Lettre De Cachet

views updated May 14 2018


LETTRE DE CACHET. The term "lettre de cachet" refers to arrest warrants that were signed by the king and delivered at the request of royal officials or family members. These letters, whose wax seal or cachet had to be broken in order to be read, allowed individuals to be incarcerated indefinitely and without legal recourse. Although it is difficult to date their first appearance, the use of lettres de cachet accelerated in the seventeenth century with the growth of royal authority. During the mid-century rebellion known as the Fronde, the crown used lettres de cachet to arrest prominent opponents. Once the crisis had subsided, the crown extended the practice to the realm of family discipline, where it acquired its greatest influence and notoriety. The recourse to lettres de cachet, which developed in response to gaps in Old Regime justice, rested on a consensus among the king and his subjects privileging public order over personal freedom. New ideas about human nature and government that took root during the Enlightenment undermined this consensus and the institutional practices that it had sustained.

A parent or spouse submitted a request for a lettre de cachet to the king via his chief police officer, the lieutenant general. The most frequent complaints included debauchery, mental alienation, physical abuse, and financial dissipation. Individuals at all levels of French society could resort to a lettre de cachet when other options failed to resolve the problem. If the family was wealthy and willing to pay expenses, the accused was detained in a convent or a monastery. More humble subjects ended up in Old Regime prisons like the Bastille or asylums like Charenton. The procedure was extrajudicial since the accused had no access to a lawyer and never appeared before a judge. Detention time varied from several months to a lifetime, although the majority of victims were released in less than a year.

The lettre de cachet demonstrates the complicity between royal officials and subjects in the policing apparatus of the Old Regime. While police commissioners executed the arrest, they rarely initiated the request. The people turned to the police to reinforce their disciplinary capacities over an unruly individual. The monarchy complied with most requests because it viewed the family as a school of obedience and loyalty and thus as a model of political order in the kingdom. The supplicant always emphasized the socially disruptive nature of the behavior that threatened family honor while setting a bad example for others to follow. These arguments and their success in swaying the authorities reflected the value of honor in a traditional society based on hierarchy and privilege. The lettre de cachet allowed families to defend their honor without risking the damaging publicity of a trial.

During the Enlightenment intellectuals like Voltaire (16941778) and Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet (17361794) condemned the lettre de cachet in their campaigns for criminal law reform. The libertine writer and future revolutionary leader Mirabeau (Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti; 17491791) published a best-selling polemic in 1782 denouncing the lettres de cachet after his release from the Bastille. This book, along with juridical treatises, consolidated the image of the lettre de cachet as a tool of abusive authority. By 1789 popular hostility toward the practice was unanimous and targeted the Bastille as the prison most closely identified with it. The revolutionary government abolished the lettres de cachet in March 1790.

See also Ancien Régime ; Crime and Punishment ; France ; Fronde ; Law ; Police ; Revolutions, Age of .


Primary Sources

Diderot, Denis, and Jean Le Ronde d'Alembert. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers par une société des gens de lettres. 36 vols. Geneva, 17781779. See the entries "Crime" and "Lettre de Cachet."

Linguet, Simon-Nicolas-Henri. Mémoires sur la Bastille. London, 1783.

Mirabeau, Honoré-Gabriel de Riquetti. Des lettres de cachet et des prisons d'état. Hamburg, 1782.

Secondary Sources

Andrews, Richard Mowery. Law, Magistracy, and Crime in Old Regime Paris, 17351789. Vol. 1, The System of Criminal Justice. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Donzelot, Jacques. The Policing of Families. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, 1979.

Farge, Arlette. Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Translated by Carol Shelton. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Farge, Arlette, and Michel Foucault. Le désordre des familles: Lettres de cachet des archives de la Bastille au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1982.

Lebigre, Arlette. La justice du roi: La vie judiciare dans l'ancienne France. Paris, 1988.

Maza, Sarah. Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Célèbres of Prerevolutionary France. Berkeley, 1993.

Quétel, Claude. De par le roy: Essai sur les lettres de cachet. Toulouse, 1981.

Lisa Jane Graham

lettre de cachet

views updated May 17 2018

lettre de cachet a warrant issued in the France of the ancien régime for the imprisonment of a person without trial at the pleasure of the monarch.