Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Family Model and Mystical Body: Witnessing Gender through Political Metaphor in the Early Modern Nation-State

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Family Model and Mystical Body: Witnessing Gender through Political Metaphor in the Early Modern Nation-State

Article excerpt

FRANCE BEFORE SUNRISE: TWO POLITICAL THEORIES MEET

The sixteenth century in France was a "constitutional moment"-a time when political theorists and jurists articulated a full and rich iteration of the value of constitutionalism and legal-parliamentary authority in relation to the monarch. It was also a moment to "witness" in many senses. It was a time to witness history-Henri II died in a jousting match, only to be followed by three degenerate sons who died in short succession; Catherine de Medici incited the hatred of rival factions; and thousands of Huguenots were massacred in Paris on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572. It was also a time of witnessing in a religious sense, as the Wars of Religion tore France apart and the powerful Catholic Ligue targeted the French Calvinists; and it was an instance when witnessing gained new associations related to a striking growth in France's judicial infrastructure caused by the sale of new offices. By the end of the century, this tremendous political and social instability resulted in the development of a different perspective on political organization and absolutist theory came into circulation, bringing with it a significantly different sense of witnessing. During the first half of the seventeenth century these two political theories vied for the right to define the terms of engagement. For women, this battle between political perspectives was especially important. Each theory, constitutionalism and absolutism, represented a distinct vision of sovereignty-the former emphasized the need for strong judicial governance and the latter the need for a strong monarch-and affected whether women witnessed in a religious sense or in a legal one, as rightsholders and members of the political community.

Framing the theoretical conversation about sovereignty were two distinct political positions regarding the nature of kingship and what-if any-checks should exist in relation to sovereign power. Jurists such as Claude Seyssel developed a theory of early modern constitutionalism that incorporated checks and balances on royal power and located substantive authority in legal precedent and social custom. Seyssel and his fellow constitutionalist jurists advocated readings of French history that often traced its origins to a model of kingship that was elective and based on the idea of the ruler being primus inter pares (first among equals) instead of an individual apart.1 The second strand of theory, the absolutist position, was initially staked out by Jean Bodin in his well-known Six livres de la République, published in 1576. Bodin-in contrast to his constitutionalist contemporaries and in reaction to the violent chaos produced by the Wars of Religion-issued a call for a strong central sovereign who could neutralize warring factions and bring order to the developing nationstate. This call for sovereign command would be further developed in the seventeenth century as Louis XIII and Louis XIV became increasingly interested in asserting absolute power in response to overabundant noble privilege. However, in the almost hundred years that came between Bodin's articulation of absolute power and Louis XIV's real ascension to absolute power in the mid 1660s, political debate flourished and there was great give and take between the two schools of thought. By 1661, when Mazarin died and Louis XIV assumed total personal control of ruling the state, it was clear which philosophy would dominate. Until that moment, the coming of absolutism was still up for debate, as was the capacity of women. Women would witness either as political outsiders with no governmental agency or as members of a political collective, adept at leveraging the governmental apparatuses of justice.

As the seventeenth century opened, ideas that political theorists initially articulated in the sixteenth century came into play as the stakes of power increased and issues implicated in the theoretical dispute played out on the historical stage, where political battles between noble fami lies and the monarch took place. …

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