Madame la consultante, aged 40, possessed a relatively strong constitution. Sanguine in temperament, she had a vivacious and sensitive personality. Married at the age of 18, she was mother to 14 children born over a 17 to 18 year period….


back up.

14 children. 17 years.

Quiver-full, much?

Madame later began to suffer from what her doctors refer to as delirium, a state which included worrying, agitation, sorrow, boredom, and indifference to anything in her environment.

I can fully appreciate the complexity of any kind of mental illness, but it strikes me that the psychic and somatic repercussions of being pregnant almost continuously over a 17 year period could be quite dramatic. Certainly this isn’t the only Tissot consultation of this type.

Fast forward 180 odd years…

It’s hard to believe that contraception of any kind was illegal in Canada until 1969. And even then, if I recall correctly, it was only for properly married couples….

Thomas Smith, "Change Islands Tickle," 1828. Image courtesy of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Centre for Newfoundland Studies

Thomas Smith, “Change Islands Tickle,” 1828. Image courtesy of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Centre for Newfoundland Studies

Thinking hard about sexual initiation today, and in particular, thinking through the idea of tickling. I know,  on the surface, it doesn’t sound like it links up, but those of you who have followed my random musings for a while might recall this post about a young man who experienced a “chatouillement voluptueux” after practicing onanism for a while.

The English word tickle, as it’s used in conversations among children – that is, as something you do to terrorize a friend or younger sibling (in the sense of “Watch out, here comes the tickle monster!” or “if you don’t stop, I’ll tickle you”) –  doesn’t do much justice to the experience described in the letter, so I went off to the Oxford English Dictionary Online to look for more historical understandings.

The first definition (caution: link will only work if you have a subscription to OED Online) took me by complete surprise. It shouldn’t have, but it did:

“A name given on the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador to a narrow difficult strait or passage.”

Given my current home, this should not at all have surprised me. After all, I’ve seen it often and looked it up before. But buried as I am in eighteenth-century letters, I wasn’t really thinking of geography. I’ll amend that. I wasn’t thinking of geography in the sense of bodies of land. But I suppose I was thinking of bodily geographies of a very different sort….

To be affected or excited by a pleasantly tingling or thrilling sensation; to be stirred or moved with a thrill of pleasure: said of the heart, lungs, blood, ‘spirits’, etc., also of the person.

and in earlier usage:

To tingle; to itch; also fig. to have an uneasy or impatient desire (usually to do something); to be eager.

And there it is. Pleasure. Sensuality. Body. Desire. Eagerness. Tingling.

It’s all there.

And in the examples provided, clear reference to tickling as an intimate experience and as something reflexive; that is, a body that tickles itself, a body that can pleasure itself.

Off to see what the French understood…

Eighteenth-century French definitions associate the idea of tickling with flattery. Tickling can be the bodily sensation that one experiences upon being flattered; it can also be the flattery itself. Thus, one can be tickled when one hears positive comments about one’s children. But, significantly, one’s body is also tickled when it is flattered. Consider the examples offered in both the 1762 and 1798 dictionaries produced by the Académie française (again, I suspect the link will only work if you have a subscription to the Dictionnaires d’autrefois project):

On dit, que Le vin chatouille le palais, le gosier; que La musique, l’harmonie chatouille l’oreille, les oreilles, pour dire, que Le vin, que La musique flattent agréablement les sens.

Tickling as pleasure emanates not only from physical touch, but also from what might be understood as “tickled senses.” Touch, taste, hearing – all of these can provoke pleasure.

Back to the Oxford English Dictionary:

1589   ‘Pasquill of England’ Returne Pasquill 16,   I needed no Minstrill to make me merrie, my hart tickled of it selfe.

Like the English dictionary entries, the French focus on tickling as an experience of bodily pleasure.

Considerably different, however, is the French focus on tickling as an act of flattery; in this evocation, tickling emerges out of a social encounter (and it hearkens back, interestingly, to histories of comportment in the form of honnêteté and bienséance….), even as it is experienced within the body.

I’ll have to play – tickle myself? – with this element a bit more…


“tickle, n.1”. OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 May 2013 <;.

“tickle, v.1”. OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 May 2013 <;.

“chatouiller”. Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. 1762; 1798. Dictionnaires d’autrefois. 2 May 2013. <;.

“Change Islands Tickle.” Digital Archives Initiative. Centre for Newfoundland Studies. Memorial University of Newfoundland. 2 May 2013. ,;.

I spent a glorious morning on Wednesday reading the dictionary. Actually, I read several dictionaries. And an encyclopedia. To be completely honest, I didn’t read the whole dictionary or encyclopedia; I read selected entries in each one.

My terrain? The dictionaries included in the ARTFL project’s  Dictionnaires d’autrefois database. It’s a great collection that spans almost three full centuries of thought.

Given my work in eighteenth-century studies, I generally focus on the dictionaries published between 1694 and 1798:

  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 1st edition (1694)
  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 4th edition (1762)
  • Jean-François Féraud, Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (1787-1788)
  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 5th edition (1798)

Within these, I am most interested in the fourth and fifth editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, as they neatly bookend my current research project: the French version of Tissot’s treatise on onanism appeared in 1760 and it was closely followed by what would soon come to be seen as his magnum opus, the Avis au peuple sur sa santé, which appeared just a year later. The letters to Tissot start streaming in immediately after this. The letters end in 1797, the year of Tissot’s death.

These two editions also bookend a particular interesting period in European political and intellectual thought: the French Revolution at the end of the century is perhaps the most obvious marker, but we can’t forget the publication of such key works as Rousseau’s Emile (1762), Julie (1761), Du Contrat Social (1762) (is my Rousseau bias showing yet?).

Dictionaries and encyclopedias provide fascinating insights into how a community thinks (or thought). A survey of several dictionaries, published across a span of several decades, can be particularly intriguing because it allows you to trace the trajectory of meaning (this is also why I enjoy perusing the Oxford English Dictionary Online Meanings can change subtly, even in a space of 30 years, and those subtleties can be deeply revealing.

Among other things, yesterday’s forays took me to such concepts as “peuple” and “patrie.” On the surface, those terms would appear to be self-evident, and, indeed, there are only minor changes in their definition between 1694 and 1798. But these changes are, to me, highly significant.

So let’s take a closer look.

In 1762, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française offered the following under the first heading for “peuple.”

PEUPLE. s.m. Terme collectif. Multitude d’hommes d’un même pays, qui vivent sous les mêmes lois. Le peuple Hébreu. Le peuple Juif. Le peuple d’Israël. Le peuple Hébreu a été appelé le peuple de Dieu. Le peuple Romain. Les peuples Septentrionaux. Les peuples d’Orient. Les peuples Asiatiques. Les peuples du Nord. Les peuples de Provence, de Dauphiné, &c. Tous les peuples de la terre.

Looking more closely at the entry under the second heading offers further insight:

PEUPLE se prend quelquefois pour Une multitude d’hommes qui sont d’une même religion, soit qu’ils soient du même pays ou non. Ainsi en parlant des Juifs, on dit, que Le peuple Juif est dispersé par toute la terre.

En parlant à un Prince de ses Sujets, on lui dit, Vos peuples, votre peuple.

Il se dit aussi d’Une multitude d’habitans qui vivent ou dans une même ville, ou dans un même bourg ou village. Il y a beaucoup de peuple dans Paris. Tout le peuple du bourg, du village accourut.

Il se prend aussi quelquefois pour La partie la moins considérable d’entre les habitans d’une même ville, d’un même pays. Il y eut quelque émotion parmi le peuple. La plupart du temps, le peuple ne sait ce qu’il veut. Il n’y avoit que du peuple à la promenade. ….

Interesting here is the way that this concept integrates questions of socio-economic class with broader concepts of social location, education, religious belief, and geography.

The 1798 definition is very similar: there is still a Jewish people, spread across the earth; there is still a grouping of residents living in the same region, there is still a prince and he still has his people.

But the new definition elaborates on the idea of the prince and his “peuple”:

En parlant à un Prince de ses Sujets, on lui dit, Vos peuples, votre peuple, non pour exprimer que le peuple est sa propriété, mais qu’il est l’objet de ses soins.

In this new iteration, the Prince’s subjects are not his possessions to do with as he pleases; rather, they are possessions for he must take responsibility: the people are the object of his care and concern. This is a substantive change, one that acknowledges and reflects the political and ideological transformations wrought by the French Revolution (it is entirely possible that this meaning was already implied in previous editions; however, it is clear that the editors of the dictionary felt it was important to articulate this point directly and overtly in this edition).

When we look at the word “patrie,” we see similar operations at play. Let’s start with the Encyclopédie entry (also available through ARTFL; English translations of some articles are available through the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project , for which I have also contributed five translations).

Interestingly, Jaucourt, author of the Encyclopédie definition of “patrie” links the concept to the idea of the family: “patrie,” of course, comes from the Latin root pater, or father. But he also actively gestures towards a maternal imaginary, waxing poetic on the idea of patrie as nurse and mother:

C’est une nourrice qui donne son lait avec autant de plaisir qu’on le reçoit. C’est une mère qui chérit tous ses enfans, qui ne les distingue qu’autant qu’ils se distinguent eux – mêmes; qui veut bien qu’il y ait de l’opulence & de la médiocrité, mais point de pauvres; des grands & des petits, mais personne d’opprimé; qui même dans ce partage inégal, conserve une sorte d’égalité, en ouvrant à tous le chemin des premières places; qui ne souffre aucun mal dans sa famille, que ceux qu’elle ne peut empêcher, la maladie & la mort; qui croiroit n’avoir rien fait en donnant l’être à ses enfans, si elle n’y ajoutoit le bien – être….

What is clear, in any case, is that “patrie” is linked to a notion of family, of belonging, of membership. The “patrie” is a family cocooned in generosity, benevolence, care and grace, an entity that wishes good for all who belong to it.

So what does this mean for the dictionary entries? The 1762 entry offers the following:

PATRIE. s.f. Le pays, l’État où l’on est né.

The definition here brings forward questions of belonging by virtue of birth (which, once again, links to the idea of the family and the nursing mother), but what is more interesting are the examples offered:

La France est notre patrie. L’amour de la patrie. Pour le bien de sa patrie. Pour le service de sa patrie. Servir sa patrie. Défendre sa patrie. Mourir pour sa patrie. Le devoir envers la patrie est un des premiers devoirs. Cicéron est le premier des Romains qui ait été appelé le père de la patrie. On étend quelquefois ce mot à des Provinces, à des Villes. Paris est sa patrie.

Patrie inspires deep commitment and responsibility; the responsibility to protect, to serve, to defend … to die for the homeland. Belonging carries with it immense responsibilities.

These elements are also present in the 1798 version, but with one key difference. By 1798 it is no longer enough to die for the homeland. This conceptualization has been expanded:

Il est doux de mourir pour la patrie.

Death is no longer just a responsibility; it is sweet, good and right, a balm undertaken for the good of the whole.

After this spate of hiring is finished, I’ll get to frolic more frequently with dictionary entries. I can’t wait.

I’ve been reading Annie K. Smart’s Citoyennes: Women and the Ideal of Citizenship in Eighteenth-Century France over the past few days, and as I read, I’m finding myself nodding along.  Moving away from – but still indebted to – scholars like Joan B. Landes, Carole Pateman and others who argued that women were actively excluded from political citizenship in the eighteenth century, Smart instead argues for a different vision of citizenship. Drawing on the insights of Uma Narayan, she asserts that citizenship is not just about public rights such as the right to vote or hold office, but it is about active engagement with and for the good of one’s society. As Smart writes:

A feminist vision of citizenship would embrace all members of a nation who actively participate in civic and political life….According to Narayan, citizenship is about belonging: ‘Citizenship has always been about membership, participation and belonging as well as about respect, dignity, status-equality, and a variety of rights.’ Citizenship is thus an active quality that demands participation in matters relating to the public good. (7)

I find this vision of citizenship immensely appealing. It responds to concerns I had when I first encountered the work of Landes, Pateman and others, and it also responds to my personal fascination with Rousseau. Now, Rousseau’s been a thorn in feminism’s side for a good while. Some feminist thinkers hate him. Some love him. Others find his work contradictory, ambiguous. Almost nobody is ambivalent. What is clear is that there is no single ‘feminist’ response to Rousseau. Nope, we’re all over the place on what Rousseau is saying and what his visions have to offer (or not). While I personally find Rousseau’s work problematic on some levels, I am also very much drawn into other aspects of his political vision and I’m really not ready to toss him overboard.

But back to Annie Smart. Smart’s argument is that the home was the key incubator of citizenship; it is in the home – and through the actions of nurturing mothers (mothers who nursed not only with their milk, but also with their care – that individuals developed their understandings of citizenship. In this conceptualization, the home is not a private, domestic space divorced from the political sphere; rather, it is integral to the political. It is the very birthplace of the citizen.

That people identified the home as a site of civic virtue is evident in the letters addressed to Tissot as well. While the performance of maternal virtue – the nursing mother, the doting mother, the mother who puts her health on the line for the sake of her child(ren) – is an obvious starting point, it’s also been very intriguing to read about virtuous fathers. Such fathers foreground their parental responsibilities, articulating a vision of citizenship premised not only on their own social positions as workers, but also on their roles and responsibilities as parents and further, on the health of their children (and how this health might affect their ability to contribute to the public good). Fatherhood and family are integral to their presentation of self. Equally interesting are the letters from individuals who experienced bodily distress as a result of family conflict. In these instances, bodies manifested emotional distress; in numerous cases, Tissot indicated that bodily disorder was the result of “chagrin” – grief as a result of discord and struggle.

If one thing is clear from reading these letters, it is that the family and the domestic were not imagined as passive or neutral spaces; rather, they were deeply implicated in questions of moral and civic virtue.

“It’s International Book Week,” many of my Facebook friends’ status updates proclaim this week. They then invite me to take part in the latest meme: going to page 52 or 53 or 54 of our nearest book and typing out the fifth sentence.

These sentences, taken out of context, are sometimes amusing, sometimes curious, and sometimes, just plain gruesome. One friend hastened to clarify that “her” sentence, which featured a woman apparently stroking a sinewy male arm, was not taken from the erotic bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey. Others, it seems, have also taken care to present themselves in a flattering light. The sentences are all miniature masterpieces. It’s clear that not just any book was chosen; rather, these sentences appear to reflect the personalities of their tellers.

It’s a careful balancing act, to be sure. Take my own case, for example. When I noticed the request, I was getting final touches ready for my graduate seminar in Feminist Methodologies and Epistemologies. Among other readings, we’re using Allison Jaggar’s edited collection, Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader for that course. But I had also just returned from the library, where I’d picked up a brand new book, the 2011 English translation of Michael Stolberg’s 2003 book, Homo patiens. Krankheits- und Körpererfahrung in der Frühen Neuzeit.

Now it’s pretty obvious – at least to me – which book would have the tastier morsel to share.  By sharing, I also ensured that my name – and my identity – aligned themselves neatly with Stolberg’s conceptual world. And so I pulled Stolberg into the meme-web and shared sentence five from page 52:

“Tongue biting, which is considered typical today, was hardly ever mentioned, but many patients and their relatives did report foaming at the mouth, and, as a particularly characteristic symptom, thumbs turned inward toward the palm.”

Ten minutes later, I received a satisfyingly disgusted response from my friend.  Presentation of self through the words of others successfully completed. You see, it’s all in the packaging. I also carefully used Stolberg’s German title. After all, in North American climes, a German title sounds much more exotic and, indeed, scholarly and intellectual, than this decidedly prosaic English title:  Experiencing Illness and the Sick Body in Early Modern Europe.  Serviceable, yes. Scintillating, not so much. As a marker of identity, German tongue biting was by far the best option.

So what does Prof. Dr. Stolberg have to say? In essence, he lays out groundwork that will be essential for my own project. Examining a formidable array of primary source documents, among them extensive letter collections, Stolberg paints a picture of how it was that patients experienced and understood their illnesses, and further, how their understandings intersected with those of medical professionals during the early modern period. In this, he extends terrain originally explored and mapped by Barbara Duden in her still revolutionary book, The Woman Beneath the Skin. It also contributes to ongoing conversations in the history of medicine and the history of the body in the early modern period.

With its impressive archival foundations – drawing on material from archival collections in Amsterdam, Arnhem, Avignon, Bamberg, Basel, Bern, Bologna, Bremen, Dresden, Erlangen, Frankfurt, Geneva (phew! I’m exhausted and I’m only at ‘G’!), Hamburg, Köln, Lausanne, Leiden, London, Munich, Nürnberg, Paris, Regensburg, Schwerin, Stuttgart, Utrecht, Weimar and Wiesbaden (and now, I’m definitely out of breath) – this book offers a fantastic overview of the situation across Europe during the period that concerns me most, while still leaving untouched the ideas that interest me most;  namely, the role of the body in the construction of political virtue.  Body politics. That’s where my heart lies. Unsurprisingly, it’s also where a lot of my blog postings seem to go. Like the fifth sentence of page 52, they, too, function as a sort of autobiographical repository…

“For many people, music is here to let them forget the daily chores of life …. People have a difficult day at the office, they have a fight with their wife or their mistress, or both, they get bad news from their accountant. So they come home, exhausted, put their feet up, and put on their favourite Chopin Nocturne – preferably played by me – and within three minutes they have forgotten their troubles. But I maintain music is not here to make us forget about life. It’s also here to teach us about life: the fact that everything starts and ends, the fact that every sound is in danger of disappearing, the fact that everything is connected – the fact that we live and we die.

–          Daniel Barenboim, interviewed in The Guardian (bold print mine)

I’ve written about the intersections between music, bodies and life writing before. And now, as I read through Daniel Barenboim’s words, captured in an article in The Guardian, I feel the need to return.

There is much that unites the letter writer with the composer. Both are struggling to articulate, in text, their experiences, emotions, bodily tremblings, slivers of thoughts, ideas… trying to put down, in some sort of fixed way, things that resist fixity. What happens in that translation process? What happens when bodily experience becomes word? When thoughts, ideas, emotions, trembling become musical notes? When gestures move from body into language?

Letter writers, like composers of music, all have unique voices. They use the same tools, but to very different ends. Pen. Ink. Paper. Words. Spaces. And in the process, they tell different stories, opening their readers/listeners to different ways of thinking, perceiving, experiencing, living.

There is much that unites the letter writers that wrote to Tissot. Suffering, social class, and accepted notions of propriety. They follow similar patterns and structure their letters in similar ways. But the letters are also surprisingly diverse.  There are sudden bumps. And intriguing twists. And just when you’ve figured something out, the letter changes direction.

So it is, too, with composers. In his Guardian interview, Barenboim talks about concert programming. More specifically, he considers the potential in combining the first ‘great Romantic’, Beethoven (as we were taught in music school), with Pierre Boulez, a scion of contemporary music. Putting the two into conversation with one another transforms the listeners’ (and the performers’) understanding of each composer. Beethoven’s first symphony is changed upon hearing Boulez’s Dérive II. And the work of Boulez, too, is shaped by our intimate experience with Beethoven. If, as Barenboim argues, “every sound is in danger of disappearing,” the careful juxtaposition of compositions allows for sounds to expand and multiply as new meanings emerge.

But what does any of this have to do with letters?

Letters, like concerts, can (on the one hand) be seen as nothing more than entertainment. Quiet pleasures accompanied with a good cup of tea. Moments of respite from the day’s cares and concerns. Opportunities to look in a different direction. Put your feet up. Disappear into another world.

But what happens if we take Mr. Barenboim’s words seriously? Can the art of letter reading be imagined as something akin to the art of listening to music? Can reading letters “teach us about life”? Can letters –and our reading of them – serve to remind us that “everything starts and ends, …that every sound is in danger of disappearing,…that everything is connected …. that we live and we die”?

Collections of letters – whether exchanged by intimate friends or, like the ones I’m reading, directed by hundreds of individuals to one common recipient – offer us new ways of listening. Juxtaposing letters allows us to examine harmonies and dissonances, to plumb the depths of melody, gesture, silence and sound. Like the encounter between Beethoven and Boulez, letters challenge and confirm one another, asking to be read anew, over and over and over again.

What might we lose by not taking letters seriously?

Tissot reminds me that even if I manage to kick the chocolate and cream habit, I’ve still got another, much more dangerous habit to break: novel reading.

“Of all the things that have ruined women’s health, perhaps the greatest has been the infinite multiplication of novels over the past century. From bassinet to old age, women read them with such great passion that they fear being distracted, even for a moment. Nor do they engage in physical exercise and often they go too bed very late in order to satisfy their passion; all of this absolutely ruins their health (without even mentioning those who are, themselves, authors and this number is also growing daily). A ten year old girl who reads instead of running will, at the age of twenty find herself a nervous woman and poor nurse [to her infants].” (Tissot, De la santé des gens de lettres. Lausanne, François Grasset, 1770, pp. 153-4, note 1; translation mine).


(and if you really want proof of the wanton excess caused by overactive imaginations, head over to the Art Institute of Chicago for a look at Greuze’s Bernard d’Agesci’s Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard, c. 1780)