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  • A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France
  • Brian Sandberg
James R. Farr . A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. xiv + 226 pp. index. illus. map. $21.95. ISBN: 0-8223-3471-2.

On a warm September evening in 1638, Dijon nobleman Pierre Baillet and his valet Philibert Neugot disappeared, seemingly without a trace. As a président [End Page 526] (presiding judge) in Burgundy's Chambre des Comptes, Baillet represented one of Dijon's powerful elites, and his sudden disappearance provoked murmuring and gossip throughout the community. Although no bodies were discovered, many of Dijon's residents believed that the two missing men had been murdered, and suspicion soon turned on Baillet's cousin Philippe Giroux, a fellow nobleman and judge in the same city.

A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France traces the complex and prolonged judicial investigation into the fate of the two missing men, revealing the case's complexity, its troubling contradictions, and its severe repercussions. As the investigation unfolded, startling details and scandalous accusations began to emerge about Giroux, his family, and other members of Dijon's elites. An investigation that began as a search for two missing men gradually widened into a host of interrogations concerning shocking charges of murder, attempted murder, poisoning, rape, and infanticide.

James R. Farr uses the voluminous manuscript records of the inquiry and several ensuing trials to delve into the rumors and allegations surrounding the case. Following well-established social-historical methodology, Farr exploits court records to expose certain aspects of early modern French society. Building on his previous work on artisans in Dijon, the author is able to depict the urban setting of the alleged crimes in minute detail. However, unlike previous studies using court records, this book really focuses on the, at times, excruciatingly slow and bewilderingly complex mechanisms of justice in seventeenth-century France.

The Baillet and Neugot case eventually produced a series of trials that stunned the community of Dijon and sent reverberations through the entire kingdom. Philippe Giroux, a noble président at the Parlement de Dijon, was arrested and placed on trial for double murder. As Giroux's trial slowly advanced, witnesses' testimony prompted new trials and further investigations into charges of perjury, bribery, witness tampering, fabrication of evidence, concealment of evidence, corruption, conspiracy, and treason. James R. Farr carefully unravels witnesses' varying and contradictory accounts, exposing nefarious corruption within Dijon's highest court and, by implication, throughout the seventeenth-century French judicial system.

The author rightly avoids using modern standards of corruption to judge early modern French justice. Instead, Farr walks readers through every step of seventeenth-century judicial procedure, using asides to provide useful explanations of legal terms and practices before resuming his narrative of the criminal investigation. Thus, we discover that the investigating judges needed corpus delicti (tangible evidence of a crime) and two unimpeachable witnesses for a valid conviction. They would use monitoires (pronouncements by the Church) to solicit testimony and then interrogate witnesses before providing conclusions (justifications for an arrest). Readers learn about seventeenth-century autopsies, forensic procedures, interrogatory techniques, judicial torture, and execution. The accused had recourse to various protections, including the right of confronting hostile witnesses, and could be released jusqu'à rappel (subject to rearrest). Given the [End Page 527] significance of hearsay evidence in the case, a more thorough examination of that concept would have been useful. The Giroux trial and related judicial proceedings do reveal contemporary French attitudes toward crime, justice, and the legal system.

Beyond the courthouse, Farr investigates the lives of the people who were swept into the investigations and trials in Dijon in the 1630s and 1640s, revealing witnesses' observations about marriage, sexuality, honor, medicine, and urban life in early modern France. The author demonstrates how money and political power entered into the legal system through parties instigantes (persons aiding and funding the prosecution), épices (court costs), and venal offices. But the enigmatic figure of the Prince de Condé and the patron-client relationships that influenced the case remain a bit opaque. The noble judges involved in the case could...


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pp. 526-528
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Archived 2009
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