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Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales & Their Tellers in Sixteenth-century France (Harry Camp Lecture)

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To receive a royal pardon in sixteenth-century France for certain kinds of homicide-unpremeditated, unintended, in self-defense, or otherwise excusable-a supplicant had to tell the king a story. These stories took the form of letters of remission, documents narrated to royal notaries by admitted offenders who, in effect, stated their case for pardon to the king. Thousands To receive a royal pardon in sixteenth-century France for certain kinds of homicide-unpremeditated, unintended, in self-defense, or otherwise excusable-a supplicant had to tell the king a story. These stories took the form of letters of remission, documents narrated to royal notaries by admitted offenders who, in effect, stated their case for pardon to the king. Thousands of such stories are found in French archives, providing precious evidence of the narrative skills and interpretive schemes of peasants and artisans as well as the well-born. This book, by one of the most acclaimed historians of our time, is a pioneering effort to us the tools of literary analysis to interpret archival texts: to show how people from different stations in life shaped the events of a crime into a story, and to compare their stories with those told by Renaissance authors not intended to judge the truth or falsity of the pardon narratives, but rather to refer to the techniques for crafting stories. A number of fascinating crime stories, often possessing Rabelaisian humor, are told in the course of the book, which consists of three long chapters. These chapters explore the French law of homicide, depictions of "hot anger" and self-defense, and the distinctive characteristics of women's stories of bloodshed. The book is illustrated with seven contemporary woodcuts and a facsimile of a letter of remission, with appendixes providing several other original documents. This volume is based on the Harry Camp Memorial Lectures given at Stanford University in 1986.


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To receive a royal pardon in sixteenth-century France for certain kinds of homicide-unpremeditated, unintended, in self-defense, or otherwise excusable-a supplicant had to tell the king a story. These stories took the form of letters of remission, documents narrated to royal notaries by admitted offenders who, in effect, stated their case for pardon to the king. Thousands To receive a royal pardon in sixteenth-century France for certain kinds of homicide-unpremeditated, unintended, in self-defense, or otherwise excusable-a supplicant had to tell the king a story. These stories took the form of letters of remission, documents narrated to royal notaries by admitted offenders who, in effect, stated their case for pardon to the king. Thousands of such stories are found in French archives, providing precious evidence of the narrative skills and interpretive schemes of peasants and artisans as well as the well-born. This book, by one of the most acclaimed historians of our time, is a pioneering effort to us the tools of literary analysis to interpret archival texts: to show how people from different stations in life shaped the events of a crime into a story, and to compare their stories with those told by Renaissance authors not intended to judge the truth or falsity of the pardon narratives, but rather to refer to the techniques for crafting stories. A number of fascinating crime stories, often possessing Rabelaisian humor, are told in the course of the book, which consists of three long chapters. These chapters explore the French law of homicide, depictions of "hot anger" and self-defense, and the distinctive characteristics of women's stories of bloodshed. The book is illustrated with seven contemporary woodcuts and a facsimile of a letter of remission, with appendixes providing several other original documents. This volume is based on the Harry Camp Memorial Lectures given at Stanford University in 1986.

30 review for Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales & Their Tellers in Sixteenth-century France (Harry Camp Lecture)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mia Huynh

    Read for the purpose of writing a paper in my History of Law class, I found the book interesting yet poorly tied together. In this book, Davis compiles a collection of pardon tales, also known as letters of remission, to analyze and discuss the relationship between individual, their narrative, their sex, and the justice system of sixteenth-century France. Before I dive into what I found disappointing about Fiction in the Archives, I want to acknowledge the fascinating stories of real people who l Read for the purpose of writing a paper in my History of Law class, I found the book interesting yet poorly tied together. In this book, Davis compiles a collection of pardon tales, also known as letters of remission, to analyze and discuss the relationship between individual, their narrative, their sex, and the justice system of sixteenth-century France. Before I dive into what I found disappointing about Fiction in the Archives, I want to acknowledge the fascinating stories of real people who lived five hundred years ago. Not only were the reflections of society at the time evident in the justice system but the way men and women handled their accounts of crime were different. Reading and comparing these two brought to my attention the influence of societal stereotypes and pressures into personal and permanent decisions. On the other hand, while seeing the contrast the sexes was intriguing, the development of thought to each idea was extremely lacking. Switching from tale to tale, the discussion is brief and offhand. Without investing proper time into an individual and their narrative, the text became neither an analysis of these tales and the justice system nor a retelling of the tales. Furthermore, the text seems to not only be underdeveloped but also stagnant, without going anywhere. All in all, reading it was frustrating and underwhelming and I would highly recommend another text to learn about sixteenth-century French law.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Dorothea

    I have studied very little early modern French history, which I am saying partly to warn that I'm in no way capable of evaluating Davis's interpretations, but mostly to say that I had no idea what to expect from this book (which was assigned in class called "Crime and Gender") and couldn't have been more delighted with it. If you know as little as I did when I began reading Fiction in the Archives, here's some background: The "pardon tales" in the title are more often called "letters of remission. I have studied very little early modern French history, which I am saying partly to warn that I'm in no way capable of evaluating Davis's interpretations, but mostly to say that I had no idea what to expect from this book (which was assigned in class called "Crime and Gender") and couldn't have been more delighted with it. If you know as little as I did when I began reading Fiction in the Archives, here's some background: The "pardon tales" in the title are more often called "letters of remission." They were a way for some people who had committed crimes to avoid a severe penalty like death or banishment. In most of the cases Davis describes, the crime was really what we would call "manslaughter" today -- killing without intent. French law at this time didn't have a category for manslaughter, so anyone who died at the hands of another was thought of as murdered, and the murderer was always supposed to be put to death. However, the king had the ability to pardon, which he delegated to his chancellors. By the sixteenth century, a system had grown up in which the chancellor's office would help petitioners write their excuses into a letter, evaluate them, and ratify the letter if the excuses were good enough for a pardon. Then the petitioner could present the letter to their local court, which could decide whether or not to accept it. For several reasons (for example, the fact that petitioners would be orally quizzed on the contents of the letter to make sure that their story held up) the content of the letters of remission probably reflects fairly accurately the story told by the petitioner. Since many petitioners were ordinary people who otherwise left few signs of their existence on the historical record, the letters of remission that have survived are an important archive of information about their subjects' lives. However, in this book Davis is less interested in the letters as a source of information for social history, and more interested in something else -- the letters as tales, as narratives, as "fiction." She doesn't mean "fiction" as in "invented," but "fiction" as in "story-like": the letters persuade by telling a story about how their protagonists are good people who were suddenly provoked into killing. What seems to have been important to the authors of these stories? What kinds of details show whose fault something was; elicit sympathy for feelings of humiliation, sudden provocation, remorse; convince that the protagonist, whose quiet life was disrupted by violence, should be allowed to resume that life again? The most interesting part of Fiction in the Archives, I think, is how the gender of the protagonist changed the story. Most letters of remission were for men, and many of these are stories of sudden anger: he was going about his blameless life, but someone insulted him, and later snuck up on him while he was urinating and smacked him, and he turned around and stabbed them. Or, he suddenly came upon his wife in bed with another man, and he killed her. It seems to have been quite easy for men to have obtained remission for killing their disobedient or unfaithful wives, even when the story sometimes suggests that the husbands had been angry for a long time. (That the anger be sudden was usually important, because it showed the murder had not been premeditated.) In contrast, Davis gives an example of a letter for a woman who had killed her husband. The letter explains that she had always been very faithful and obedient to her husband, but from the beginning of their marriage he had beaten her cruelly. This had gone on for years and she didn't know what to do; she felt so sad and confused and despairing, and she wished she herself would die. Finally, just after she had given birth to twins, her husband attacked her again. Even then, she didn't hit back, but ran away; but her neighbors convinced her to go back to take care of her babies. When she did, her husband attacked her again. He threw an axe at her; it missed, she picked it up, and struck him with it. Afterwards she ran away again and several times nearly killed herself. Compared to many letters by men who killed their wives, Marguerite Vallée's story goes to extreme lengths to show that the person she had killed had been extraordinarily horrible to her, that she had not deserved this in any way, and that she had been in a state of very great distress when she killed him -- but not angry.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mel

    Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France by Natalie Zemon Davis was a book I had to read for my historical research methods class. It was actually quite interesting. I've read several books about 16th century England but nothing about France during that time period. Therefore it was very helpful that the first chapter was outlining what she meant by "Pardon Tales" how they were used, who wrote them and why. Davis refers to these documents as "Tales" as Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France by Natalie Zemon Davis was a book I had to read for my historical research methods class. It was actually quite interesting. I've read several books about 16th century England but nothing about France during that time period. Therefore it was very helpful that the first chapter was outlining what she meant by "Pardon Tales" how they were used, who wrote them and why. Davis refers to these documents as "Tales" as she sees them more as a narrative literature rather than a strict factual telling of events. These letters were intended to be seen as fact. They were written by criminals who had been condemned to death to the King to describe the exceptional circumstances of their crimes, often murder, so as to explain why they should be pardoned. The letters were written in a strict form at the beginning and ending with the body of the letter being from the individual's account, with some polite adjustments made for language. Davis looks at the literary traditions associated with these letters. How they seemed to have been made as interesting as possible and followed patterns that were popular in tale telling of the time. Davis divides the work up into Men's and Women's tales. The men applying to be pardoned take up about 80 percent of the letters. This is interesting not because there were more male criminals but that the crimes the women were accused of were not considered pardonable, eg witchcraft and infanticide. Davis also raises the interesting argument that women, unlike the men, were never considered to be "in the heat of rage". In tales fights among women were often portrayed for comic effect and a woman being truly angry was not seen therefore in the letters a woman rarely used the defense of anger, and all the accounts of actual fights come off as dry and dull when compared to the accounts of the men. The tales make for rather interesting reading, it can be easy to forget that these are actual people whose lives lie in the balance from what is being written. Davis admits to frequently finding the tales amusing or entertaining, which may well have been intended in some cases. The idea seems to be the better the story, the more it follows the established conventions, the more likely a person is to be set free. (Though little data on how effective letters were exists.) Another interesting point Davis makes about these letters is that they do not represent either an "official culture" which is influencing a "popular culture" rather the letters illustrate a cultural exchange between the two. In Davis' phraseology "a common discourse about violence and its pacification" something the original writers might have questioned. The book was quite short, but did include the original French texts at the back, I'm afraid I didn't even try to read them. While supposed to be reading the book for analyzing the theory behind the work rather than the content I did find the content enjoyable particularly the reference to "A Franche-Comte werewolf murderer that ate the flesh of one of his victims "Even though it was Friday". (p64)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Feld

    I so enjoyed Martin Guerre that I wanted to see what else Davis had written, but I was sorely disappointed here. It's a great subject: pardon tales allowed people accused of murder and other capital crimes to explain their actions and try to evade the death penalty, especially necessary in a time before manslaughter or accidental death were acceptable pleas in a trial. And Davis does get into some interesting issues: the formulae and frameworks that made for acceptable stories, the ways kings us I so enjoyed Martin Guerre that I wanted to see what else Davis had written, but I was sorely disappointed here. It's a great subject: pardon tales allowed people accused of murder and other capital crimes to explain their actions and try to evade the death penalty, especially necessary in a time before manslaughter or accidental death were acceptable pleas in a trial. And Davis does get into some interesting issues: the formulae and frameworks that made for acceptable stories, the ways kings used these pardons to consolidate their power over local authorities, and why women's pardon tales were so different from men's (both because women were mainly accused of unpardonable crimes like witchcraft and because of cultural myths about women not getting angry or drunk). But I found the book almost unreadable because Davis flits from story to story, referring to them offhand without giving details or allowing the reader to invest in the characters or their problems. She segues randomly from idea to idea without really building arguments or thinking about the flow of the text; I felt like I was neither looking at the stories themselves nor at a coherent analysis of the genre. The tales are given in an appendix in French, but since I don't know French, it left me even less able to appreciate her scattershot analysis in the text.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Zach

    For a book about the archives of 16th century France, this sure was a lively read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Muhammad T

    Davis shows a good way to research the history of ordinary people based on pardon tales found in French national archive. The collection of pardon tales describe the every day life of 16th century French who sought the grace from the King, how the pardon letters were written, who involved in the writing and how the stories in letters connected to the French literary tradition of that period. I benefit a lot from the methodology of her research.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Intriguing and amusing, but not necessarily the most interesting read. Good about how "true" narratives are organized, but primarily only interesting to historians. (Hist 492- Univ Sophomore) Intriguing and amusing, but not necessarily the most interesting read. Good about how "true" narratives are organized, but primarily only interesting to historians. (Hist 492- Univ Sophomore)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Chrism485

    Umm...three stars...it was good. It was interesting. HAHAHAH. I'm not sure if the author used....I didn't understand the methodology. Umm...three stars...it was good. It was interesting. HAHAHAH. I'm not sure if the author used....I didn't understand the methodology.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jamille Parks

    This is basically "How to get away with Murder!" sixteenth century style. A bit dry in some places, but a fascinating research on archival work and pardon stories in medieval France. This is basically "How to get away with Murder!" sixteenth century style. A bit dry in some places, but a fascinating research on archival work and pardon stories in medieval France.

  10. 4 out of 5

    brenda

  11. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

  13. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kristina Petrauskė

  16. 5 out of 5

    Noahdevlin

  17. 4 out of 5

    Peter

  18. 4 out of 5

    Shantel LaBar

  19. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  20. 5 out of 5

    Erica Rosone

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sublime Porta

  22. 4 out of 5

    Willow Arune

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

  24. 5 out of 5

    Joshua

  25. 5 out of 5

    Leena Enqvist

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  27. 4 out of 5

    shay

  28. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    A wonderful and interesting history of French women through various stories and tales.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rafael Gonzalez

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kris

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