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A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France

A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France

by James R. Farr

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As scandalous as any modern-day celebrity murder trial, the “Giroux affair” was a maelstrom of intrigue, encompassing daggers, poison, adultery, archenemies, servants, royalty, and legal proceedings that reached the pinnacle of seventeenth-century French society. In 1638 Philippe Giroux, a judge in the highest royal court of Burgundy, allegedly murdered


As scandalous as any modern-day celebrity murder trial, the “Giroux affair” was a maelstrom of intrigue, encompassing daggers, poison, adultery, archenemies, servants, royalty, and legal proceedings that reached the pinnacle of seventeenth-century French society. In 1638 Philippe Giroux, a judge in the highest royal court of Burgundy, allegedly murdered his equally powerful cousin, Pierre Baillet, and Baillet’s valet, Philibert Neugot. The murders were all the more shocking because they were surrounded by accusations (particularly that Giroux had been carrying on a passionate affair with Baillet’s wife), conspiracy theories (including allegations that Giroux tried to poison his mother-in-law), and unexplained deaths (Giroux’s wife and her physician died under suspicious circumstances). The trial lasted from 1639 until 1643 and came to involve many of the most distinguished and influential men in France, among them the prince of Condé, Henri II Bourbon; the prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu; and King Louis XIII.

James R. Farr reveals the Giroux affair not only as a riveting murder mystery but also as an illuminating point of entry into the dynamics of power, justice, and law in seventeenth-century France. Drawing on the voluminous trial records, Farr uses Giroux’s experience in the court system to trace the mechanisms of power—both the formal power vested by law in judicial officials and the informal power exerted by the nobility through patron-client relationships. He does not take a position on Giroux’s guilt or innocence. Instead, he allows readers to draw their own conclusions about who did what to whom on that ill-fated evening in 1638.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Dazzling beauty, spousal abuse, passionate love, wanton covetousness, lust, conspiracy, poison, murder, vengeance: what an engaging surprise to discover that one of America’s foremost scholars of early modern European society, James R. Farr, is also a beguiling storyteller. A riveting drama, his book is at the same time a masterful analysis of emotion and affect, rites and rituals, elite formation and reproduction, family and lineage strategies, gender construction, the discourse and practice of the law, political culture, relations of domination and subordination, the tensions between center and periphery, and the myriad ways in which power worked in seventeenth-century France.”—Steven Laurence Kaplan, author of The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700–1775

“James R. Farr has produced a terrific work of historical research, a book that offers both compelling narrative and suggestive analyses. A Tale of Two Murders addresses basic questions about how early modern society functioned, and it should interest specialists and non-specialists alike.”—Jonathan Dewald, author of Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture: France, 1570–1715

Jeffrey R. Watt
“Combining a gripping narrative with keen analysis, Farr uses this case to shed light on patronage and the pursuit of power among the seventeenth-century French nobility.”
Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Jay M. Smith
“The best micro-histories manage to convey the texture of a vanished culture and to define and amplify the basic issues, concerns, and imperatives that infused the society in which the highlighted events unfolded. Farr’s engrossing study, A Tale of Two Murders, delivers those insights in spades.”

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Duke University Press
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A Tale of Two Murders

Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France


Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3459-0

Chapter One

Tales of Two Murders

Historians try to determine what happened in the past. Drawing upon evidence left to us, we try to get the story straight, for there lies historical "truth." This book is about two alleged murders in 1638 in Dijon, France. Much of the evidence used to write the narrative is drawn from the criminal trial that occurred between 1639 and 1643 to identify the culprit or culprits and to prove his, her, or their guilt. Hundreds of documents were produced-depositions of witnesses, interrogations of the accused, legal briefs of interested parties, and so on-each with a story to tell pertaining to the alleged murders. Often these documents, like any story, would have a narrative, a plot, a claim to credibility. What challenges the historian's obligation to get the story straight, however, is the palpable dishonesty of many of these documents, a large number of which flatly contradict one another. Many people, in other words, were obviously lying. The historian's task, much like the judges' of the time, is to determine what happened, but as historians we must go further and answer why-why did the judges reach the decision they did, and why does it matter to us in thetwenty-first century? What follows in these pages is an attempt to accomplish these tasks-to get the story straight as much as is possible, and to explain why doing so matters.

Let us begin with a narrative about the alleged murders pieced together from a variety of sources, notably some depositions of witnesses called by the prosecuting authorities. Several witnesses said this: around 8 in the evening on Monday, 6 September 1638, the servant Suzanne Odinelle opened the front door to admit a visitor to her master's impressive, multistory stone mansion in Dijon. This was the home of the nobleman Philippe Giroux. The visitor was Giroux's first cousin on his mother's side, a fellow nobleman named Pierre Baillet. Accompanied by his valet, Philibert Neugot, Baillet was escorted into the house-and to his death, for Baillet and his valet were never seen alive again.

Despite the close relation of host and guest, we hear from witnesses that this was no friendly visit; Baillet and Neugot came well armed. Baillet wore two daggers sheathed to the belt that also held a rapier swinging from his waist. Neugot carried two daggers and two swords. This was peculiar attire for a social visit, and Baillet was no soldier. He was a presiding judge, a président, at the royal financial court, the Chambre des Comptes, seated in Dijon, Burgundy's capital. Baillet possessed an office and a title, along with the social rank and the honor that came with them and placed him near the summit of society. His cousin Philippe Giroux was even more exalted, owning the office of presiding judge at the royal judicial court of Burgundy, the Parlement.

Baillet had been invited to his cousin's house, according to other witnesses, to patch up differences between them. They had a powerful incentive to do so, because family solidarity formed the base of power in this hierarchical age, and the "House of Giroux," as we will see, was unquestionably an increasingly powerful one. Though blood ties were what bound society, those between Baillet and Giroux were being sorely tested. Many people suspected-and told the court-that Baillet's wife Marie, a beautiful woman from the esteemed and powerful noble family of Fyot, was Giroux's mistress.

Perhaps jealousy and stained honor prompted Baillet to finger Giroux as the culprit in a political scandal that had erupted two years previously. In the mid-1630s France and its royal dynasty the Bourbons were deeply involved in the Thirty Years' War, squaring off against their historic enemy, the house of Habsburg. The Habsburgs' possessions spanned Europe, engulfing in their dominion the kingdom of Spain (which included much of the Americas), Sicily and the southern half of Italy, part of the Low Countries (present-day Belgium), and the German Holy Roman Empire. Part of the territory that came with the Empire was the County of Burgundy (today the Franche-Comté), just to the east of the French province and former Duchy of Burgundy. This meant that Dijon was very much a frontier town, scarcely twenty miles from the border, and as the war between Habsburg and Bourbon heated up, French Burgundy and Dijon were put on a war footing.

The governor of the province of Burgundy, Henri II de Bourbon, the prince of Condé, was entrusted with the military campaigns against the imperial Habsburg forces in the area. After a bungled siege of the town of Dôle in 1636, about thirty miles southeast of Dijon, Condé was reminded of his military debacle by some unnamed person who smeared the prince's name and military prowess by printing and then plastering scores of one-page broadsides on the walls lining the public streets and market squares of Dijon. Condé, incensed at such effrontery, was allegedly informed by Baillet that the author of these infamous sheets was Philippe Giroux. Giroux of course denied this, and was certain that Baillet had been the source of the libel. Condé found Giroux's guilt impossible to believe: Giroux had been one of the prince's closest, hand-picked clients. In fact, as we will see in chapter 5 when we examine the House of Giroux, the rise to wealth, power, and influence of the Giroux clan owed largely to the favor of this prince of the blood, King Louis XIII's first cousin and second in line to the throne.

Giroux's patron-client bond with Condé was secure enough to weather that storm, but Philippe-guilty or not of the libel-certainly had good reason to despise his cousin for nearly wrecking a political and social career that had vaulted Philippe near the top of society no less than it placed him close to the center of the power structure in Burgundy. If political betrayal was not enough reason for Giroux to hate Baillet, according to witnesses his passion for his cousin's wife was so great that in the view of more than one person, if her husband were out of the way he would marry her. Moreover, rumors about town had supposedly reached Baillet's ear that a conspiracy to murder him was afoot.

So when Baillet received the invitation to come to Giroux's house, as this version of the story had it, he received it warily, and came armed. Could his cousin be the one conspiring to murder him? It was a staggering (and dubious?) prospect that a close family member would contemplate parricide, a heinous offense punishable by hideous forms of execution: burning at the stake or breaking on the wheel. Would Giroux risk that for revenge and for the love of another man's wife? Whatever Baillet's premonitions, many witnesses could be found to testify that he and his valet set off for Giroux's house after supper on 6 September 1638.

It was tradition in this Burgundian town of twenty thousand souls that during the warm month of September outdoor activity would be prolonged after nightfall by householders and shopkeepers affixing linen torches to the outside walls by their doors. Craftsmen could now slide their workbenches into the street and extend their workday. During the day hordes of beggars crouched and slumped in the streets and marketplaces awaiting the charity of passers-by, but now after nightfall they had been swept out of the city, through the town gates which were closed behind them, thrown on the other side of Dijon's walls to either wander down a road to another town or monastery or await the opening of the gates in the morning and flow like a running tide back into the city. With the beggars now banished, servants with nothing to do but await the call from masters or mistresses loitered in place of the beggars, standing on street corners or leaning casually against the walls of dwellings and shops that rose two, three, sometimes four stories straight up from the edge of the street. It was not just craftsmen and servants who clustered and chatted out of doors on these warm September evenings, but men and women of more respectable social station as well. Notaries, lawyers, ladies-in-waiting, all gathered and gossiped about the news of the day, or perhaps about the quality and quantity of the impending grape harvest of this renowned wine-producing region.

The scores of linen torches threw enough light upon the street for many people to catch at least a glimpse of Baillet and Neugot, which they later told the court. As befitting his social rank, Baillet strode down the street wearing a smart, high-collared doublet; beneath a stylish, broad-brimmed hat crowned with a decorative cord, locks curled to his shoulders from a wig, an accessory only recently become fashionable. To project style and status from head to toe (as everyone save the lowliest did), the president was shod in leather boots that hugged the calf but flared just above the knee. Pedestrians like Baillet avoided the middle of the street, since in the absence of underground sewers, human, animal, and household wastes followed the slope of the street toward an open gutter in its center which, predictably, was clogged with filth. If Baillet and Neugot had to carefully pick their way through the foul-smelling streets of the city, they also had to be attentive to warnings of "Garde de l'eau!" (literally "Watch out for the water!," or as we might say today, "Look out below!") shouted from upstairs windows just before buckets of waste were pitched into the street. Still, Baillet cut a fashionable figure and, followed by his valet Philibert Neugot, it is hardly surprising that more than a few people claimed to recognize who they were.

From Baillet's townhouse to Giroux's was but a ten-minute walk. Once the two men were shown in, some witnesses later reported, the servant Odinelle, obeying the customary practice of hospitality, directed Baillet's valet to the kitchen to join the other servants and there await his master, and then escorted Baillet upstairs to Giroux's chamber. If this account is accurate, the house must have seemed curiously empty and quiet to Baillet, since none of Giroux's many servants could be seen scuttling about the household as one might normally expect in the early evening. For reasons that would shortly become all too clear to him, all the domestic servants, one of them later said, had been ordered by Giroux's trusted manservant, Denis Cartaut, to either go to bed or remain in the kitchen. The only servants permitted anywhere else in the house this evening were Cartaut, nicknamed Saint Denis, and Pierre Borel, called Devilliers. Alongside their master, they awaited the entrance of Baillet into Giroux's chamber.

At this point a key witness picks up the story. This is the servant Claude Bryot, nicknamed La Valeur, who claimed later to have been an eyewitness. He was a youth in his early twenties who had grown up in the Giroux household, his mother having been the wet nurse of Philippe Giroux. What conversation there was during Baillet's visit we do not know-La Valeur reports nothing about it, but he does vividly describe what he supposedly saw and what he claims Devilliers told him later. As Baillet prepared to leave, he turned his back on Giroux. Baillet heard movement behind him, but he must have assumed that Giroux was approaching to show him to the door. Too late he realized that his cousin had other designs: Giroux suddenly seized Baillet, throwing his arm around his neck. While Baillet was momentarily restrained, Giroux reached for the dagger at his belt, unsheathed it, and then buried it in Baillet's back. As the victim lurched forward he cried out, and Saint Denis then leaped upon him, his knife flashing in the candlelit room. Alerted by the cries for help and the thumping on the wooden floor, Neugot bolted headlong to his master's aid. Already as suspicious as his master that this visit boded ill, he raced upstairs and down the corridor toward Giroux's chamber. He burst into the room, and no sooner had he seen his master sprawled on a blood-soaked floor than he was set upon by Saint Denis, still carrying his bloody dagger. Giroux's henchman quickly found his mark in Neugot's stomach. Neugot, badly wounded but still with much fight left in him, furiously lashed out at his attackers, disarming Saint Denis with one blow that sent his dagger flying from his grasp; another slashed the arm of Giroux, who brandished a dagger in one hand and a rapier in the other. With blood pouring from his gut, however, Neugot was fatally weakened. He was finally overmatched as Devilliers, seeing Saint Denis and Giroux momentarily thrown back on their heels, joined the fray. Devilliers and Neugot tumbled about the room, blood splattering the bed curtains and pooling on the floor. Saint Denis then snatched a knife from a table and jumped on Neugot's back. Clutching his hair in his fist, he snapped Neugot's head back and slit his throat.

As Neugot's body slumped to the floor, an unwelcome and unexpected visitor was seen peering in by the door. It was La Valeur, who despite Saint Denis's orders later claimed to have wandered away from the kitchen to fetch some water when he heard noises upstairs. He reported that he heard the voice of a man being choked, pleading, crying out for help, and pounding his boots against the wooden floor in his struggle to free himself. Running to investigate, he looked into his master's chamber as Giroux, Saint Denis, and Devilliers had just dispatched Neugot. Spying La Valeur, Giroux thundered, "God damn that rogue!" Saint Denis wanted to kill the intruder on the spot, but Devilliers convinced Giroux and Saint Denis that La Valeur could help them to dispose of the bodies and clean up the mess.

As the three assassins were deliberating the fate of La Valeur, the frightened youth ran from the house and into the walled courtyard behind it, where he tried to hide. Giroux and Saint Denis followed in hot pursuit. Saint Denis saw La Valeur duck into a shed and pointed out the fugitive's hiding place to Giroux. Giroux then approached La Valeur. The master tried to coax his servant out with gentle words, imploring him not to be afraid and to come back with him to the room. La Valeur refused. Terrified and trembling, he shrieked that he was scared to come out because Saint Denis had threatened to kill him. He then told Giroux that if anyone tried to come into the shed to get him he would run out the other door that opened onto the neighbor's courtyard. From there, La Valeur threatened, he would run to the neighbor's house and tell everyone there everything. Giroux responded with further blasphemous curses, and then, realizing that this would accomplish little, collected himself and spoke more gently to his servant, who was still beside himself with fear. He promised La Valeur that no harm would come to him, and that no one would know anything about what had just happened. La Valeur added that Giroux also promised to give him 400u, a huge sum to a servant, and arrange a marriage between La Valeur and the daughter of the tax collector of Marigny (the principal fiefdom and country estate of the Giroux family). With these enticements, which Giroux assured La Valeur would make him content for the rest of his life, La Valeur was lured out of his hiding place and back to the room where the murders had been committed.

When La Valeur entered the room he saw blood everywhere, pooling under the bodies of Baillet and Neugot and running in rivulets under the bed. Giroux stood before the enormous fireplace that spanned half the room, pale, visibly frightened, with blood smeared on his clothing and slippers. Still clutching a dagger in one hand and rapier in the other, he wiped the blood dripping from his sword on some linen. He then turned on La Valeur, grabbed him by the neck with the dagger still in hand, and swore, "By the death of God, if I hadn't given you my word, I'd run you through!" Fearing for his life, La Valeur struggled to free himself, and as the two tumbled backward and fell against a wardrobe, La Valeur retrieved the pistol he carried in his pocket and aimed it point blank at Giroux's face (one might wonder why he had not drawn it when he was trapped in the shed). He screamed that if Giroux touched him and did not keep his word he would kill him.


Excerpted from A Tale of Two Murders by JAMES R. FARR Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James R. Farr is Professor of History at Purdue University. He is the author of Artisans in Europe, 1300–1914; Authority and Sexuality in Early Modern Burgundy, 1550–1730; and Hands of Honor: Artisans and Their World in Dijon, 1550–1650.

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