The women who wouldn’t be silenced in Reformation France

Tales of wives shaming errant husbands, brides forcing lovers to marry them and maidservants taking their rapists to court emerge from Suzannah Lipscomb’s research into the female residents of Reformation France. So, she asks, does this mean that women in 16th-century Europe wielded more power than we previously thought?

A maid polishes a silver dish. Female domestic servants were highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, but in Reformation France they found some ways to fight back. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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In December 1600, a French maidservant called Marguerite Brueysse claimed that her master, Anthoine Bonnet, had made her pregnant. Anthoine, who was probably in his fifties or sixties, was an influential man. When summoned to the consistory (a sort of Huguenot church court) in the city of Nîmes in Languedoc to answer the accusation, Anthoine denied everything and called Marguerite a whore. He also claimed that she was pregnant by cobbler Andre Fauchier, who lived nearby. Before leaving, Anthoine even displayed a declaration Marguerite had apparently made before a magistrate assigning paternity to Fauchier.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. The consistory wanted to know more, and asked Marguerite for her story. She initially said that Anthoine had “persuaded and induced her by words and promises” to have sex with him and promised her 50 écus (which he never gave her) if she would blame her pregnancy on Fauchier. The consistory asked her – as a test of truth – if she would repeat her accusations to her master. She said she would.

Read more from the February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine here, including:

The February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine

A week later, the two came face-to-face and, in deference to his status, the consistory allowed Anthoine to cross-examine Marguerite. He told her to tell the truth “according to God and her conscience”. She replied that, “according to God and her conscience, she had been known carnally” and made pregnant by him. He enquired where he had known her first and how he had persuaded her. She replied that it was “one day when she was taking excrement out to the ditch in Bonnet’s garden” when he had ordered her into the stable and there “threw her on a pile of rye where he knew her by force, putting a handkerchief in her mouth to stop her from shouting”.

A married woman had no independent legal status; any woman’s testimony was worth less than a man’s

In response, Anthoine disparaged Marguerite’s sexual reputation and suggested that her brother had made her accuse him. She denied having sex with anyone else or having been persuaded to act by her brother. When Anthoine started to question her for a second time about the circumstances in which he had propositioned her, she lost her composure, dropping angrily out of the official French into her mother-tongue, Occitan, to say: “As you wanted, in a ditch of dung, in Rodilhan, a year less a month ago.”

Ten days later, the consistory met to deliberate on the matter. They summoned Anthoine and charged him to tell the truth. He swore that he was falsely accused – but the consistory didn’t believe him. Their unanimous judgment was that Anthoine would be suspended from the Eucharist. He was livid, shouting at them “in all passion and anger… that they did him a great wrong to believe a whore rather than a good man”.

Impossible to prove

It’s no surprise that Anthoine was angry. Most female domestic servants were in their teens or early twenties, and were especially vulnerable to sexual abuse by their male employers. Prosecution rates for rape were very low: women had to prove the impossible – active physical resistance throughout the attack. Not only that but women were believed to be physically, morally, mentally and emotionally weaker than men, and especially more driven to lust and lechery. It was assumed that in most seductions, the woman was either the initiator or had yielded voluntarily.

Medical beliefs tipped the scales further in men’s favour. It was thought that women needed to reach a sexual climax to conceive, so a pregnant woman claiming to be raped could not have been raped at all. Therefore, most rapists got off scot-free. What’s more, a married woman had no legal status apart from her husband’s; any woman’s testimony was worth considerably less than a man’s.

And yet, in the case of Anthoine Bonnet and Marguerite Brueysse, the Protestant church authorities believed a young, lowly servant-woman rather than an older man of influence. This is not what the consistory – the Protestant church’s mechanism for imposing morality – had been set up to do. Although it was also the governing body and welfare centre of the local church, most of its time was given to moral supervision, interrogation and reprimand.

It was assumed that, in most seductions, the woman was either the initiator or had yielded voluntarily

Throughout Protestant Languedoc, elders were appointed to oversee a district of a few streets and were charged to report back any moral failings. And the ministers, elders, deacons and scribes who made up the consistory in each Protestant town were nothing if not zealous. They investigated routine gossip, noted all indiscretions, and reported every impropriety. The aim was to create a community that was visibly distinguished by its holiness – holiness that would be achieved by eradicating superstition, magic, fortune-telling, games, dancing (which was thought “dissolute and scandalous, tending to fornication”), fights, violence, insults and, above all, sexual sin.

As women were thought to be primarily responsible for sexual and other sins, controlling morals meant controlling women. The consistory was a fundamentally patriarchal institution, intended to uphold existing social hierarchies and reinforce the authority of husbands and fathers.

Playing the system

But there were unintended consequences to this moral discipline. First of all, women appeared before the consistory frequently: in my research into the consistorial records of 10 towns and cities in Languedoc (a total of 25 volumes and more than 1,200 cases), I have found well over a thousand testimonies about women and, crucially, by women – most of whom left no other record to posterity.

And the consistorial system produced another – entirely ironic and accidental – result: it empowered Languedoc’s female residents. Women quickly learned how to use the consistory to their advantage: they denounced those who abused them, they forced men to honour marriage promises, and they started rumours they knew would be followed up by the elders. In short, they used the church courts to obtain justice, to secure marriage and to ensure provision for their children. And this empowerment is reflected in the consistorial registers, which suggest that women could be independent, self-determining and vocal – even in an age when they had limited legal rights, were barred from public office and higher education, and played no formal role in the church law or government.

This is no heroic tale. Women’s suits were far from always successful, and women were frequently abused, forced to do what they did not want to do, and punished for doing that which they did. Nevertheless, my research suggests that we need to reconceptualise female power at this time – to recognise that it did not always conform to the stereotype of hidden, devious influence. Women were also bold, violent and vocal, and exercised power that was far more public and direct than historians have previously recognised.

A shaming society

The insights of the consistorial records even show us ordinary women using their power beyond the realms of the consistory in pursuit of their own agendas. We see women choosing to have sex outside marriage, despite the potentially devastating consequences in a shaming society; challenging church authorities; and electing not to return to estranged husbands.

Take the example of Catherine Cheysse. In 1592 she had been married to Jehan Bertrand for 21 years and had had four children with him, but the couple had spent 11 of those years apart. Jehan explained that this was because they had lived in Piedmont, where a decade earlier Protestants had been greatly persecuted, so he had been obliged to flee to Languedoc, taking the children with him. Sometime afterwards, he said, when he thought it safe, he returned to the marital home to collect his wife, but – perhaps unimpressed by being left behind – she “did not want to obey”. At a later date, Catherine heard rumours that her husband and elder son were dead and turned up in Languedoc to see for herself. Jehan again asked her to stay and live with him, “which she did not want to do”, preferring to return to Piedmont. She chose her own path.

Just as the women of Languedoc were active, decisive and resourceful, so were their counterparts across Europe

Of all evidence the consistories offer us, perhaps the most surprising is the insight they give us into female violence. One example of women coming to blows occurred in 1562, when Jehanne Laudane hit Jehanne Liborde with a stick because, she claimed, Liborde had punched her.

In 1582 Honorat Cany’s wife punched Donne Coderque and her daughters in the street, drawing blood. Coderque claimed that Cany’s wife had just discovered her husband with Coderque’s niece. Coderque had also overheard Cany’s wife shouting coarsely at her husband, “that he would just as soon fuck the arsehole of a cow”. In her fury, as she left their house, Cany had lashed out at Coderque and her daughters who were on the road outside.

Men could find themselves on the receiving end of female violence, too. In 1587 in Pont-de-Camarès, Jehan Costeplane asserted that his daughter-in-law had hit him on the head with a bat and made him bleed. Alix Toulouse was reprimanded in 1592 because she “is often angry with her husband in the open street, using cruel insults”, while Sarra de Bely was chastised by the Montauban consistory in 1596 for acting “like a wild beast… being angry with her neighbours… and treating her husband with contempt to the scandal of many good people”.

A woman called Claude Rouveyrolle reported in 1589 that two men had shouted insults at her, attempted to cut her dress all the way up to her bottom – with the words “she is a whore” – and then turned on her husband. The men reported that Claude had hit one of them with a stone and floored him; she made no attempt to deny it.

As these anecdotes prove, the consistorial records of Languedoc are exceptionally valuable. They bring women’s agency in the 16th century into a sharper focus than any other sources. They gave women the opportunity to initiate cases, as they seldom could elsewhere. And, as they were free to use, a whole swathe of poor women could now bring suits without paying for the right to do so.

But, while the records themselves are extraordinary, the people that appear in them were surely not. Just as the women of Protestant Languedoc were active, decisive and resourceful so, in all probability, were their counterparts across Europe. In other words, the records allow us to see how ordinary women 400 years ago really acted.


How women fought back

1

They weren’t afraid to pass judgment

In 1588, a group of women led by the wife of Guillaume des Arènes and her neighbour Marguerite gathered outside the house of Vidal Raymond, a maker of pack-saddles living in Nîmes. These women were his neighbours. They beat their fists on the door and cried out to Raymond to let them in, saying that they knew he kept a woman inside. Raymond refused, so the women forced an entry and found a woman trying to hide herself beneath a pile of straw. They called her a ‘whore’ and chased her out of town. The women then went on to report the matter to a church elder.

2

They could force men to marry them

In 1598, Catherine Lamberte, a Catholic, told the Montauban consistory that she and a Protestant cordswain called Jehan Picard had made promises to marry, and that she had given him 100 livres towards her dowry. Jehan had since contracted marriage with another woman, and denied receipt of the dowry, but did admit that they had drawn up a contract. He said that, as Catherine had refused to convert to Protestantism, the contract was null.

Catherine next appeared brandishing the contract of marriage, and a receipt for 60 livres of the dowry. It predated Jehan’s other marriage contract, so the consistory deemed that the marriage to Catherine should go ahead.

3

They humiliated philandering husbands

In Montauban in 1595, Anne de Valaty twice discovered her husband, Pierre Cordiny, trying to have sex with their maid. The first time she cried out to her neighbours on the street that she had found her husband lying with the maid on a sack, and wailed: “I would never have thought my husband would do this act.” She told a friend that “she should keep watch on her maid so that her husband does not do [with her] as Cordiny did with his”.

When Anne found the couple together again, she hit the maid with a sieve, and threw her out of the house. Anne’s distress at her husband’s infidelity manifested itself in angrily denouncing him, and using her power as a housewife to dismiss the servant.

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is reader in early modern history at the University of Roehampton. Her books include Witchcraft (Penguin Ladybird Expert, 2018)

The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc by Suzannah Lipscomb (OUP, February 2019)

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You can read more about early modern Europe at historyextra.com/period/early-modern