THE OLD REGIME POLICE BLOTTER: Sodomy - lesbians
"The crime of women who corrupt each other, is regarded as a type of
sodomy." (Jousse, Traité de la Justice Criminelle (IV, 122)) The penalties were in
theory as severe, though very much (as it was in reality for both genders) a
function of circumstances.
First, a note on terminology: in Old Regime France, a lesbian was a person
from Lesbos (and so there was no contradiction in speaking of a lesbian man);
the term "Sapphic" referred to a poetic meter; when a specific term was used
(which was not always the case) for women who preferred women, it was most
The chronicles of the time were not shy about referring to known "tribads":
July 11, 1774. The vice of the Tribads is becoming very much in fashion
among our misses of the opera: they make no mystery of it at all & and treat
this peccadillo as a friendly gesture. Miss Arnoux, though having tried her
talents in another genre, since she has several children, reversed course,
indulges in this pleasure; she had another girl named Virginie, whom she used
in this way. The latter changed her status and passed to mademoiselle de
Raucourt of the Comedie Francaise, who has a strong taste for her sex & renounced
the marquis de Bievre, to indulge it more at her ease. Most recently at the
Palais-Royal, at night, sir Ventes, having tweaked miss Virginie on her
rupture with miss Arnoux, who is called Sophie in these orgies, the latter,
witness to these remarks, gave the cavalier an expert slap, which he was obliged
to laugh at, asking the kind tribad to excuse him.
Bachaumont (Tome 7, 178?)
This is only one of many references in Bachaumont, who most often mentions
Mlle. de Raucourt (Raucoux is an alternate spelling), both in regard to this
subject and that of her very admired art:
September 11, 1779. Mlle. Raucoux's return has been decided. One may recall
that the actors did everything they could to oppose her return, & have even
evade the protection of the queen, to whom they stated that the poor conduct
& the libertinage of this actress repelled the decency of their body. All
these obstacles were lifted by order of the king.
(More can be found on Françoise Raucourt (1756-1815) at
Mlle. Raucoux came to mademoiselle Arnoux's, where she is lodging. She
begins today with the role of Didon. The whole sect of Tribads is mobilized to
ensure her triumph, & the uproar is no less than at her debut.
Bachaumont (Tome 14, 176)
It can be safely assumed that if journalists knew of these women, so did the
ubiquitous Paris police. But the word is absent from the same sources - such
as the archives of the Bastille and d'Argenson's reports - that mention a
numerous of male sodomites. So much the better for the women in question, but it
makes for a thin historical record; in this case, one assertion in a marital
case and another much longer account of a woman who did her best to stand
her ground as the police pushed implacably into her private life.
- A PLEA TOO FAR
Before there were messy divorces, there were messy separations...
It is not clear here if the simple term "tribad" (so often used by
Bachaumont himself) was considered indecent or if this clearly provocative lawyer
found it useful to enter into excessively explicit detail. Nor, absent other
information, can one assume that the challenged court filing was accurate
("indecent" or not).
The initial phrasing is confusing, since it seems clear that Maitre Prevost
was acting on the husband's behalf. Does it indicate that he wrote a memoir
without officially being the man's counsel?
August 2 [year?]. Me. Prevost de Saint-Lucien is a former lawyer much
esteemed by his colleagues, but who is said to be difficult, because he is very
hot-headed, very passionate; he willingly identifies with his client, &
becomes impassioned for his case; which the [concerned] parties regard to the
contrary as a rare and excellent quality. This zeal has already led him into
several affairs, & here he is now quite recently in the situation of being
denounced to his order.
In a memoir that he wrote, because he pleaded not at all in favor of M. du
Villiers, former musketeer, son-in-law of sir Bourdes, the king's
dentist, against the wife, who asks for a separation because of abuse and ill
treatment; he has not hidden the fact that this lady was a tribad, & he explained
himself without mystery; which Saturday led to a hearing by the judges of the
great chamber, delivering a judgement which allowed the lady of Villiers to
enter evidence, to suppress the paragraph of the memoir in which there is
question of tribadery, as contrary to good morals & public decency. These
qualifiers would force the lawyers to expel Me. Prevost de Saint-Lucien from
the bar. As a result he is busily trying to obtain from the judges that this
article of judgement not be maintained.
Bachaumont (Tome 26, 127-128)
- MADAME DE MURAT
A reader who only knew Madame de Murat from d'Argenson's account might think
that her "abominable" involvement with women was the most significant fact
of her life. There is not a hint of the writer of children's stories of whom
the Biographie Universelle says:
The novels of the countess of Murat placed
her in the first ranks of this sort of literature.. They are notable for
purity of taste, wisdom of ideas, the decency of the scenes, and by a touch of
philosophy which characterized the century in which she wrote them. Her verse,
of which there is little, is distinguished by its facility, and she could
have made a name for herself among the erotic poets.
(XXIX, 566-567) (Compare
this description of her work with d'Argenson's rather different descriptions
of the woman herself.)
According to this article, Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, countess of Murat,
was born in Brest in 1670 of distinguished ancestry. She left Brest at 16 to
marry (a bit later) Nicolas, the count of Murat, from a very old family.
with much imagination and vivacity, but with an ardent and opinionated
character and with too great a leaning towards pleasure, madame de Murat fell
sometimes into lapses to which her birth only served to draw greater attention.
Suspected of having cooperated in a pamphlet which insulted the whole court of
Louis XIV, she was exiled to Loches, by this monarch, at the request of
madame de Maintenon.
The article then lists a long list of works she wrote
during her confinement (until her release in 1715 [3?] by the Regent, at the
request of his mistress).
The two children mentioned by d'Argenson either died or were overlooked by
this biographer. "She died... September 24, 1716, leaving no children." Her
pregnancy during this same period may indicate that she was, in practice,
bisexual, though d'Argenson seems to regard it as one more manipulation.
Though her case does not seem to be widely known, it has been the object of
some study. David Michael Robinson's article on "The Abominable Madame de
Murat" can be found in Homosexuality in French History and Culture (Jeffrey
Merrick and Michael Sibalis, ISBN: 1560232625, Haworth Pr Inc 2001). A French
Madame de Murat is, on the model of Charles Perrault, the
author of several tales. Married around 15 or 16, she made a name for herself with
a political pamphlet against Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon, which earned
her exile, then (in 1702) by "dissolute" conduct, a love of pleasure to the
point of scandalizing her contemporaries, she is one of the important
storytellers of the Grand Siècle. Her tales mix court life with the marvelous.
Séminaire du 1er avril 2004 par Séverine Auffret-Musée des Beaux-Arts de
Caen - "Liberté des libertines ?"
And says Marie-Jo Bonnet:
Under Louis XIV, there is Madame de Murat, who
wrote fairy tales, and who was imprisoned by the king for ten years because at
the same time, she loved women, dilapidated the family patrimony, gambled and
had dissolute morals.
Interview with Marie-Jo Bonnet, author of Les relations amoureuses entre
les femmes du XVIe au XXe siècle, éditions Odile Jacob, collection « Opus ».
But as important for the connection-conscious authorities of the time was
her relation to the wife of the Marshal of Boufflers (which is why the latter is
kept informed at one point in these reports).
DISORDERS OF MADAME DE MURAT. - September 29, 1698 - I have had madame de
Murat warned, as it has pleased you to order me, but, while showing some
disposition to change her play, by respect for the King's orders, she seemed
resolved to maintain the gatherings at her place, almost every night, with much
dissolution and scandal. I hope that a little reflection will make her more
circumspect and more submissive; I have taken measure to be informed on this,
and I will have the honor to recount to you the result.
December 6, 1699. - I have the honor of sending you the memoir which it has
pleased you to ask of me, concerning madame de Murat; it is not easy to
express in detail all the dissolution of her conduct, without offense to decency,
and the public is pained to see a woman of this birth in so shameful and also
April 20, 1700. - I have made the intentions of the King known to madame de
Murat, and I have used, in this notification, all the care which might ease
its bitterness: she has promised to conform to it and has even given me her
submission in writing; I have even understood, by her talk, that he plan was to
retire to a distant region, at the home of one of her friends, and to
completely forget Paris; but she declares that, owing rent to her host and having
only for a long time lived off loans, it would be very hard for her to leave
without paying anyone, to abandon her son, seven years old, and to not be able
to bring him with her, nor confide him to a tutor with board, lacking money
to satisfy the one or the other of her expenses: she adds that, not having the
least resource on her side, and the fortune of her husband being under
seizure, it is absolutely impossible for her to pay the costs of the carriage
which would take her to the place of her exile, and that this impossibility
(reason superior to all others) is the only one that has led her to defer her
departure, and that she dares offer as an excuse for her delay.
I can answer for her interior resolutions, but if her speech was as sincere
as her indigence is true, one can count on her repentance and trust in her
promises. because she certainly lacks everything, and even the most necessary
clothes, most of the furniture at her home belonging to tapestry-makers who
would like to have them in their shops and are losing their rent. The wages of
the few valets who remain to her are entirely unpaid, and, for a very long
time, she has only lived from loans and the little money the cards have earned
Under these circumstances, dare I propose to you to move the King's
liberality in favor of a person who has not deserved it by her conduct, but whose
present misfortune is not without being worthy of compassion. It seems too that
her birth, though a little marred by the conduct of her life, deserves some
consideration. and that the King, whose kindness is well above the ordinary,
can accord her some help at the same time that he makes her feel the just
effects of his indignation.
[December 1701] - I would add, regarding Mme de Murat who is mentioned in
this memoir that she has returned to Paris after an absence of eight days, and
that she has reconciled with madame de Nantiat, and the horrors and the
abominations of their reciprocal friendship cause a righteous horror to all their
[PONTCHARTRAIN'S NOTE: Alert the marshal of Boufflers. Arrest
madame de Nantiat.]
You have done me the honor of telling me that the intention of the King was
that the first be taken to prison, if she resolved to disobey, but I beg you
to carefully choose her prison, and to find it proper that I point out to
you that this woman, unworthy of her name and of her birth, belongs to people of
the first rank, and that she is five months pregnant. I believe than that it
would be more just and more appropriate to discuss with her closest
realtives the place of her retreat, to have her taken there with some care, and to be
that much more circumspect in that all her actions make it plain that she
would not be unhappy if her labors were precipitated...
December 4, 1701. - I take the liberty of sending you a letter which I have
received, this morning, concerning the abominable conduct of mesdames de Murat
and de Nantiat, which present, each day, new scenes to the public: the
writing of this letter appears constrained, and one can easily suspect that the
reconciliation between these two women has excited feeling of jealousy or
vengeance in the heart of a third, who previously reigned over that of madame de
Murat; but the blasphemies, the obscenities and the drunkenness for which they
are reproached is nonetheless real. Thus, I hope that the King would be
willing to use his authority to drive them from Paris or even lock them up, if
nothing else can be done.
[PONTCHARTRAIN'S NOTE: To order for the one.]
[February 1702?] - Madame de Nantiat has finally left for her own region:
thus, I am returning to you the letter de cachet which authorized me to have her
taken in the house of the stables of H.R.H. madame the duchess of Orleans,
where she was retired.
[PONTCHARTRAIN'S NOTE: Good. Watch.]
Madame de Murat continues to distinguish herself by her outbursts and by the
dissolution of her morals. She knows that the King is kept aware of this;
but she is counting on no religious community will be found bold enough to
receive her. I do not, in effect, think there are any, and I could not have a
good opinion of those who would be willing to run the risk: thus, what other
measures can be taken, regarding a woman of this character, than locking her up
in a distant castle, where a hundred crowns will be sufficient for her keep
and for that of the oldest servant to be found?
[PONTCHARTRAIN'S NOTE: A. M. de Boufflers]
As she fears that the horror of her life will bring her this order, she
claims to be pregnant and adds that her husband not complaining of her conduct,
the public is wrong not to approve it: but this poor husband only keeps quiet
to not expose himself to the furies of a wife who has thought to kill him two
or three times, and the least sober people bear only with pain the
abomination of which this woman makes a kind of triumph.
[PONTCHARTRAIN'S NOTE: A. M.
April 30, 1702. - I have learned that madame de Murat writes, from the
chateau of Loches, not only to her family, but to persons who were the most
implicated in her disorderly conduct. It seems then that there would not be less
propriety than justice in depriving her of this general liberty, most of her
letters onlybeing likely to maintain her lapses and to perpetuate her dishonor.
It would be good, too, that while waiting to extract from the debris of her
fortune some stipend for upkeep, the commandant has been ordered to feed her
in the most frugal way. I am willing to believe that he does not allow her to
receive any visitors. But it would not hurt if you were willing to write him
further, in order that he not interpret you silence favorably and give way to
the importunity of this woman who, equally adroit and capricious, will omit
nothing to bring him around to her ends.
d'Argenson, "Rapports" (3, 10, 17-18, 88-89, 94, 97-98)