Stifled Screams

The voices of forgotten women in Reformation France.

Map of Nîmes and its walls, after Sebastian Münster (1569), 1572.

In spring 1589, Claude Rouveyrolle, a French woman living in the Protestant city of Nîmes, was violently attacked by two men. They had begun by shouting insults at her, before seizing her and cutting her dress from the bottom hem to her buttocks, calling her a whore. It was an attempted rape, with the implication that she deserved it for presumed sexual promiscuity. The men, however, did not succeed. Although Rouveyrolle claimed that neighbours interceded and halted the assailants, one of the would-be rapists suggested otherwise. He claimed that Rouveyrolle herself picked up a nearby stone and cracked him over the head with it, knocking him to the ground. Rouveyrolle did not deny it.

The record of Rouveyrolle’s resisted attack comes to us, first, because she reported the assault to the consistory, an institution for maintaining moral discipline in Reformation France; and, second, because it makes up one of the 1,200 cases that Suzannah Lipscomb uses in her new book. As with the case of Rouveyrolle, Lipscomb demonstrates that, despite the patriarchal systems in which they operated, women still seized opportunities to assert their agency. In fact, one of the most fascinating conclusions is that women often did so via those channels instituted to police and control them, such as the consistory.

The historical irony goes further: not only did women assert themselves via the patriarchal institutions designed to oppress them, but it is because of the records of these institutions that we can hear their voices at all. Those records and, of course, Lipscomb’s historical recovery of them. Lipscomb analysed near-countless volumes of vellum-bound manuscripts of consistory records archived in Nîmes, poring over the pages to reconstruct the lives of the women who lived in the area four centuries before. Voices of Nîmes is a work of meticulous archival research that not only presents these past conversations, but breathes them into vivid life. It takes a proficient, passionate and witty storyteller like Lipscomb to detail these stories in a way that transports and moves the reader.

Not all the stories Lipscomb relates are as triumphant of that of Rouveyrolle, which makes her recovery of them all the more important. The women of Nîmes speak in voices assured, timid, confused, afraid, vindictive, victorious and every shade in between. Many women internalised the patriarchy they challenged, crushing other women underfoot in their efforts to make space for themselves. Some voices remain forever silent. In others you can detect the sound of stifled screams. In the sections on rape and assault, Lipscomb works to disrupt pre-existing narratives that portray rape as the infrequent result of violent impulses of men on the margins of society. The records presented in Voices of Nîmes show it instead as a disturbingly quotidian danger brought about by power imbalances, especially in regards to women’s service work. Throughout, Lipscomb is in conversation with existing scholarship, confirming, critiquing and correcting as required.

Voices of Nîmes offers evidence for one of the most important lessons of women’s history: that women can and have used systems designed to oppress them to express their agency. This does not change the fundamental fact of their oppression, but does force us to recognise the active role they played in shaping their lives and the lives of those around them. These ‘unexceptional’ women of early modern Languedoc left their marks on history.

The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc
Suzannah Lipscomb
378pp £30

Joanne Paul is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex and author of Thomas More (Polity, 2017).