Ruth Scurr

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.

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