Alibi Alley

Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France

by Natalie Zemon Davis
Stanford University Press, 217 pp., $22.50

Mini-storia, mini-noia, say the sardonic, or perhaps just jealous, Italians: micro-history, a bit of a bore. It’s a sneer effectually put to rest by Natalie Zemon Davis, who some years ago gave us a filmable, and indeed gripping, version of The Return of Martin Guerre, and who now presents, under the title of Fiction in the Archives, a rich selection from the pardon tales of sixteenth-century France. This is the raw stuff of popular culture, drawn from village and alley life itself; and the first thing to be said is that it makes rowdy, joyous reading. If Rabelais is fun (despite a good deal of earnest, erudite commentary in the opposite direction), if the Decameron is still read for pleasure, then Ms. Davis’s stories are fun too.

These pardon tales or “lettres de remission” were a distinctive feature of the French legal system in the early modern era. They were invoked mostly in connection with cases of murder, and only after the regular courts had passed, or failed to pass, on the crime. The letters were requests for pardon, and they commonly took the form of a straight narration by the killer of how the homicide came about. Speaking as nearly as possible in his own words, the felon would describe to a royal notary his version of just what took place; he would then offer his explanation/excuse, express regret, and implore mercy. Certain formulaic pleas were early recognized as better than others. One who murdered in self-defense, in uncontrollable rage, or unintentionally (when drunk) had a pretty good chance of pardon or a diminished sentence. If one could claim to have lived a virtuous life in the past, and to be of good reputation, that might help too. On the other hand, anything that smacked of habitual evil-doing, of premeditated malice, or that violated deep taboos like those against parricide, was pretty well doomed to begin with.

Letters of remission were prepared by notaries for rich and poor, for members of the lower nobility, for plowboys and scholars. Not as many were prepared for women as for men; Ms. Davis speculates interestingly on some reasons for the difference. The part of the notary in tailoring the story-as-given to the purpose it was meant to serve was by no means negligible. It was, for example, a good idea to get into the story a suggestion that the victim died not only of his wounds but of bad medical treatment, or preferably of his own carelessness. Certain other phrases like “My friend, I’m not asking you for anything,” used just before the outbreak of violence 35 (or alleged to have been used), could serve as evidence of peaceful intent; they were talismanic, and a smart notary worked them in where they seemed likely to benefit his client. It was storytelling under pressure. Between petitioner and notary the task was to compound a snappy, appealing story to attract the interest, and with it the compassion, of the authorities.

Sometimes the conniving…

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