Voices of Nîmes: Suzannah Lipscomb Interview

The acclaimed historian has brought to life the women of 16th and early 17th century France, and discussed with fellow academic Steven Veerapen.
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In this Suzannah Lipscomb Interview, she discusses her latest book, Voices of Nîmes, which has brought to life the women of 16th and early 17th century Languedoc through the cases of consistories – moral courts. Through impressive archival research, we now know what women went through close to a daily basis, and Suzannah sat down with writer and historian Steven Veerapen to discuss the subject.

The Reformation in Europe is a complex subject of study, with religious faiths different according to time, region, and ruler. What drew you to the location and the subject? How did you find accessing the archives?

I was working on this material for a very long time; its genesis can be traced back to my third year as an undergraduate when I wrote a comparative paper looking at religious violence between women in 16th century France and that directed at women in 19th and 20th century India. And so I was really interested in looking at the wars of religion and why women, particularly, were the focus of religious violence. When I was deciding my doctoral subject sometime later, that was playing into the mix. In the end, of course, that’s not what I wrote about. I got a bit of a hunch from Robin Briggs (who later became my doctoral supervisor) and from Philip Benedict (who worked in the period) that maybe the consistorial records would have something in them; they hadn’t been used for this sort of stuff at all. People had used them to work on ecclesiastical history and of the Reformed Church – maybe two or three scholars. But they hadn’t been used to talk about women and families. There hadn’t been a sense that they were useful in that regard. Robin and Philip both agreed it was worth having a look.

Out of interest, did you have a favourite case amongst those you analysed in the book?

Well, “favourite” is a difficult word, because of course these are cases that involve pain and trauma. I suppose, of those that stayed with me most, the first might be Marguerite Brueysse. As a servant girl, she brought a case of rape against her employer who was called Anthoine Bonnet. He was such an important person in the town that the consistory allowed him to question her, to cross examine her before their panel. And yet, despite that situation (which modern analysis suggests is a reliving of the rape experience for a victim – and, in this case, I do believe that she was a victim) she stood her ground pretty well and she exposed lots of logical flaws in his argument. In the end, she was believed. The other one that really springs to mind is Jeanne Gauside, also known as La Gasconne, a woman who was made pregnant by her employer’s relative: an absolute scoundrel called Pierre Delhoste. He was about sixty years old at the time, and we think that serving women tended to be in their teens or 20s, so that would be roughly her age. She came very close to killing herself when she was seven months pregnant; she spoke to a female friend and said that she was in utter despair. And I think it would have been a terrible burden of shame – yet that conversation with her friend was not the end of the story. She found a way to do something to bring Delhoste to the attention of consistory and force him to provide some status for her child.

The book makes clear the ways in which women used language to negotiate a patriarchal society – for example, invoking God’s will to persuade consistory courts to their point of view. Do you think that these strategies – understanding and using the rhetoric of those in charge – on the part of women are under explored?

It’s an interesting example you’ve chosen because invoking God’s will could often be a way of making sure the consistory paid no attention to you at all, because they thought they were in charge of that! Other scholars have done all sorts of great work on trying to uncover women’s strategies and their use of language – I think of Susan Broomhall working on poor relief records and how poor women would craft credible narratives which might involve being overburdened with small children or their husband having deserted them, in order to try and gain poor relief. There’s Natalie Zemon Davis, too, of course. And even some up and coming scholars: Rebecca Mason, a recent PhD who works on early modern Scotland, has looked at how women navigated the law there. So there are people working on these things and thinking about how women used language to try and produce the outcome they wanted.

You make the point that women’s voices are often unrecorded, and that even in legal records these voices are “mediated” and “curtailed” (though still apparent). To what extent do you think that women waging law were women performing – not using their actual voices, but modified voices they understood to be required to achieve their aims?

Allegory of Negligence, by Joachim Beuckelaer

I’m certain that they are modified and performative but I’m not sure that that stops them being their actual voices. That would imply that we don’t modify our own voices to perform in different contexts – for example during an interview with someone about a book! I think that there was a deliberate use of narratives that they thought would work, but I don’t think that necessarily means that what we’re hearing is not the truth. And I suppose the question you’re asking really is related to Natalie Zemon Davis’s concept of fiction in the archives. Certain things may have been softened or fabricated. And then, in some cases, the women might have actually lied. But I think that, nevertheless, if you go in very sceptically, which is important, it is still possible to discern a sense of what went on in their everyday lives and it’s possible to filter some of the embroidery or untruths out – not perfectly, but to an extent that is useful.

On a similar note, do you see any parallels between the women as dramatised in legal records and women as depicted in the literature of the age?

I think there are. One of my chief findings is that women were far more authentic and vocal and far more troublesome! It was difficult to contain them. We are told they were like this in the patriarchal overview of the period, and we see it in Shakespeare, whether it’s Katherina or Helena. You see these characters in the literature of the period, but I think that we have often not considered that women in real life – ordinary, non-elite women in the marketplace – could possibly have been as clever and meddlesome. Yet I think they were. People might think it wasn’t possible for women to exert power, and yet they did; they found ways to do it, and so I think the literature does reflect it and we have just not believed it for some reason.

Given the colour, vibrancy, and sense of everyday life which are contained in consistorial records, why do you think they have historically not been given due attention?

Well, for a start it’s about the questions that we ask of the sources. For a long time, this quotidian, everyday detail has just not been thought to be important. Women’s lives haven’t been that much of interest because if they didn’t speak to some grand national narrative, if they didn’t talk about warfare, or about high politics, then it was thought they didn’t matter. But our sense of what has been historically of interest has obviously changed massively in the last 40 or 50 years. And then there are issues about where to find this material: there are a couple of collations in Paris, but mostly this stuff is tucked away in regional archives. You have to go looking for it.

One of the wonderful things about looking at legal records is that they provide conflicting views and competing versions of the “truth”. Do you, as a researcher, find yourself judging these narratives to decide what “really happened”?

Yes, and I think it’s inevitable that I will do. We often talk about the difficulty of accessing the truth, as historians: the difficulty of knowing what really happened. I am of the school of thought that says something did happen, however inaccessible it is. Sometimes in these narratives it’s obvious; in other instances it’s much more complex and there will be cases where I genuinely don’t know what happened. Quite often you don’t have witnesses who can confirm either way and, therefore, you are getting a ‘he said, she said’ situation. Nevertheless, I think that, quite often, there is enough there to tell us about ordinary life. But also, I’m interested in what actually happened in as far as we can get there, because I’m not just studying these records on the basis of the language, and this is not just linguistic analysis – I want to know about the circumstances of women’s lives and that, in many cases, means trying to figure out if we have somebody bringing a false claim or a true one. But I’m completely aware of how problematic it is to try and establish truth in these things, and from this distance, and using these very partial records.

You make that point – surprising probably to many – that Nîmois Catholics and Protestants intermarried and were linked socially and economically: it was, as you say, a “transitional religious world”. Do you think that we are often too quick to look for the conflicts rather than the cooperation amongst ordinary people?

Yes, but that could be a function of the sources. The famous phrase ‘happiness writes white’ explains it. We’re not going to have that much that testifies to people’s contented co-existence, because then there are no disputes that go to court and leave records. I imagine that, for the most part, most people got on most of the time. Their neighbours could be of the same faith or have a different faith and yet they still intermarried and all the rest of it, because that’s how society functions. The cases in the book are instances of ruptures which testify to the minority of interactions between people. Now, obviously, if these people had been able to write (which most of them couldn’t) then maybe we would have letters and diaries and things that would testify to tranquillity and to contentment. But because we don’t have that sort of source from these people, we don’t have the other side of the story.

I’m very conscious that Scotland, too, was Calvinist, and that its Kirk courts were given unprecedented power to snoop, to judge, and to otherwise interfere in the private lives and moral conduct of citizens. This was, I think also in Nîmes, a way of the Church shoring up its authority, which the Reformation affirmed was patriarchal. Could you tell us a little about how the ecclesiastical courts and secular authorities worked together?

Yes, the first point about Scotland; the Scottish Kirk sessions and the French and Swiss consistories are pretty much the same thing. And they were in communication with each other as well; letters were exchanged between Scotland and southern France, for example, asking ‘what do you do in this case?’ and ‘how do you operate about this?’, and so they were looking to each other for guidance. And we can find lots of instances of moral and religiously-driven surveillance in Scotland, France and Switzerland – they were all Calvinists. In terms of how the ecclesiastical courts and the secular authorities worked together; in the south of France, the towns were governed by four consuls and then there was a town council; the consuls and town councils were in constant communication with consistories. We can see examples of when consuls brought a case and then, a few days later, the consistory picked it up and did their thorough investigation. There was clearly a process of information exchange going on, so we can cross-reference the two; there’s also, really crucially, a large, overlapping personnel. I was able to crunch some figures and I calculated that 65% of consuls served on the consistory and 48% of town councillors served as elders so, in other words, there was a political elite. Sometimes they were doing these things simultaneously – normally being on the town council and an elder at the same time (being a consul was such a taxing job it often prohibited other services being carried out simultaneously). Yet, by conducting various civic and legal roles across their lifetimes, there was created a body of men in authority who had a similar kind of vision.

What comes down to us is thanks to the legal scribes who recorded this information. As you point out, some scribal hands are more challenging than others. Did you come across any than bits of text that were impenetrable?

Some records were really quite grotty and challenging. The thing I gave up on was not the consistory records, but some of the secular courts. I was hoping that I might be able to look at the criminal records of the council, or the Nîmes sénéschal court. I thought I might look at those records to discover that kind of cross referencing that I mentioned. But the records are very difficult. Funnily enough, I have a picture of this massive book from the sénéschal court as my screensaver, to keep me humble. The scribes started from both ends of the book and then they wrote on whatever scraps of parchment were left, so it’s almost impossible even to decipher all way through the cases, let alone be able to read the hand! It’s not totally impenetrable, but the lack of a clear through-line makes it very challenging and I thought, ‘well, look – that’s another three years of work, and this project doesn’t need it’.

History is increasingly, and rightly, I think, looking bottom up rather than top down. You demonstrate this also in your exploration of Tudor England, which is remarkable for not focusing on London as the head. Why do you think it’s important that we look at the lives of ordinary people rather than just elites?

Because we’re not kings and queens, and if we had lived in the past, we wouldn’t have had those lives. If we want to understand how life was lived by the majority, we have to ask questions about ordinary lives. And I think quite often that a different perspective actually turns our vision of history on its head. Much of the time, the version of history we have is not only one that was written by the victors but one that was written by the powerful. And it’s the powerful who determined even what made it into the archives We only know about these women because they came into contact with the power of the consistory and yet that contact reveals their power. And so I think that the present is informed by what we know of the past. If we want a version of the present and the future in which power is more equitably distributed, then we need to actually tell the truth about the past, which involves a fuller picture.

Archival work can be daunting to young and emerging scholars, thanks to expense, palaeography, and so on. Yet, as you make clear, this is where a lot of treasure lies. What advice would you give to scholars nervous of archives?

I suppose the most brutal thing to say, would be ‘if you do want to go to the archives you can’t really be a historian’. Unless, that is, you want to be a historian of political thought or of literature (in which case you can use printed texts). But I would urge young scholars not to be nervous; there is certainly a process of getting to grips with palaeography. There are wonderful courses online that are run for free by the National Archives and the National Archives of Scotland. They really help you learn how to read these things – and it’s about practice, like most things in life. And I would say that the real treasures for a historian can be found in the archives. Much research can be done online these days. Many archives have been digitized. But I would urge people still to go and read the actual paper versions. You learn a lot from the paper itself, and it’s when you’re in the archive that you can make those fortuitous, serendipitous discoveries. You find stuff that no one else has found or which people have read before but not used in the way that you can use it. Also, you get the feel of the thing if you are holding or touching – or very carefully not touching – a piece of paper or a book that was written hundreds of years ago. It puts shivers down your spine. The manuscripts are where it’s happening; they’re where you’re going to get your gems – that’s when you’re going to find something that’s not been written about.

Voices is an academic yet still eminently readable book. I’m really interested in whether you find yourself consciously adopting a different voice when writing for an academic press rather than for trade presses. Do you choose different words, address theoretical and methodological material, and so on – and do you find that you’re doing anything similar in your writing for both audiences?

So, with regard to the theoretical and methodological material, there are things that are handled differently. In Voices, I gave an overview of the historiography in the introduction to this book, because of the intended audience. I wouldn’t trouble general audiences with that stuff. I don’t think there is the energy for reading that kind of overview if you’re coming to a subject as a general reader. I don’t use different words, though, as I fundamentally believe it is possible to write books for a general audience that are just as intelligent as those intended for an academic audience. The real difference is in the choice of subject and the approach to it. It’s about storytelling. It’s about how one directs the information. And what I would say is similar between the two is that I tend to try to write in a way that combines both narrative and analysis. One peer reviewer for Voices wanted more analysis and less narrative – but I felt keenly that I wanted to tell these women’s stories. So there are similarities between academic and non-academic writing, but there are differences and, as I say, much of it comes down to how one shapes one’s material – and also to the material itself.

On the subject of popular engagement, what can you tell us about your podcast?

It’s called Not Just the Tudors, and it’s from History Hit. It broadly looks at two centuries, so the 15th to the late 17th century. I think of 1492 and 1692 being the bookends. It allows me to talk to people about history all over the world; we cover Icelandic witchcraft, Japanese history, the Aztecs – but also, of course, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Mary I, and all the rest of it. It’s a lovely chance to do deep dives into tiny subjects like the case of an early modern teenage werewolf, as well as huge subjects like the Lutheran Reformation.

Finally, what is your next project?

My next project, if I can manage to pull it off, is a new history of Henry VIII’s queens. Obviously, this subject has been covered before; there are at least three good collective histories from the turn of the century. But not all of them stand up to 21st century perspectives on women. There’s often a certain degree of sexism present and not all have made use of manuscript material. There’s been a lot of reliance on the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, which is a chronological calendar of summaries of key manuscripts. There’s also been a lot of research over the last 20 odd years into each of the queens individually, and there’s been lots of very, very good work done. I am trying particularly to draw on non-anglophone sources for those queens where that’s relevant; there’s much in those that hasn’t made it to an English audience.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Emeritus Professor at the University of Roehampton, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and author of Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc.

Steven Veerapen is an academic, writer and the author of fiction set during the Tudor and Stuart periods. He teaches Renaissance Studies at the University of Strathclyde, and his new novel Of Blood Descended is out this year and is published by Polygon.