I am trying to figure out what is meant by some antiquated expressions found in Mme. Motteville's memoirs, the phrase:

Laffemas avoit promis au Ministre qu'il le tourmenteroit si bien qu'il en tireroit à-peu-près ce qu'il en désiroit savoir, & que sur peu de mal il trouveroit les moyens de lui faire son procès...

What is she saying here? To answer any questions about transcription, here is an image of the printed page (1750):

enter image description here

  • I answered with what I knew, but I hope one of the local native speakers can translate this better....everything after si bien is a bit confusing to me. Apr 26, 2016 at 17:10
  • 1
    Yes, your image definitely says lui. I edited it accordingly. Unrelated, but really no idea what sur peu de mal means. Apr 26, 2016 at 17:14
  • 3
    Le passage de la graphie oi à ai dans certains mots (dont les terminaisons de l'imparfait) date de la réforme de l'orthographe de 1835, cette réforme mettait l'orthographe de ce graphème en conformité avec sa prononciation qui s'était déjà largement généralisée en /we/. L'ancienne prononciation était /wa/. This text dates from before the 1835 French spelling reform that officialized the spelling ai in place of oi, in all the words (these included the ai endings of the imparfait) where oi had become pronounced /we/. Used to be pronounced /wa/.
    – None
    Apr 26, 2016 at 17:46

4 Answers 4


Well here is the Modern French translation of your phrase :

Laffemas avait promis au Ministre qu'il le torturerait jusqu'à en tirer à peu près tout ce qu'il en désirait savoir, et qu'il trouverait, à partir des quelques futilités qu'il dirait, les moyens de lui faire son procès...

At first I thought tourmenter was meant to say harass -which is the case nowadays, but as @jlliagre said, tourmenter originally meant torture/torment.

Same in English :

Laffemas had promised the Minister that he would torment/torture him to the point to get from him pretty much everything he wanted to know about it, and that he would find, with only the few irrelevant things he would say, ways to sue him...

According to those who read the story, the sue him part is to take literally.

  • Definitely literally, the victim was sentenced to death (but that was a bluff.)
    – jlliagre
    Apr 27, 2016 at 1:34
  • "Tourmenter" still exists in modern French.
    – MakorDal
    Apr 27, 2016 at 6:45
  • @MakorDal, Of course Tourmenter still exist, but Harceler is more common and is closer to the original meaning of Tourmenter. ;)
    – user10155
    Apr 27, 2016 at 8:20
  • Tourmenter is even to be understood as supplicier/torturer here.
    – jlliagre
    Apr 27, 2016 at 8:41
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    Converting sur peu de mal to sans grand effort is questionable.
    – jlliagre
    Apr 28, 2016 at 11:54

The scan you posted seems to be from a later reprint.

Here is the same sentence from the 1710 edition of the Mémoires d'Anne d'Autriche :

enter image description here

There is an additional archaism compared to your sample, savoir has the older spelling scavoir. However, à peu près is written the usual way.

Laffemas avait promis au Ministre qu'il le tourmenterait si bien qu'il en tirerait à peut près ce qu'il désirait savoir, et que sur peu de mal il trouverait les moyens de lui faire son procès selon les manières mêmes du Cardinal, qui, à ce que j'ai ouï conter à ses amis, avait accoutumé de dire qu'avec deux lignes de l'écriture d'un homme, on pouvait faire le procès au plus innocent, parce qu'on pouvait sur cette matière ajuster si bien les affaires, que facilement on y pouvait faire trouver ce qu'on voulait.

This text is about Isaac de Laffemas who, as a judge attendant, was used by Richelieu to perform hasty justice. The indicted victim here is the Chevalier de Jars, who resisted to Laffemas harassment and never confessed anything. He was nevertheless sentenced to death but was pardoned while already on the scaffold. It was actually a set-up as Richelieu didn't really want him dead but only scare the Chevalier de Jars enough for him to admit being part of a plot, which he never did.

Tourmenteroit is as already replied, the older form of tourmenterait, which is to be understood here as tortured/martyrized. Laffemas nickname was "master-strangler"...

Et que sur peu de mal il trouverait les moyens... means that even while the indicted might say insignificant statements (peu de mal), Laffemas will manage to convert them to evidence sufficient enough to condemn him.

  • Where did you find a 1710 edition? The earlier edition I can find on Google Books is from 1723 here.
    – ouah
    Feb 23, 2021 at 22:36
  • @ouah Désolé,il me semble vaguement me souvenir que j'avais pas mal cherché et que ce n'était pas sur Gallica que je l'avais trouvée, mais j'ai oublié où c'était. Cela dit, je me suis peut-être trompé sur la date...
    – jlliagre
    Feb 24, 2021 at 1:15

Some recent knowledge I happened upon courtesy of @Gilles leads me to guess that tourmenteroit is an archaic conditional conjugation of tourmenter, and thus the opening words mean "Laffernas had promised the Minister that he would torment him if..."

As for a-peu-pres, it is almost certainly an old-fashioned way of writing the modern à peu près, meaning "roughly" or "just about." I don't actually fully follow its usage here, I cannot make sense of that part of the sentence.

This is the only link I'm able to find so far on archaic conjugations -- if you expand the tables you'll see the complete conjugations. FWIW it really helps to know the modern conjugations very well-- then you can see that tourmenteroit is one letter off from tourmenterait, and it's not such a huge jump to recognize the meaning. But it also helps to have encountered archaic conjugations once or twice....then it becomes semi-obvious when you encounter them again.

I'm surprised tourmenteroit counts as Old French, though, personally. Old English is absolutely unrecognizable alongside modern English, so I'm surprised an Old French word is only one letter off. Edit: it's not Old French, which is from around the year 1000. It's just....old...French. But not Old French, you know?

  • Your last sentence: that's because that is not Old French. That's 17th century French, i.e. français classique. On this page you can compare Old French (ancien français) and Modern French.
    – None
    Apr 26, 2016 at 17:16
  • Oh, okay. That makes sense. Obvious actually if this text is from 1600s and Old French is from ~1000. Was only saying that because the wiktionnaire article was called "Old French verbs." Apr 26, 2016 at 17:18

The ancient conjugation of the imparfait used "oi" instead of "ai". So, we said, "je mangeois, tu mangeois, il mangeoit...". Moreover, "oi" was not pronouced "[oua]" as it is today, but "[ouè]".

It is said that once, Louis XVI's brother, who came back from a long exile in England to replace Napoleon after Waterloo and restore the ancient kingdom under the name of Louis XVIII (by mark of respect for the former king's son, who would have been Louis XVII if ever he had reigned) went angry because his ministers didn't want to accept one of his decisions. So, he said (suppose that "[rr]" means a rolled "r"):

"[Le rrouè, c'est mouè!]" (old phonetics for "Le roi, c'est moi!").

Then his counselor coldly told him : " Your majesty, nowadays, no one says "mouè" any more, so you should say: '[le roua, c'est moua] "...

By the way, the changing happened at the French revolution, when the "Incroyables" and the "Merveilleux" wanted to set their mark on the spoken language, so they replaced the old rolled "r" by the modern guttural "r", which happened to spread over Germany afterwards, and they changed the pronunciation of "oi" from "[ouè]" to "[oua]". It seems that the conjugational change from "oi" to "ai" took place by that time too, because in the texts from around 1750, "oi" is still fully used.

We can suppose that changing the conjugation from "oi" to "ai" happened for a phonetical reason, the will to simplify a diphtongue to a simple sound, since "oi" was a diphtongue ([ouè]) and so changing it to "ai" made the sound "[ou]" disappear, so it went from "[ouè]" to "[è]". In that hypothesis, the changing of "oi" to "ai" must have taken place some time before the phonetical change of pronunciation of "oi".

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