Tag Archives: social customs

From China to Paris: a 1693 account of one woman’s journey

We recently completed cataloging the Saint-Sulpice Collection at the Newberry Library, which contains about 2,500 pamphlets and manuscripts chiefly in French that are nearly all biographical. These items, dating from the 16th to early 19th centuries, were collected and eventually bound into volumes by the Sulpician priests of Paris and used as educational models to teach their seminarians rhetorical writing skills.

While it is unsurprising that the Sulpicians would collect biographical pamphlets on kings and saints, the Saint-Sulpice Collection also contains pamphlets on both the notorious, such as infamous poisoners, and obscure. One such example of the latter is an anonymous manuscript letter regarding the past travails of a Chinese woman in Paris identified only as Ina (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8).

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

According to the letter, Ina was born in Beijing to a noble family and married a man at a young age of similar noble birth. During a journey down the coast to Nanjing with her husband and young son, she and her party were attacked by Dutch pirates. While her husband was killed during the skirmish, Ina, her son, and a number of servants were captured and taken on board. Although most of her possessions were taken from her, she was treated well for a time.

However, subsequent captains and crew mistreated her during many years of life at sea. Eventually, her son and all of her servants died of a fever. During a port stop in Paris, Ina was paraded around the city, where both the ship’s crew and the citizens of Paris stared at and jostled her now tattered traditional Chinese clothing. The crew abandoned her in Paris without money or possessions.

While Ina and her Chinese culture are exoticized throughout the text, some moments of human compassion are apparent, such as the moment when a nun finds Ina alone and destitute on a Parisian street and offers her shelter. The anonymous correspondent offers these reflections:

Compren[n]ez, s’il vous plait, dans quel désespoir vne femme qui est née auec du bien, qui a esté touiours heur[eu]se, et qui a de la naissance, se trouue réduite, au milieu de la rüe, pendans la nuit, au coeur de l[']hiuer, dans une des plus grandes villes du monde, sans argent, sans connoissances, sans pouuoir dire un seul mot de la langue, du païs à six milles lieuës du sien, et sans pouuoir demander du secours au vray Dieu qu’elle n’auoit pas encore le bonheur de connoistre.

[Understand, if you will, the despair of a high-born, wealthy woman, who was always happy, and now finds herself reduced to nothing, out in the street at night in the middle of winter in one of the largest cities in the world, without money and friends, without knowing a single word of the language in a country six thousand leagues from her own, and without the ability to ask help from the true God whom she has not yet had the good fortune of knowing.] (p. [16])

The letter appears to have been sent to or originated from the convent of the Augustines de la Miséricorde de Jésus in the Saint-Marcel quarter of Paris in 1693. Presumably, the nun who discovered Ina in the streets of Paris or one of her fellow sisters is the author of the letter.

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

Ina became an object of fascination to many prominent members of Parisian society, as they tried to discern where she was from based on her appearance and language, which they could not identify for some time. Eventually, Ina joined the other sisters in the convent as a nun. I have been unsuccessful in finding any other documents to corroborate Ina’s story or to attest to her existence at all. But this manuscript is a fascinating document that reveals Western attitudes toward the East in late 17th-century France.

Sauts des mariés and fêtes baladoires: customs arcane and illicit

With the French Revolution Collection (FRC) all but cataloged in full, our primary task now is to deal with the hundreds of duplicates set aside over the course of the three year CLIR project.  In the end it was decided that the integrity of the collection was worth preserving, so all duplicates will be retained.

For bibliographic records pre-dating the project, we’ll be recataloging, but CLIR records require merely adding holdings records in Voyager.  The latter is a simple matter, potentially tedious but quick enough to allow for a satisfyingly high level of productivity.   This alacrity makes it easy to simply skim the titles, but occasionally — as with the monkey and nun that (metaphorically) leaped from the pages of a Saint-Sulpice volume last year — a an unusual word or two demand attention.  For Case folio FRC 27535, my eye was caught by (literally) jumping newlyweds:

Ruling of the Cour de Parlement that prohibits all persons, of whatever quality and condition they may be, to require newlyweds, resident in the parish of Verruyes, to jump, on the day of Pentecost or any other day, over any hole; and that equally prohibits any newlyweds from presenting themselves to make the jump [...]

Case folio FRC 27535 (duplicate of Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 48)

As the 1786 arrêt goes on to describe it, the hole is to be at least half full of water, of a depth of about 12 feet or more, and if the newlyweds fail to make the jump they must each pay a fine of 60 sols.   One can’t help but agree with the court  that the custom “can do nothing but result in very great impropriety … regarding both the danger incurred by jumping … and the fear that may precipitate paying  the fine.”

Case folio FRC 27535 (duplicate of Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 48)

The ruling also notes that the saut des mariés can be considered nothing but a “fête baladoire” which are already outlawed.   One such decree (conveniently available online via the French national library’s Gallica bibliothèque numérique) sheds light on what fêtes baladoires might entail, describing in some detail the disruptive hijinks in a particular area.

Arrest de la cour du Parlement défend les fêtes baladoires, les attroupements et assemblées illicites ... (Bibliotheque nationale de France)

The decree pertains to assemblies

that could be regarded as fêtes baladoires (licentious festivals), during marrages and baptisms; that the inhabitants tumultuously gather together armed with rifles and pistols, having rockets and firecrackers, and lighting fires in different places around the parishes; that around the days of carnival the boys of the parishes go out looking for girls in the places where they are assembled, with drums, fifes, and horns, traversing during the night all the quarters of their villages leading around masked and disguised girls, and going from village to village; that the inhabitants of Couilly assembled in a cabaret where they wrote and composed defamatory libels that they had distributed; that during carnival they had an inhabitant of Couilly mount an ass [...] carrying and representing his effigy, which they burned, extorting from this inhabitant the sum of 60 livres, and then they assembled in the cabarets where they made a tumult and drank all night [...]

The high spirits — particularly the libel and effigy-burning — sound much like the 1791 case of the carementran in Crest that cropped up almost exactly a year ago.  Somehow these crop up on our work flow just after Ash Wednesday.  Go figure.


BLC beyond opera

The Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection (BLC) reflects Prof. Brown’s capacious interest in the ways that theater and music intersected.  The collection comprises not just opera libretti and playbills but a great many plays, collections of poetry, and other literary material of the early modern era that in some way inhabited the realm of musical performance.  Since this “other” material falls outside of the cataloging templates we’ve established for the CLIR project, it can be slightly less straightforward to catalog.  These moments of pause frequently become (at least for me) downright detours, as the workflow renders up some title ripped from the music-historical headlines.   Take for example these two volumes.

BLC 694 (Case PQ4617.C15 B59 1553) and BLC 649 (Case DG738.21 .R67 1589)

The item on the right is an account of the intermedi performed for the wedding of Ferdinando I, grand-duke of Tuscany, and Christine of Lorraine in 1589.  These intermedi were lavish spectacles in music and dance and are considered important precursors to opera.

Descrizione dell'apparato e degl'intermedi fatti per la commedia rappresentata in Firenze nelle nozze de' serenissimi Don Ferdinando Medici, e Madama Cristina de Loreno, gran duchi di Toscana. Case DG738.21 .R67 1589 (BLC 649)

For music historians, the 1589 wedding was a signal event, due in no small part to the detailed descriptions not just of the stage machinery and costumes but the performers, the instruments, and the composers.  From the description of the fifth intermedio, pictured below:

…cominciarono a sonare gli strumenti, ch’elle avevan condotti seco, che erano viole, e lire arciviolate, e Anfitrite, sonando sopra alla nicchia un liuto, cominciò soavamente a cantare …

(they began to play the instruments that they had brought with them, which were violas and arch-lyres, and Anfitrite, playing a lute from a niche above, began to suavely sing)

The text goes on to attribute the madrigals to Ottavio Rinuccini and the music to Cristofano (Malvezzi).

From the fifth intermedio, p. 56. Case DG738.21 .R67 1589 (BLC 649)

Perusing a book of such import–from the collection of a towering scholar, to boot–would be a treat for anyone with an interest in early music.

The other item pictured above, labeled “Ecloghe di Calmo,” has a more esoteric appeal.  The volume actually consists of three titles bound together, all by the16th-century Venetian actor, playwright, and poet Andrea Calmo. This was the volume I’ve been waiting to cross my desk (I knew it was in the BLC), for the work of Calmo figures prominently in the Venetian singing tradition which is the subject of my dissertation.

Le bizzarre, faconde, et ingeniose rime pescatorie. Case PQ4617.C15 B59 1553 no. 1 (BLC 694a)





Two "Epitaphii de molimenti antighi" (epitaphs from old monuments), p. 72. Case PQ4617.C15 B59 1553 no. 1 (BLC 694a)









Calmo calls his poems “rime pescatorie” — pescatorian (fisherman) rhymes — and notes that they are “in antiqua materna lingua,” which is to say, Venetian.  These comic verses, along with his letters, provided much of the material for the emerging commedia dell’arte character of Pantalone, the Venetian magnifico.  The two comic epitaphs in this image — “Zangarin Zazzareta Buranelo” and “Cuffeto Bon Haver, zentil brigae” — are alluded to in a comic, quasi-theatrical song called an “aria giustiniana” first published in 1566.

The text of this volume is sadly pristine (oh, for some revealing marginalia!), the only trace of a previous owner being this tidy monogram:

Title page verso. Case PQ4617.C15 B59 1553 no. 1 (BLC 694a)

Party Like It’s 1794: Les fêtes décadaires.

With Bastille Day rapidly approaching (as in tomorrow, July 14th), I thought it appropriate to spotlight some of the pamphlets in our French Revolution Collection (FRC) whose content focuses on different French holidays and days of worship and celebration during the Revolution. Among the radical and tumultuous changes brought on by the Revolution, France underwent a series of dogmatic changes as well. One of these in particular, established by Maximilien Robespierre in 1794 and referred to as the culte de l’Être suprême (Cult of the Supreme Being),  was a sort of civil religion whose primary principles focused on the belief in the existence of a god and the immortality of the human soul (l’Être suprême et l’immortalité de l’âme). This Revolutionary religion gave birth to Les fêtes décadaires, which were republican holidays that were to be held every tenth day.

As a way to kick off this new state religion, Robespierre declared that the first of these national celebrations of the Supreme Being would take place on 20 Prairial Year II of the French Republican Calendar (8 June 1794) and would be called la fête de l’Être suprême. In addition to the celebration of the Supreme Being, other fêtes décadaires included celebrations of humanity, the French people, martyrs of liberty, frugality, justice, friendship, conjugal love, childhood, youth, old age, agriculture, industry, posterity, happiness, etc., etc. All of these republican holidays had a very detailed set of guidelines established that were to be followed on the day of celebration by all of the communes of the republic. Included in these guidelines were instructions on how to decorate, how to dress, how to comport oneself in public, what was to be spoken, sang or chanted, and much more. Although these practices were meant to be universally executed throughout the entire republic, it appears that some communes were a bit more zealous in their efforts than others, or so I am led to believe by one of the pamphlets I came across in a portfolio I was recently working on.

This pamphlet, entitled Maniere de célébrer les fêtes décadaires et décoration des temples, dans les communes de campagne (Case FRC 25679) by Charles Thiébaut, lays down the law, so to speak, for all those country folk that just weren’t doing things right. It is a very specific, very detail-oriented pamphlet that gives step by step instructions on how to decorate the temples (right down to what was to be written on each pillar), how each type of person was to behave (children, youths, men, women, members of the National Guard, the mayor, etc.), gesticulations to be made at given times, and what hymns were to be sang or chanted on each specific fête. The hymns are what make up the bulk of this particular 68-page pamphlet, and I have to say that these appear to me to be a pretty awesome find. Besides being very interesting pieces in and of themselves, the compilation of all of them into one document seems like it would be a researcher’s dream come true (and perhaps, if what the content of this pamphlet suggests held true back in the good old days of the Revolution, a pretty nifty thing for all of the people of the campagnes to have on hand so as not to muck things up).

This pamphlet provides a thorough examination of the social customs and practices of the time, and offers us a glimpse into the lives of le peuple français during this particular time in the Revolution. Now, I realize that all of this is super cool all by itself, but after reading through some of the hymns I really began to wonder what they would sound like while being chanted during these grand celebrations. Insert YouTube. Please enjoy the video that I have provided, along with the photographs of the Hymne a l’Etre-suprême (which give you the words of the hymn to follow along with), to experience the full effect. Sometimes putting voices to written word can be a very powerful thing. It is pretty cool to hear these words come alive and for a moment imagine what it might have been like to be a citizen participating in these elaborate celebrations of divinity and humanity.

Carêmentran and due process

Some pamphlets open an unexpected window on cultural traditions.  A case in point is FRC 23254: Discours de M. le commissaire du roi près le tribunal du district de la ville de Crest, département de Drôme, prononcé a l’audience publique, le 16 mars 1791.  The tribunal of Crest was called to consider a case of egregious defamation of character. On the morning of Ash Wednesday, 9 March 1791, two youths had gone around town decrying a certain Doctor Guibert, announcing that they planned to make of him a Carementran. They returned to the streets in the afternoon—“ridiculously disguised and leading a chariot that supported an effigy or phantom, larger than life, having a rope around its neck, the ends of which extended back and were attached to the chariot, and presented the disgusting image of a man being led to the gallows.”  With a large crowd gathered, the effigy of Dr. Guibert was then burned.

The  Carêmentran (Carême entrant=coming of Lent) is a central feature of mardi gras celebrations in France.  It is an effigy, often called Monsieur Carnaval, that is accused of all the evils of the past year and then burned to expiate these sins.  This marvelous account of a recent carnaval celebration in Romans shows what such a Carementran might look like, both before and after immolation.

The two angry youths in Crest, perhaps hungover from mardi gras revelry, had taken their grievances against the doctor to the public square in the most graphic and incendiary way possible. The breach of the peace was bad enough, but it had been done in the name of personal animus.  The tribunal hammered home the point that that complaints against fellow citizens must be made by legal means, not by appeals to mob rule.  Two great maxims from the constitution, they write, should be engraved on all hearts in fiery letters: “Tous les hommes sont égaux devant la loi…. Nul ne doit être inquiété pour ses opinions….”