The Apaches the hospice

The Villers-Cotterts castle, which the current government wants to make the International City of the French Language, served for a long time as a begging depot, then as a retirement home between 1889 and 2014, welcoming unwanted elderly people. There remain eloquent “disciplinary files”.

A heritage priority of President Macron, the International City of the French Language already has a website which recalls at length the history of its architectural setting: the castle of Villers-Cotterts (in Aisne). We talk a lot about Francis Ierhunting and splendor, but a single line is enough to remind us that the castle, transformed into XIXe century in begging depot for the destitute in the Seine department, then became a retirement home from 1889 to 2014. It is this little-known and so often neglected story that presents the beautiful book by Mathilde Rossigneux-Mheust, diving into the reverse side of the Thirty Glorious Years, the search for old people with bad behavior. A reflection on the principles and practices of recording, the book is also a sensitive vocation of the journeys of irregular old age and a contribution to the history of elderly people in France in the Thirty glorious and emerging social protection.

Discipline the hospice

As always in the precious collection The source from La Découverte editions, the starting point is an archive: the file of leavers not to resume held by the administration of the Villers-Cotterts retirement home between 1956 and 1980. A little more than three hundred small-format Bristol cards, lost in the middle of a considerable mass of documents, which shed light on other aspects of the life of the residents: the castle is large, there was no shortage of storage space, and the administrative information (being classified by the archivists of the Social Action Center of the City of Paris) was thus able to escape sorting and destruction who most often dedicate such paper existences to nothing of oblivion (according to Alain Corbin).

The file not to resume on which Mathilde Rossigneux-Mheust's investigation focuses has no name. Bringing together information on a little less than a quarter of the residents of the retirement home, it serves as a disciplinary record. We discover on the small surface of the card the identity of the resident, some personal information, the number of punishment reports to which he was the subject, possible (and not very verbose) additional information. In the same way as the punishment registers, to which it explicitly echoes, this file testifies to the disciplinary influence of the hospital institution over its users. Like other registration tools, which are built and then prosper in the police field or in the administrative management of foreigners, it delimits the category of undesirable (the term is used, at least occasionally, in the correspondence of the director of the Villers-Cotterts hospice in the 1950s). And it is first of all in this historiography of social control, profoundly renewed, that this work is inscribed.

Villers-Cotterts Castle

A whole part of the investigation consists of understanding the origins and uses of such a file, which probably had the immediate function of identifying bad residents who we wanted to get rid of (or who we could refuse to take back if they had left) . What complicates things is that the Villers-Cotterts retirement home was hardly attractive: not only did it suffer from the bad reputation long associated with the begging depot which it had taken over, but above all it was geographically far from the capital, from which most of its residents came. The difficulty of filling the beds and the risk of closure of the institution explain the experiments carried out at the end of the 1950s to attract new audiences, particularly among the inmates of psychiatric hospitals likely to benefit from a social rehabilitation. Perhaps this broadening of the reception explains the desire to tighten disciplinary control and the establishment of a disciplinary file which lasted until the 1970s, even if it seemed to be used less and less: filing practices often survive the reasons which gave rise to them. In any case, they give the residents a hard time, and a hard time for the historians.

The Apaches have aged without aging

Beyond the understanding of disciplinary mechanisms, the most moving part of the book traces life journeys: The investigation consisted of taking advantage of the magnifying glass effects created by the file on populations that historiography knows little about in order to closely observe irregular trajectories (p. 10). Thus we discover Ernest, born in 1887 into a family of wine merchants from Aubervilliers. Fatherless, convicted several times for pimping, he is one of those young delinquents of the Belle Époque apache according to media discourse, you are doing their military service in the terrible battalions of Africa. As soon as he was released (without a certificate of good conduct), he was again convicted of carrying a prohibited weapon. Incorporated into the French army in August 1914, assigned to the colonial territories, he deserted and disappeared, before we found his trace in hospital archives, ill and aging. Arriving in Villers-Cotterts in 1939, Ernest survived the living conditions of the Second World War in the hospice (and the intense malnutrition deplored by a doctor in 1941). But he did not escape the tightening of disciplinary surveillance in the 1950s: a notorious alcoholic, regularly reported for its disgusting state of dirthe ended up being discharged from the hospice at the age of 69, provided with a last meal and a free rail ticket to Paris (he died three years later, suffering from snilitthe Nanterre hospice).

From reformatories to hospices, including Bat' d'Af' and prisons? If this type of biographical journey in the shadow of disciplinary institutions is not completely isolated, we must not allow ourselves to be trapped by a misrabilistic and fatalistic approach to poverty, reminds Mathilde Rossigneux-Mheust: most of the files began their life in the greatest social legitimacyand the multiple biographical clips (p. 248) which prevent us from observing the windings and breaks in their path should encourage us to exercise caution in the analysis of downgrades.

A dormitory

The filing of unwanted in any case obeys variable logics, irreducible to a single criterion. In this era which is very concerned about the damage of alcoholism, there are large numbers of drinkers those who get drunk without noise benefit from a certain tolerance, unlike rowdy. If the administration is concerned about crazy and half-crazyit more generally identifies the dissatisfied, considering the slightest expression of a demand as the promise of a future problem. Unfortunately, there are among them, despite their more than modest past, those who are dissatisfied in principle.laments the director in 1959 (p. 171).

Let us also note the complex question of romantic and marital relationships within an institution which struggles to recognize the value of interpersonal links. The retirement home is not insensitive to requests from couples to obtain family rooms (and thus to escape the dormitories with their sad reputation). However, she is wary of the tensions and outbursts that can arise from the precarious daily life of husbands in retirement homes.

Growing old during the Trente Glorieuses

If life accidents explain many of the individual miseries recorded in the Bristol cards, Mathilde Rossigneux-Mheust shows that these particular stories fit into a very particular context: The generation that arrived in retirement homes from the end of the 1950s to the 1970s was a damaged generation, particularly among the working classes. For men, she fought in 1914, experienced the Great Depression, experienced the Occupation, before growing old on the edge of poverty. (p. 70). And life is made even harder by the housing crisis, so terrible at the start of the 1950s, while emerging social protection applies poorly to the oldest. The poverty of the elderly is a political issue which has benefited from a certain media impact since the beginning of the 1970s (and which has left vivid memories until today, the image of poverty often remaining associated with advanced age, so even though statistics show the opposite, the misery of XXIe century hitting young people more often and harshly).

Since she had devoted her thesis to the hospices of XIXe century, Mathilde Rossigneux-Mheust knows how to measure the progress made. It thus signals the efforts intended humanize the stay of the residents. To divert old people from alcoholism, a director managed to equip the home with armchairs, an enriched library, green plants and, above all, a television set (from the fall of 1955). Not enough to solve all the problems, but enough to nuance the memories of an institution which is not exclusively experienced or told about in its repressive guise. The book also ends, significantly, with a petition sent in 1982, on behalf of all residentsin order to avoid the closure of a retirement home in the open airin full force: we made friends in town and we would hate to leave them, write the signatories (p. 243). Understanding the links that are thus forged between the inside and the outside, between residents from the Paris region and local residents anchored in Picardy, is a great challenge for new research.