem.

Where Ruggiero reconstructs sexual norms from the actions – and the fates – of a few hundred deviants, David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch base their generalisations about the Tuscans and their families on one magnificent document, the Florentine property tax of 1427, which was based on a house-to-house survey of about a quarter of a million people. A typical declaration to the authorities lists the name, residence and relationships of all the members of the household, as well as describing the property on which the tax was to be levied. Nearly sixty thousand households are described and the survey extends to Pistoia, Prato, Arezzo, Volterra, Cortona and the countryside under Florentine rule. It is a kind of Tuscan Domesday Book. Like Ruggiero’s trials, it is impressive testimony to the growing power of the Renaissance city-state.

Herlihy and Klapisch have given this unique document the attention it deserves and the importance of their book has been widely recognised since it first appeared, in French, in 1978. The original version included a long section explaining how the survey came to be compiled and evaluating its strengths and weaknesses as a historical source. The abridged English translation omits most of this information, and concentrates on presenting demographic data such as the distribution of the population by age and sex, the structure of the household and of the wider group of kindred, and the rates of births, marriages and deaths.

The catasto has been analysed with the aid of a computer, and although some of the authors’ conclusions from their statistics have been challenged by other specialists in historical demography, the book remains one of the most impressive examples of the quantitative approach to the social history of pre-industrial Europe. However, the authors do not limit themselves to the bare bones of statistics. They also draw on literary records, which a remarkable number of Florentines were already in the habit of keeping in the 15th century. Taken together, statistics and literary sources present a picture of a ‘Mediterranean’ family structure which corresponds to Professor Hajnal’s ‘non-European model’, in which men marry relatively late, around thirty, and women relatively early – 16 was the most common age and a girl who was still unmarried at 20 ran the risk of being regarded as an old maid. The pattern seems to have been similar in Venice.

All sorts of social consequences stemmed from this marriage pattern. The discrepancy between the ages of spouses supported the power of the paterfamilias, but it also encouraged particularly close ties between mothers and sons. The existence of large numbers of sexually active unmarried men constituted a major social problem. Given these large numbers, the rate of fornication, adultery and rape in Renaissance Venice – to judge by the judicial records – does not seem as high as one might have expected. The explanation may lie in the 11,654 prostitutes who – according to Sanudo’s journal – were at work in early 16th-century Venice, an even larger number than St Ursula’s virgins, who were painted by Carpaccio at about the same time.

There is much to be learned from Ruggiero and from Herlihy-Klapisch concerning the position of women in Italian society in the 15th century, and still more from Klapisch’s collected essays. These 14 essays were originally published in French in a number of specialist journals between 1972 and 1983; it is too bad that two of the author’s best pieces, one on godparents and one on female literacy, appeared too late to be included. The essays, almost impeccably translated by Lydia Cochrane, are concerned in the main with Florence, or at any rate Tuscany, from about 1300 to about 1530, and they deal with such topics as female celibacy, marriage, motherhood, wet-nursing, widowhood, the difference between the experience of childhood for boys and girls, and the dependence of a woman’s identity on her relation to ‘houses’ of men. The main source used by the author is, once again, the extraordinary series of Florentine ricordanze, journals which are not exactly what we would recognise as diaries, autobiographies, family histories, local chronicles or account-books, but a mixture, in varying proportions, of what later became separate genres. What these ‘ego-documents’ reveal is not so much Renaissance individualism, in Jacob Burckhardt’s sense, as the contemporary sense of family among patricians, craftsmen and shopkeepers, and the strategies employed by the heads of households to gain powerful allies by marriage and useful ‘friends’ by making them godparents.

Meticulous and perceptive, Christiane Klapisch shows considerable yet unobtrusive skill in eliciting general conclusions from the ricordanze, examining, for example, the 132 agreements between masters and female servants, and following the fortunes of the 318 infants whose birth is recorded. She supplements this material on occasion with the evidence of art (notably paintings of the betrothal of the Virgin Mary, with the unsuccessful suitors breaking their staves), or other artefacts, such as the dolls representing the infant Jesus which were given to Florentine brides and nuns to encourage them to identify themselves with the Blessed Virgin. Although relatively little use is made of works of fiction, an essay on ‘The Griselda Complex’ suggests that Boccaccio’s story illustrates the nuptial practices of the time. Particular attention is paid to rituals, for their own sake and also as a means of discovering the attitudes to the family which they presuppose. One essay analyses the dialogue on marriage customs written by a Roman humanist at the beginning of the 16th century; another studies Tuscan nuptial rites; and a third charivari (the mattinata, as it was generally called), while gift-giving rituals are described more briefly elsewhere.

These essays, which overlap, interweave, and sometimes repeat one another, have a bearing on the history of religious attitudes as well as on the history of the family. In this respect one of the most interesting conclusions concerns the survival of what the author calls ‘archaic’ religious attitudes in Tuscany (which is contrasted, for example, with France, as presented in the recent work of Georges Duby). Before the Council of Trent, the Church played a relatively marginal part in the process of betrothal and marriage, and there was considerable popular resistance to its glorification of religious marriage. The clergy condemned the popular rituals of the mattinata, but this hostile attitude took a long time to spread to the laity.

Women, Family and Ritual is a modest book, its ambitions deliberately limited. It makes discreet use of the work of social anthropologists and folklorists, notably Van Gennep, and might profitably have drawn more fully on social theory, from Pierre Bourdieu on marriage strategies to Sherry Ortner on the cultural construction of gender. Yet if the avowed aims of the essays are narrow and precise, their relevance is wide. They are not polemical in tone, but they make the subordination and the problems of Florentine women very clear as they note that decisions on nursing and weaning were made by men, or that young widows suffered contradictory pressures – to remarry or not – from the males of their two families. They illuminate the history of women by refusing to separate it from the history of men.

This separation is the most serious weakness of French Women in the Age of Enlightenment, a collection which ranges from the substantial to the superficial and from the committed to the detached. The 29 authors, all female, and almost equally divided between historians and literary critics, discuss the place of women in social and political life; their contribution to French culture; the attitudes of the Philosophes towards them; and the portrayal of women in literature (including that of England, Germany, Spain and Russia). The result is not quite a history of women in 18th-century France, but it is more than a discussion of the relation of women to the Enlightenment. The topic has not exactly been neglected. In 1862, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt published La Femme au 18ème Siècle, a study which was detailed, vivid and evocative, but held together by some dubious generalisations, a fair example of which being the statement that ‘woman was the commanding principle, the directing reason and the commanding voice of the 18th century.’ Some sixty years later, in 1923, Léon Abensour brought out his La Femme et le Féminisme avant la Révolution, a remarkable book which combines an analysis of the legal, political and economic position of women during the old regime with a discussion of the views of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau on the ‘woman question’. Another sixty years further on, the authors of French Women and the Age of Enlightenment pay implicit tribute to Abensour’s work by the frequency with which they cite him in their footnotes.

All the same, there was a real need for a new study of the subject which would both draw on and add to recent research. Some of the contributions are of high quality: Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s survey of ‘Women and Work’, for example, or Linda Gardiner’s study of the role of women in science (or more exactly, the role of the Marquise du Châtelet). The marquise is one of a dozen or so individuals who come to life in these pages: actresses like Adrienne Lecouvreur, artists like Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, letter-writers like Julie Lespinasse and the Marquise du Deffand, playwrights like the Comtesse de Genlis, novelists like Mme Riccoboni, politicians like the Marquise de Pompadour and Mme Roland, and writers on the woman question, notably Mme de Puisieux, author of La femme n’est pas inférieure à l’homme (1750), and Olympe de Gouges, author of La Déclaration des Droits de la Femme (1791).

This volume does have some of the defects one associates with a work of this kind, at once collective and committed. Valuable as it is, the introduction fails to pull the volume together. In their enthusiasm for their heroines as women ahead of their time, a few contributors are carried too far away from the 18th century. ‘Two hundred years before their values received pedagogical recognition’, writes one, in apparent ignorance of a long educational tradition, Mme de Genlis ‘had discovered the importance of visual aids, simulation, role-playing and games’. Some essays – the one on ‘Women and Music’, for example – fail to bring out what was specific to women’s roles by treating them in virtually complete isolation from men. All the same, the collection is more than the sum of its parts and it will be difficult even for men to look at the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution in quite the same way again. Liberty, equality, and what?