The Voices of Nîmes

Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc

This book recovers the lives and aspirations of ordinary French women in a vanished past. It is the first book to give us a study of ordinary French women’s concerns about their lives, menfolk, friendships, and faith, based on a set of rich sources that capture women’s voices – when most non-elite women who ever lived left no trace of their existence on the record of history.

Suzannah Lipscomb has closely examined 1,200 detailed moral cases to illuminate the realities of women, sex, and marriage. Her findings demand the reassessment of much of what we thought we knew: women emerge as more resourceful, more violent, and more powerful than we ever thought.

‘Suzannah Lipscomb’s extraordinary Voices of Nîmes performs that miracle which only the most powerful historians can execute: using a dense archive to re-awaken lost lives: the women of 16th century Protestant Nîmes. Here they are to the life, body and soul, faith and feeling, morally intense and sensually driven; vocal, animated, and in their way eloquent. This is a beautiful book, grippingly written, and destined to be a classic of social history.’

Professor Sir Simon Schama

What’s new about this book?

  • Rare testimonies from over 1,000 ordinary sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women
  • New insights into women’s faith and relationship to established religion and magic
  • New findings on women’s attitudes to, and experience of, marriage and sex – including sex outside marriage, rape and sexual assault, and prostitution
  • New findings on women’s violence in words and deeds
  • New findings on women’s agency and power: women were more publicly powerful than we’ve believed

Buy The Voices of Nîmes

It is available from all good booksellers – support your high street! – and online from Amazon

What are people saying about the book?

The Voices of Nîmes is a work of meticulous archival research that not only presents… past conversations but breathes them into vivid life. It takes a proficient, passionate and witty storyteller like Lipscomb to detail these stories in a way that transports and moves the reader’. 

Dr Joanne Paul, History Today

‘Lipscomb’s painstaking study… offers new insights into everyday life and popular morality in Reformation France. A finely wrought and colourful mosaic… richly satisfying.’ 

Prof. Alexandra Walsham, Literary Review

‘An exhaustive study… [that] constitutes a substantive display of scholarly acumen. The women of Lipscomb’s narrative… have been lucky to find such a gifted chronicler.’ 

Kate Maltby, Financial Times

‘This is a splendid read. The author has not overplayed her stories. She has not needed to. This is scholarly writing at its readable best.’ 

Dr G.R. Evans, Church Times

‘This fascinating book rests on the voices of hundreds of ordinary people from the past, those of women who got into trouble and of the men who were usually the cause. A beautifully nuanced interpretation that goes far beyond the familiar and dismal story of patriarchal misconduct to reveal women’s own agency, and the multiple ways in which the victims fought back, both psychologically and practically. Suzannah Lipscomb thereby gives us exceptional fresh insights into gender relations, social life, and religious belief among the first generations of Protestants in the French Midi.’ 

Robin Briggs, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford

‘A scholarly, extensive and imaginative piece of history – in the spirit of Emmanuel Ladurie’s ground-breaking Montaillou– where, by using the experiences of one particular region in Languedoc, Dr Lipscomb both gives voice to the women of the past & offers a new analysis of this turbulent period in French history. Essential reading for all those interested in the hidden stories of the Reformation and in hearing the everyday voices so often left out of the history books.’

Kate Mosse, bestselling author of Labyrinth and The Burning Chambers

Do you want to know more?

Most of the women who ever lived left no trace of their existence on the record of history. Women of the middling and lower levels of society left no letters or diaries in which they expressed what they felt or thought. Criminal courts and magistrates kept few records of their testimonies, and no ecclesiastical court records are known to survive for the French Roman Catholic Church between 1540 and 1667. For the most part, we cannot hear the voices of ordinary French women – but this study allows us to do so.

Based on the evidence of 1,200 cases brought before the consistories – or moral courts – of the Huguenot church of Languedoc between 1561 and 1615, this book allows us to access ordinary women’s everyday lives: their speech, behaviour, and attitudes relating to love, faith, and marriage, as well as friendship and sex. Women appeared frequently before the consistory because one of the chief functions of moral discipline was the regulation of sexuality, and women were thought to be primarily responsible for sexual sin. This means that the registers include over a thousand testimonies by and about women, most of whom left no other record to posterity.

Women also featured so prominently before the consistories because of an ironic, unintended consequence of the consistorial system: it empowered women. Women quickly learnt how to use the consistory: they denounced those who abused them, they deployed the consistory to force men to honour their promises, and they started rumours they knew would be followed up by the elders. The registers therefore offer unrivalled evidence of women’s agency, in this intensely patriarchal society, in a range of different contexts, such as their enjoyment of their sexuality, choice of marriage partners, or idiosyncratic spiritual engagement. The consistorial registers, therefore, let us see how independent, self-determining, and vocal women could be in an age when they had limited legal rights, little official power, and few prospects. As a result, this book suggests we need to reconceptualize female power: women’s power was not just hidden, manipulative, and devious, but also far more public than historians have previously recognized.

Other books by Suzannah Lipscomb