The Would-Be Commoner: A Tale of Deception, Murder, and Justice in Seventeenth-Century France

Overview

In the tradition of The Return of Martin Guerre, a dramatic tale of false identity, murder, and bigamy that riveted France during the reign of Louis XIV

From the historian Jeffrey Ravel comes a scandalous tale of imposture that sheds new light on French politics and culture in the pivotal but underexamined period leading up to the Enlightenment.
In the waning days of the seventeenth century, a French nobleman named Louis de la Pivardicre ...

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Overview

In the tradition of The Return of Martin Guerre, a dramatic tale of false identity, murder, and bigamy that riveted France during the reign of Louis XIV

From the historian Jeffrey Ravel comes a scandalous tale of imposture that sheds new light on French politics and culture in the pivotal but underexamined period leading up to the Enlightenment.
In the waning days of the seventeenth century, a French nobleman named Louis de la Pivardicre returned from the Nine Years War and, for mysterious reasons, gave up his aristocratic life to marry the daughter of an innkeeper in a remote village. But several years later, struggling financially, he returned to his first wife in search of money. She turned him away, and he disappeared under mysterious circumstances. This led to a murder investigation and the arrest of Pivardicre’s first wife and her alleged lover, a local prior. Stranger yet, Pivardicre finally did come out of hiding but was believed by many to be an impostor conjured up in order to clear the wife of murder charges.
The case became a cause célcbre across France, an obsession among everyone from the peasantry to the courts, from the Comédie-Française to Louis XIV himself. It was finally left to a brilliant young jurist, Henri-François d’Aguesseau, to separate fact from fiction and set France on a path to a new and enlightened view of justice.
Masterfully researched and vividly recounted, The Would-Be Commoner charts the monumental shift from passion to reason in the twilight years of the Sun King.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Ravel (History/MIT) grapples skillfully with a slippery cause célcbre involving imposture and bigamy in the closing years of Louis XIV’s reign...A surprisingly light-footed look at fundamental questions of authority and identity." Kirkus Reviews

"this outstanding book makes a worthy addition to the cultural and social history of the Old Regime and is warmly recommended" Library Journal

Library Journal

In 1697 an impecunious nobleman, Louis de la Pivardière, returned home to the wife he'd abandoned years earlier, begging for money. They argued, and the following morning Louis was gone. It was believed that his wife had murdered him with the aid of her lover, but at her trial the supposedly dead Pivardière appeared to defend her. (The case reached the highest court of the land, the Parlement of Paris, and was so popular it became the basis of a play.) Parisians puzzled over Pivardière's behavior, which to them raised, as Ravel (history, MIT; The Contested Parterre) here writes, "fundamental questions of authority and identity." Ravel argues that the interest in the case illustrates that a "literate, engaged reading public" had emerged, one whose craving for diversion mixed with self-improvement laid the grounds for the next century's Enlightenment. Perhaps inspired by-and certainly similar to, though not quite as compelling as-Natalie Zemon Davies's classic The Return of Martin Guerre, this outstanding book makes a worthy addition to the cultural and social history of the Old Regime and is warmly recommended for both academic and larger public libraries.
—David Keymer

Kirkus Reviews
Ravel (History/MIT) grapples skillfully with a slippery cause celebre involving imposture and bigamy in the closing years of Louis XIV's reign. Why would an aristocrat abandon his noble status, his well-heeled wife and all they afforded him in 17th-century France to marry an innkeeper's daughter and pass himself off as a commoner? Examining the curious case of Louis de la Pivardiere, aka Dubouchet, Ravel delves into the creaking structure of aristocratic privilege, identity and jurisprudence in a period of theological and intellectual uncertainty. Born in Berry, the youngest son of a nobleman, Louis was "essentially disinherited" and joined the army; in 1687 he married Marguerite Chauvelin, a landowning widow with six children. For eight years they lived on her rural estate, though Louis was frequently absent to seek a commissioned post in the army. During the spring of 1695, while staying in Auxerre, he met the teenage Marie Pillard and married her, subsequently siring several children. When Louis made a visit to Marguerite in 1697, news of his bigamy had reached her. They quarreled, and he repeated rumors that she was carrying on with the head of the local priory. Louis disappeared the same night, and maidservants who saw or overheard something claimed that Marguerite had killed him. However, no body was found, and a man who seemed to be Louis was later hauled before the Palais de Justice. Ravel wades through a dizzying array of testimony about the putative murder and parses Parisian magistrates' exhaustive attempts to ascertain whether the prisoner before them was indeed Louis and Marguerite should be exonerated. In the end, Attorney General Henri-Francois d'Aguesseau disentangled thethreads sufficiently to allow the court to reach a verdict, though not to allay all doubts. Spinoff stage plays ensured that the scandal attained the status of legend. Ravel enlists similar cases (e.g., Martin Guerre) to enrich his engrossing comparative study. A surprisingly light-footed look at fundamental questions of authority and identity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618197316
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/10/2008
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 10.54 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey S. Ravel is an associate professor of history at MIT and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Historical Association, among others. He is a former editor of Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Illustrations and Maps ix Acknowledgments xi Prologue: The Mystery of Louis de la Pivardicre xv Becoming a Gentleman 1 The Murder Narrative 30 Preliminary Judgment 64 Nobleman, Commoner, or Impostor? 93 Stage Plays 122 Judicial Doubt 146 Interrogation 164 Verdicts 189 Epilogue: Rewriting a Cause Célcbre 214 Notes 235 Selected Bibliography 268 Index 271

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