Risk and Uncertainty

Precarious Courtships in Old Regime France

This article is part of a series on Risk and Uncertainty. Articles in this series aim to explore how ordinary people understood and coped with risk and uncertainty in times of personal crisis and in everyday life, helping to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world. You can read an introduction to the series here

When young women in the working neighbourhoods of Old Regime Lyon accepted invitations to walk out with and publicly date young men, they set into motion an uncertain series of events that could endanger their mental wellbeing, their reproductive health, their reputations, and their futures. The conventional steps from courtship to marriage involved a complex process during which young women had to negotiate sexual activity and its reproductive consequences as well as to assess the reliability of their potential marriage partners as household co-providers and compatible companions. Although most adults married, each of these steps entailed risk, and personal crisis was never far away.

Young men and women often worked alongside each other in Lyon’s silk industry or in the many allied specialized trades. After weeks or months of flirtatious chat, a young man might ask a female companion about walking out together. If the woman accepted, they started seeing each other many evenings and Sundays, spending their time chatting, hugging, kissing, and touching as they explored being potential life partners while walking around the city. Talk about marriage and sex often happened at the same time. Women sought to ensure their partners’ promises were firm and true. Young couples usually began to have sex as they sought the blessing of their families and made marriage contracts. Women’s experiences of sexual intercourse for the first time were often rough. Frequently, they were pregnant by the time they married. Many times, the relationship fell apart before the final step of marriage, a simple church service, was completed.

The city of Lyon, France. Credit: Author’s own.

People across gender, generation and rank in Lyon’s working neighbourhoods shared well-articulated expectations about what licit intimacy for young people involved. The shift to walking out together had multi-faceted purposes: it was meaningful as the start of a courtship to the couple, it announced their status to the neighbourhood, it gave them opportunity to see each other often, and it defined the spatial parameters of their sociability as public spaces where people could watch them. New couples saw each other often and the rubric of licit intimacy allowed them to experiment quite expansively in terms of the pleasures of kissing, cuddling, and touching.

Community safeguarding mitigated the risks of the perilous nature of courtship for women where licit intimacy also tied intercourse firmly to marriage. While communities supported young women in the pleasures of courtship, they also watched, commented, questioned, and chastised both partners as they thought necessary. Like Phillipe Guy, the 50-year-old neighbour of Philberte DeLuis, who quizzed her boyfriend about how much time they were spending together and told him to stay away unless he committed to marriage, co-workers, employers, friends and family were quick to warn couples if they disappeared out of public view, perhaps to go “too far,” or whose actions seemed to suggest intercourse without a promise to marry.

Young women held their partners responsible and checked each other’s behaviour. They were fully aware of the risks of intimacy getting ahead of marriage commitments. Girlfriends and co-workers often said essentially, “you’re smarter than this,” as Anne Roussin’s coworkers did when she went into a storage cupboard with her boyfriend “to get supplies” and came out “all dishevelled.” Women recalled how they insisted on what they believed to be firm promises to marry before intercourse in their initial discussions about marriage with their partners. Sometimes they secured written promises that, like modern engagement rings, could be shown as concrete proof to neighbours, friends, family (and occasionally deployed later as evidence in court).

A written promise to marry. 1680. Antoine Flacheron promised to marry his partner, Ysabeau Martin “whenever she or her family wanted” after confirming they had been going out, they had started to have sex after he promised to marry her, and he was the father of the baby she was pregnant with. Credit: Archives Départementales du Rhône BP3541 14 May 1680.

Indeed, conversations about sex were integral to young people’s discussions about marriage, as intercourse usually followed soon after the commitment to marry.  Nevertheless, if subsequent relationship breakdowns led young women to go to court, their recollections of their first intercourse frequently emphasized how their partners used force. Agathe Laumosnier remembered how Geroge Piot had found her alone, locked the door and put the key in his pocket before he “violently” threw her on the bed and forcibly had intercourse. This shift to the privacy and intercourse associated with marriage that in stark contrast to the publicity of courtship intimacy that stopped short of that. Yet their recollections highlight the mundaneness of the use of force in domestic relationships and young men’s sense that the legal and cultural entitlement to women’s bodies began with the first step into matrimony.

Jan Steen (1625/26-1679), Merry Couple (c. 1660). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Working communities’ safeguarding work included holding young men responsible through informal or formal agreements as they were realistic that couples would not always observe the conventional steps of licit intimacy. Men with pregnant partners faced clear expectations if they did not marry, whether due to the refusal of parents to consent, to a change of heart, or to the fact they were not ready financially. They were expected to rent rooms from landladies who specialized in discrete pre and postnatal care for unmarried women and to pay the costs of deliveries. They were obliged to take custody of the babies, have them baptized, and arrange for their care, most often by paying rural wet-nurses to shelter and feed them. Men who met these responsibilities retained their good reputations even without marrying their partners. Clergy, social welfare officials who ran the foundling hospital, and judges were all aligned with community safeguarding values, and partnered with women and community members to use reprimands, threats, or legal judgments to enforce them. Meanwhile these arrangements allowed young women to reboot their lives with their reputations intact so they could return to work and even marry.

Pragmatic community safeguarding extended to young couples’ efforts to interrupt untimely pregnancies by inducing miscarriages. While young women usually recalled in court that these projects were the boyfriends’ idea, young couples routinely collaborated in efforts to interrupt reproduction. Early modern understandings of reproduction allowed them to process efforts early in pregnancy as a restoration of women’s menstrual cycles rather than abortions, whether by taking potions they called “remedies” or having surgeons bleed them. If these “worked”, they did so by making young women ill enough to induce miscarriages.

After a child was born, an untimely pregnancy could be dealt with in other ways. Women sometimes simply failed to deliver childcare (what I call situational infanticide); other times someone squeezed an infant’s nose or in rare cases used explicit violence like strangulation.  Many fetal remains from late terminations were surely thrown into one of Lyon’s two fast flowing city center rivers and quickly swept downstream safe from discovery.  Fetal remains were found in public places where officials routinely ordered their burial without any effort to find out who was responsible. Some remains were buried informally in church or convent grounds. All such measures involved someone assisting the newly-delivered woman, perhaps the father but certainly always an ally.  Sometimes someone took the new-born to the foundling hospital, and young couples could arrange in advance to do that. Community allies as well as legal and church officials facilitated these measures by their inaction. Willingness to help (or not) or to report (or not) interruptions of reproduction was critical to safeguarding young couples.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806): Der Riegel (Le verrou), ca. 1776–1779. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, interruptions of the conventional steps of the transition from courtship to marriage, where sex following a promise of marriage often meant pregnancy before the completion of the matrimonial process, were turmoil-filled for young women. All reproductive experiences involved anxiety, pain, and potential long-term health damage or death. Interruptions of reproduction amplified these risks. Even when community safeguarding worked to allow women to reboot their lives and maintain their reputation, and certainly it was sometimes unsuccessful, women undoubtedly experienced an emotional rollercoaster of uncertainty fraught with what we would now recognize as stress and anxiety.

Precarious courtships were integral parts of young people’s experiences of becoming adults and developing relationships in communities like Lyon in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of course, working people were accustomed to many forms of uncertainty and risk as parts of their daily lives. Accidents, illnesses or pregnancy that interrupted work or caused deaths could upend households in terms of labour, revenue and emotions terms. Economic risk came in many forms for women as well as men, whether from shortage of work due to recessions or from the quotidian reliance on credit when arrears might lead a baker to stop extending credit or another creditor to start a court action.

Our continued focus on high rates of marriage overlooks the ways in which personal crises were frequently, even predictably, interwoven with courtship during the early modern period. Courtship involved risks in terms of unpredictable outcomes and possible loss of reputation for men and women, but the risks were uneven. Pregnancy, childbirth, reproductive interruptions or abandonment by partners threated women’s health, their ability to work, and sometimes their long-term well-being. If young men refused to meet their reproductive responsibilities, they might be imprisoned, compelled to take custody or be derided in their communities, but they could still move on more easily.

Histories of young people’s relationships must engage with the gendered implications of uncertainties, risks, failures, and costs. The strategies Lyonnais working communities and their allies in the legal and social welfare systems used to mitigate the risks through community safeguarding emphasize their recognition of how dangerous this particular form of precarity could be to young women’s wellbeing and futures. They also illustrate the desire to support young women through this ubiquitous stage rather than simply criminalize or discipline them.

Women continue to disproportionately face uncertainties and risks in courtship today in terms of access to reproductive healthcare, childcare and housing. These issues still affect young women’s ability to safely and freely negotiate romantic heterosexual relationships without potentially facing devastating consequences. If some things have changed, we still have a long way to go.

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