Miss Clark goes to
Washington | The
life of the party
A debt to societies
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
was late on a Saturday evening when shrieks from the Renault home brought
out the neighborhood.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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"
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.
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
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."