Criminal Queens: Foucault’s Royal Genealogies

Anthony Teets

Anthony Teets

In what ways do Victorian’s project negative images about Victoria through their representations of shadow queens? My method asks questions about the cultural dynamics and structures of thinking that allowed so many Victorians to write consistently horrific and hysterical accounts of queens such as Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and Marie-Antoinette.

One answer to the intriguing and suggestive question of queenly criminality lies in the predictable answers that traditional Freudian psychoanalysis would yield, namely, penis envy (Electra complex), frustrated ambition (Lady Macbeth), revenge for rape (Judith of Bethulia), or castration anxiety (Medusa).

However fascinating such explorations can be, and I do use psychoanalytic explanations, my larger claim does not rely uniquely on these Freudian paradigms, but rather thinks through the problem of how such ideas keep surfacing in Victorian cultural representations. What was it about Victoria’s presence on the throne that led so many of her subjects to bring forward representations of female monarchs as criminals?

One way of looking at this problem is to focus on how literary representations participate in the larger culture’s definitions of the two categories of royalty and criminality.

Michel Foucault introduces the concept of a “royal genealogy” in lecture four of ‘Abnormal: Lectures’ at the Collège de France, 1974–1975 (96) to trace the uneven development of French antimonarchical thought back to the pamphlet literature that circulated in the French public sphere during the revolutionary period.

He asserts that “with the Revolution and especially after 1792, the theme of the kinship or possible connection between the criminal and the sovereign is found in a much more pointed, violent, and immediate form” than it had in the previous history of the ancient regime (93).

In Jacobin literature, Foucault observes that “all human monsters are descendants of Louis XVI” (95), and while Jacobins were busy coding their legal arguments into law, popular pamphlets, theatre and caricature pointed to the monstrous origins of royalty.

In their attempts to justify regicide, the Jacobin leadership inverted the hierarchies of the ancien regime, creating grotesque fabrications about the origins of their former oppressors. In particular, Foucault asserts that “the human monster crystallizes around Marie-Antoinette” whose foreign birth exemplified for pamphleteers, a “wild beast with regard to the social body of the country in which she reigns” (97).

Drawing attention to a peculiar narrative contained in A. R. Mopinot’s Effrayante histoire des crimes horribles qui ne sont communs qu’entre les familles des rois (“The frightening history of horrible crimes found only among the families of kings” [1793]), Foucault finds here a “genealogy of royalty,” an account of the descent of royal figures.

According to Mopinot’s history, kings and queens evolved from primitive hunters who “transformed themselves into wild beasts and turned against those they were protecting. They, in turn, attacked the herds and families they should have been protecting. They were the wolves of mankind. They were the tigers of primitive society. Kings are nothing else but these tigers, these hunters of earlier times who took the place of the wild beasts prowling around the first societies.”

Mopinot’s history covers multiple sites of inversion as the royal figures become animals and devour those they are supposed to protect. In an astonishing leaping from the eighteenth to the nineteenth-century, Foucault claims, that “these [royal] figures of monstrosity, of sexual and cannibalistic monstrosity, were the points of organization, the starting points of all legal medicine” (102).

In the second half of the nineteenth-century, discursive practices of psychiatry and criminology identified and derived modern forms of aberrant and asocial behaviour from this earlier derisive literature on royalty.

Citing later nineteenth-century cases of criminals and shadowy figures inhabiting “the borders of psychiatry,” Foucault even finds a place in his genealogy for the legendary Jack the Ripper, who “had the advantage of not only disembowelling prostitutes but of probably being a relative of Queen Victoria, bringing together the monstrosity of the people and the monstrosity of the king in this blurred figure” (102).

Though his associations appear outrageous, I argue that Foucault is not being disingenuous or naïve, rather he is pointing to the discursive practice which allows for such connections to survive.

The larger point Foucault makes here is how these “effective histories,” or genealogies return in later discursive practices of criminal anthropology, as when the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso creates the category of the “atavistic born criminal” in ‘The Female Offender’ (1895).

Lombroso claims that “history has recorded the mingled immense cruelty and lust of women who have enjoyed royal or popular power,” providing as instances the Roman matrons “Agrippina, Fulvia, Messalina, down to Elizabeth of Russia, Théroigne de Méricourt, and the female cannibals of Paris and Palermo” (149).

Among these examples Lombroso includes an empress of Russia and a female revolutionary leader showing that he is not specifically interested in incriminating royalty.

As Foucault would have it, Lombroso’s discourse draws on the same genealogy previously found in Jacobin literature. Indeed, when Lombroso considers Catherine de Medici in ‘The Female Offender’, he concludes from an analysis of her handwriting that she is a “born criminal” (130).

Foucault’s genealogical method attends to the gaps, disruptions, and discontinuities in historical records, and I expand on his notion of “genealogies of royalty” by associating it with what Lynn Hunt calls “the standard comparison” (“Eroticism” 120), also derived from pamphlet literature in which “wicked” queens of history form constellations of anti-monarchical thought.

In Hunt’s “standard comparison,” queens appear as if they were beads on a rosary. Before Marie-Antoinette, as the comparative litany goes, there was Messalina; Agrippina, Queens Fredegund, Catherine de Medici and Mary Stuart.

Each queen appears only slightly different from the next, and thinking about one queen barely changes the way one thinks about another queen.

Whereas Foucault writes of a Jacobin genealogy of royalty, Hunt observes a similar genealogical method at work in the Jacobin’s “horrific transformations of the queen’s body; the body that had once been denounced for its debauchery and disorderliness becomes in turn, the dangerous beast, the cunning spider, the virtual vampire who sucks the blood of the French” (123).

The monotony of these invidious comparisons in Jacobin pamphlet literature return in the second half of the nineteenth-century in both criminology and sexology.

Thus the German sexologist Krafft-Ebing would draw on a similar list for his examples of sexual perversions in ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ (1886): “In history there are examples of famous women who, to some extent, had sadistic tendencies. These Messalinas are particularly characterised by their thirst for power, lust, and cruelty. Among them are Valeria Messalina herself, and Catherine de Medici, the instigator of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, whose greatest pleasure was found in having the ladies of her court whipped before her eyes.” (88)

What Krafft-Ebing identifies in Catherine de Medici’s supposed sadistic perversions had already appeared in Swinburne’s play ‘The Queen Mother’ (1861) which, as I argue in Chapter one, is an example of Victorian anti-monarchical literature.

Swinburne and other Victorians wrote narratives of wicked queens that are literary genealogies of royalty, and my readings show how these spectral figures haunt the sites of Victorian discursive practices such as psychiatry, criminology, and sexology.

Both Foucault and Hunt draw attention to literary genealogies proliferating and intersecting with popular myth and fable to disparage the image of royalty.

But as I argue, the Victorians were adept at drawing their own configurations of historical queens to voice ambivalence. Foucault’s insight offers a method for understanding the connection between Jacobin and Victorian anti-monarchical discourses that endure throughout Victoria’s reign.

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