What I (Don’t) Know

One of the foundations of French slander law is a case that took place in the village of La Baffe in the Vosges in 1828, and which was recognized at the time to be very strange, and troubling.

The case came before the criminal court (tribunal correctionnel)in Épinal on the morning of February 2nd.[1] The first thing the public prosecutor did was to ask the authorities to eject all of the women present, as well as anyone under the age of twenty-one.

Once the court was cleared, the first witness, the mayor of La Baffe came forward:

On the 22nd January, Anne Charton came to see me in my paddock to officially declare her pregnancy, which she attributed to Marguerite Lambert. I made several attempts to explain the unlikeliness and the impossibility of this, but she told me “I’m not a child any more. I know what I am saying.”

What Anne Charton was saying was that she was pregnant by another woman.

The consequences for Marguerite Lambert, who had supposedly impregnated Anne Charton, were immediate. The mayor remarked that ‘The case caused a stir in the village. When people saw Miss Lambert, they would shout: “There goes the lad!”’ Marguerite Lambert was not one to stand for this insult, so she took Anne Charton to court for diffamation, the most serious of the French offences against reputation, which corresponds to the English concept of slander (and libel).

The importance of the case is that the court found in Marguerite Lambert’s favour, arguing that just because a slander was impossible did not make it any the less slanderous, if it could be believed by the population. It seemed from everything that the court heard that many local people did believe Marguerite Lambert was responsible for Anne Charton’s pregnancy, and Anne Charton was therefore guilty of slander, and sentenced to fifteen days in prison and a 25 franc fine.


Perhaps by this point the contemporary relevance of this case is obvious to you.

Here we have a dispute over what it means to be a woman, over what kinds of sexual and biological narratives ordinary people and the legal system will recognize. The case is not just about whether Marguerite Lambert could impregnate Anne Charton, but about who could believe this, and how much weight that should carry.

I do not intend to draw a moral conclusion from this historical example. History is not a series of parables whose lessons we can then simply apply in the present day.

What I have to say is about what it means to think historically, and what this might have to do with disputes today over gender identity. I think that being a historian – by which I mean doing historical research of any kind, as many students, academics, writers, archivists, community groups, and hobbyists do – encourages certain ways of thinking. I want to probe four implications that those ways of thinking have for engaging in respectful and productive debate in the present.


First, everything I have to say starts with the humility of the historian. After all, historical research is often a process of gradually discovering new ways in which what you thought was actually wrong.

Here are some things we cannot know.

We cannot know if Anne Charton really thought her partner was a man. We know she was willing to say so repeatedly to other people, and that she persisted in the face of the incredulity and condemnation of the criminal court:

It was definitely her. If it had been the lowest man I would have preferred to accuse him, because it greatly shames me to accuse a young woman, but I did not want to lie.

We cannot know if Marguerite Lambert believed herself to be a man. What we do know is that her criminal case was based on her desire to assert her identity as a woman in the face of the accusations by Anne Charenton. My choice, in as far as I can respect her wishes is to call her by the identity she fought for.

We cannot know what Marguerite Lambert’s genitalia looked like or what chromosomes she had. No-one at the time would even have understood what it meant to talk of chromosomes.

We cannot know if Marguerite Lambert attempted sexual relationships with other women, although Anne Charton and her supporters claimed that she did.

There is so much we cannot know.


Another implication of being a historian that I think is important is about science, and the inescapable social construction of knowledge.

If you call yourself a historian, you will know just how much scientific understandings of human bodies have changed in the very recent past. And science has never not been political. If we were to find the graves of the people involved in this case, or less morbidly and more fantastically travel back in time with a team of geneticists, biologists, doctors, and psychiatrists, it still would not settle in any meaningful way the question of whether Marguerite Lambert was a man, a woman, or something else. There is no neutral science to appeal to in defence of our social and cultural constructions of biological sex. The state of the art today in science is not only contested, but, as I understand it, presents a much more complex picture than male = XY chromosome, penis/testes, woman = XX chromosome, vagina/ovaries.

Take a listen to Molly Webster’s RadioLab series Gonads, especially the episode ‘X and Y’ if you don’t believe me.

To be clear, I am not invoking that episode in order to use the ‘latest scientific research’ to prove a certain view of human sex or gender, I am calling for historians to treat any argument about biological essentialism with the same care they treat other historically-specific discourses.

If there’s one thing being a historian has taught me it is that we are almost certainly wrong in much of what we know, and wrong for political reasons.


Let me now apologise to my trans friends that it has taken me until now to spell it out: believe what people say about themselves.

When we talk about history as a craft, this approach could be considered the most important tool of the trade. It is easy – so easy- to put our thoughts and experiences into the heads of other people, and especially those in the past. In fact, it is so easy to do this that every course I have ever taught as a historian has some content about avoiding anachronism, or giving the past its future back, or taking past subjects on their own terms.

It would be bad practice as a historian to apply your ideas about what someone must ‘really’ have felt; or why they ‘really’ did something.

If your position in debates today about gender identity is based on telling other people what they feel, and explaining their experiences to them, then your friends, family, and colleagues have the responsibility and the right to tell you that your words are unworthy of critical ‘debate’, hurtful, and unfair.


The final thing I have learned from being a historian is which I want to mention is this: always check your sources. My instinct, when I first discovered this case reported in Étienne Grellet-Dumazeau’s Traité de la diffamationwas to look for it in the Gazette des Tribunaux, a specialist publication that covered important legal cases at the time. Sure enough, the story appeared in March 1828, and this post is largely based on that newspaper account, which has all of the trappings of verifiability, detailing the arguments and the individuals involved.

But I wanted to take this further. I wanted to see the court case for myself.

So I added the La Baffe case to my list of cases to look into when I visited Épinal this year researching criminal trials involving witchcraft.

The judicial archives for nineteenth century France are not comprehensive. It is not unusal to arrive in an archive and discover that a box of ‘judgements, 1830-1890’ contains 2 judgements, one from 1830, and one from 1890. But I was excited to see that the records of judgements from the tribunal correctionnelin Épinal for this period appear complete. This does not mean that they will necessarily tell me anything I do not already know, but identifying the judgement is the first step towards finding a trial dossier. Even if the dossier exists, I should say, they are not perhaps what a non-specialist would imagine. There is no record of what took place in court, but simply the materials that were created in the process of bringing the case. The newspaper report is actually the only source to find out what happened in court. All the same, I had a promising lead. I knew the exact date of the case and it seemed the judgements were complete.

But there is no judgement for this case in the archive.

There is no judgement within a few months that corresponds to the case. Although oddly there is a slander case with some similar names, but none of the strange accusations. There is no corresponding case in a confusable year, such as 1823, which could, feasibly, have been misreported by the Gazette des Tribunauxfive years later. The case is not there.

So much of the fire in arguments that I have seen about gender identity relies on so few dramatic cases, often reported in problematic and misleading ways by publications and groups who set out to fan the flames of a culture war. Just imagine what a newspaper like The Daily Mail would have done with the story of Marguerite Lambert, the young woman who got another woman pregnant.

Just think about the distance between newspaper reporting and what an individual feels, and how their life is shaped. Think about whether you want to build arguments that question entire communities on evidence that you cannot even back up.


I began by saying that history is not a set of moral lessons, but I do have one conclusion to draw. It might be idealistic, but I hope that thinking about a story that is a bit more distant from us, and yet deals with some of the same problems that I see people around me struggling with might help all of us with a bit more humility.

Believe what people say about their own identity and their experiences.

Or, to be absolutely clear about where I take these reflections: support your trans friends, colleagues, and family to live the lives they deserve.

I’m speaking especially to historians now, as I have tried to make a case for the relevance of historical thinking to this contemporary discussion. And I’m speaking more specifically to feminists, because there is no excuse not to be a feminist. If you are a historian and your feminism is built on denying the validity of trans identities, I think you could examine how much we do not know, and ask yourself if the way forward is to question the existence of other people’s identities.

Ask yourself.

For god’s sake don’t ask me, because I don’t think this is debatable.

 


 

[1]What follows is entirely based on the account in the Gazette des Tribunaux 3rdMarch 1828. For reasons that will become clear below, I do not think there is another source to verify the account in the newspaper.

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