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Wrong-Headed Spouses in Early Modern France

Claire Carlin

In France in the mid-17th century, the market for cheap engravings sold loose leaf was growing quickly as increasing numbers of these prints were produced and sold in bookstores, and often re-sold by street peddlers. Scenes of violence between men and women were not at all uncommon in these “catchpenny” engravings (as they were called in England), but a particularly brutal example is Opérateur céphalique with its phantasm of decapitation under the direction of the master blacksmith Lustucru. This paper will consider the context in which the Lustucru series and related engravings appear and then fade from view during the decade between 1660 and 1670.
My research into representations of marriage in early modern France shows a re-invigoration of misogamous polemics at the turn of the century, continuing until about 1630. Other scholars have noted a new wave of misogynist texts during this period,1 but it is revealing to situate these documents in the context of marriage, given the intense scrutiny the institution was undergoing as a result of the Reformation and Counter Reformations.2 In response to the Protestant emphasis on marriage as a partnership of helpmeets, the Catholic Church entered into debates about the function of marriage: retaining the traditional emphasis on procreation and the licit satisfaction of sexual desire, the Church nonetheless sought to place new value on marriage as a sacrament and a fundamental social institution based on mutual respect between spouses, despite the husband’s authority within the family. Humanist discourse since Erasmus (for example, the numerous translations of Plutarch’s Conjugal Precepts into French) also contributed to a new appreciation of marriage and the importance of women’s role in its success.3 But as historically has been the case (for the medieval and early modern eras we can think of the famous Querelle des femmes), the celebration of women attracts a backlash. The explosion of new anti-woman and anti-marriage writings in France from around 1600 until 1630 is a striking textual trend. The publication of Philippe Desportes’ Stances du mariage in 1573 serves a sort of launch date for a new misogamous polemics. Although Rabelais’s focus on marriage in the Tiers livre of 1546 deserves mention, Desportes’s verse signals a new era with its pure vitriol and renewal of the topos of medieval misogyny thanks to mythological and historical allusions. But it is at the beginning of the 17th century that we find the most impressive crop of anti-marriage satire making use of humanist knowledge, followed by two decades of more worldly verse satire set against the developing Parisian salon culture.4
Prints of the early modern era are difficult to date with accuracy, but the Lustucru series, of which there are about ten in total, can be placed between 1659 and 1664.5 As was the case with misogynist texts of the earliest part of the century, a burst of anti-woman engravings hits the print market in France beginning in the 1630s, culminating with this group in the 1660s. Although images of spouses exchanging body parts circulated throughout Europe as early as the 15th century,6 the Lustucru phenomenon in France is striking: up until about 1670, we see the virulent misogamy that was so evident in texts early in the century shift to visual culture, just as it disappears from the textual. Overt misogyny and misogamy in verse and prose seem no longer to have a market after 1630.7 As a textual trend, the new polemics dies out during the period when salon culture is selling more nuanced writing to the literate public,8 while misogyny and misogamy in their purest forms migrate to engravings like this one. My thesis seeks to adjust the prevalent view that these engravings represent a sudden backlash to salon culture, préciosité and the woman warrior phenomenon in favour of simultaneously situating the images in the evolution of verbal and visual discourse on marriage. In previous studies, I have situated such images within the discourse of domestic violence or the history of cuckoldry,9 but here I will concentrate on the subset that involves operations on heads or the excision of brains, exploring the intertexts in the iconography.
Lustucru first appears in an almanach of 1659, and on tokens.10 His name probably derives from “L’eusses-tu cru ?” (“Would you have believed it?”), a remark made in theatre, especially in farce, in the face of incredible events.11 Lustucru does indeed perform miracles: according to the lower legend, he can, without causing any pain, re-form (reforger) the heads of uppity women. He also uses the word repolir, evoking both the polish of the metalworker and the notion of politeness. The presence of foxes, labeled “La finesse,” indicates female ruse, and the Medusa head reinforces the message that Lustucru’s intervention is urgently needed to repair the long list of female defects. He is able to effect improvements thanks to “a secret he has brought from Madagascar”—significant in the early 1660s when the French were entering into competition with the English and Dutch for trade in the Indies, with Madagascar as the first colonization project.12
Along with his exotic magical powers, unceasing hard labour by Lustucru and his team of assistants is necessary. Not only do they have piles of work backed up as heads from across the world arrive by the basketload, the wheelbarrow full and the boatload, they are challenged by recalcitrant heads and malicious tongues. The monkey delivering heads on the right highlights another female defect to combat, lust.13 Despite the enormity of the task, the charitable “Opérateur céphalique” or brain surgeon will work for a reasonable price, or free for poor husbands. The upper legend presents him as a hero or a saviour for the henpecked, and here it is clear that the interventions involve not only readjustments, but the removal of any traces of the moon from the heads of these lunatics. The use of fire, the hammer and the file at intersection of metalwork and bodywork, the frenzied activity, the grimacing faces of the men reinforce the message of urgency and the violence required to redress the massive wrong represented by the female character.
Appearing both on the shop sign and as the title of the bottom legend, Lustucru’s motto completes the message: “Femme sans tête, tout en est bon” was a proverb frequently heard in the 17th century: the best woman is a headless one, according to the most common translation. Some critics have suggested anthropophagy here because of a resemblance with signs on 19th-century butcher shops (“Le cochon, tout en est bon”) and heads that look as though they are hung on meat hooks,14 but equally plausible is the link made with a street on the Ile St Louis in Paris that was named in the 1660s the rue de la femme sans tête and where there was a tavern of that name under the sign of a decapitated woman.15 That the headless woman can perform her sexual functions without the inconvenience of her chatter is another possible and complementary interpretation, adding to the rich resonances this print might evoke.
The critique of wives continues in two other sets of images in the Lustucru series, of which the anthology contains only one type,16 depicting the wive’s revenge on the blacksmith “on a day when the Moon was full in the women’s heads.” In both the Lagniet and the Larmessin Le massacre de Lustucru par les femmes,17 the women state the need to get rid of Lustucru, even though his project is pointless in that “there is no secret that can make us other than we are.” They intend after killing him to chop his corpse into small pieces, then to display his head as a sign of their victory, and finally to set fire to the ships bearing the cargo of women’s heads. Two men of different social standing discuss the fact that the “Brotherhood of martyrs” (cuckolds) will grow as a result of the loss of Lustucru’s services; one castigates their cowardice in not coming to Lustucru’s aid. Lustucru threatens that they will be lost without him, as their wives will be even more insufferable than before he came to the husbands’ rescue. Interestingly for my thesis about such overt misgyny disappearing from texts as it gets taken up in engravings, Joan DeJean has noted that in his play of the 1659-1660 theatre season, Les véritables précieuses, Antoine Baudeau de Somaize was obliged to remove from the published version a scene where women attack Lustucru.18 DeJean’s point is that the Lustucru series comes about as a result of collective exasperation with préciosité; mine is that this series is part of a continuum beginning in the 1630s of misogamous images as an outlet in popular culture for polemical discourse no longer acceptable in textual culture.
As we get closer to 1670, even the iconography of misogamy gradually becomes less misogynistic. To jump ahead to 1702, for example Le bon menage, we see portrayed the notion that marriage is a burden for both husbands and wives; the idea that the institution is the problem rather than the nature of women becomes prevalent in both texts and images, despite the traces of misogyny that remain in both. A return to the late 1660s and images of cranial operations helps to demonstrate the shifts that occur along the way.
In Le Fournoux de Jean Tangous, which appears to have been published after the Lustucru prints, we see what looks like another blacksmith’s shop under the sign “la famme anquer,” whose pronunication gives us “woman at war,” armed with her baton. Images of warrior women became increasingly prevalent in France in the 1630s, 40s and 50s.19 Although we might be tempted to read this print as a bit of revenge on the Amazons, a critique of women on the model of the Lustucru images, this scene is quite different and much more ambiguous. Not only does the woman still have her head in the shop sign; the women arrive headless, carried as individuals by their husbands in order to have their heads re-attached—a corrective to Lustucru’s work? Jean Tangous, a “chemical” rather than “cranial” operator, claims to have brought from Magos (a site associated with the magi and magic) a secret potion that will perfectly solder detached heads back on bodies, leaving the women “more vigourous, scheming, droll”20 and more warlike than ever. Jean Tangous’s magic appears to fulfill male desire: in the upper left, men are disenterring their wives’ heads, happy to find them still in good condition; as the woman promises that she will be good if her head is unburied, a bystander warns that to free her is stupidity as she will only cause her husband grief and frustration. On the bottom left, the woman whose head is being attached thanks Jean Tangous, telling him “You’re making me very happy, I have a taste for this.” In the corner the link is explicit between her comment “J’entre en goust” and his name (L’opérateur “Jentre en gous”). So Jean Tangous gives women the taste for his remedy, as he calls his potion, guaranteeing that it will cure what ails them (“Se remaide et bon pour ce malle” or in modern French, “Ce remède est bon pour ce mal”). Instead of destruction, we have mending and cure, with husbands ready to have their wives back even if the women are domineering.
This reinterpretation of the Lustucru motif is accompanied during the same decade by another series of engravings about the heads of spouses. This time misbehaving husbands are treated to cranial intervention in a possible nod to the entry into the popular imagination of the themes of anatomy and dissection. The operation is much gentler than Lustucru’s attack on wives: entitled L’invention des femmes, the two known prints of this type show a barber-surgeon performing brain surgery on husbands in order to transform them into compliant and agreeable partners. In the first L’invention des femmes, the “charlatan” is removing the husband’s nasty tendencies with the precise goal that he will no longer beat his wife. The husband will then wear the “A” or alpha, marking him a good and gentle spouse.
The second Invention des femmes engraving is more complex, with its many protagonists, gestures, objects and commentary. The second of the four stanzas of the legend repeats verbatim the legend of the previous print: the husband’s desire to beat his wife will disappear after the surgery. Layered into this text and the image are other intriguing elements, most either described in the legend or in the six footnotes above it. In the first stanza, disease and cure are evoked (mal, guérison) while medications (boîtes and onguents) are displayed, as are the plaster and bandage, which are the object of a preparatory consultation by members of the extensive medical team, one of whom holds the plaster in his hand; two others are busy bandaging an earlier patient on the left. The word plaster (emplâtre) was used figuratively in the seventeenth century to indicate a remedy for faults committed; it could also refer to a person lacking in vigour21—both frequent themes in marriage discourse. Indeed, the accusation of impotence could lead to formal proceedings to end a marriage after a trial called the “congress,” abolished in France in 1677.22 By implication, the ills cured by the operation could include impotence as well as bad temper; note that the patient has been disarmed—his sword lies prominently on the floor in the foreground, as in the first print. Here the men are sailors, and even their superior, the peg-legged captain of the vessel, is under the authority of his wife and her neighbour. The captain’s missing body part might be read as another sign of male deficiency; another peg-leg appears in the previous image. Given that these prints were apparently purchased by members of all social classes, it is possible to read into this cranial digging a joke alluding to Descartes’s famous observations on the function of the pineal gland, first published 15 to 20 years before these images were produced.23 The pineal gland was, according to Descartes, the point in the brain where soul and body intersect—an allusion that might explain the missing limbs in the prints, since phantom limb syndrome was an important clue for Descartes in his search for the seat of the soul, which would continue to feel the pain of an amputated body part.24 In a physically and morally defective husband, both the machine-like body and the soul that operates it would need adjustment.
The third stanza of the legend speaks of civilizing the husband (described as sauvage), who will now serve, assist and caress his wife: the operation will create the ideally harmonious household, where his good behaviour will include service in the marriage bed. The two doves overlooking the scene reinforce the notion of this happy outcome through the miracle of brain surgery. The idyll is undermined in the fourth stanza, however: the scene is characterized as an old-fashioned fable as unrealistic as the 14th-century romance Amadis de Gaule. The actor Jodelet, a valet famous in farce, is present to make explicit that men will not take this scene seriously. In any case, how great are the powers of the charlatan, who works under the signs of chance and fantasy (hazar and caprice25)?
Most critics have associated the Invention des femmes prints with the Lustucru series created in earlier in the decade. Besides the timing and the messing about with heads of spouses, another piece of evidence is the link with vessels (the word is used in note 1 on the engraving) like the ones coming from Madagascar in the Lustucru images. The chronology of these prints shows violence against women attenuated in Le Fournoux de Jean Tangous and completely absent from the Invention des femmes type, reinforcing my reading that the misogyny that reaches its apogee in mid-1660s France is on the wain in prints, following the trend established earlier for texts about marriage.26 The shift from trouble with women to trouble with marriage infuses the vast majority of textual and visual discourse on the institution after this key decade.27 A larger study is needed to explore the significance for marriage of the period from 1660-1670, keeping in mind that the personal reign of Louis XIV began in 1661.


  • Boileau (Nicolas Despréaux de), Oeuvres complètes, éd. Françoise Escal (Bibl. de la Pléiade), Paris, Gallimard, 1966.
  • Du Bosc (Jacques), La Femme héroïque ou les héroïnes comparées avec les héros en toute sorte de vertus, Paris, A. de Sommaville et A. Courbé, 1645.
  • Furetière (Antoine), Dictionnaire universel, 3 vols., [1690], Genève, Slatkine, 1970.
  • Le Moyne (Pierre), La Galerie des femmes fortes, Paris, Antoine de Sommaville, 1647.
  • Pure (Michel de), La Précieuse ou le Mystère de la Ruelle, édition établie, présentée et commentée par Myriam Dufour-Maître, (coll. "Sources classiques"), Paris, Honoré Champion, 2010.
  • Pure (Michel de), Épigone, histoire du siècle futur (1659), éd. Lise Leibacher-Ouvrard et Daniel Maher Québec, Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2005.

Études citées

  • Aulotte (Robert), Amyot et Plutarque: La Tradition des Moralia au XVIe siècle, Genève, Droz, 1965.
  • Beaumont-Maillet (Laure), La Guerre des sexes, XVe-XIXe siècles, Les albums du Cabinet des Estampes de la Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, Albin Michel, 1984.
  • Beaupaire (Edmond), A propos de la rue de la Femme-sans-Tête, La Cité, janvier 1911, pp. 5-17
  • Carlin (Claire), The Staging of Impotence: France’s last congrès dans Theatrum mundi : Studies in honor of Ronald W. Tobin, éd. Claire Carlin et Kathleen Wine, Charlottesville, Va., Rookwood Press, 2003, pp. 102-112.
  • Conley (Tom), Theatres of Cruelty: Wars of Religion, Violence, and The New World, The Newberry Library, The Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography Slide Sets, 14, 1990, The Newberry Library. Internet. 25 April 2010.
  • DeJean (Joan), Violent Women and Violence against Women : Representing the ‘Strong’ Woman in Early Modern France, Signs : Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29.1, 2003, pp. 117-147. JSTOR. Internet. 9 August 2009.
  • Denis (Delphine), Le Parnasse galant : Institution d’une catégorie littéraire au XVIIe siècle, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2001.
  • Gaudemet (Jean), Le Mariage en Occident : Les Moeurs et le droit, Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1987.
  • Sawday (Jonathan), The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, London and New York, Routledge, 1995.
  • Telle (Émile V.), Érasme de Rotterdam et le septième sacrement. Étude d’évangélisme matrimonial au XVIe siècle et contribution à la biographie intellectuelle d’Érasme, Genève, Droz, 1954.
  • Timmermans (Linda), L’Accès des femmes à la culture (1598-1715) : Un débat d’idées de Saint François de Sales à la Marquise de Lambert, Bibliothèque Littéraire de la Renaissance, série 3, tome XXVI, Paris, Champion, 1993.


  • Citton (Yves), Impuissances : défaillances masculines et pouvoir politique de Montaigne à Stendhal, Paris, Aubier, 1994.
  • Darmon (Pierre), Le Tribunal de l’impuissance. Virilité et défaillances conjugales dans l’Ancienne France, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1979.



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