Questioning “Community”: Archives and Responses to Women’s Heterosexual Transgression in an Early Modern Neighborhood

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 4:10 PM
Room M101 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Jacob Melish, University of Northern Colorado
Questioning “Community”: Archives & Responses to Women's Heterosexual Transgression in an Early Modern Neighborhood

The idea of a unified “community” has been critiqued in both history and anthropology. This paper seeks to integrate that critique into the study of the roles of neighbors in regulating the behavior of people around them during the pre-modern period.

We often speak as if practically all members of the community in question were in agreement. Such an appearance of unity is often the product of the archives, for the institutions which produced them indirectly encouraged criticism of transgression and favored the recording of it. It is also practical for the historian to silently posit such unity, for it creates an important, well-documented historical actor that can serve as the focus of our historical discourse. Such pragmatism is often beneficial. It does, however, come at a price.

This paper uses witness testimonies from late seventeenth century Paris concerning workingwomen’s heterosexual transgression, from pregnancy out of wedlock to adultery. The historiography of both early modern France and England has examined how, on the streets, it was usually women who regulated other women’s heterosexuality. The exceptionally detailed testimonies used here likewise focus on women but reveal three distinct responses: defending, ignoring, or criticizing/attempting to regulate the behavior of the accused. The paper uses several cases to examine each of these responses, and a case study to uncover how the critics were magnified in number through the process of witness selection, and how their criticism/regulation can be less the defense of norms of behavior as an extension of conflicts over entirely different matters. The paper does not deny that there were norms of heterosexual behavior; rather, it seeks to differentiate among them, and to complicate their status and relationship with the archive, the state, and historians’ writing.