The Flamidien Affair Review
France during the 19th century, and particularly under the Third Republic, was riven by two competing strains of nationalism, political thought, and ideology - one, a conservative, catholic, oft monarchist, hierarchical, rigid, authoritarian belief which rejected the tradition of the French Revolution, and the other the child of that revolution itself, a liberal, anti-clerical, democratic, republican philosophy that embraced the changes that had occurred in France rather than seeking a return to the older order. This has been coined with the famous term of "The Two Frances", and this struggle came to a head during the "Dreyfus Affair", in the 1890s, when a French Jewish artillery officer was accused - falsely as it later turned out - of treasonous spying for Germany. This sparked a further intensification of struggle between these two sides, Catholics and conservatives believing Republicans and liberals of treason, while the latter believed the former guilty of a scandalous breach of justice and a betrayal of Republican principles. At the same time, there was an affair which ironically reversed this, with a Catholic lay teacher hounded by the Republicans for a crime which he almost certainly did not commit, which forms the subject of the book Sexual Crime, Religion and Masculinity in Fin-de-Siècle France: The Flamidien Affair, written by Verhoeven Timothy. This book is devoted to examining the context into which this equivalent, and simultaneous event took place, the unfolding of masculine and sexual connotations of it, and the way in which it impacted, showed, and affected the broader and evolving scope of relationships between the church, state, society, sexuality, and education.
The Flamidien Affair, to summarize briefly what really happened, revolved around the alleged guilt of Brother Flamidien, a Catholic lay teacher in the city of Lille in Northern France, in the very real murder indeed of Gaston Foveaux - a 12 year old student of his who disappeared, and several days later was found in the school's residences, brutally murdered. Resultant examination of all of the priests by a Republican magistrate, in a personal investigation, saw most of them react normally - save for one, the aforementioned Flamidien, who broke down in tears and a highly emotional response, perceived as a possible sign of guilt by the Republican authorities. Continued prying into the history of Flamidien and attempts to get him to confess proved however, quite useless: ultimately Flamidien's case was decided as not having sufficient evidence to bring to a trial, after a heady near half-year period where a huge range of different suspects were considered, particularly by Catholics eager to defend one of their own. The murder was never solved.
Of course, murders of children happen all the time, so why was this particular murder important enough to merit a book being written about it? The case against Flamidien relied upon received ideas of masculinity and virtues, and in a highly politically charged climate. The mainstay of the book is devoted to examining this, after its initial period detailing the crimes and the socio-political context into which it fit. Key in understanding the event, according to the author, was to look at more than simply the charged atmosphere between the Catholics and Republicans, but rather to see the underlying sexual politics and ideas of masculinity which were marshaled by the two sides.
In France in the 19th century, a wide variety of concerns about decadence, collapse of male virility, the decline in the birth rate, and the place and role of men and women respectively in society resulted in a heightened awareness of what constituted appropriate standards of masculinity for men. According to the Republican belief, masculinity would be based on the ideal of a self-controlled, but not indifferent citizen, who would be a strong and virile husband and foster children for the nation, rational, guarded, and with a careful control over his emotions. Catholics were portrayed as being at the least problematic when their religious leadership took vows of chastity, and perhaps dangerously impaired and debilitated by this (this extended so far as claiming that it produced vicious sexual predators in the teaching staffs, who preyed upon their young male charges): so too, they were portrayed as womanly, irrational, and prone to excessive emotion. The Catholics countered by portraying their own vision of an ordered and religious life, built on deference to god, the firm and difficult task of chastity, and a sense of martyrdom, of being willing to endure suffering from a hostile state in the defense of the faith. Of course, any Republican charges about their morale or health-related inferiority were countered with their own facts and statistics.
This is, in my opinion, a very well done and detailed section of the book. With a careful eye, it looks into medical writings at the time, reading from a wide variety of sources to reveal alternating arguments about the effects of chastity, the identifying signs of pedophiles, and even Spermatorrhea, bringing in a quite wide range of different sources. This is linked into both a strong understanding of the medical milieu in the time period, stretching over more than a half century preceding to the trial, and also about its interaction with civil society and how these various facts (or "facts", as some were painfully absurd, such as the belief that homosexuality would very visibly deform the buttocks or the male genitalia) tied into debate about the matter and into the trial. This is matched by a very intriguing discussion of what it constituted to be masculine and Catholic, focusing on the martyr-like status of Brother Flamidien, and attributing to him impeccable morales - indeed, an ability to improve the morals of others, as could be seen from reports of his time in prison, where he was credited with greatly improving its spiritual health.
This is also matched by keeping a continued focus upon the trial, keeping it at the center-stone of the piece, relating back the revealed secrets of differing interpretations of masculinity and medical science to match a constantly updated view of the report of the trial. In doing so, it keeps the energy and direction of the book intact, and keeps the novel well focused upon its principal target. This can in the end stray slightly off when it begins to focus on Zola and his interpretation of the degeneration instilled by the Catholic church and its relation to the crime, but even this, albeit fully speculative, is close enough to mark an intriguing reflection of it in literature of the time.
There are some evident drawbacks. The author is quite eager to stress near the beginning that the battle lines of the Two Frances were not always drawn to razor sharp edges, and that conversely the possibility for moderation existed and was on occasions enjoined. And yet, precious little of this exists throughout the book: by contrast, it only shows the way in which the event further radicalized and added fuel to the tensions brewing between these two factions, meaning that this initial opening is largely wasted. It also starts with a description of a third faction that had begun to rear its head in industrial Lille, that of the socialists, but it makes no reference to their involvement in its events. Of course, the book is very short, but there is no reason to stand against their addition in a few additional pages. Finally the remarks that the Republicans and the Catholics could be hypocrites and engage in much the same trade as the other accused them of doing is, if correct, something which hardly needs so much emphasis: presumably most of us understand quite well indeed human nature by now. The effects, even if tangential, of the event upon the political actions of school secularization, were far more interesting.
In the end, The Flamidien Affair makes for an intriguing microhistory, a book which is rather simple to read, short, and which illustrates well the sexual politics and discourses of the time which it seeks to cover. But it also is one which by the limitation of its shortness does not reach out to more broadly examine society and how competing factions deal with perceived crises of masculinity (other than the brief note upon Republican fears of the degeneration of masculinity), and which broadly speaking, simply in its larger effects of examining a local variation of the national turmoil concerning the Dreyfus affair. In this, it doesn't contribute many new perspectives. However, its focus on the micro-history and sexual politics nevertheless helps to understand how various facets of sexual politics and beliefs intersected with politics and society, in a book which for its short length (barely more than a hundred pages!) provides a fascinating look into fin-de-siècle France.
© 2019 Ryan Thomas