Like good detective novels, the letters of remission which are the subject of Natalie Zemon Davis’s most recent book usually start with a corpse which requires to be explained. Other offences – tax riot, heresy, the defloration of a virgin – could be the occasion for the ‘pardon tales’ such letters contained, but the procedure was most often resorted to by someone who had been the cause of someone else’s death. In 16th-century France, letters of remission obtained royal mercy and circumvented the vagaries of royal justice and the revenge of the victim’s friends and kin.
In each of the several hundred such cases between 1523 and 1568 which are at the centre of Professor Davis’s work, the basic procedure was the same: the individual could approach the monarch direct, but normally applied to an officer of the royal Chancellery for permission to present a letter of remission, which was then framed following a legal consultation. The letter, which usually took the form of a motivated narrative of the circumstances surrounding the death, was then presented to a royal court, whose magistrates would cross-examine the petitioner. At all events, justice, when it came, was by way of the royal prerogative of mercy. Indeed, this collection of tales may be read as a foot-note to the emergence of the theory and practice of absolutism among the Valois kings of France: as absolutism’s apologist Jean Bodin remarked, a royal pardon was one of the ‘ fairest marks of sovereignty’.
The circumstances of the death, as laid out in the extracts with which Professor Davis regales us, were kaleidoscopically diverse. There are a lot of stabbings – the humble bread-knife is much in evidence – but axings, burnings, beatings and ambushes all have their place. Most petitioners presented the killings as justifiable – perpetrated in self-defence or under severe provocation – or else accidental. Under French law, it was immaterial whether a death was involuntary or deliberate: no conceptual distinction between the two was made in law. Presenting a letter of remission was one of the few things that the perpetrator of an accidental death could do to avoid the possibly harsh punishment of the courts.
Petitioners for the king’s mercy ranged widely in social type: there were noblemen as well as peasants, tradesmen and artisans, men as well as women. The grace-notes of status are detectable in many tales: the nobleman bristles over his rights as a seigneur and his honour as a gentleman; artisans and tradesmen are haunted by financial difficulties, theft and debts. Unfortunately only a small proportion of the tales are from women, many of whom through practice at veillées had become accomplished and inventive story-tellers. We do have enough, however, to hear a wide variety of female narratives, from wives’ to washerwomen’s tales, and to see the importance of honour confirmed within the worlds of female sociability and violence. Impugnings of female virtue – by women as well as by men – were standard, violence-provoking insults, from which death ensued. However, two of the most widespread forms of female violence, witchcraft and infanticide, were non-pardonable – witchcraft on religious, infanticide on moral grounds, both for reasons of state – and therefore do not fall within Professor Davis’s compass. Moreover, women may well have been fearful of reporting their own anger and violence, whose presence in a tale might raise the judges’ hackles.
Whatever their status or background, all these people found themselves in Scheherezade’s shoes. They had to present a case good enough, a pardon tale believable enough to persuade their judges that their life deserved to be spared. As their life hung by the thread of a plausible narrative, the stories had to be good – and so they were. Consider the death of one Claude Caure at the hands of a 20-year-old barber from Senlis, Guillaume Caranda:
The day of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar just past, to do honour to God and in record and representation of his holy resurrection, the supplicant [Caranda] put himself in a tomb, playing and representing the figure of Our Lord in his tomb, and with him were some of his neighbours, playing and representing the other personages at the tomb of Our Lord Jesus Christ ...
Now he had never done or said anything wrong to one Claude Caure, a maker of cutting tools living in our town of Senlis, and there had never been any noise or quarrel between them. Nonetheless on the day of the Holy Sacrament around nine o’clock in the evening, Caure was in front of his house as the supplicant passed by with his neighbours to amuse themselves at the Saint Rieulle gate, and he said ... to the supplicant, ‘I see god on earth. Did you keep your virile and shameful member stiff in playing God?’, uttering these dishonest words arrogantly and against the honour of Christianity. To which the supplicant responded that ‘his was neither very hard nor heated up and that he [Caure] was gelded ...’
[Returning later from the Saint Reuille gate] more sharply and arrogantly than before he repeated the dishonest words, insulting to our Lord Jesus Christ and to the holiness of the day ... Caure ... gave him two slaps on his head and face and made his bonnet fall to the ground. With that, to protect himself from danger ... and in hot anger ... he [Caranda] drew a little knife he customarily wore and struck at Caure’s left eye ... and wounded him he doesn’t know exactly where, and then retired to his house. Soon after he was told that Caure, because he had not taken care of himself or otherwise, had died of his wound. Fearing the rigour of justice the supplicant fled.
The case would not disgrace the pages of Boccaccio. And for Natalie Davis, that is the point. It is precisely because the tales – the number under review exceeds that of the Decameron – are so close to the forms and narrative strategies of fiction that they deserve a special kind of explanation, pitched midway between social history and folk-tale analysis, an explanation which takes as its object the very ‘crafting of narrative’ exemplified in the tales. Professor Davis thus eschews both a narrow social-history view and an overriding concern with the veracity of the tales. It is impossible to tell by any consistent rule of thumb what is fact and what is fantasy, what is representative of social conditions and what is abberrant or untypical. To declare – as one learned Chartiste has – that the tales are ‘ a tissue of counter-truths’ may in some ways be quite sensible, but it is to miss the tales’ potential for letting us in on the story-making techniques and abilities of ordinary 16th-century people and on the turbulent, bawdy world they inhabited. Though a range of techniques is represented in these narratives, their overall structure is specific to the genre: the fact that petitioners for mercy told their story, as it were, bare-headed and on their knees distances it from folk-tales and romances, which preferred a more heroic mode.
It takes some skill to ferry us around the methodological reefs and whirlpools which lie in wait for the historian who wishes to take the tales at their word, and to explore their intricacies. Natalie Davis has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most exciting social historians writing in English, and she excites not only because she writes with extraordinarily intense imagination and feeling but also because she seeks out dangers, takes risks and writes as if on the edge of a precipice. As she brilliantly demonstrates, the pardon tale had to preserve the trappings of verisimilitude even if this meant that fact necessarily shaded into fiction. It would therefore be otiose to enquire – and impossible to reconstruct – how far what the tales told tallied with the facts. They got their effect by deliberately muddying the waters, not by separating the wheat of reality from the chaff of imagination. A bastard genre, the tale sprang from dubious parentage, and some shifty goings-on accompanied its birth. The drawing-up of a letter of remission was a skilled legal exercise, and required the hand of a notary or at least a clerk. Some tales were clearly team efforts, involving friends and relatives as well as attorneys and clerks: indeed, one wonders in some cases whether the petitioner even got a word in edgeways. If authenticity, like poetry, is what is lost in translation, then these texts are in-authentic, since they are all written in French, which was rarely the first language of the tellers. All were translated out of their patois on the hoof by the notaries and clerks. Moreover, all are presented in the third person singular, which would have radically transformed the testimony.
The rough-and-ready voices of the poor certainly speak through the protocols of the educated legal élite, but it is impossible to say how thoroughly and how consistently. Transcription represented a reshaping, a filtering of experience. The touch was no doubt light – notaries were given every encouragement to allow the petitioner’s point of view to express itself freely. Yet if tale-tellers rarely do the Renaissance equivalent of ‘proceeding in a north-westerly direction’, as is the wont of 20th-century witnesses primed by P.C. Plod, it must have been very tempting for them to be guided by the notary. A petitioner only had that experience once: the notary performed his task many times and must have built up a store of professional know-how which no petitioner who wanted to be pardoned could afford to ignore. In the Caranda case, for example, Professor Davis speculates that it is the notary who uses the term ‘virile and shameful member’: Caranda would probably have said ‘prick’, which presumably might have gone down badly with the judges. Quite so. This particular linguistic occlusion is apparent enough, but how many others are lost in a penumbra of uncertainty?
Problems of this kind weaken some of the claims that Professor Davis makes for the tales: she presents the letters as ‘one of the best sources of relatively uninterpreted narrative from the lips of the lower orders’. Yet if the texts are smudged by the thumbprints of the lower orders, the hand is a writer’s, and open to influence by literary genre and professional training. Only someone with Natalie Davis’s flair could possibly guide us through these texts and pick out the voice of the poor, the voice of women, the voice of the petitioner. But nagging doubts remain. As a consequence of the structural irony which this carefully-crafted book achieves, readers will find themselves very much in the position of the recipient of a letter of remission: should they believe or should they suspect a plausible fiction? It is a tribute to Professor Davis’s exploration of this difficult, but immensely colourful material, that we are drawn into the heart of the problem of authenticity.