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TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  Miss Clark goes to Washington | The life of the party

A debt to societies

History Prof. Julie Hardwick says that trying to pay the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker goes back further than the clichˇ itself

By Nancy Bartosek

It was late on a Saturday evening when shrieks from the Renault home brought out the neighborhood.

Witnesses would later testify that Marye ran to the balcony screaming for help as husband Jean continued to hit her and drag her back inside -- all while loudly proclaiming that he had not touched her.

A shouting match ensued between Renault and the neighbors as they insisted he open the door so they could see what he had done to his wife.

What had provoked this violent attack? An argument over debt. In 1636.

She was refusing to turn her property over to him. We know of her struggles because she took the problem to court in Nantes, France. Not for assault and battery, as a woman today might, but to protect her assets.

Marye Oger was one of thousands of women who filed for separation of person and/or property in local courts during the early modern period (16th and 17th centuries) of France. Those stories have become a five-year-old study for History Prof. Julie Hardwick and will be included in a book she's working on, Courting Families: Litigation and Daily Life in 17th-Century France.

"The single most common subject in litigation during this time was debt," she said, pointing out that the effects of debt on daily living have been largely ignored by other historians. "The thing that surprised me was how complex this was and how dramatic this burden was. Some of these families got into amazing, crushing levels of debt. And that frequently spurred domestic violence."

Like today, early modern families in France took out formal loans, ran up tabs with merchants, borrowed from one another and made liberal use of pawn shops, just to keep the household running.

"We have this sense that debt is a very modern thing, but it's not," Hardwick said. "I think the fundamental challenges that working families face are still the same. Not only must both parents work, but they live from check to check. If anything goes wrong, they find themselves in a very perilous situation."

When Marguerite married Jullien, a lawyer, in 1627, she believed his claims that he made a good living and would "be a good husband." It didn't take long for her to discover he not only drank too much and gambled, he owed money all over town. Neighbors reported his business acumen was lousy -- he bought things at inflated prices and sold goods for much less than they were worth. Soon, creditors were banging at the doors.

"Back then you had no protection whatsoever from somebody just being on your doorstep -- they had to get court permission first, but that was quite easy -- and start selling pots and pans or bed linens right out from beneath you," Hardwick said. When Marguerite refused to sign another loan note, his threats began.

She went to court and was granted separation of property, a ruling that couldn't return what was lost, but did protect from his inept control any new income she produced. It was the best she could hope for. In France, divorce was illegal. The law did, however, allow women to protect their assets (including any dowry brought to the marriage) if the man's "husbandry" proved incompetent. If her life was in danger, she could petition for separation of person, but that required exceptional circumstances since wife-beating was generally considered part of a man's "disciplinary" responsibilities.

Studying private lives from past centuries didn't occur to Hardwick until she migrated to Wisconsin in 1984 for graduate studies. It was then that her interest quickly turned to family issues -- maybe because two days after arriving she met Robert Olwell, a fellow-historian who eventually became her husband.

The two are now four with the addition of daughters Rose, 4, and Grace, 10 months. While Hardwick knows the past resonates in her own family challenges, she stops short of saying that society has garnered any practical lessons. At least not yet.

"I do think that the main lesson is that it's easy to draw the wrong lesson," she said. "There's lots of myths, by politicians especially, about some sort of golden age in the past, when women were staying home and weren't working, and there was no crime and kids weren't running around on the streets and everything was problem-free. There really is no such time.

"And so to say that if in the future we can solve all our problems by achieving that, that's probably not the answer." While France's past offers no easy lessons, it does provide valuable knowledge. "When we understand better the long history of these problems, we can be better informed about what choices we might make now to ameliorate our situations," she said. "The myth making about the past is amazing, and the use of those myths is amazing, too. "Accepting these myths is abusing history, not using it."