Contemporary French Civilization

Married to the “living dead”: madness as a cause for divorce in late nineteenth-century France

Contemporary French Civilization (2015), 40, (3), 311–330.

Abstract

French lawmakers legalized divorce under certain circumstances in 1884. Unlike legislation passed during the revolutionary period of the 1790s, which allowed for divorce under a wide range of circumstances, the law of 1884 considered only three situations as acceptable justifications for the initiation of divorce proceedings: (1) a husband or wife’s adultery, (2) cruelty or serious insult, and (3) the conviction of either husband or wife of a serious crime. The right to divorce through mutual consent was conspicuously absent from the list. Despite some debate, the Chamber of Deputies likewise rejected the perceived insanity of one spouse as a justification for divorce. This article analyzes the question of madness and divorce in late nineteenth-century France from three distinct but interconnected angles: the precise terms of the debate in 1882, the debate’s meaning within the context of the history of French psychiatry, and the implications of the law in the decades after its passage. On its surface, legislators’ decision to side with medical professionals who insisted upon the curability of madness would appear to support the Revolutionary belief in the essential humanity of the insane. Yet, when analyzed alongside already established legislation regarding mental patients and family life, the shortcomings of the divorce bill become clear. For, despite the concern for patient welfare expressed by expert witnesses, the final version of the law continued the longstanding marginalization of those deemed mad in a fashion that confirmed the limits of French universalism.

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Hewitt, Jessie