Damning the Innocent: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in Pre-Revolutionary France
History has taken an odd turn in the last few years. The professionals cleared it of kings and queens so that they could study the play of structures and conjunctures. But the most recent run of publications suggests a new range of subjects, one stranger that the other. We have had books on the lesbian nun, the anorexic saint, the wild boy, and the pregnant man. We have had dog saints and cat massacres. We possess a whole library of works on madmen, criminals, witches, and beggars. Why this penchant for the offbeat and the marginal?
I see two explanations, one literary and one political. There comes a time in the career of many historians when they yearn for contact with the general reading public. Having won a place in the profession with a dissertation and a string of scholarly publications, they want to break out of the monographic mode. They want to write for someone besides their fellow specialists. But how to reach the general reader?
They need to find the right subject, not merely something sexy like sex itself but something that can qualify as legitimate scholarship. Sheer vulgarization will not do; it must be haute vulgarisation, and it must involve a subject that will pass with the professionals—some curious folklore from the Middle Ages, or a strange sect of the Reformation, or a bizarre custom unearthed from the archives of the Inquisition. Best of all, it should combine elements of sexuality and popular mentality drawn from manuscript sources and served up with a dash of anthropology. Le Roy Ladurie worked a miracle with that formula. Every historian who hungers for readers say to himself in petto: “Le Roy did it; why can’t I?”
Easier said than done; for the dilemma—how to reach readers while clinging to your scholarly legitimacy—is complicated by a further consideration, which for lack of a better word I would call political.
The new subjects bear the mark of the 1960s. Before the student movements, the Vietnam War, and the “events” of May–June 1968 in Paris, historians of the left took on large subjects—the making of a working class, the rising of a peasantry—and viewed them “from below.” Their successors in the next generation favor microhistory, case studies of the deviant and the dispossessed, which they see aslant or from the side. Marginality has emerged as both a subject and a point of view.
It has its prophet, Michel Foucault, whose voice rose over the confusion of May–June to proclaim the importance of understanding the cognitive aspect of power—power as a way of ordering reality or sorting things out so that mental boundaries operate as social constraints and give shape to institutions. The victims of history for Foucault were its displaced persons, those who did not fit squarely on the cognitive map: the mad, the criminal, and the deviant. They fell outside the boundaries of the social order; but by virtue of their …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.