January 24, 2009

The Giroux Affair

Philippe Giroux, a judge in the highest court in Burgundy in the 1630s, was in 1640 accused of murdering his own cousin Pierre Baillet and Baillet's valet, Philibert Neugot. He was furthermore accused of manufacturing evidence that a rival was a paedophile and rapist and suspicions hung over him that he had murdered his own wife in 1636, attempted to murder his mother in law and had had an adulterous affair with Baillet's wife, Marie Fyot. The trial took three years to come to a conclusion about Giroux, but the affair dragged on for several years with others like Fyot coming and going to court in Dijon and Paris. By the late 1650s, it was all over. Professor James Farr has written an excellent book about the whole process- which brings out several points I feel will be of interest.

Farr's research is extensive and relies heavily on the archival records of the trial- which are themselves profuse. In relying so, what he is able to do is to chart the process whereby Giroux was tried and imprisoned and later a verdict was found. His researches reveal the sources of power in 17th Century France. Giroux sat at the apex of Burgundian society in the 1630s, a client of the Prince de Conde, and a high official in a court that was presided over by his brother in law: his sources of official power were extensive. Thanks to his father Benoit's efforts he had also acquired substantial land holdings in Burgundy, a title and an impressive marriage into the local jurisprudential aristocracy. Giroux was able to use this power to acquire more: fees from his cases at the court for example allowed him to extend his land ownings. But also he was committed to serving his patrons, the Prince de Conde and those who stood beyond and above the Prince, the King of France and his Prime Minister, Richelieu.

The official lines of authority were one thing- but what Farr's extensive research makes clear is that here we see a combat between kin groups, client-groups which dominated the town of Dijon. These groups were based on family, patronage and employment patterns. Men like Giroux had patrons like Conde with whom they rose and fell and on whose support they depended: but Giroux too had a network of servants and friends within Burgundy who depended on his continuous success. When Giroux was imprisoned many of his servants were horrendously tortured- at least one died on the wheel (the most agonising death available to a seventeenth century man). You might fall when your patron fell- but equally you might fall if your patron lost interest in you. Giroux's fall is connected to the fact that by 1639-40 the Prince de Conde was beggining to lose interest in his protege: when Benoit went to attempt to save his son to see the Prince he was rejected and turned away. Giroux's enemies could strike as soon as the powerful shield of the Prince's influence was removed.

Politics was about the conjunction of official legal authority and that granted by patrons and client networks. The game of political intrigue though had two other characteristics. What people were battling for was money and land: a successful career meant a political career and could arouse envy, leading to the increase in numbers of enemies. For Giroux political abstention was not an option, rather for him and his family political and legal advance were dependent on each other. The converse to that is that political failure meant imprisonment or disgrace and death. The second issue that Farr highlights is the creation of a new political class: secular politics was shared now between noblemen like Conde and classically educated magistrates like Giroux. The rise of this class of individuals brought a change in morality- towards a neo-stoic idea of human behaviour which prioritised resistance to human passion and adherence to proffessional reason. Lastly this new class came to office at a time when France and Europe was reeling, from the effects of the disastrous wars of the century between 1550 and 1650 (the French Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War). Contemporary philosophy stressed the need for peace and the arts to maintain it: one might characterise Hobbes, Bodin and Grotius as major thinkers who dwelt on this subject and for them it meant the creation of an 'absolutist' state- the state that the likes of Giroux were to become the civil servants, lawyers and judges for.

Where does this leave us? What Farr's research cannot tell us is whether Giroux committed a murder- but what he does tell us is a more universal and in a sense more interesting point. He informs us about the way that Early Modern France and her legal system worked. Farr's work is an example of the way that crime can be useful for historians: a sensational case like the Giroux affair acts like a scalple, a society records its transactions and the reasons for them when prosecuting a member of the elite for a horrifying crime. It then reveals itself to the eager historian: and in a sense at the distance of several centuries what those revelations show is as interesting as the crime itself. Professor Farr's work is definitely interesting and well worth reading- he takes you through the case in a disciplined fashion and also explains what he feels are some of its trends. The case is interesting, the trends are fascinating and the research is impressive.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

That sounds a very interesting read. Thanks for your heroism elsewhere in the blogosphere, Gracchi!

Gracchi said...

It is a good book!

As to other matters thanks for the thanks.

Rumbold said...

How does the Fronde affect the case? Does it lead to more tensions, or is it a distraction?

Gracchi said...

Rumbold- you are entirely right it does- I didn't quite have the space to write more about this. But Conde's fortunes are important in connection with the Fronde but also with the earlier viccissitudes of life at court. I'd say as well that you have a Thirty Years war context- Dijon is only twenty minutes away from the Habsburg border and there is always the worry that Giroux might flee.

Rumbold said...

I had forgotten about the Thirty Years' war as well. I wonder how many fled from court cases like this- usually they tried to stay in France and fight.