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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


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1643: Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Birth Year 

A decade or so ago I found a notarial act dated January 16, 1662, {AN, MC, XXIII, 308} which stated that "Marcq Anthoine Charpentier" was "aagé de dix huit ans ou environ." In this inventory of the property of the boy's late father, the notary recorded his younger brother's age in a similar way: Jean — actually, Armand-Jean — was "aagé de seize ans ou environ."

Doing some hasty arithmetic, I initially concluded that Charpentier was born in 1644. On second thought, two important factors soon made me change the year to 1643.

One important factor was that the Year of Grace 1662 was barely two weeks old when the inventory was taken. This means that, for Marc-Antoine Charpentier to have been born in 1644 and to have celebrated his eighteenth birthday by January 16, 1662, his eighteenth birthday would have had to fall between January 1 and January 16, 1644. And the same would have to be true for Armand-Jean: he would have had to be born between January 1 and January 16, 1646. Such a thing is far from impossible. (I know that from personal experience, because my two children were born 2 years and 2 days apart.)

Still, used as it is for both boys, the expression "ou environ" ("or thereabouts") assumes considerable importance. What did the expression mean in the 1660s? Did it signify that family and friends were not sure about an individual's exact age? That Marc-Antoine was seventeen? or seventeen-and-a-half? or perhaps eighteen? And that no one was quite sure?

Just when I was pondering this matter, I found a very revealing use of "ou environ." The term appears in another notarial inventory, the inventory of the property of the late father of little Henri Guichard.

There are several intriguing parallels between Guichard and Charpentier. First of all, I recognized the name, for Guichard was the gentleman-impresario for Philippe d'Orléans during the very years when Charpentier was working for the Guises. Then I noticed that, on October 21, 1634, Guichard was born into the very same milieu where the Charpentiers would be circulating in the 1650s! {See pp. 15-19 of my "Lully plays deaf," in Lully Studies, ed. J. H. Heyer, 2000} That is to say, Guichard's father had "belonged" to Gaston d'Orléans because he was that prince's valet, just as Charpentier's cousin, Jacques Havé de Saint-Aubin, "belonged "to Gaston d'Orléans because he was a "gentilhomme ordinaire" to the prince. The parallel between the two men's origins is further strengthened by the fact that Guichard was born into the circle around a bishop, while Charpentier's cousin had married the brother of a bishop.

In short, if the Guichards realized the importance of record-keeping, as they seem to have done, the Charpentiers too were probably attuned to jotting down the dates of births and baptisms, and to keeping important documents. Indeed, in all likelihood the Charpentiers were better at the task, for Marc-Antoine's father was a professional scribe. All this led me to conclude that Marc-Antoine's and Armand-Jean's older sisters, Étiennette and Élisabeth, knew their siblings' ages, perhaps to the very day. It is even possible, I surmised, that the officials in the Châtelet — who on January 13 had issued a sentence declaring Nicolas Dupin, procureur au Parlement, to be guardian of the orphaned boys — had requested a copy of the boys' baptismal records as proof of their ages and, therefore, of the duration of the guardianship. (Dupin's obligations included supervising the boys' education and finances until their twenty-fifth birthdays, when they would be declared "major.") Judging from the formalities that Étienne Loulié, one of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's future colleagues, had go through to prove his age {AN, MC, XC, 280, tontine of July 21, 1690}, the curé apparently did not give families a formal certificate of baptism on the day he administered the sacrament to an newborn. In order to prove one's approximate birth date, one therefore searched the parish records and obtained an official extrait baptistaire.

Contrary to general usage, Henri Guichard was not baptized immediately. "For the convenience" of his godfather, Henri de Bourbon, bishop of Metz, the sacrament was delayed almost five months, until March 12, 1635. {Nuitter et Thoinan, Les Origines de l'opéra français, p. 198.} When Henri's father died a few years later, the notary who drew up the inventory on May 29, 1641, used "ou environ" to state the boy's age: Henri was "aagé de six ans et deux [mois] ou environ." {AN, MC, VI, 462} His actual age was, of course, six years and seven months, "or thereabouts"; but for the notary, it was the date of the child's baptism that counted: six years, two months and seventeen days had passed since the day of little Henri's christening. (We do not know whether the officials in the Châtelet had asked the boy's mother to obtain an extrait baptistaire for little Henri, but it seems likely — even though a similar document involving Marc-Antoine Charpentier's nieces and nephews {AN, Y 4003 A, avis des parents, February 20,1685}does not specify their ages.) In short, the notary is caught in the act of using the child's baptismal record as proof his age. (This of course meant that, if Henri Guichard's guardian did not possess a document showing his ward's actual birthday, Henri risked having his official majority delayed by a few months.) Using the Guichard inventory as a guide, I concluded that when the Charpentier inventory was drawn up in 1662, the boys' guardian probably showed the notary extraits baptistaires, and that the notary — in order to leave no doubt about the duration of the guardianship — stated, in his inimitable way, that the boys had celebrated their eighteenth and their sixteenth birthdays, respectively.

In short, the age of a minor as stated in a notarial document can be understood as providing a rather precise indication of the number of years that have passed since the child's baptism, a sacrament that commonly was administered a few hours or days after birth. (For young children — among them little Henri Guichard — the number of months often is specified as well, but this type of precision is quite uncommon for adolescents and adults.) When the notary adds an "ou environ," he is saying that additional days or weeks should be added to the specified age. Indeed, the use of "ou environ" clearly should not be read as evidence that the individual has not yet reached that age but will soon do so: loose usage of that sort could conceivably lead to a minor's being prematurely declared major, with the associated possibility of lawsuits being brought against the guardian.

Thanks to this enhanced understanding of what "ou environ" means for determining the birth year of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, it appears reasonably certain that he had been baptized eighteen years and some weeks or months prior to mid-January 1662. In other words, his baptism probably took place prior to January 1644. And unless his parents were forced to delay the baptism for the "convenience" of the baby's godfather, it is quite likely that at the very latest Marc-Antoine was born during the final months of 1643.

The possibility that he was born during the first days of January 1644 cannot, of course, be absolutely ruled out. But although such a birth date is possible, is it probable?

Historical demographics suggest that late 1643 is the more probable birth date. Jacques Dupâquier and his team of researchers {Histoire de la Population française, 1988, vol. II, chap. VIII, especially pp. 399-403} found a strong correlation between the distribution of births throughout the year and the sexual continence and/or fasting (which tends to reduce fertility) observed by the faithful during Lent, both in urban settings and in rural areas. These researchers noted that each December — that is to say, some nine months after the start of Lent — the birth rate plunged among Catholics (but little change can be noted among Protestants). And year after year, the birth rate remained low during January and did not begin to rise until February or early March, when it soared for a month or so.

While consulting the relatively complete parish registers for Meaux {AD Seine-et-Marne}, where Marc-Antoine Charpentier's father was born and where his cousins continued to reside throughout the seventeenth century, I noted a similar pattern. Year after year, decade after decade, very few babies were christened in December and January; but — depending on the exact dates of Lent the previous year — February or March brought a rash of baptisms.

If one supposes that Charpentier's parents observed Lent in 1642 and 1643 (and judging from the pious images in their apartment, there is every reason to believe they did), it is possible to propose the following calendar:

mid-March-April 20 (Easter), 1642: abstinence from meat during Lent and/or abstinence from coitus
April 21, 1642: resumption of normal routine
January 30, 1643: the earliest date at which a full-term child, conceived after April 21, would be born
March-April 5 (Easter), 1643: abstinence during Lent
January 15, 1644: the earliest date at which a full-term child, conceived after April 5, would be born

In sum, Marc-Antoine Charpentier probably was conceived between April 20, 1642 and March 1643; which means that his birth most likely occurred between January 30, 1643 and January 15, 1644, and his baptism between February 1, 1643 and January 16, 1644 — unless, that is, his godfather (who doubtlessly bore the unusual first name Marc, and who perhaps went by even less usual combined name Marc-Antoine) did not live near the Charpentiers' residence and had to be notified of the birth and then arrange a "convenient" time, in the process causing his godson's baptismal record to make him appear a few weeks or months younger than he actually was.

We have seen that, on January 16, 1662, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was described as being not only eighteen years old but as having exceeded that age by a few weeks or a few months. Reasoning solely on the basis of how the expression "ou environ" was used in the 1660s, it appears likely that Marc-Antoine Charpentier was baptized between January 1 and January 15, 1644. But on January 16, 1662, would the notary have written "ou environ" if the 16th was virtually the anniversary of his birthday/christening-day? Then too, suppose a few weeks separated the birth from the baptism, as sometimes happened. That would more or less rule out 1644 as a birth year. In addition, to assume that Charpentier was born during the first two weeks of January 1644 is to ignore mentalités that, throughout the 1640s, have been shown to have triggered a sharp decline in births during the final weeks of one year and the first few weeks of the next.

All things considered, the historical evidence suggests that Marc-Antoine Charpentier was born in 1643.