“Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.” Michel de Montaigne

This French philosopher’s quote is apropos of the current shelter-in-place circumstances we are facing. We are birds desperate to get out of quarantine. Will all of this pandemic togetherness result in a corona baby boom or will the social distancing and forced time together cause a spike in the divorce rate? Only time will tell what effect COVID-19 will have on marriage. If my own personal experience is any indication, week one resembled a scene from “Love Story”, week twelve was more like “The Shining.”

In a sense, Léon Salles served to rescue me from the stultifying effects of social isolation. Thanks to the continued assistance and persistence of my French connection and friend, Etienne, I received a copy of the marriage contract between Léon Salles and Berthe Porcabeuf which gave me a challenging but welcome diversion from global woes and provided me with a small but intimate slice of Salles’ married life.

The concept of the French marriage contract is unfamiliar to Americans. The creation of the French Civil Code in 1804 introduced a system of marriage contracts that allowed French couples to choose their own matrimonial regime to govern property rights after marriage, requiring a notary to advise and execute. The role of the marriage contract appears to be that of defining the property rights of each spouse, the fate of that property, and the benefits accorded to each spouse.

There were three specific regimes: the régime de la communauté which gave the husband full authority over assets brought into the marriage; the régime la séparation de biens in which the property of husband and wife is kept apart or separate; the régime dotal which protects the wife in that her dowry and her property are nontransferable. Each régime designates who is to gain possession of specific assets upon death or divorce. Dowries played an important role in French life and specification of one of the three régimes served to manage the dowry in one way or another.

The specifics and legalities of the French marriage contract are enough to make this American’s head spin but a very humorous and informative article that better addresses the subject can be read in Juliette Adam’s “The Dowries of Women in France” which was written in 1891, therefore, relevant to the 1908 marriage of Mr. Salles to Miss Porcabeuf. Madame Adam points out the businesslike attitude towards marriage of the time, “Lovers are all alike. Love dies and money remains.”

What details can we glean from this marriage contract? Léon Auguste Salles was living in Paris at 9 Rue Ganneron at the time. This was his second marriage (his first wife Marie Joseph Françoise Tirel passed away.) His mother, Marie Louise Valerie Hubert died in her home in Paris on November 14, 1903. His wife, Berthe Céline Porcabeuf, was born on January 9, 1873 making her five years younger than Léon. Article 1 tells us that they adopted the régime de la communauté. Article 2 expounds on the exclusion of debts whereby the spouses will not be responsible for each others debts and mortgages that were incurred previous to their marriage. The most interesting passage is Article 4, where Miss Porcabeuf declares what is included in her dowry. Her dowry was quite extensive, listing for her personal use, linens, jewelry and her wardrobe such as:

16 shirts estimated at 20 francs, 18 knickers estimated at 25 francs, 16 petticoats:40 francs, 16 corset covers:15 francs, 10 nightgowns:10 francs, 4 camisoles:5 francs, 24 hand towels:10 francs. The list goes on to include such items as 5 dozen handkerchiefs, 6 lace collars, 8 veils, 6 corsets, 6 pairs of curtains, 2 bathrobes, 1 lace scarf, 2 dozen tea towels, 1 rain coat, 12 pairs of gloves, 1 embroidered lingerie cushion, 6 perfume bottles, 8 hats, 1 lamb fur bolero, 1 white coat, 1 fur stole, 1 beige coat, 9 pairs of shoes, 1 glove box, 1 gold watch, 4 rings, 4 pins.

Apparently, Léon Salles was not a starving artist and Miss Porcabeuf was a very fashionable woman of the time and quite a catch!

Un grand merci to my French connection and friend, Etienne, for indulging my insatiable curiosity about Léon AKA Hubert and spending the time to plow through the notarial records in the archives to provide me with this lovely little glimpse into Léon’s private life. As artist Marcel Duchamp once succinctly stated “The most interesting thing about artists is how they live.”

*A special thank you to my friend Amelia who thought her days as a language teacher were behind her until I presented her with the challenging task of helping to translate this marriage contract. Her expertise was invaluable.

One thought on ““Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.” Michel de Montaigne

  1. So wonderful to read about this piece of history that once had me up at all times of the night researching!! Thank you for sharing this!! I myself have taken advantage of this quarantine to research my paternal ancestry and am having a great time learning about my history. Stay well and keep the updates coming. Sincerely Kerry
    P.S. I keep any updates behind the picture I have!


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