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 storytellers leave rather evident marks of their art. When Toussaint Savary was beating his wife Bonne Goberde, he chose an inopportune moment when she was slaughtering chickens for his supper. Having hit her several times, he approached her again while she still held the knife in her hand—and as he came in, he encountered the said knife (“rencontra ledit cousteau“), which pierced his chest just below the left breast, i.e., near the heart. And that was that for Toussaint; a sympathetic reader will want to know that the lady got her pardon, while crediting the shrewd notary with an assist.

But sometimes the stories present Ms. Davis and her readers with more problems than there is evidence to resolve—take, for instance, the tale of Guillaume Caranda, a twenty-year-old barber from Senlis. On the evening of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, he and some of his neighbors put on a kind of tableau of the Resurrection, in which he took the part of Jesus. But when the show was over, a certain roughneck named Claude Caure accosted him and said, “I see the god on earth. Did you keep your prick stiff in playing God?” This insult to both the barber and the holy image was repeated a few minutes later (hence deliberately); it led first to fisticuffs, and then to the drawing of a little knife, with the usual unhappy consequences for the bully Caure—who, of course, neglected to take proper care of his wound, so his death was partly his own fault.

But why that particular insult in the first place? Ms. Davis takes us off on a scholarly trail, of great interest in itself, involving literary analogies and Leo Steinberg’s recent study of medieval representations of Christ erect, which can be thought of as a symbol of the Resurrection. But this doesn’t make much of an insult out of it; and a reader trained on detective stories will look for a more personal motive. Perhaps those neighbors grieving at the foot of the cross included among the holy women some particular wench in whom Claude Caure took a particular interest. The motive of the fatal fight would then be straight jealousy. It’s the sort of detail that, because it suggests longstanding hostility with even an overtone of premeditation, Caranda the murderer would want to keep quiet. How small precisely, one wonders, was that “little knife” he carried to his choral endeavors, and how many stabs did it inflict under the vague formula, as the notary put it, “he doesn’t know exactly where”? The barber got off all right, as a good percentage of the petitioners did, but a modern jury would want to know more.


How much of what these stories tell us about French society in the sixteenth century is new or beyond the reach of easy conjecture? Not an immense lot, we can surmise. It was a rough society down there in the muddy lanes and dark streets of little towns. Men and women did a lot of cursing and elbowing (Rabelais appears by comparison no more than a tame transcriber of the everyday billings-gate of the streets), and now and then the violence got out of hand. Some years ago, while living for a while in Firenze, I started a collection of stories about the petty crimes of the Italian gutter, culled from the columns of La Nazione. They included a hilarious mixture of mischiefs, misdeeds, and escapades by the malviventi, ludicrously miscalculated criminal enterprises, and inspired comic incoherence. By the terms of the comparison, there was much more murder in sixteenth-century France, more pimping in twentieth-century Italy (the eloquent Italian word is “sfruttazione“). But, by and large, life in the murky depths of a tough, dirt-poor society doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

Can any significant relation be defined between the semijudicial storytelling of the letters and other forms of early narrative art from fabliaux to veillées, from moral exempla to dirty jokes? Medieval narrative is such a rich and various field that it would be very surprising if random parallels were not to be found here and there. But to make the argument for influence more specific is very hard. In the sweeping form that pardon narratives show the wide popular diffusion of storytelling talents through the medieval population, the argument is hardly to be questioned. Nobody ever doubted it. But closer ties? Ms. Davis points to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and two tales of the Heptaméron (numbers thirty-six and thirty-seven) as offering parallels with certain common types of pardon tale. But the connections are not altogether persuasive. Shakespeare in England had little access to a distinctive feature of the French legal system, and the Montague–Capulet feud is just the sort of background against which the pardon letter was not intended to provide an excuse. As for the two Heptaméron stories, one does not involve a murder at all, just a domestic misunderstanding, and in the other the murderer is never brought to trial or even suspected of his crime—he goes scot-free.

Perhaps Ben Jonson, who had had personal experience of a remotely similar procedure, might have been attracted by the plot device of a plea for last minute pardon. (He had made good use of the neck-verse, a text of Latin scripture that, when recited opportunely, entitled one to trial before a more lenient ecclesiastical court.) But though the elements of such a plea are available in Volpone, they are not made very effectual, and the pleasure of The Alchemist’s ending lies in the escape of the rogues from any punishment at all. Conceivably in romances of roguery and knavery enough evidence for the influence of pardon letters can be found to make the case worth arguing at length. Until then, the most that can be said is that Ms. Davis’s suggestions are intriguing and worthy of further pursuit. But the rough stuff of the letters is a pleasure in its own right; it is meticulously presented, fully documented, and authenticated by transcriptions of seven letters in their vernacular originals. Nine picturesque illustrations complete the impression of a stylishly conceived and carefully designed book.

This Issue

March 16, 1989