Disorderly Families

Infamous Letters from the Bastille Archives

2021
Authors:

Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault
Edited by Nancy Luxon
Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton

PAPERBACK EDITION: DECEMBER 2021

The first English translation of letters of arrest from eighteenth century France held in the archives of the Bastille

First published in French in 1982, this first English translation of Disorderly Families contains ninety-four letters collected by Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault from ordinary families who submitted complaints to the king of France in the eighteenth century to intervene and resolve their family disputes. Together, these letters offer unusual insight into the infamies of daily life.

"Thirty-five years on, the study of obscure individual lives has become a valued feature of historical research and the source of new perspectives in the understanding of social and political contexts. [But quite apart from this change in the attitude of historians], the letters themselves seem to have aged better than the intellectual disagreements and academic disputes that accompanied their original publication." Times Literary Supplement

Drunken and debauched husbands; libertine wives; vagabonding children. These and many more are the subjects of requests for confinement written to the king of France in the eighteenth century. These letters of arrest (lettres de cachet) from France’s Ancien Régime were often associated with excessive royal power and seen as a way for the king to imprison political opponents. In Disorderly Families, first published in French in 1982, Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault collect ninety-four letters from ordinary families who, with the help of hired scribes, submitted complaints to the king to intervene and resolve their family disputes.

Gathered together, these letters show something other than the exercise of arbitrary royal power, and offer unusual insight into the infamies of daily life. From these letters come stories of divorce and marital conflict, sexual waywardness, reckless extravagance, and abandonment. The letters evoke a fluid social space in which life in the home and on the street was regulated by the rhythms of relations between husbands and wives, or parents and children. Most impressively, these letters outline how ordinary people seized the mechanisms of power to address the king and make demands in the name of an emerging civil order.

Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault were fascinated by the letters’ explosive qualities and by how they both illustrated and intervened in the workings of power and governmentality. Disorderly Families sheds light on Foucault’s conception of political agency and his commitment to theorizing how ordinary lives come to be touched by power. This first English translation is complete with an introduction from the book’s editor, Nancy Luxon, as well as notes that contextualize the original 1982 publication and eighteenth-century policing practices.

Arlette Farge is Director of Research in Modern History at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris and the author of more than a dozen books, including Fragile Lives and The Allure of the Archives.


Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was a French philosopher and held the Chair in the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France. He is often considered the most influential political theorist of the second half of the twentieth century. His most notable works include History of Madness, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality, among others.


Nancy Luxon is associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Crisis of Authority: Politics, Trust, and Truth-Telling in Freud and Foucault.


Thomas Scott-Railton is a freelance French–English translator living in Brooklyn, New York, and previously translated Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archive.


Expertly edited, this thoughtful translation of Disorderly Families adds a central pillar to the English archive of Michel Foucault’s work. A source of fascination for him since at least the 1950s, the Bastille lettres de cachets deeply influenced and shaped his analysis of power. As he discovered, these letters were what he and Arlette Farge would call a ‘popular practice,’ demanded from below, and not an arbitrary exercise of monarchical power—and they would become a key building block for Foucault’s theory of power-knowledge. This exceptional English translation gives life to Foucault’s—and Farge’s—subversive desire to breathe life into these beautiful, infamous, and obscure lives.

Bernard E. Harcourt, Columbia University*

An enlightening compilation that will leave historically inclined readers wanting to dig a little further into the archives.

Kirkus Reviews

Thirty-five years on, the study of obscure individual lives has become a valued feature of historical research and the source of new perspectives in the understanding of social and political contexts. [But quite apart from this change in the attitude of historians], the letters themselves seem to have aged better than the intellectual disagreements and academic disputes that accompanied their original publication.

Times Literary Supplement

Contents


Translator’s Preface


Editor’s Introduction


Disorderly Families


Introduction


1. Marital Discord


Letters


Households in Ruin


The Imprisonment of Wives


The Debauchery of Husbands


The Tale of a Request


2. Parents and Children


Letters


The Disruption of Affairs


Shameful Concubinage


The Dishonor of Waywardness


Domestic Violence


Bad Apprentices


Exiles


Family Honor


Parental Ethos, 1728: The Rationale for Sentiment


Parental Ethos, 1758: The Duty to Educate


3. When Addressing the King


Afterword


Arlette Farge


Glossary of Places


Notes


Name Index