First night

Once the marriage has been celebrated, how to consummate it? Between silence, ignorance and apprehension, the young spouses of XIXe century have rites and places to be finally alone. With desire, but not without violence.

clarify these dark areas what constitutes the dimension intimate, even secret of the wedding night, such is Acha Limbada’s ambition. In Wedding nightresulting from her thesis work, she intends to seize this object which leaves a priori few traces and, de factolittle material for the historian.

The study of this event, both exceptional and ordinary, takes a long time. XIXe century in France. While the early times of this century bear the trace of transformations of the matrimonial institution, the period which ends the study coincides with social, moral and religious evolutions, as well as a first sexual revolution.

Sources and source effects

The work is made up of seven chapters. A first phase focuses on the tension between imposed silence and the unveiling of the expectations of the wedding night (chapters 1, 2, 3), then it is the rites, places and temporalities of this night which are analyzed (chapters 4 and 5) . Finally, Acha Limbada focuses on the apprehension of the wedding night by the young husbands (chapters 6 and 7).

To write this story, Acha Limbada's first challenge is to go beyond the idea that the wedding night left no trace. It brings to light the multitude of sources that address this theme: fiction, scholarly writings, essays, personal stories, printed sources, postcards, court archives. More or less talkative, they allow us to capture various speeches about this first night. The originality of this work lies in the exploitation of canonical matrimonial causes. This material, normally inaccessible to researchers, allows the author to observe testimonies coming directly from wives and husbands.

In chapter 6, Acha Limabada indicates that these ecclesiastical judicial sources make it possible to understand the emotions that go through individuals, which are often difficult to access for historians. Where novels provide information on a wide range of emotions, testimonies in a legal context concentrate on the negative side of affects.

About ten pages later, perhaps a little late, Acha Limbada mentionssource effect (p. 219) that constitutes this documentation, product of its context, that is to say a separation. These procedures are in fact initiated by wives and husbands who wish to separate and who request the dissolution or nullity of the marriage.

From ignorance to desire

The first chapter, Imagination of the wedding nightexplains how the XIXe century is crossed by representations which construct as much as they reflect the practices of individuals and authorities. A paradox arises between the multiplication of discourses on sexuality and the censorship around these discourses, when they do not relate to knowledge or medicine.

If the second chapter, The factory of ignoranceopens with a quote from How we get married (1893) dmile Zola highlighting sexual education as an asymmetrical genre, Acha Limbada quickly leaves fiction to read testimonies from spouses. She analyzes the construction of female ignorance, particularly through gender and class sexual education. The third chapter, The fight against marriage ignorancetakes the opposite view of the first by exploring the scholarly discourses on the wedding night, in particular medical and religious, and by analyzing how this moment rises to a social and political level.

The fourth chapter proposes to explore the desires for intimacy At XIXe century, golden age of private life. The author describes the script of the wedding night, returning to the collective and individual stages and specifying popular and bourgeois practices. By the growing desire of the couple to be finally alone, according to the established formula, collective rites are poorly performed. Acha Limbada also approaches the first night by the materiality of the premises (spouse's accommodation, parental apartment, nearby hotel room or during the wedding night).

After a reflection on the rites and places, it is the temporality carefully considered by the future spouses and their families which is addressed in the following chapter, The consummation of the marriage. The first sexual relationship traditionally takes place at night, on the wedding night or a few days later. The consent of lice is desired, but through social, cultural and religious norm (p. 171) of marital duty.

In the lice room

The sixth chapter offers a reflection around the difficulties with the first head–head. The question of affects is central, but difficult to access for the historian. By highlighting the gendered mechanisms that govern the matrimonial institution and the social expectations of the wedding night, Acha Limbada underlines the differentiated strategies deployed by the spouses during the night.

Women can insist on their lack of consent to the union, where it would be an admission of weakness and a lack of virility for men. After exploring the first tete-tete in the bridal chamber, the last chapter (In the bed of lice) focuses on the sexuality of the wedding night. If the question of the consummation of marriage weaves a common thread throughout the work, a gradation of spaces and temporality is operated: from collective times (meals, dance) to individual times (night, honeymoon).

The imagination surrounding female virginity establishes it as a major issue on the wedding night. Acha Limbada observes the way in which traces of this virginity are sought by lice. At the same time, she returns to the cultural, moral and scientific construction of the imagination of the first sexual relationship.

The mothers

If the wedding night, and the sexual intercourse expected during it, concerns two individuals, a figure is present in the background of the work: that of the mothers. Their role appears central, both before the wedding and after the wedding night. They are present in various rites which precede the consummation of the marriage, such as bedtime of the bride (p. 41). They discreetly ensure that the wedding night has been completed, by analyzing the linen or the faces of the spouses the next day. They can also introduce unwanted promiscuity among young marrieds (this is the negative image of the mother-in-law conveyed in the 1880s). Even before marriage, they are expected to take care of the little sexual education given to future brides to circumvent female ignorance, or even male education, so that men do not brutalize their wives.

A History of Marital Rape

Mirroring this story of the wedding night, it is ultimately a story of marital rape that Acha Limbada offers. With a background in the history of women and gender, she brings to light the gender dynamics that govern throughout XIXe century and influence the representations as well as the experiences of the wedding night. The reflection on the consent of the spouses constitutes one of the major contributions of this work, which would benefit from being expanded, in particular by dialoguing with the work of Malle Bernard.

From the first chapter, Acha Limbada evokes the theme of marital rape which emerges in literature and the press and also appears under the name of statutory rape. Subsequently, she emphasizes the link between ignorance and rape through the absence of sexual education, which prevents young women from understanding and appreciating their first relationship.

Beyond the discourse conveyed in the press and medical circles, she analyzes testimonies from individuals who think of their wedding night as rape. She mentions, for example, in The consummation of the marriagethe imposed relationships between civil marriage and religious ceremony, experienced as rape by Catholic women (p. 183).