Narrating women’s experiences of psychic violence

In the fourth post for our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence series, Susan Broomhall discusses the need to recognise emotional abuse as one of the most pervasive forms of gender violence through the story of a sixteenth-century French nun.

In 1567, Françoise de Bourdeille, abbess of the convent of Ligueux in the Périgord, composed a memoir submitted to the Official of Poitiers. More than twenty years had passed since she had first entered monastic life but Bourdeille’s account documented her anguish, anxieties and fears about both her mind and soul as a result of the profession and seclusion that she argued had been forced upon her. Now she demanded that Church authorities recognise her narrative of long-standing coercion and pressure from family and friends, and the damage it had wrought, in order to release her from monastic vows.

Bourdeille documented threats of force, physical deprivation and withdrawal of positive affective relationships with family and those in her wider social networks, behaviours that were intended to achieve the acquiescence of the young girl to life in a convent. Hers was not the only such story to be recorded in religious and judicial archives in the early modern period. Such accounts provide historians with important narratives of actions that we might now term psychic or spiritual violence. They remain in the archives because they were called out by contemporaries as unacceptable behaviours applying unreasonable coercive force that denied people their agency.

Recent scholarship of violence and of historicising emotions take seriously the power of emotions to affect change and to shape the psyche in violent ways. David Nash suggests that we need to develop more nuanced ways to analyse power beyond a ‘model which concentrates solely upon its physicality’. The work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe I. Bourgois has insisted upon a definition of violence that encompasses assaults on personhood, dignity and value in recognition of the powerful role of social and cultural aspects of violence. This has been echoed by feminist researchers such as Sally Engle Merry who include psychological dimensions of violence in their analyses, including insults, degradations, and humiliation.

In Bourdeille’s case, it was words, for the most part, that constituted the means by which the violence was performed; words that expressed strong emotions of anger and disappointment, designed to generate affective responses that ranged from fear to, ultimately, compliance.

Standing nun, 1657, Gesina ter Borch, watercolour drawing. Image via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Françoise was the daughter of François de Bourdeille and of Anne de Vivonne. Her mother was a lady of honour to two successive queens of Navarre. Bourdeille was not yet ten when she was taken from her home at the Château de la Feuillade to the Abbey of Sainte Croix in Poitiers. There adults led her to understand, as did her parents at the château, that she was to learn to read, write, and embroider, ‘as one was accustomed to have young ladies instructed’.

However, in 1541, Bourdeille recorded how she was pressured by a party including her mother, grandmother, the Sieur de Rohan and Admiral Biron and his wife, and even the King and Queen of Navarre who were then in Poitiers, to take vows as a novice. Although she ‘resisted with tears and otherwise … not wanting to submit to the yoke of religion’, she recalled how she was ‘vanquished as much by the threats of her grandmother and mother as by the great authority of the said Lady Queen of Navarre and by the importuning of the other lords and ladies’ so that ‘against her will and desire she took the habit’. Bourdeille’s depiction of these events highlighted the verbal power of ‘threats’ and ‘importuning’ but also emphasised their force by her affective responses to them in ‘tears’.

Bourdeille’s record made clear the sense of oppression and the imprisonment of body and spirit that she experienced. She recalled her distress at her isolated position, ‘shut away inside the monastery, destitute of advice and friends in that place, and in despair to not be able to leave it, even from her parents she heard no news and knew not how to have any news of them’, when she found herself ‘pressured by her abbess to make her profession at the monastery’. Although she had at first refused, in the end, ‘tormented in all sorts of ways … against her will and desire’, Françoise made her vows, and she later described these as ‘having been taken and suffered by her … against her conscience’.

The torment of her mind only worsened, Françoise claimed, when in 1546 her family announced that she was to be transferred to the convent of Ligueux, with a longer term view to becoming its next abbess. When she protested, Bourdeille claimed that her relatives ‘threatened her that they would put her back in the monastery of Sainte-Croix and have her treated more harshly than she had ever been before’.

Despair at the daily experience of monastic life took its toll. She recorded her deteriorating state of mind and fears for her soul. Bourdeille ‘knew well in her mind that over time the things that each does against one’s conscience reign and dominate one’s life, so much more is the condemnation for them’.

The narrative created by Bourdeille was composed for a specific purpose. In 1565, Bourdeille received from Pope Pius IV the first stage of a release from her vows. By then, both her parents and an elder brother had died. By the terms of the ruling, the Official of Poitiers, Bonaventure Aubert, was delegated to hear the case, for whom the surviving narrative was produced. Bourdeille’s claim that the documented actions constituted a form of violence that was psychologically and spiritually damaging to her was accepted by the religious officials who considered her case. In 1567, Aubert found in her favour, recognising the ‘continual fear, complaints and protestations of the plaintiff’.

No longer faceless or invisible. Standing and sitting figures in habit, Johannes Bosboom, 19th century, pencil and ink drawing, detail. Image via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The interpretation of Françoise de Bourdeille’s experieneces as a form of violence were accepted as coercive actions and the resulting psychic and spiritual torment to be real and unacceptable. Of course, Bourdeille was a well-educated woman by the standards of her time, a highly articulate nun whose status and opportunities for narration were crucial to the success of her case and the survival of her narrative.

These more subtle forms of violence are sometimes harder to trace in the past and to document in the present, but are nonetheless significant and damaging experiences that are perhaps even more pervasive than physical violence. Attempts to silence women’s voices on social media today through unrelenting hostile and sexist comments are just one example. However, these records remind us that it is possible to call out forceful, manipulative acts, just like those early modern women who, in depicting themselves as survivors of psychic violence, refused to remain silenced.


White Ribbon Australia is a leading advocate for policy and legislation aimed at stopping violence against women, and also works with schools, businesses and other organisations to provide education and training about the many forms of domestic violence, and how to break the cycle of abuse. Support White Ribbon by shopping in their store here.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-35-17-pmSusan Broomhall is a historian of early modern Europe at the University of Western Australia and ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her research explores gender, emotions, material culture, cultural contact and heritage in the early modern world. In 2014, she was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship to examine emotions and power in the correspondence of Catherine de Medici. Her recent publications include Gender, power and identity in the early modern House of Orange-Nassau with Jacqueline Van Gent, and Police courts in nineteenth-century Scotland with David G. Barrie.

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