Parodic Trials at the Parliament of Paris by Estelle Doudet

Parodic Trials at the Parliament of Paris: Laughter, Rhetoric and the Shaping of Communities (15th c.)

Estelle Doudet (UMR 5316 Litt&Arts, Grenoble Alpes / Institut universitaire de France)


Theatrical scene and court of Justice share many characteristics: they are both public places where one can see and be seen; they present plots, victims and criminals; playing and pleading are performances implying specific codes of discourse and gesture. Evidences of the links between drama and trial have been present early on in vernacular medieval drama. At the end of the 13th century, in Paris, when the minister of the French King Pierre de La Broce was accused of being a traitor, the secret procedure that condemned him to death was re-enacted in the Play of Pierre de La Broce to justify a sentence that caused an uproar, as Dante recalled in The Divine Comedy[1]. Dramatic trials have been abundantly studied[2], but most of the analyses focus on the way these ‘fictions’ duplicate and reinvent, sometimes ‘comically’, the ‘reality’ of ‘serious’ legal procedures. However, obscene cases pleaded inside an official courtroom by professional lawyers, such as those known in French as causes grasses (‘fat cases’), seem to have been usual practice at the Parliament in Late Medieval and Early Modern Paris, and as such, they blur the traditional oppositions. Were they ‘real procedures’ or ‘fictional performances’? ‘Professional’ cases or mere ‘entertainment’? ‘Comic’ or ‘serious’? As Jelle Koopmans recently suggested[3], parodic texts invite us to go beyond the inadequate question of their nature and to investigate their social and cultural functions. In that perspective, one could wonder why the causes grasses were performed and for what purpose the audience attended trials that seem to us derisive.

Parodic trials in official courtrooms: beyond fiction and reality

Marie Bouhaïk-Gironès discovered several causes grasses pleaded at the end of the 15th century in the archives of the Parliament of Paris, which she has edited[4]. The clerks of the Court used to draft summarized versions of pleas in French[5], but defenders and prosecutors were authorized to redraft their own, more detailed versions the day after the audience. We should consider that the texts in the Parisian archives were probably not an exact recording of these trials; they rather suggested the way the pleas were to be read later, especially by the members of the Parliament themselves, who used to look into the archives for legal precedents[6] – and sometimes, I will argue, for models of eloquence.


Retable du Parlement de Paris, Musée du Louvre, 15th c. (detail)

The 1471 case I am about to analyse is not the only parodic trial we know of. In March 1470, the lawyers Labarre and Guerry crossed swords on behalf of two ‘good housewives’ who were accused of behaving like whores. In March 1473, De Thou and Thiboust pleaded the case of two ‘honest’ (?) women who dwelt in a brothel and conflicted about a man. At the end of February 1471, the same lawyers, both rising stars of the Parisian Bar, fought on the case of a young widow who had dismissed one of her workers despite his exceptional services.

In the records of the plaidoiries matinées, the trials set during the morning, nothing distinguishes these cases from the regular ones, except three details. They took place on the date of Carnival, in February or March; they developed an obscene topic involving sexual scandal; at the end of the procedure, a third lawyer made an appeal for the cases to be presented to the Basoche:

Fretel pour le roy de la Basoche requiert le renvoy de ceste cause estre fait devant luy actendu que toutes les dites parties sont vrayes bazochiennes, par quoy audit roy comme telles appartient en congnoistre et a icelui doit estre ceste commise pour en ordonner, ainsi qu’en tel cas et a tel jour comme aujourd’uy on a bien acoustumé lui bailler la congnoissance de semblables causes[7].

Fretel, for the King of the Basoche, asks for an appeal, since all the parties are really basochiennes and therefore must be submitted to the King for him to pronounce a judgment, as it is for him customary, on this day and on this sort of topic, to be informed of such cases.  

The causes grasses were part of the cultural practices of the Basoche, the leading professional organization and training center for lawyers in France from the 15th to the 18th century. I aim to demonstrate that such trials, with their farcical issues and their burlesque characters, provided not only a joyful entertainment for the public, but also offered a spectacular feedback on the rhetorical codes and legal arguments that were useful during a trial, highlighting the most successful rules of conduct in a courtroom[8].

A farcical case about saddles in February 1471

In 1471, in front of the judge Jean Dauvet, Jacques de Thou and Robert Thiboust presented the case of their clients Colin Mesnart and Thomasse la Moete[9].

According to De Thou who defended the worker Colin, Thomasse La Moete ran a workshop of saddles after her husband died. The widow hired Colin Mesnard, a young man capable of manufacturing four to six saddles a day, and soon decided to marry him. But Colin’s strengths weakened. Disappointed, Thomasse fired him and replaced him by a certain Blanchefort. Colin decided to sue her for a breach of contract; but he was arrested and imprisoned at the Châtelet. According to Thiboust, Thomasse’s defender, the widow was engaged by her family to remarry Blanchefort. Colin’s threats to them were the cause of his imprisonment.

The cause is clearly farcical. Its topic, tainted by traditional misogyny, satirizes the dangers of the masculine desire for flesh and of the feminine thirst for sex. The plot is based on the sexual double meaning of the verbal expression rembourrer les bas, ‘to stuff the saddle’. A similar joke is staged in the Parisian Farce des femmes qui font rembourrer leurs bas, printed at the beginning of the 16th century[10].


A fight for a woman, Paris, ms. 15th c.

Exploiting an obscene pun, the two lawyers carefully used Cicero’s and Quintilian’s rhetorical advice to win the case, but they chose diverging ways to apply them in this context. La Farce de Maistre Pathelin, printed book, beg. 16th c.

Be pragmatic to win: storytelling and practical points of law

In his Institutio (IV, 2), Quintilian argued that the narratio (or statement of the facts)[11] is fully effective when the lawyer who speaks first is able to spin a powerful story. It is striking that De Thou, who spoke first, chose storytelling as his main strategy and gave to the narratio its full power[12].

The lawyer depicted his client as a ‘good young man’, an ‘expert’ and ‘skilled’ saddler (‘bon homme pour besogner’, ‘tres expert’[13]). Colin worked very hard to the widow’s satisfaction and never showed any sign of misbehaviour; for example, he slept in her room because ‘the weather was cold’ (‘pour ce que le temps estoit froit’) and not for dubious reasons. On the other hand, De Thou’s syntax emphasized the woman’s leading role in the affair by systematically placing her as the subject of the verbs, suggesting who was guilty and who was innocent.

Avoiding any reference to written legal authorities, De Thou however consolidated his artful storytelling by the legal arguments Cicero called rationes. Colin’s contractual rights were repeatedly alleged through the term ‘contract’ (‘contracterent ensemble’, ‘le contract dessusdict’). Sufficiently vague to qualify both the employment contract and the marriage agreement, the ‘contract’ proved that Colin was the rightful possessor of Thomasse’s workshop and body. Since remarriage and property rights for widows were questions widely discussed at that time, it is likely De Thou’s emphasis on Colin’s contractual rights was intentional and referred to topical issues well-known by Parisian lawyers.

In short, De Thou posed as a pragmatic professional. Reluctant to quote auctoritates, he proved himself able to create a strong complicity with the audience by playing on the traditional story of the generous, innocent man deceived by an ungrateful woman. Based on an obscene double entendre to denounce a professional and a sexual exploitation, his oratio was as moving as it was hilarious. The public would have enjoyed the rhetorical efficiency of such a cunning strategy.

 Success through theory: auctoritates and agressive assumptions

Thiboust, De Thou’s opponent and the woman’s defender, once more followed Quintilian’s advice[14]: since it was difficult for him as second orator to reply to the narratio, he placed the debate on a more technical and erudite ground.


Quintilianus cum commento, Paris, 1493, table of contents

Thiboust’s oratio began by a prologue in which Cicero is quoted:

Et comme tient Tulle in suo libro De Officis, turpe est de seipso predicare falsa cum irrisione audiencium.

And as Cicero said in suo libro De Officis, it is a shame to boast about false stories to make auditors laugh[15].

He then referred to auctoritates from the Antiquity[16], quoted them in Latin and proved his own command of the Latin legal terminology (‘ymo’, ‘nihil est’, etc.). To reinforce his learned posture, he displayed an extensive knowledge of civil law technicalities, alleging for instance the marital agreement per verba de futuro to prove the bounds between Thomasse and her new fiancé Blanchefort were legal.

While taking on the role of a scholar, Thiboust chose at the same time the prosecutor’s aggressive posture. He strongly contradicted every statement De Thou made. How to believe the young saddler’s incredible performance, when it was clear for anyone that he had “ not the tools to achieve the task”?

Et de rembourrer tant de selles pour ung jour et continuer longtemps comme se vente C., s’est chose trop excessive et souffiroit bien de la moitié, mais quelque qu’il dye, il n’a pas instrument pour ce faire[17].

To stuff so many saddles a day and to go on for a long time, like C. boasted he did, is an excessive thing and half this work seems sufficient; but whatever he said, he has not the tools to achieve the task.

The obscenity is turned against Colin in an attack ad virilitatem. Going further, Thiboust eventually associated his opponent De Thou to the sexual dispute:

Et quant lui, ses advocat et procureur seroient ensemble a rembourrer, eux trois n’en sauroient rembourrer la moitié de ce que C. seul se vente de rembourrer[18].

If the defender, the prosecutor and the client were committed to stuffing saddles together, the three of them could not have stuffed half the saddles C. boasted he stuffed alone.

The spectators were invited to laugh once more, this time at the lawyers’ expense.

Thiboust’s plea was as aggressive as De Thou’s was full of innuendos. One quoted theoretical auctoritates; the other referred to topical questions. I would suggest such a sharp contrast was deliberate. This obscene trial offered, especially for young jurists, a dynamic display of the various legal styles used at the Parliament of Paris – along with some lawyers’ tricks.

Training for lawyers? Shaping a professional community through parody

Following another Ciceronian rule[19], jurists-to-be in late medieval and early modern France were indeed trained during several years as escoutants or auditors. While Roman law was integrated in the academic curriculum, common law had to be learned by observation. The escoutants regularly attended trials, watching more experienced jurists in action, sometimes electing one of them as a master to imitate, often searching for models they could follow. In that perspective, the parodic trials may well have been parodic because of their obscene suggestions; they were however quite serious as a professional training[20]. Testing the efficiency of juridical Latin and legal French, they demonstrated how rhetorical codes, references, commonplaces and points of law could be adapted to different occasions and to various orators’ personalities. For the trained lawyers who staged them, the causes grasses probably contributed also to public visibility and fame, since they allowed them to show their eloquence. The written versions of the trials kept in the archives of the Parliament suggest that these trials were not only live performances bound to disappear, but that they were considered worthy of remembrance, as part of a collective professional memory.


La Farce de Maistre Pathelin, printed book beg. 16th c.

Towards an European Perspective: lawyers and drama in English- and Dutch-speaking areas

Were the parodic trials staged at the Parliament of Paris exceptions in the late medieval and early modern Europe? In France, during the 16th century, causes grasses are documented in other cities, for example Toulouse, even if surveys must still be conducted in the archives to assess the chronological and geographical extent of this practice, in the courtrooms as well as in milieus where its function could have been different[21]. The strong influence of the Basoche, the social prestige of urban Parliaments and the crucial role of legal training for most of the French-speaking intellectuals could explain, in some ways, their lasting success.

At the same time, in England, the Inns of Court shared a similar culture of theatricality and law training and their influence on Tudor and Elizabethan drama is well known. However parodic trials and causes grasses are rarely documented as such in the Inns of Court. Trials in drama are not rare in Dutch either. Some, like Jan Fijnart, reflected the Farce de Maître Pathelin’s influence[22]. Lawyers were also frequently involved in the Rederijkerskamers and, thanks to their rhetorical knowledge, participated in their publications. Eduard de Dene, who was clerk of the Court in Bruges, included in his Testament Rhetorical an allegorical dispute between Drunkenness (Dronkenscap) and Sobriety (Soberhede)[23]. But, despite its title, de Dene’s ‘argumentich proces’ differs from the causes grasses: it is not a parodic trial but a joyful disputatio, a clerical tradition widely shared in European universities since the 13th century[24]. De Dene’s text underlines the close ties existing between Rederijkerskamers and academic culture, suggesting that the ethos of the rederijkers might have been closer to the public eloquence of the scholars than to the one of jurists. Because of the lack of archival evidence, it remains difficult to say if Flemish or Dutch jurists exercised – or not – their abilities in mock-trials inside their courtrooms the way French lawyers did[25].

The statement that parodic trials were common among European lawyers should therefore not be generalized without caution. The causes grasses, as pedagogical tools and ways of shaping social communities, might have been specifically French; at least, their remembrance in writing seems to be[26]. This specificity highlights the different ways explored by orators and rhetoricians in other regions to display their talents as masters of public vernacular eloquence.


[1] Le Jeu de Pierre de la Broce, ed. E. Doudet – M. Bouhaïk-Gironès, Recueil général de moralités d’expression française, I, 33-95 (Paris: 2012); Pierre de La Broce’s fate is commented by Dante in Purgatory, VI, 19-24.

[2] Représentations du procès, ed. C. Biet – L. Schifano (Nanterre: 2003).

[3] Renaissance Society of America 62th Congress, Boston, 1st April 2016, panel: ‘Joyful Texts in Context’, organized by Katell Lavéant.

[4] Bouhaïk-Gironès M., Les Clercs de la Basoche et le théâtre comique (Paris, 1420-1550) (Paris: 2007), 256-266.

[5] Since the 14th century, legal procedures were no longer held in Latin in the realm of France.

[6] Houllemare M., Politiques de la parole, le Parlement de Paris au XVIe siècle (Geneva: 2011), 170.

[7] March 2 1473, quoted by Marie Bouhaïk-Gironès, op. cit., 265.

[8] This survey has been developped in French in: Doudet E., « Plaidoyer, entre pratique oratoire et fiction dramatique (1450-1550) », ed. G. Cazals – S. Geonget, Les Plaidoyers à la Renaissance (Geneva: forthcoming).

[9] Bouhaïk-Gironès M., op. cit., 258-262.

[10] De Mieux ou farce nouvelle des femmes font rembourrer leur bas, Le Recueil de Florence, 53 farces imprimées à Paris vers 1515, n°36, ed. J. Koopmans (Orleans: 2011), 499-506.

[11] ‘The statement of facts (narratio) consists in the persuasive exposition of that which either has been done, or is supposed to have been done, or, to quote the definition given by Apollodorus, is a speech instructing the audience as to the nature of the case in dispute.’ Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, b. IV, c. 2, tr. H. Butler (Loeb Classical Lib.: 1920-1922), [consulted on March 12 2016].

[12]I did not kill the man does not amount to a statement of facts (narratio): but there will be a statement of facts, occasionally, too, a long one, in answer to the arguments put forward by the accuser: it will deal with the past life of the accused, with the causes which have brought an innocent man into peril, and other circumstances such as show the charge to be incredible.’ Institutio Oratoria, ibid.

[13] Bouhaïk-Gironès M., op. cit., p. 259.

[14] ‘In some cases the accused may dispense with the statement of facts (narratio), when for instance the charge can neither be denied nor palliated, but turns solely on some point of law.’ Institutio Oratoria, op. cit.

[15] Bouhaïk-Gironès M., op. cit., 260. I underline Thiboust’s addition to Cicero’s quotation.

[16] Among those, Valerius Maximus, ibid, 261.

[17] Ibid.

[18] De Thou strongly objected he was concerned by this ‘lack of [sexual] tools’, ibid, 262.

[19] Cicero, De Oratore, 2, XXII.

[20] I follow M. Bouhaïk-Gironès’s suggestion to see parodic trials and comic drama staged by jurists as a professional training, op. cit. p. 153-174.

[21] Parodic trials might have been staged at the royal court. During the reign of Henri III, the pamphlet Arrest prononcé en chausses rouges par Mr Harlequin, president en la court matagonsesque des Archifolz presented a parodic trial organized by the fool Chicot about the royal succession (L’Estoile, P. de, Journal, IV, 67, ed. M. Lazard – G. Schrenck, Geneva: 2000).

[22] List en bedrog, drie rederijkerskluchten, ed. B. Ramakers – K. Eykman (Amsterdam: 2009).

[23] Eduard de Dene, Testament Rhetorical, I thank Samuel Mareel and Alisa van de Haar for their comments.

[24] For French medieval examples of disputes, see Corbellari A., La Voix des clercs. Littérature et savoir universitaire autour des dits du XIIIe siècle (Geneva: 2005).

[25] Until the end of the 15th century, under Burgundian rule, the Parliament of Malines supervised a French-speaking judicial system. A Dutch-speaking Great Counsel was etablished in 1504.

[26] Didactic treatises illustrating legal modes of writing (testaments, proclamations, etc.) by obscene topics circulated widely in France. I thank Katell Lavéant for this suggestion.

1 réflexion sur « Parodic Trials at the Parliament of Paris by Estelle Doudet »

  1. Rozanne Versendaal

    Chères toutes, chère Estelle,

    J’ai relu cet article il y a quelques jours avec beaucoup d’intérêt. Le texte faisait me penser au texte L’Ouverture des jours gras, ou L’entretien du carnaval de 1634 (S.n., L’Ouverture des jours gras, ou L’entretien du carnaval. Paris : Michel Blageart, 1634. BnF, RES-8-LI19-15 / 4-NF-27225) que j’ai lu il y a quelques mois. Dans ce texte, il s’agit entre autres de la représentation et de la fonction des causes grasses au XVIIe siècle. J’ai copié une partie du texte (version éditée du texte du XIXe siècle) :

    “Et si tout cela est encore trop fade, attendez à la cause grasse : vous ne devez laisser eschapper ceste occasion de la voir plaider et de faire vos efforts d’entrer en ce lieu avec vos femmes, car il faut advouer que plusieurs parlent de la cause grasse quy ne savent ce que c’est, et quy croyent que ce soit une chose quy se doive mespriser. Au contraire, si Ciceron et Demosthènes vivoient en nostre siècle, ils auroient bien de la peine d’y recognoistre leurs preceptes.

    On void dans ceste cause l’eloquence paroistre toute nue, en chair et en os, vive, masle et hardie ; tous les boutons et les fleurs de bien dire repandues çà et là. Dans l’exorde on s’insinue dans l’esprit de l’auditeur par quelque chose quy frappe les sens ; la narration y est toujours de quelque coquette abusée ou de quelque oison plumé à l’eau chaude ; les raisons y sont toutes tirées de l’humanité ou des choses naturelles ; les mouvemens y sont frequens, et l’intention de celuy quy plaide est d’exciter à rire, et non à la commiseration : car quy ne riroit seullement de voir la posture de ceux quy sont les juges de ceste belle cause pisser dans leurs chausses à force de se contraindre et pour rire le moins qu’ils peuvent, et les advocats, clercs, quy ont l’honneur d’y plaider, parler gravement et serieusement des choses les plus bouffonnes du monde ? C’est là où la basoche est en triomphe, où le Mardy-Gras et Bacchus occupent chacun une lanterne pour escouter un plaidoyer si facetieux et si charmant, qu’on est contrainct de confesser que tous les Zanni, les Pantalons, les Tabarins, les Turlupins et tout l’hostel de Bourgongne n’a jamais rien inventé quy approche de mille lieues loin de ceste facetie.”

    Il serait probablement intéressant de voir comment la fonction du texte, comme décrite dans L’Ouverture des jours gras, se rapporte à la fonction qui est attribuée aux causses grasses dans l’article d’Estelle (et dans Les clercs de la Basoche de Marie Bouhaïk-Gironès)?

    Bien amicalement,



Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.