CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1As its title indicates, this work, based on a doctoral thesis, is devoted to elderly people living in institutions for the aged in France in the 19th century (known as hospices) and their experiences in these institutions, from admission to death. These institutions are not the primary object of the study, but a path into the social history of old age and a way of circumscribing a group, ‘the first generation of French people who aged together in an hospice’ (p. 5). This choice allows the author to fill historiographical lacunae, both in the history of life stages, which has focused more on youth, and in the history of social protection, which has given more attention to the study of support systems and their designers.

2In sociology, however, old age and life in institutions have been widely studied. This difference explains the important place of sociological references in this work, which takes a disciplined and consistently explicit interdisciplinary approach. Among the book’s highly varied theoretical references, the work of Erving Goffman occupies a special place. Rossigneux-Méheust uses the concept of the ‘total institution’, as defined in Asylums (1961), to reflect on the constraints imposed by life in an institution, how it redefines individuals’ ‘biographical trajectories’, and their resistances to it. She confronts this theoretical approach with another research tradition, the social history of the urban working classes. This allows her to revise its conclusions through the study of the ‘social properties’ of the institutionalized and the conditions of their existence. The book also follows in the footsteps of recent studies on the construction of populations through public action. It shows how the creation of specialized institutions and admissions procedures brought age groups into existence as a new category in social policies and as socially homogeneous groups, bound together by solidarity and common struggles.

3The study focuses on Paris in the 19th century, as assistance specifically designed for the elderly was being established with the creation of numerous institutions (57 in Paris, including 31 for the Assistance publique). The first fruit of this research is its compilation of information on these institutions, which highlights their great diversity: public or private, denominational or not, mixed or not, of sizes ranging from 10 beds to thousands, in free centres such as those of Bicêtre or La Salpêtrière, where 70% lived. This specialization signalled a desire to move away from the stigmatizing amalgamation of hospital populations under the Ancien Régime. One of the book’s objectives is to undermine the dominance of sordid representations of care institutions, which partly stems from anti-institutional discourse of the 1970s. Rossigneux-Méheust’s study of admissions procedures and the residents’ social characteristics shows that they did not belong to the most impoverished layer of the urban population. Statistical analysis of a sample from admissions registers shows that the majority of those admitted were over age 60, and most were working class, with the second-largest group being domestic servants. From the revolutionary period until the law of 1905 granting ‘the elderly and the infirm’ the right to relief, this aid was aimed at former workers. The determining criterion for eligibility was individuals’ inability to support themselves, not age. Rossigneux-Méheust also addresses a fundamental issue for the social sciences: choice. Based on sources such as covering letters and documentation of savings, she shows that entering these institutions was not an imposed ‘placement’ but a choice that individuals could make, one that could always be reversed.

4Through its findings about the hospices’ functioning, this book continues in the line of the recent renewal of the history of disciplinary institutions. The second part of the book (‘Veillir dans l’assistance’ [Ageing in care]) recalls that signing the internal regulations placed the residents of the free hospices under a ‘contractual’ logic. It imposed constrained schedules and control over entries and exits, in some cases the wearing of a uniform, compulsory daily work, and the chore of peeling, even though these individuals were admitted on the very basis of their inability to work. Admission also led to geographical and emotional ruptures, accentuated by relocation to the outskirts of the capital in the 1860s. The residents nonetheless continued to have some degree of freedom and the ability to ‘negotiate’ improvements in their living conditions through written complaints, petitions to defend their rights (leaving a will, burial with dignity), and the constitution of mutual aid societies. Under the Third Republic, these mobilizations, which contributed to the politicization of the aged, were reinforced by support from republican political actors in charge of social relief.

5The final section of the book (‘Déclins’ [Declines]) is devoted to institutions’ treatment of the elderly at the end of their lives. Their deaths resulted in dispossession not only of their property (which went to the Assistance publique) but also of their body. Unless their families had objected, they were systematically autopsied and, when unclaimed, sent to the Faculty of Medicine to be dissected— practices that contravened the right to burial and the right of the indigent to be buried free of charge.

6The book’s originality lies in its testing of the validity of Goffman’s analyses using the resources of social history. Its measured comparative examination of the conditions to which older people were subject in hospices shows that they were not ‘total institutions’. The first of these comparisons relates to the different types of hospices. While the book gives a central place to large public institutions (which are documented in richer and better-conserved archival materials), Rossigneux-Méheust also uses the documentation available on all hospices. She distinguishes the populations of free institutions, who were mainly labourers, from those of the paying institutions (one-fifth of all residents) populated by small savers, as well as the more marginal population of those run by the Little Sisters of the Poor (Petites Sœurs des pauvres), whose admission criteria were less restrictive. This allows her to situate hospice residents in the complex internal hierarchy of the urban working classes and to observe that the constraints of life in these institutions, which were lighter for the residents of paying institutions, varied depending on social status. Class and gender inequalities were maintained, as shown by rates of access to these institutions, the specificity of women’s work within them, and their degree of politicization. The second comparison concerns the residents’ living conditions, with respect to their previous lives outside. It shows that, for all its constraints, life in hospices in some ways prolonged working class lifestyles and sociabilities. By situating them in context, the author attempts to capture what they represented for the elderly: that is, ‘a certain comfort’ in the pre-insurance society of the 19th century. But her attention to the residents’ expressions of suffering (shame over loss of social status, fear of ill treatment) also allows her to connect objective and subjective data. She shows a historian’s empathy for the people she studies, which contributes to the understanding of their condition. The final comparison consists in situating hospices on a gradient relative to the other disciplinary institutions with which ‘they share a little of their history’ (prisons, hospitals, asylums). Hospices existed in a ‘disciplinary in-between’, which was restrictive while remaining very far from the prison tradition of the general hospital.

7Admittedly, the choice of a non-chronological structure for the book somewhat disperses the analysis of the changes in relief for the elderly under the Third Republic (secularization, liberalization). The choice to situate observations inside the institution does not always help us to grasp what these developments owed to political actors and decisions, which the analysis places in a sort of exteriority, serving to relay demands from within the hospice. But these choices contribute to the originality of this book which, by shifting the point of view usually adopted in classical history of social assistance, enriches it with new knowledge, explores its blind spots, and thereby contributes to a certain historiographic rebalancing. Through the dialogue that it establishes between sociology, social history, and cultural history, built around intensively mined sources, this work achieves an objective whose difficulty it recognizes from the outset: giving an account of an experience that is simultaneously social and biological, emotional and political, by writing its history.

Uploaded on on 22/07/2020
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