Gender and Identity in ‘Les Caquets de l’accouché’ (1622): some brief remarks

I have recently started writing my paper for the North American Society for Seventeenth-Century French Literature’s 44th annual conference, the theme of which will be ‘life.’ As I began writing (my paper considers Parisian women’s lives as they are shown in the Caquets), I became aware of an altogether different aspect of the text. There is great amiguity with regards to the gender of the characters – the female audience gathered around the bed of an accouchée and a male narrator – that is of consequence to the authenticity of women’s lives as they appear in the text.

My first point relates to the women themselves. Clearly, as a series of satirical pamphlets written by a male author during the querelle des femmes, one cannot expect an entirely impartial representation of women in the Caquets. Their concerns are confined primarily to the subjects of marriage, sex and public scandal, and those women who dare to attempt to discuss philosophical or religious matters are reprimanded by their fellow caqueteuses.

A more intriguing point could be made about the male narrator – who clandestinely listens in on the women’s conversations and makes written records of them – and his cousin the accouchée, who has granted the narrator this privileged view into the mysterious world of women. It is noteworthy that, at a time when male surgeons were only beginning to gain access to the birthing chamber (see Louise Bourgeois’ works for numerous accounts of the tensions and practical problems this caused in midwifery), a man should be given access to the lying-in chamber in the Caquets. I am only aware of one other text in which a male is able to eavestop on women’s private conversations in such a way: Les Evangiles des quenouilles (1480). In a space that should entail female physical discomfort and male social unease, the tone is of light-hearted laughter and merriment. As the narrator enjoys these conversations, one notes several instances in the text in which he feels the need to defend his masculinity; as if the very act of gaining access to women’s inner thoughts somehow feminises him. One could equally argue that this is “in his nature” from the beginning, as the narrator’s very motivation for recording these discussion is to cure him of serious illness which has given him a cold and humid (and thus female) temperament.

Equally, the accouchée is able to transcend her gender by virtue of her knowledge of the man listening in behind her bed (see the image below). She even openly mocks the follies of her vistors’ discussions with the narrator once the former have returned home. Her role in the text is both crucial and enigmatic; encompassed by the remark made by the narrator on the accouchée’s child:

‘[j’]eus le bonheur de voir l’enfant dont est question et du quel on attent le baptesme. De vous dire en ce lieu si c’est un male ou une femelle, ce seroit trop entreprendre.

I am aware that gender (particularly of the narrator) in the Caquets has already attracted scholarly interest (Stanton, De Jean, Read). Yet it seems to me that much remains to be said about the problematic question of gender, identity and the battle for linguistic appropriation between the two genders in Les Caquets de l’accouchée. Furthermore, this could be a potentially interesting strand of my argument for my upcoming paper.  Gender slippage, and the inescapable presence of the author/narrator, can potentially have negative effects on the reliability of the Caquets as evidence of contemporary women’s conversation.

© Adam Horsley, 19th February 2012

An engraving from Abraham Bosse. The narrator of the 'Caquets' is visible behind the accouchée

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