The Family On Trial In Revolutionary France / Edition 1

The Family On Trial In Revolutionary France / Edition 1

by Suzanne Desan
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University of California Press


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The Family On Trial In Revolutionary France / Edition 1

In a groundbreaking book that challenges many assumptions about gender and politics in the French Revolution, Suzanne Desan offers an insightful analysis of the ways the Revolution radically redefined the family and its internal dynamics. She shows how revolutionary politics and laws brought about a social revolution within households and created space for thousands of French women and men to reimagine their most intimate relationships. Families negotiated new social practices, including divorce, the reduction of paternal authority, egalitarian inheritance for sons and daughters alike, and the granting of civil rights to illegitimate children. Contrary to arguments that claim the Revolution bound women within a domestic sphere, The Family on Trial maintains that the new civil laws and gender politics offered many women unexpected opportunities to gain power, property, or independence.

The family became a political arena, a practical terrain for creating the Republic in day-to-day life. From 1789, citizens across France-sons and daughters, unhappily married spouses and illegitimate children, pamphleteers and moralists, deputies and judges-all disputed how the family should be reformed to remake the new France. They debated how revolutionary ideals and institutions should transform the emotional bonds, gender dynamics, legal customs, and economic arrangements that structured the family. They asked how to bring the principles of liberty, equality, and regeneration into the home. And as French citizens confronted each other in the home, in court, and in print, they gradually negotiated new domestic practices that balanced Old Regime customs with revolutionary innovations in law and culture. In a narrative that combines national-level analysis with a case study of family contestation in Normandy, Desan explores these struggles to bring politics into households and to envision and put into practice a new set of familial relationships.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520248168
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/19/2006
Series: Studies on the History of Society and Culture Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 476
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

Suzanne Desan is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of the prize-winning Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France (1990).

Read an Excerpt

The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France

Studies on the History of Society and Culture, 51
By Suzanne Desan

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23859-1


"The family is a small state, just as the State is a large family," declared the "Younger Sons of Provence" in 1789 as they denounced the inequalities and internal "privileges" that tore Old Regime families apart. These petitioners urged the new legislature to curtail the authority of despotic fathers, secure equal inheritance for all sons and daughters, and foster "mutual esteem" within the family. "The names father, mother, brother, and sister will no longer be insignificant words.... Moral affection, purified at its very source, will spread like a torrent in society.... The Provençal will become a good friend, good citizen, good subject, and the regeneration of the laws will also rebuild social morality." These younger sons of the Midi formed just one voice in a louder chorus urging fundamental changes in domestic relationships. The outbreak of the French Revolution created a potent space for questioning the customs, laws, emotions, power relations, and gender assumptions that informed family life.

During the 1790s the French Revolution radically redefined the family, its internal dynamics, and its relationship to the state.As part of an all-embracing attempt to liberate individuals, recreate citizens from within, and build a more egalitarian social structure, the revolutionaries challenged long-standing domestic practices and infused politics into the most intimate relationships. From 1789, citizens across France-jurists and deputies, pamphleteers and moralists, sons and daughters, illegitimate children and unhappily married spouses, lawyers and judges-all disputed how the family should be reformed to remake the new France. They debated how revolutionary ideals and institutions should transform the emotional bonds, gender dynamics, legal customs, and economic arrangements that structured the family. They asked how to bring the principles of liberty, equality, and regeneration into the home. And as French sisters and brothers, wives and husbands confronted one another in the home, in court, and in print, they gradually, wrenchingly, negotiated new domestic practices which balanced Old Regime customs with revolutionary innovations in law and culture. This book explores these struggles to envision and put into practice a new set of familial relationships. It examines the family as an arena of social and political contestation during the French Revolution and asks how citizens both reimagined and experienced family life.

The French revolutionaries were ambitious in their attempts to transform the family, for they saw how profoundly politics and the gendered matters of daily life were intertwined. In 1789, when the "Younger Sons of Provence" drew an analogy between family and state, they articulated a commonly held Old Regime concept: the internal dynamics of family and the politics of state paralleled and reinforced each other. Political theorists from Jean Bodin to Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet had justified absolutism by posing a correlation between the patriarchal rule of the monarch over his kingdom and the father's empire over his family. According to belief at the time, this hierarchy within state and household rested neither on contract nor on the choice or consent of the governed. Rather, it was ordained by nature and God. Countless discussions in "myth and sermon, science and philosophy" naturalized these notions about the superiority of male over female, parent over child, and wove these assumptions into the cultural fabric of everyday life.

Royal policies and social practices within families lent added strength to these ways of perceiving gender and the political order. From the mid sixteenth century, as they laid the foundations of absolutism, monarchs and magistrates also pursued certain laws and policies that explicitly reinforced the authority of fathers and the stability of families, especially the lineage families of the king's elite allies. Royal decrees and jurisprudence strengthened parental control over marriage, defended the indissolubility of marriage, criminalized female adultery and infanticide, fostered the exclusion of illegitimate children from inheritance and civil status, and facilitated the imprisonment of rebellious children and adulterous wives with lettres de cachet (royal arrest warrants for summary incarceration). These Old Regime patriarchal practices and ideologies contained spaces for negotiation: notions of sexual difference were continually being disputed and remolded. As Julie Hardwick has argued for early modern Nantes, the "practice of patriarchy" emerged as a process rather than simply as an ideology or set of laws imposed from above. Women and adult children in many cases exercised more power over property or decision-making than the letter of the law allowed, and family patterns differed immensely from region to region.

Nonetheless, by and large patriarchal household politics and the broader political system of absolutism were integrally interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Old Regime family critics-such as litigating wives, Enlightenment philosophes, reform-minded lawyers, and feminist novelists-did not hesitate to condemn "domestic despotism" in language at once familial and political. When the Revolution toppled the absolutist monarchy and attacked the hierarchical structure of society, many citizens from Lille to Languedoc believed that a new form of politics and state demanded the remaking of the family as well. "If we finally accept as an organizing principle that the strong will no longer impose laws on the weak in the great family of the State, why would we allow it in our own families?" asked two women from Rouen in 1789 in their Remonstrances by Norman Mothers and Daughters of the Third Estate.

This book follows the lead suggested by these "Mothers and Daughters" of Normandy and by the "Younger Sons of Provence." It takes as its central question: What was the relationship between family, politics, and state during the French Revolution? In addressing this question, I analyze the continual interaction between family members and revolutionary politics and state-building. On the one hand, I argue that the Revolution transformed the most intimate relationships and challenged the patriarchal structure of Old Regime families. Revolutionary social reforms enabled-or sometimes required-various citizens to make concrete changes in their domestic situations. Women in certain positions in the family were especially able to benefit from innovations in civil law. Moreover, family members across France saw personal applications for the bold principles of revolutionary politics. As they struggled to reshape and reimagine their domestic worlds, they tapped into the social ideology of the Revolution to demand more egalitarian or affectionate relationships at home, to pressure the new state to recast domestic practices and policies, or, in some cases, to defend age-old customs from new angles.

On the other hand, I also argue that remaking the family and gender relationships was integral to forging the revolutionary state and politics. The family became a practical terrain for wrestling with the most fundamental questions of the French Revolution: how to invent the rights-bearing, legal individual within a newly secularized state; how to refashion subjects into citizens and political participants in the nation; how to remold social bonds and practices to promote equality, liberty, and unity. The revolutionaries had high hopes and deep criticism for the family because they recognized its centrality and potential: as the legal frame for defining citizenship, as a promising site of patriotic conversion, as the elemental building block of society and the gender order, as a testing ground where the ideals of personal liberty and equality could take shape in workaday life. The revolutionaries could not accomplish their essential legal, politico-cultural, and social goals without reforming domestic relationships, but reconstructing the family was neither a top-down nor an abstract process. Family members themselves-as litigants, petitioners, activists, pamphleteers, arbiters, and judges-influenced the generation of social policies and hammered out the practical meanings of citizenship and revolutionary principles in home, courtroom, and legislature. By asking how domestic and public contestation over familial matters interacted with revolutionary politics, this work places the day-to-day practices, gender negotiations, and political activism of ordinary men and women at the heart of the revolutionary attempt to build a new social and political order.

To probe the Revolution within the family offers the opportunity to address basic questions about social change, politics, and gender during this pivotal era. I argue that many individuals experienced the tumult of the 1790s as a social revolution as well as a political one. I use this phrase not in the classic sense of class transformation, although there were distinct class differences in the experience of family reform. Rather, the 1790s witnessed profound transformations in the expectations and practices within families and in the relationships between women and men, between siblings, between parents and children. Mistrustful of prerevolutionary customs that promoted domestic hierarchy, revolutionary leaders responded to vocal, popular appeals for change and passed controversial new laws, intended to dismantle the traditional family and to guarantee liberty and civil rights to individual family members. Divorce; the redefinition of marriage as a freely chosen, civil contract; egalitarian inheritance among daughters and sons alike; the reduction of paternal authority; adoption; the lowering of the age of majority; the gradual abolition of paternity suits by unwed mothers; the incorporation of illegitimate offspring into the family; the secularization of marriage and of civil record-keeping. These ambitious reforms pleased many people and resonated with the new politics, yet they inevitably provoked opposition and conflict, for they left almost no aspect of private life untouched. They struck at the core of property relations, kinship structures, and agrarian customs. They challenged complex webs of long-standing mutual obligation, built on gendered and generational lines. Despite resistance to change, many families were wrenched away from their customary means of negotiating intimacy and distributing resources and authority within households.

Revolutionary culture, institutions, and laws created opportunities for various women and men to carve out new roles and positions within the home. The outbreak of Revolution unleashed potent reform ideologies. Individuals who chafed against the constraints and hierarchies of families appropriated concepts such as "liberty," "natural right," or "equality" and forged a vehement critique of family customs. Miserable or abused wives, stigmatized "bastards" who were denied rights and civil status, defiant adult daughters or sons seeking to marry against their parents' wishes, abandoned husbands hoping to remarry, sisters and younger brothers angered by family strategies favoring eldest sons-discontent family members such as these invoked revolutionary ideals both in their personal attempts to recast their relationships and in their appeals to the state to reform domestic laws and policies. In the process, they articulated new models of intimate relationships that favored affection over purely pragmatic arrangements, individual liberty over sacrifice for the family line, and egalitarian relationships over domestic hierarchies.

In analyzing the social revolution within the home, I make the methodological assumption that one can understand the relationship between family and Revolution, between gender and politics, only by continually exploring the interactions between social practices and cultural construction. More specifically, I draw in part on the methodological insights of historians of gender and historians of political culture who have highlighted how powerfully language and imagery influence, shape, at times limit, at times make possible the perceptions and actions of men and women. But rather than focusing solely on lawmakers or the most renowned culture-makers, on men such as Robespierre or Rousseau, I argue that women and men at all levels of society generated new social norms and gender ideologies. As the French struggled to create the revolutionary family, they took part in ongoing debate over the cultural meanings of femininity and masculinity and over the interpretation of politically loaded principles, such as "natural law" or "equality." This study traces these discursive controversies and strategies across multiple arenas: in households, print culture, legislatures, festivals, speeches at Jacobin clubs, petitions, and courtrooms. A wide range of sources, from judicial briefs to feminist grievance lists (cahiers), even notarized property donations, provide access to citizen opinion close to the ground and enable me to demonstrate how profoundly revolutionary politics incited the social imagination and stirred up society-wide debate over the ideal interactions and relationships between genders and generations.

But I also explore the family as a socioeconomic institution, as a network of social relationships, as a group of individuals engaged in negotiation and conflict over resources, gender roles, legal identity, and domestic authority. Every citizen was keenly aware of the family as a legal and economic institution that conferred legitimacy and status, demarcated boundaries, organized the distribution of property, delineated juridical relationships and obligations, and enabled individuals to exercise control according to their domestic position. If my work takes inspiration from cultural approaches, it also reacts against the tendency of revolutionary historians of gender and of political culture to ignore questions about social dynamics and legal and economic structures. In conjunction with a nationwide examination of how the family was imagined, I use a local case study of the family court cases in the department of the Calvados in Normandy to probe domestic disputes and ask how the Revolution facilitated the redistribution of power and goods within households. Drawing on social and legal history methods also makes it possible to analyze how various factors-such as family position, geography, occupation, or exposure to revolutionary political culture-influenced individuals' opportunities to reshape their personal lives. Above all, I seek to intertwine these cultural and social approaches. For just as new political concepts and gender thinking informed social interactions, contestations over meaning-the meanings, for example, of affection, fatherhood, domestic liberty, or illegitimacy-were also influenced by social and legal negotiations over resources and relationships, as well as by the twists and turns of revolutionary politics.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Freedom of the Heart—Men and Women Critique Marriage
2. The Political Power of Love—Marriage, Regeneration, and Citizenship
3. Broken Bonds—The Revolutionary Practice of Divorce
4. "War between Brothers and Sisters"—Egalitarian
Inheritance and Gender Politics
5. Natural Children, Abandoned Mothers, and Emancipated Fathers—Illegitimacy and Unwed Motherhood
6. What Makes a Father?—Illegitimacy and Paternity from the Year II to the Civil Code
7. Reconstituting the Social after the Terror—The Backlash against Family
8. The Genesis of the Civil Code

Appendix I: Communes in the Calvados Studied for Cases of Divorce
Appendix II: Chronology of Revolutionary Family Laws
Note on Archival Sources


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