Peter Goodrich


In a striking biographical depiction of her contemporaries, first published in 1659 under the title Divers portraits, Madame de Montpensier describes a "kind of Republic" of learned women within the French monarchical state. That Republic of erudite or illustrious women, known collectively as les précieuses, constitutes one of the last flowerings of the literary tradition of women's courts and the jurisdiction of love. The précieuses can be depicted best as a short-lived radical movement of separatist women who endeavoured to found and govern an oppositional feminine public sphere within the patristic autarchy of the civil society of their time. Most dramatically, they reconstituted the tradition of courts and judgments of love, both the legislation and the casuistry of amorous relationship, as determinants of the rules of a feminine public sphere. Administered by women, judged by ethical norms and enforced in aesthetic and poetic as well as political terms, the laws of this feminine public space took the form of a literary and specifically epistolary justice. The love letter was the trope of writ or law in the courts of love and it was in the form of letters, through correspondence, that the précieuses would map the most profound domain of human relations or interactions, that of the heart or of the carte de tendre.

The response both of their contemporaries and of more recent legal history to the oppositional laws and courts of love, to this jurisdiction of dissent, has been dismissive. The précieusesand their litany of radical challenges both to the form and to the substance of the masculine polity posed too great a threat to the social norm to be valued by their contemporaries or transmitted by legal historicism as part of the tradition of law. The feminine Republic of letters, the casuistic norms and the amorous missives of the courts of love were not delivered or, more optimistically, have yet to arrive. The notion of women taking over a portion of public space was dramatically dismissed as ridiculous by the précieuses' contemporaries and as amusing diversion or dangerous fantasy by later historians. The reasons for such denial or repression are relatively obvious: The courts were administered by women, their law was explicitly oppositional, their norms aesthetic, their substantive doctrine developed out of literary pretention, and their politics utopian or revolutionary. Furthermore, the object of their regulation, the affectivity of relationship and of amorous exchange, belonged to a patriarchally governed private sphere. It was and still is deemed laughable to treat the imaginary domain of love or the intensivity of relation as a subject of law, or as a dimension of political space. In consequence, the notion of a feminine public sphere which would adjudicate and facilitate the space of relationships, the space in between lovers and friends, women and men, must remain part of a negative history of law, a history of repressed jurisdictions, failed doctrines, or minor jurisprudences. For this reason I will recapitulate briefly the positive context or the reality of the précieuses and of their laws.