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Domestic Violence: Once Encouraged, Now Unacceptable


He is a man with a menacing gaze, his arm raised, who, under the indifferent gaze of his neighbors, firmly grabs a terrified woman by the hair and keeps her lying on the ground. Excerpt from a manuscript of romance of the roseby Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung, this illustration, which dates from the end of the 15the century eerily echoes a black and white drawing published four centuries later, in 1899, in a collection of street songs – an angry man about to throw a chair at the head of a poor woman in a night, barefoot, fearfully protecting his head in his arms.

Illustration from the collection “In the street, songs and monologues”, A. Bruant, 1899.

The same scene, four hundred years apart? The same gestures, in the Middle Ages as under the IIIe Republic ? The same fatality that would pursue women for centuries?

Conjugal violence does not always present the same face, but it seems to span the ages with great consistency: in medieval legal separation proceedings as well as in complaints addressed to criminal justice in the 19th century.e century, in the cases submitted to the Parliament of Paris under the Ancien Régime as in the speeches of battered women in the 1970s, the scenarios are often repeated. Insults, humiliations, blows…

If actions and words are similar, society’s view of them has nevertheless been profoundly transformed. Considered necessary, even legitimate, by the “customaries” of the Middle Ages – who listed the rights, customs and rules specific to each community and imposed on husbands a “duty of correction” – conjugal violence was no longer recommended, but widely accepted in the 19e century, by a society organized around the all-powerful figure of the head of the family. This tolerance gave way, a century and a half later, to a firm reprobation: today, violence within the couple arouses moral, social, political and criminal opprobrium.

“The duty to correct by blows”

How to understand that the same gesture is considered as a fair and legitimate practice in the Middle Ages, as a reprehensible but understandable behavior in the XIXe century and as unacceptable conduct in the 21ste century ?

“This change of perspective is the result of a slow evolution of mentalities, analyzes the historian Elisabeth Lusset, researcher at the CNRS. In this process, which took centuries, three factors were decisive: the growing opposition to physical violence within the family, the growing legitimacy of state intervention in the private sphere and, of course, , the very gradual emergence of equality between men and women. »

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