I went to St. Lawrence’s Fair with my friend Patu, who, taking it into his head to sup with a Flemish actress known by the name of Morphi, invited me to go with him. I felt no inclination for the girl, but what can we refuse to a friend? I did as he wished. After we had supped with the actress, Patu fancied a night devoted to a more agreeable occupation, and as I did not want to leave him I asked for a sofa on which I could sleep quietly during the night.
Morphi had a sister, a slovenly girl of thirteen, who told me that if I would give her a crown she would abandon her bed to me. I agreed to her proposal, and she took me to a small closet where I found a straw palliasse on four pieces of wood.
“Do you call this a bed, my child?”
“I have no other, sir.”
“Then I do not want it, and you shall not have the crown.”
“Did you intend undressing yourself?”
“What an idea! There are no sheets.”
“Do you sleep with your clothes on?”
“Well, then, go to bed as usual, and you shall have the crown.”
“I want to see you undressed.”
“But you won’t do anything to me?”
“Not the slightest thing.”
She undressed, laid herself on her miserable straw bed, and covered herself with an old curtain. In that state, the impression made by her dirty tatters disappeared, and I only saw a perfect beauty. But I wanted to see her entirely. I tried to satisfy my wishes, she opposed some resistance, but a double crown of six francs made her obedient, and finding that her only fault was a complete absence of cleanliness, I began to wash her with my own hands.
You will allow me, dear reader, to suppose that you possess a simple and natural knowledge, namely, that admiration under such circumstances is inseparable from another kind of approbation; luckily, I found the young Morphi disposed to let me do all I pleased, except the only thing for which I did not care! She told me candidly that she would not allow me to do that one thing, because in her sister’s estimation it was worth twenty-five louis. I answered that we would bargain on that capital point another time, but that we would not touch it for the present. Satisfied with what I said, all the rest was at my disposal, and I found in her a talent which had attained great perfection in spite of her precocity.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘To Paris and Prison’, Chapter IX)
Shortly afterwards, directly because of Casanova’s intervention, or so he claims, ‘young Morphi’ (Marie-Louise O’Murphy) was installed at Versailles to become one of Louis XV’s mistresses.
To a modern reader this episode is disturbing. It also clear from Casanova’s memoirs that this was not an isolated event.
It is difficult to assess the ages of some of the girls and women with whom Casanova had sex. There is no doubt, however, that he regarded those in their early teens as fair game and, more, a connoisseur’s prize. (Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover Priest’)
Moreover, he was open to the likelihood that when he was older he had had sex with at least one woman, and possibly two, that he had fathered.
Other disturbing elements of this story include the portrayal by Casanova of Morphi as a girl who was very much a willing participant in these events, schooled by her older sister, and the fact that Casanova’s interest in young teenage girls was shared by no less a figure than the king of France himself, aided and abetted by his chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who helped to procure and house his other mistresses at Parc-aux-Cerfs (‘Stags’ Park’).
Today Casanova’s behaviour would most certainly be condemned as criminal. However, judging the past by the moral compass of the present is notoriously problematic, particularly in relation to such highly charged topics as sexual exploitation, and, in terms of trying to understand the past, often self-defeating. There is an implicit assumption in such judgements that a set of absolute moral values exists that can be applied indiscriminately across all time-periods and cultures. This is no doubt exacerbated by the fictional representations of the past that we have become accustomed to seeing on television and in the cinema where, in reality, what are depicted are modern men and women in fancy dress edited to behave in ways consistent with the values and attitudes of a twenty-first century audience. To do otherwise would run the risk of destroying our sympathy for the protagonists. In order not to offend, the past is thus sanitised so that when we are exposed to its realities our moral disapproval can become an obstacle to a clearer understanding of the motives and behaviours of the individuals of the time.
It is worth, therefore, trying to get something of a handle on the legal and moral context of Europe and America in the first half of the eighteenth century, with a particular focus on childhood, adulthood and the age of consent. To orient ourselves to early eighteenth-century values and attitudes let’s begin with the broader issues of rights. For a start, there was no such thing as universal or individual rights. In France, for example, equality before the law did not exist. It was a society based upon privileges. What you were permitted to do, your rights, depended upon your specific position in society. Were you a peasant, a priest or a nobleman? Were you a father, husband, son, wife, daughter or sister? Were you from Brittany or Lyon? Were you a candle-maker, actor or a merchant seaman? Politically, throughout most of Europe, government was rooted in dynastic inheritance and a belief in the divine right of kings. Societies were strictly hierarchical. In the home, the father and husband was king. Generally, there was no right to divorce (although separation or annulment was possible under exceptional circumstances). Women, at least in France, were perceived as dependents upon men and their role in society primarily restricted to the private sphere rather than the public. A husband or father had the right to have his wife or child imprisoned without trial if he saw fit, in the same way that the king could imprison anybody without trial or even have them executed. Needless to say, slavery was legal throughout Europe and America. Serfdom still existed, especially, but not exclusively, in eastern Europe. In practice, as a form of economic exploitation, it was little different to slavery. A serf had no freedom of movement but was bound to a hereditary plot of land and to the will of their landlord. In the early eighteenth-century there was no right to freedom of expression. In fact, in France, the reverse was usually the case: anything that was to be published or performed required permission. In 1792 Thomas Paine was indicted by the British government for seditious libel and sentenced to death in absentia for publication, ironically, of ‘The Rights of Man’. In France and elsewhere barbaric punishments, such as being broken on the wheel, were a commonplace. Religious intolerance and persecution was the norm.
If society was so different from our own in these respects then it will come as no surprise to discover that a similar gulf existed with regards to attitudes towards sexuality. In fact, in the context of human history modern western attitudes are strikingly recent and exceptional. In Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Count Paris offers to make the 13-year-old daughter of the Capulets his wife and the mother of his child. An eighty-year-old woman or older in 1955, born and growing up in New York, would have been subject to a legal age of consent of 10, which would have been typical of most of the United States (and only 7 years-old in Delaware). For some alive today this would have been within the lifetime of their grandmother or, conceivably, even their mother.
As it happened, for female children in eighteenth-century Europe and America, 10 or 11 was also the age of consent and even then juries were often unwilling to enforce the law on the basis simply of age: ‘they made judgements about whether the appearance and behaviour of a girl fit their notions of a child and a victim’ (Stephen Robertson, ‘Age of Consent Laws,’ in Children and Youth in History). Laws based on age at this time were rare and would have appeared arbitrary. There was the practical difficulty of obtaining proof of age or even knowing what a precise date of birth might have been. In the States, even these consent laws only protected white females. It was not uncommon for girls to be married before the age of 10 although generally the marriage would not have been consummated until puberty. Female virginity itself was regarded as a valuable commodity and its loss before marriage was a property crime against the father and future husband. However, while it was a sin to have sex outside of marriage, which could be prosecuted through the church courts (including the terrifying prospect of excommunication), there was no concept of rape within marriage.
Prior to the modern day, there was a very different attitude to childhood and adulthood. With the onset of puberty a child became an adult. The concept of adolescence is a relatively recent one as a result of modern attitudes towards psychological maturity. In eighteenth-century France, girls wore adult clothing starting at age 12 or 13. The bat Mitzvah for 12-year-old Jewish girls marked their transition from childhood to adulthood. In eighteenth-century Scotland, a 12-year-old female and a 14-year-old male were legally married if they had agreed to marry and then had sex. They were no longer children but adults. ‘Dukes and peers of France…continued to marry off most of their children in their teens even in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ (Judith Hurwich, ‘Noble Strategies’). In 1800, 63-year-old Sir John Acton married the eldest daughter of his brother, 13-year-old Mary Ann. Upon meeting Lady Harrington while visiting London, Casanova was introduced to her four daughters, one of whom was 13. He observes that they were ‘charming girls of a marriageable age.’ (Casanova’s memoirs, ‘To London and Moscow’ Chapter XVII)
In England and Wales, it was legal to have sex with a 10-year-old girl well into the nineteenth century. Not until 1861 was the age of consent raised to 12 (then to 13 in 1875, and 16 in 1885, as a consequence of an outcry against child prostitution). Interestingly, nineteenth-century legal reforms were only partially motivated by a desire to protect children. Also important was the wish to prevent what was perceived to be immoral behaviour on the part of working-class girls.
In the eighteenth-century cities of London, Venice and Paris, attitudes to sex would also have been affected by the physical environment in which people lived. For the large majority, the boundaries between the public and personal space would have been far more fluid and as a consequence sex was a more communal affair:
…the sexual landscape in which Casanova moved was different from our own, perhaps never more so than in attitudes to children’s sexuality, and to sex between adult men and young girls. Privacy as it related to human functions was impossible in eighteenth-century cities. Children were exposed daily to the sight of adult flirtation and even sexuality… (Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest)
In the eyes of Casanova and his contemporaries, including Louis XV (himself married at the age of 15), Morphi was a young woman of marriageable age and it is reasonable to assume that she shared that perception. Sexual intimacy was not something she was ignorant of or embarrassed about and in her commercial negotiations with Casanova she demonstrated that she was quite capable of holding her own. Following upon this encounter with Morphi, Casanova commissioned a nude portrait of her which, according to his version of events, found its way to Louis XV. Morphi remained one of the king’s mistresses from 1753 to 1755, giving birth to Louis’ illegitimate daughter Agathe-Louise, until her fall from grace as a consequence of court intrigues. She had, apparently, aspired to supplant Madame de Pompadour as the king’s chief mistress. Nonetheless, she was well looked after. She was given a dowry of 200,000 livres and married off to a young, handsome nobleman.
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)