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LHMP #223 Merrick 1990 Sexual Politics and Public Order in Late Eighteenth-Century France

Full citation: 

Merrick, Jeffry. 1990. “Sexual Politics and Public Order in Late Eighteenth-Century France: the Mémoires secrets and the Correspondance secrète” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, 68-84.

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This article is an examination of the intersection of private and public morality within the ancien régime of France (i.e., the monarchy prior to the Revolution), and how the image of the family as a “miniature kingdom” created parallels such that transgressions against the state and transgressions against family members could be considered parallel. In turn, legal structures viewed the state (as embodied in the monarch and the legal system) as backing up paternal authority over family members with regard to clandestine marriages, female adultery, and the misbehavior of wives and children.

But this understanding can be seen most clearly when it is perceived as a failed system: in the later 18th century, patriarchalism (in both the state and family) was replaced by paternalism as secular authorities withdrew from the enforcement of morality. The perception of this as failure is woven throughout two collections of reports about moral transgressions and sexual scandals of the French court known as the Mémoires secrets and the Correspondance secrète, covering events of 1762-1787. Neither objective news reports nor simple personal memoirs, these documents assembled information about personal behavior from many sources but were selective and sensational in what they chose to include.

The collections are of interest to the Project due to a significant focus on sexual misconduct: “reports about homosexuality, unmanly men and unwomanly women, unruly and unchaste wives, marital separations, and misconduct involving members of the royal family." The conflation of private and state matters meant that these behaviors were seen as failures of the state itself.

Homosexuality, in particular, was seen as an index of the moral state and the references provide a view of the French vocabulary of the era regarding sexual preferences. The authors “recognized that pederasty and tribadism had always been popular among men and women respectively” but framed such practices as being newly popular and more open. The extensive anecdotes about male homosexuals provide evidence of something resembling an organized subculture, cutting across class backgrounds.

References to tribades, however, associated them more narrowly with theatrical performers and the associated fields of prostitution and pornography. Among the featured subjects were actress Françoise-Marie-Antoinette-Joseph Saucerotte, known as Mademoiselle de Raucourt, who enjoyed the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette. She was said to dress like a man when sexually involved with women, and like a woman when involved with men. She was said to have “married” the singer Sophie Arnould.

The editorializing on lesbian inclinations (and the specific word “lesbian” is used at least once) asserted their essential bisexuality, but also noted that men sometimes acknowledged that a man was not capable of retrieving the affections of a lover who had turned to other women. Sex between women was not viewed as criminal (since the law didn’t recognize the possibility of sex with no man involved) but rather as “vice”. Sexual relationships between women disrupted the patriarchal social order by removing women from the marriage economy.

The vast majority of this article is concerned with topics unrelated to lesbianism, so the following is a very small item from a much longer discussion.

While the Mémoires secrets were preoccupied with sexual indiscretions, the authors also traced shifts in the part sex played in public opinion about various members of the court. Entries in 1776 condemned scurrilous verses that questioned Louis XVI’s virility and that “criminally” misrepresented the friendship between Queen Marie Antoinette and the princesse de Lamballe (they were rumored to be lovers). Public opinion attacked the queen from a number of angles, including her participation in the government, but a running them was sexual voracity with both men and women and with persons of all classes. She came to represent the archetype of the “disorderly female” who symbolized the ruin of society.

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