Sex in an Old Regime City

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Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789


Our ideas about the long histories of young couples' relationships and women's efforts to manage their reproductive health are often premised on the notion of a powerful sexual double standard.

In Sex in an Old Regime City, Julie Hardwick offers a major reframing of the history of young people's intimacy. Based on legal records from the city of Lyon, Hardwick uncovers the relationships of young workers before marriage and after pregnancy occurred, even if marriage did not follow, and finds that communities treated these occurrences without stigmatizing or moralizing. She finds a hidden world of strategies young couples enacted when they faced an untimely pregnancy. If they could not or would not marry, they sometimes tried to terminate pregnancies, to make the newborn go away by a variety of measures, or to charge the infant to local welfare institutions. Far from being isolated, couples drew on the resources of local communities and networks. Clerics, midwives, wet nurses, landladies, lawyers, parents, and male partners in and outside the city offered pragmatic, sympathetic ways to help young, unmarried pregnant women deal with their situations and hold young men responsible for the reproductive consequences of their sexual activity. This was not merely emotional work; those involved were financially compensated. These support systems ensured that the women could resume their jobs and usually marry later, without long-term costs. In doing so, communities managed and minimized the disruptions and consequences even of cases of abandonment and unprosecuted infanticide.

This richly textured study re-thinks the ways in which fundamental issues of intimacy and gendered power were entwined with families, communities, and religious and secular institutions at all levels from households to neighborhoods to the state.

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