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  • Suicide and Politics in Pre-Revolutionary France
  • Jeffrey Merrick

While theologians, jurists, and philosophes debated the legitimacy of suicide, real people who knew nothing about their debates really killed themselves in eighteenth-century France.1 Few historians of that time and place have investigated suicide by doing the sort of systematic research in the archives that yields information about ordinary men and women, as opposed to members of the privileged classes. Police reports and other sources include material about hundreds of cases and document the ways in which contemporaries interpreted the lives and deaths of individuals who shot, hanged, and drowned themselves. But they contain more evidence about the thoughts of those who tried to make sense of the crime than they do about the feelings of those who committed what was traditionally known as "homicide of oneself." The social history of who, when, where, how, and why cannot be divorced from the cultural history of collective attitudes and anxieties. In this essay, devoted to one aspect of that cultural history, I explore the political meanings attributed to a modest but significant number of French suicides in the 1770s and 1780s.

In 1771, after decades of conflict over religious, fiscal, administrative, and constitutional issues, chancellor Maupeou suppressed and replaced the parlements, the regional appeals courts that led the opposition to absolutism [End Page 32] throughout the reign of Louis XV. The magistrates not only adjudicated civil and criminal cases, but also criticized royal decrees and policies that, they claimed, violated the laws of the realm and the privileges of French subjects. The controversial reorganization of the judicial system provoked attacks on despotism that spilled over into the reign of Louis XVI, who restored the parlements in 1774. Those attacks escalated during the years preceding the Revolution, as one minister after another tried and failed to resolve the monarchy's financial problems. After exiling the Parlement of Paris in 1787 and exhausting its other options, the Crown convoked the Estates-General in 1789.2 The Maupeou "revolution" and the "pre-Revolution" profoundly affected political consciousness and prompted observers to interpret some male suicides in political terms. I begin with a female suicide that was interpreted in a different way, but not in order to make a quantitative argument about differences between the sexes, which I have addressed elsewhere.3 The story of Madame Lerat provides an example of procedures in and speculations about a very well documented case and highlights the role of gender in accounts of the cases analyzed below, for which the documentation is less complete.

On Monday, 10 June 1782, around nine thirty in the morning, twenty-seven-year-old Marie Rose Vincent, wife of district police commissioner Claude Lerat, told the bell ringer, who did not (or at least said he did not) recognize her, that she would like to ascend the tower of Saint-Paul, her parish church.4 He escorted her up to see the view and down to see the bells. She asked for some privacy in order to satisfy "a need," he left, and she jumped. Around ten the parish priest notified Lerat, who inspected the bloody scene in the street and transported the mangled corpse to his house. After finding a marked handkerchief in the pocket and studying the clothes more attentively, he finally recognized his wife and promptly fainted. Commissioner Louis Joron arrived around eleven, found his colleague incapacitated by "the greatest grief," and completed the necessary formalities. He composed the obligatory procès-verbal about "the accident" and deposed the bell ringer, a municipal guardsman, and two knowledgeable members of the household, the clerk Marc Antoine Dumont and the cook Marie Cathérine Cupeline. Dumont, who stated that Madame Lerat had left the house that morning to attend mass, noted that she had suffered from absentmindedness and "complete disgust for life" for eight or nine years, ever since she gave birth and her milk "went to her head." She once remarked that "if not for the affection and devotion she had for her [End Page 33] husband, she would have already thrown herself out the window." Cupeline, who stated that her mistress had gone out to buy something to complete...


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