Lettres de cachet and Eighteenth Century Crime

I am here in Paris for the summer, assisting Professor Graham with her research on debauchery in eighteenth century France. She is writing a book, Debauchery and Enlightenment in Eighteenth Century France, that looks at debauchery from a variety of different angles. As her assistant last summer, I read eighteenth century books on women’s physiology, treatises about women and morality, biographies of Louis XV’s mistresses, and legal texts, all of which offered different perspectives on moral crime. This summer, I am working at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, to learn more about debauchery from lettres de cachet.

Lettres de cachet were letters signed by the king that allowed a suspect to be imprisoned without any legal process. Farge & Foucault explain how the system of lettres de cachet served as a way to avoid the judicial system, which was inefficient and impossible. They also argue that this system worked to the advantage of the families, the king, and the police: family honor was maintained, as was public order. The two were closely related. (By the end of the eighteenth century, lettres de cachet were associated with oppression, tyranny, and arbitrary monarchal rule).

The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal is located in a 17th century building near the site of the former Bastille prison. The Arsenal became a library during the French Revolution on 9 floréal An V (the revolutionary calendar equivalent of April 28, 1797). (The building is beautiful and historic, but unfortunately this means it is not air-conditioned!)

In Le désordre des familles, Farge & Foucault describe their study of lettres de cachet at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in the early 1980s. “We were […] struck by the fact that, in many cases, these demands were made about private family matters: small conflicts between parents and children, domestic discord, misconduct of one of the spouses, disorder of a boy or girl. […] despite the incomplete character of these archives, we often found, around a demand for imprisonment, a whole series of other pieces: attestations of neighbors, of the family, or of the relatives, inquiries from commissaires de police, decisions of the king, demands for liberty from those who were the victims of the internment or even from those who had made the demands” (p. 7-8). These documents, which exist only in microfilm/manuscript form at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, are at times incomplete, hard to read, and confusing, but they are also interesting, illuminating, and surprising. My job is to read through a selective sample of these files (all of the documents from the year 1741) and record important information into about 20 different categories in a spreadsheet, so that Professor Graham can study and sort the information, as a sort of mini-database. Some of these categories are straightforward–age, job, date of arrest, etc., while others are freer, more nuanced, or more challenging–transcriptions of passages relating to debauchery, labels for different crime categories, and so on. Débauche comes up frequently in the letters, and, as Farge & Foucault point out, it is used vaguely (p. 37) and in association with other crimes. However, it consistently has to do with a public, and therefore disordering behavior. This constitutes a sort of moral crime in ancien régime Paris.

My workstation at the library.

My workstation at the library.

The other night I was picking up some things at Monoprix, and an extremely drunk man was in the line, loudly shouting, joking around, and trying to cut the line. I was struck by the thought that in the eighteenth century, he could be imprisoned if I wrote a letter to the police and had it signed by the other people in the store. Thinking about how lettres de cachet could be used today makes it easier to imagine how they functioned in the eighteenth century, and some of the letters are vivid enough to evoke this sense of reality and relevance.

Aside from my library work, I am enjoying being in Paris. I was happy to get to see (and run with!) Rebecca Fisher and Evan Hamilton last week. I am very grateful to the Hurford Center and the Louis Green Fund for their generous support.

-Charlotte Lellman, ’15

*Arlette Farge & Michel Foucault, Le désordre des familles, Gallimard, 1982. The translations are mine.