Montesquieu

Rica to ***


It seems that fami­lies here govern them­sel­ves all alone : the hus­band has but a sha­dow of autho­rity over his wife, the father over his chil­dren, the mas­ter over his sla­ves. Justice gets invol­ved in all their dis­pu­tes, and be sure that it is always against the jea­lous hus­band, the wor­ried father, and the trou­ble­some mas­ter.

The other day I went to a place where jus­tice is ren­de­red. Before arri­ving there one has to sur­vive the seduc­tions of an infi­nite num­ber of young mer­chant women, who call you in a begui­ling voice.1 This spec­ta­cle is first rather appea­ling, but it beco­mes dreary when you enter into the great halls where all you see is peo­ple whose rai­ment is even more grave than their faces. Finally you enter the holy place where all the secrets of fami­lies are revea­led and where the most hid­den acts are shown in broad day­light.

There a modest girl comes to confess the tor­ments of a vir­gi­nity too long pre­ser­ved, her strug­gles and her dis­tress­ful resis­tance. She has so lit­tle pride in her vic­tory that she still threa­tens an immi­nent defeat ; and so that her father will no lon­ger ignore her needs, she expo­ses them to all the peo­ple.2

Next a bra­zen woman comes for­ward to expose the scan­dals she has per­pe­tra­ted on her hus­band as a rea­son for being sepa­ra­ted from him.

With simi­lar modesty ano­ther comes to say she is weary of bea­ring the title of wife without its plea­su­res : she comes to reveal the mys­te­ries hid­den in the wed­ding night ; she wants to be deli­ve­red to the ins­pec­tion of the most skilled experts and for a sen­tence to res­tore to her all the rights of vir­gi­nity.3 There are even some who dare to defy their hus­bands, and ask of them in public a com­bat that wit­nes­ses make so dif­fi­cult, a test as stig­ma­ti­zing for the woman who asserts it as much as for the hus­band who under­goes it.4

An infi­nite num­ber of raped or sedu­ced girls make men much worse than they are. Love echoes through this tri­bu­nal. You hear about nothing but angry fathers, abu­sed daugh­ters, unfai­th­ful lovers, and wor­ried hus­bands.

By the law that is obser­ved there, any child born during the mar­riage is assu­med to belong to the hus­band ; too bad if he has good rea­sons not to believe it : the law belie­ves it for him, and takes the exa­mi­na­tion and scru­ples out of his hands.

This tri­bu­nal deci­des by the majo­rity of votes, but they have reco­gni­zed by expe­rience that it would be bet­ter to decide by the mino­rity ; and that is quite natu­ral, for there are very few just minds, and eve­ryone agrees that an infi­nite num­ber of them are wrong.

Paris this 1st day of the moon of Gemmadi II, 1715

The milliners of the Galerie du Palais (de Justice) flatter passers-by like Sirens to attract their clientele. In Corneille’s La Galerie du Palais (1634) he depicts there a bookseller, a haberdasher, and a seller of linens. Cf. letter 56 on the entrepreneurs of Paris.

Though parents could not be forced to marry a child, in some regions they could be required to pay a dowry, following Roman law.

If the marriage has not been consummated, it can be annulled ; therein lies her hopes of freedom. On the “visit”, see letter 69.

In 1712, the marquise de Gesvres famously attempted to have her marriage annulled because of her husbands impotence. “The marquis de Gesvres claimed he was not impotent, and as it was a question of fact, it was ordered that he be visited by surgeons, and she by matrons” (Saint-Simon, Mémoires, vol. IV, p. 497). The “congress” or test of the potency or impotency of married men had been abolished in 1677.