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Going Mad in French: Royal Notaries and Charles V’s Translation Project

Going Mad in French: Royal Notaries and Charles V’s Translation ProjectWoman hammering baby

Session: Mental Health in Non-medical Terms

Aleksandra Pfau (Hendrix College)

This was another interesting paper from the Mental Health in Non-medical Terms session at KZOO on notaries, and how crimes committed under “mental duress” were processed. This brief summary highlights an example of a woman who plead “insanity” after murdering her husband. It details how her family went to great lengths to have her aboslved of the crime by legally proving that she was mentally unsound. 

Two months after a woman, Jehanette Tropee, murdered her husband in November 1424, her family travelled 164 miles from Bayeaux to Paris where they met with the royal notary and asked for her pardon via a letter explaining her crimes. The letter was composed with madness as the central theme; they had to find and create an acceptable language for all to understand that what occurred was due to insanity not malice. Most remission letters give no indication of the remission seekers. Those that do cover a large range, i.e., lepers, journeymen, and workers – very few remission seekers were educated. The notaries who were contracted to produce these letters were ennobled by the king for their service, they were positions passed down from father to son. These letters were carefully constructed as the resulting narrative had to be acceptable to all parties involved.

The obvious question is: How did the notaries accomplish this? They found a way to narrate the events up to the moment of her crime: In October, she had become melancholy, her husband noticed a change and didn’t punish her. Due to her malady, they managed to prove that she should not be punished for her crime.

What vocabulary did the notaries to describe that condition and how much was it influenced by Latin discourses? Charles V sought make French equal to Latin. In 1401 – Christine de Pizan shifted women’s roles. The debate about language focused on voice – signifier and signified. Language mattered and the question of who was speaking in a text, held philosophical weight. This question was particularly compelling for royal notaries. The most prevalent terminology in medieval french that indicated mental disability was ‘lack of sense’. It imagines madness outside of mental comprehension and knowledge and the concept of madness as a negation of sensibility. Areas of the brain corresponded to the humours – e.g., melancholy was associated with memory. The brain was divided into various sections in order to explain disturbances caused by madness. Evocative imagery of people outside their sense came from the biblical vision of the person who failed to understand God, as in the Old Testament, in the Book of Proverbs, and the Book of Psalms – in particular Psalm 13: “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?”  It was important to emphasize madness as the opposite of wisdom.

I really enjoyed this paper because it looked at and explained an murder case. It was also very interesting because the assailant was a woman. The way in which cases of insanity or mental duress were proven by royal notaries was fascinating. Lastly, I also enjoyed the explanation of how medieval scholars and physicians determined what constituted a “mental disturbance” .

~Sandra Alvarez



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