We had in mind a study of the practical aspects of the relations between psychiatry
and criminal justice. In the course of our research we came across Pierre
It was reported in the Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine
légale in 1836. Like all other reports published in that journal, this comprised a summary
of the facts and the medico-legal experts’ reports. There were, however, a number of unusual features about it.
A series of three medical reports which did not reach similar conclusions
and did not use exactly the same kind of analysis, each coming from a different
source and each with a different status within the medical institution: a report
by a country general practitioner, a report by an urban physician in charge
of a large asylum, and a report signed by the leading figures in contemporary
psychiatry and forensic medicine (Esquirol, Marc, Orfila, etc.). A fairly large
collection of court exhibits including statements by witnesses — all of them
from a small village in Normandy — when questioned about the life, behavior,
character, madness or idiocy of the author of the crime. Lastly, and most notably,
a memoir, or rather the fragment of a memoir, written by the accused himself,
a peasant some twenty years of age who claimed that he could "only barely
read and write" and who had undertaken during his detention on remand
to give "particulars and an explanation" of his crime, the premeditated
murder of his mother, his sister, and his brother. A collection of this sort
seemed to us unique among the contemporary printed documentation. To what do
we owe it?
Almost certainly not to the sensation caused by the case itself. Cases of parricide were fairly common inn the assize courts in that period (ten to fifteen
yearly, sometimes more). Moreover, Fieschi’s attempted assassination of the
king and his trial and his sentencing and execution of Lacenaire and the publication
of his memoirs practically monopolized the space devoted to criminal cases
in the press at the time. The Gazette des Tribunaux never gave the Riviere case more than a brief mention, in the main producing the Pilote
du Calvados, the Riviere case never became a classic of criminal psychiatry
like those of Henriette Cornier, Papavoine, or Leger. Apart from the article
in the Annales d’hygiène, we have found practically no references
to Riviere. And Riviere’s counsel, Berthauld, who was later to become fairly
well known, seems never to have alluded to his former client in his writings.
Riviere’s case was not, then, a "notable crime." The unusually full
treatment in the Annales may be accounted for by a combination of chance circumstances
and general considerations. Probably a doctor or some local notable in the
Caen area drew the contemporary Paris experts’ attention to the sentencing
to death on November 12, 1835, of a parricide considered by many to be a madman.
They must have agreed to intervene when the petition of mercy was presented,
on the basis of the records compiled for the purpose; in any event, they drew
up their certificate on the basis of the material evidence without ever seeing
Pierre Riviere. And once the commutation of the sentence had been granted,
what they published in the Annales d’hygiène was the whole
or part of the dossier on the case.
Over and above these circumstances, however, a more general debate emerges,
in which the publication of this dossier by Esquirol and his colleagues was
to have its effect. In 1836 they were in the very midst of the debate on the
use of psychiatric concepts in criminal justice. To be more precise, they were
at a specific point in this debate, for lawyers such as Collard de Montigny,
doctors such as Urbain Coste, and more especially the judges and the courts
had been very strongly resisting (especially since 1827) the concept of "monomania" advanced
by Esquirol (in 1808). So much so that medical experts and counsel for the
defense hesitated to use a concept which had somewhat dubious connotation of "materialism" in the minds of the courts and some juries. Around 1835 it looks as if doctors
rather tended to produce medical reports based less directly on the concept
of monomania, as if they wished to show simultaneously that reluctance to use
it might lead ro serious miscarriages of justices and that mental illness could
be manifested through a far wider symptomatology. In any case, the Riviere
dossier as published by the Annales is extremely discreet in its references
to "monomania"; on the other hand, it makes very considerable use
of signs, symptoms, and the despositions of witnesses, and very diverse types
There is, however, one fact about all this that is truly surprising, that
while "local" or general circumstances led to the publication of a remarkably full documentation, full not only for that period, but even our
own, on it and on the unique document that is Riviere’s memoir, an immediate
and complete silence ensued. What could have disconcerted the doctors and their
knowledge after so strongly eliciting their attention?
To be frank, however, it was not this, perhaps, that led us to spend more
than a year on these documents. It was simply the beauty of Riviere’s memoir.
The utter astonishment it produced in us was the starting point.
But we were still faced with the question of publication. I think that what
committed us to the work, despite our differences of interests and approaches,
was that it was a "dossier", that is to say, a case, an affair, an event that provided the intersection of discourses that differed in origin,
form, organization and function — the discourses of the cantonal judge, the prosecutor, the presiding judge of the assize court, and the Minister of Justice;
those too of the country general practitioner and of Esquirol; and those of the villagers, with their mayor and parish priest; and, last but not least,
that of the murderer himself. All of them speak, or appear to be speaking,
of one and the same thing; at any rate, the burden of all these discourses
is the occurrence on June 3. But in their totality and their variety they form
neither a composite work nor an exemplary text, but rather a strange contest,
a confrontation, a power relation, a battle among discourses and through discourses.
And yet, it cannot simply be described as a single battle; for several separate
combats were being fought out at the same time and intersected each other:
The doctors were engaged in a combat, among themselves, with the judges and prosecution, and with Riviere himself (who had trapped them by saying that
he had feigned madness); the crown lawyers had their own separate combat as regards the testimony of the medical experts, the comparatively novel use of extenuating circumstances, and a range of cases of parricide that had been
coupled with regicide (Fieschi and Louis-Philippe stand in the wings); the villagers of Aunay had their own combat to diffuse the terror of a crime committed
in their midst and to "preserve the honor of a family" by ascribing
the crime to bizarre behavior or singularity; and, lastly, at the very center,
there was Pierre Riviere, with his innumerable and complicated engines of war;
his crime, made to be written and talked about and thereby to secure him glory
in death, his narrative , prepared in advance and for the purpose of leading
on to the crime, his oral explanations to obtain credence for his madness,
his text, written to dispel this lie, to explain, and to summon death, a text
in whose beauty some were to see as a proof of rationality (and hence grounds
for condemning him to death) and others a sign of madness (and hence grounds
for shutting him up for life).
I think the reason we decided to publish these documents was to draw a map,
so to speak, of those combats, to reconstruct these confrontations and battles,
to rediscover the interaction of those discourses as weapons of attack and defense in the relations of power and knowledge.
More specifically, we thought that the publication of the dossier might furnish
an example of existing records that are available for potential analysis.
(a) Since the principle governing their existence and coherence is neither
that of a composite work nor a legal text, the outdated academic methods of textual analysis and all the concepts which are the appanage of the dreary
and scholastic prestige of writing can very well be eschewed in studying them.
(b) Documents like those in the Riviere case should provide material for a
thorough examination of the way in which a particular kind of knowledge (e.g.
medicine, psychiatry, psychology) is formed and acts in relation to institutions
and the roles prescribed in them (e.g., the law with respect to the expert,
the accused, the criminally insane, and so on).
(c) They give us a key to the relations of power, domination, and conflict
within which discourses emerge and function, and hence provide material for a potential analysis of discourse (even of scientific discourses) which may
be both tactical and political, and therefore strategic.
(d) Lastly, they furnish a means for grasping the power of derangement peculiar
to a discourse such as Riviere’s and the whole range of tactics by which we
can try to reconstitute it, situate it, and give it its status as the discourse
of either a madman or a criminal.
Our approach to this publication can be explained as follows:
1. We tried to discover all the material evidence in the case, and by this
we mean not only the exhibits in evidence (only some were published in the Annales
d’hygiène publique), but also newspaper articles and especially
Riviere’s memoir in its entirety. (The Annales reprinted only the second part of it.) Most of these documents were to be found in the Departemental
Archives at Caen; Jean-Pierre Peter did most of the research. (with the exception
of a few documents of minor interest, we are therefore publishing everything
we could find written by or about Pierre Riviere, whether in print or in manuscript.)
2. In presenting the documents, we have refrained from employing a typological
method (the court file followed by the medical file). We have rearranged them
more or less in chronological order around the events they are bound up with
— the crime, the examining judge’s investigation, the proceedings in the assize
court, and the commutation of the sentence. This throws a good deal of light
on the confrontation of various types of discourse and the rules and results
of this confrontation.
And, placed as it is at the time of its writing, Riviere’s memoir comes to assume a central position which is in its due, as a mechanism which holds the whole together; triggered secretly beforehand, it leads on to all the earlier
episodes; then, once it comes into the open, it lays a trap for everyone, including
contriver, since it is first taken as proof that Riviere is not mad and then
becomes, in the hands of Esquirol, Marc, and Orfila, a means of averting that
death penalty which Riviere had gone to such lengths to call down upon himself.
3. As to Riviere’s discourse, we decided not to interpret it and not to subject
it to any psychiatric or psychoanalytic commentary. In the first place because
it was what we used as the zero benchmark to gauge the distance between the other discourses and the relations arising among them. Secondly, because we
could hardly speak of it without involving it in one of the discourses (medical,
legal, psychological, criminological) which we wished to use as our starting
point in talking about it. If we had done so, we should have brought it within
the power relation whose reductive effect we wished to show, and we ourselves
should have fallen into the trap it set.
Thirdly, and most importantly, owing to a sort of reverence and perhaps, too,
terror for a text which was to carry off four corpses along with it, we are
unwilling to superimpose our own text on Riviere’s memoir. We fell under the spell of the parricide with the reddish-brown eyes.
4. We have assembled a number of notes at the end of the volume, some on the
psychiatric knowledge at work in the doctors’ reports, others on the legal
aspects of the case (extenuating circumstances, the jurisprudence of parricide),
yet others on the relations between the documentary levels (depositions, records,
expert opinions), and others again on the narrative of the crimes.
We are aware that we have neglected many major aspects. We could have gone
into the marvellous document of peasant ethnology provided by the first part
of Riviere’s narrative. Or we could have brought out the popular knowledge
and definition of madness whose outlines emerge through the villager’s testimony.
But the main point was for us to have the documents published.
This work is the outcome of a joint research project by a team engaged in a seminar at the College de France. The authors are Blandine Barret-Kriegel,
Gilbert Burlet-Tovic, Robert Castel, Jeanne Favret, Alexandre Fontana, Georgette
Legee, Patricia Moulin, Jean-Pierre Peter, Philippe Riot, Maryvonne Saison,
We were aided in our research by Mme. Coisel and M. Bruno at the Bibliotheque
Nationale, M. Berce at the Archives Nationales, M. G. Bernard and Mlle. Gral
at the Archives departmentales du Calvados, and Mme. Anne Sohier of the Centre
de Recherces historiques.
Pierre Riviere’s memoir was published in pamphlet form in the same year as the trial. There is no copy in the Bibliotheque Nationale. The pamphlet contains
the version published in the Annales d’hygiène publique, but
published there only in part and with some errors.
The whole file is to be found in the Archives du Calvados, 2 U 907, Assises
Calvados, Proces criminels, 4th quarter 1835.