The Voices of Nîmes: Women, sex, and marriage in Reformation Languedoc, by Suzannah Lipscomb 

10 May 2019

G. R. Evans enjoys a scholar’s combing of church court records

THIS study takes us into the Consistory Courts of the Huguenots in Languedoc between 1561 and 1615. Their records provide a rare source of detailed information on the otherwise largely “voiceless” women of the age. In those courts, women could initiate a case, and they did not have to pay a fee to do so. So they did.

The Consistories of the Huguenots were their ecclesiastical governing bodies, and their courts were local, with registers surviving from ten town and cities of the region, supplemented in some instances by the records of the local notaries, who would have drawn up marriage contracts and family wills. Less useful because of their disorganisation are the records of the sénéschal or secular district courts. All these stand beside the officialités, the records of the Bishop’s Courts of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. The author has brought this varied material into play in her lively reconstruction of events.

The Consistory records are more wide-ranging than the records of the Church of England’s ecclesiastical courts of the period, preserving additional types of material; but they share with them responsibilities in the resolution of disputes affecting the laity, especially those concerning marriage. It is especially this marriage-related material that offers glimpses of the domestic lives of the women involved.

The chapters that make up the bulk of the book are full of examples, organised under topics. First comes a discussion of the operation of the Consistory Courts in upholding “moral discipline”. The Elders of the Church acted as “moral police”, spying on a unmarried woman accused of being pregnant to see if it was true. But there was a firm requirement of confidentiality, to prevent gossip being spread about the often colourful details which emerged during the hearing of a case.

Then comes a section on cases arising out of mixed Protestant and Roman Catholic marriages and cases in which a woman was accused of superstition for allegedly resorting to magic. There follow “gossip, insults and disputes”, with cases of a kind familiar in the English ecclesiastical courts, too, where, for example, a woman was accused by a neighbour of being nothing better than a prostitute. Was this defamation, or did she have evidence?

Next is a chapter on cases arising over courtship and allegedly broken promises, raising complex questions about consent. There follows a chapter on the numerous cases involving alleged pre-marital sex, sexual assault, and rape. Last comes marital violence and adultery. Once more, all these had their parallels in the ecclesiastical courts of the Church of England. The notable difference is the climate of unresolved uncertainty about the relationship between Protestant and Roman Catholic loyalties among the laity in Languedoc, while in England the dominance of the Church of England in lay affiliation was clearer after the accession of Elizabeth I.

This is a splendid read. The author has not overplayed her stories. She has not needed to. This is scholarly writing at its readable best.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

The Voices of Nîmes: Women, sex, and marriage in Reformation Languedoc
Suzannah Lipscomb
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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