This post was written by Anna Young, Vanderbilt University. It is part of a series of posts on researchers’ experiences in libraries and archives.

The First Taste of the Archives

The French word for archival documents, fonds, has a happy double meaning: the depths. As Arlette Farge points out in her Allure of the Archives, there are both risks and pleasures that come with getting lost in the depths of the archives. In June 2017, I visited the Archives Nationales in Paris, where I found myself pleasantly overwhelmed with the sheer breadth of my findings.

Some of the practical aspects of working in French archives are culturally specific. Like other libraries in France, the AN is very strict about security and preservation of the “patrimony.” On entry and exit, I had my bag inspected by security guards and had to open all notebooks and my laptop for them, in case of theft. There are also many unspoken cultural expectations when interacting with workers in the archives. It is considered rude not to greet each person at the desk or the security guards as you pass by. You can also expect a more favorable reception if you begin each conversation in French and wait for the other person to switch to English first. Although I think I speak French fairly well, I could usually count on this happening as soon as they identified me as American. If you need to email an archivist, there are also specific conventions that sound formal in English, but should be followed to get a response. French archives are usually open most weekdays during normal business hours, but often close for significant periods of time during the summer and often almost all of August. The AN does not close for lunch, but many archives in France do for several hours in the middle of the day.

Familiarizing Yourself: How to choose your documents

As for my documents, I had no difficulty finding more than enough useful material in the collection that I consulted. This was even more surprising because I thought I had chosen a relatively narrow dissertation topic. I am interested in how early modern medical and legal cultures understood and interpreted ambiguous bodies. Because so much “body” work in history has focused on the cultural meanings attached to women’s embodiment, I wanted to write a history that questioned the assumption that male embodiment has been more stable or somehow more resistant to cultural interpretation over time. I had read Pierre Darmon’s 1979 study of impotence trials before the court of the diocese, the Officialité of Paris, in seventeenth and eighteenth-century France. I thought that these trials might lend some insight into these questions, as one of the few contexts in which masculinity and male sexuality came directly under the scrutiny of the courts. Despite having this work to guide me to my archive, however, I was unsure what I would find or if I would find anything at all. In fact, I feared I would be looking for a needle in a haystack because I had wanted to focus my project on impotence specifically.

The court of the Officialité of Paris in former times oversaw all matters civil and criminal, but its competency had diminished by the seventeenth century to encompass primarily marital disputes. [AN Z1O 91-172, 1609-1752] Consequently, the overwhelming majority of the litigants in these cases were women. Most often, they wanted the court to secure a marriage for them, alleging that their suitor had promised marriage and abandoned them. On the other hand, a surprisingly large minority wanted out of their marriage, by requesting an annulment with remarriage. While there are any number of impediments to marriage in canon law that might render a marriage null, I immediately realized how frequently these women cited their husband’s impotence and failure to consummate the marriage as grounds for their complaint. I had worried that I would search for weeks and find only a few cherry-picked examples, but with the very first box in the series I quickly realized that I would have more than I could possibly even account for in the time that I had. By the time records began, in the seventeenth century, the Officialité investigated cases of impotence in a surprisingly routine fashion. Each box contained at least two or three cases with the word “impuissance” scrawled in the top margin and reports of court surgeons detailing their examination of the bodies of each of the parties. Not only that, but the peculiar legal procedure of sexual congress, in which couples were asked to demonstrate sexual ability before a panel of medical experts, appeared in nearly every case (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Report of the experts from the congress of Jean Gaultrie and Suzanne Despots. AN Z1O 95, February 5, 1615.

The Process of Research: The Unexpected Pleasures of the Archives

While it may sound like a wonderful coincidence that I found exactly what I had expected to find, this discovery led me to rethink what kinds of arguments it would be possible to make in the context of the archive itself. What did it mean that this kind of intrusive and—from a modern perspective—bizarre procedure was accepted as legitimate, even routine, by prominent Church officials? Why did the women in these cases choose to pursue this kind of case in the way that they did? Were there instances in which they or their language broke through the routine and formulaic language that appeared in these cases? The interrogations posed to the men and women in these cases give some idea of this, but the fragmentary nature of the evidence obscures the answer to most of these questions.

Some of these fragments completely took me by surprise. Most of what I looked at was the same repetitive, formulaic legal document. In one box, however, I found a folded slip of paper with a few lines of poetry and an ink drawing of a stereotyped Ottoman Turk. When I unfolded the paper part of the way, the rounded point of the Turk’s headdress became a heart. When I unfolded it once more, as the poem beckoned me to, the heart became a scrotum attached to an engorged penis. My laughing probably annoyed the researchers around me, but clearly, someone living in the seventeenth century had also found these cases quite funny.

Conclusions: How does a researcher conclude a pivotal trip, especially at an archive that is far from home

Despite finding so much interesting material, I still struggled with fully accessing it. Most cases had multiple pieces—register extracts, interrogation, written defense, experts’ reports, sentences, receipts—that were not bound together, but strewn throughout a box filled with other unbound pages, or across multiple boxes. I learned that it is especially important to read and to take note of these individual pieces, rather than simply photographing them, in order to make sure that you have examined every part of your relevant documents. Of course, I had difficulties doing this because the court records were almost all written in a nearly indecipherable scrawl. Despite having trained in early modern French paleography, I have had to practice constantly to understand the least part of what the litigants themselves actually said in their interrogations.

Finally, I ran out of time. Even though I had about a month in which I worked every weekday 9:00-4:00, there was more material than I could possibly even photograph. Especially because I could not read the documents fluently, in my last few weeks I chose several boxes at random from the series, which extended to the end of the eighteenth century, and photographed the cases I could find for later. My advisors discouraged me from becoming a “human copy machine,” but I am glad that I did because it has provided me with no end of material to work with over the semester.

Overall, the major downside to having an abundance of material is that I was tempted to fall into the “allure of the archives.” The more that I found, the more I wanted to go on opening every box until I had a “complete” account of this court’s activity. Of course, many studies in social history do this kind of reconstruction. However, this desire for completeness can be unreasonable. No matter how complete one’s account might be, the archive still only gives us a fragmentary glimpse into the full lives of people who once lived. The depths to which one can descend go on forever.

Learn more about the Archives Nationales at or visit their catalogues at