Round about 1675, the exciting news broke that the famous actor and writer Molière (then recently deceased) had been married to his own daughter. This may again seem trivial or sensationalist at first glance--it certainly seems unliterary--but researchers have to deal with this sort of issue all the same. It is amazing how critics who dislike a writer, or the writer's ideas, will latch on to side issues in an attempt to prove the ideas wrong by association.
For a long time it was hard to find scholarly treatments of this sort of matter, but nonetheless, many of the facts surrounding this claim are reasonably well known--though not as well established as they would be if we could speak to the persons involved. Molière didn't make his living by writing but by putting on the plays he wrote. In June of 1643, at about twenty, he formed a theater company, the "Illustre-Théâtre", with a partner named Madeleine Béjart who took major female roles opposite him and helped run the company. It was "common knowledge" that the two were lovers at that time. (This was one of those periods when such liaisons were a widely accepted form of behavior; that's not itself the problem.) Unfortunately, the troupe was not successful, and it broke up. Molière went into professional exile in the French provinces, where he honed his skills for a decade before returning to Paris, where the action was.
On his return to Paris, it turned out he had gotten it right. His new company was an overwhelming success and received the royal patronage of Louis XIV, the Sun King. In 1662, at age 40, the newly respectable Molière finally got married--to none other than Armande Béjart, known to be the daughter of the Madeleine I just mentioned, and said to be about 20 years old at the time. This January-May marriage had its own problems, some of which are dramatized in the playwright's late works. Molière died young, in 1673, and Armande carried on with his troupe, producing many of his plays.
So who was Armande's father? Whatever her relationship with Molière at the time of her birth, Madeleine, the mother, was also married, to what the documents tend to call a "common tradesman." Armande's baptismal certificate would have given a name--but it is lost. (There was no central repository for public records in France until much later; vital statistics were handled by the Church on a local basis.) The controversy began almost at once. Montfleury the Younger, a rival author and theater owner with an obvious axe to grind, made the accusation of incest in his Fameuse comédienne, in fact an attack on his professional rival Armande and her troupe. Most modern writers are shocked at the very suggestion that this great man married his own offspring; for example, Robert Garapon called the claim an "atrocious calumny." But does that mean we know? What decision does the researcher-teacher have to make here?
The point for now is not whether Molière did marry his own daughter or not. We don't know and we have no way of finding out. The entire tale, fabrication or not, is technically hearsay. The documents that might have helped us were lost and the question remains open. (Conspiracy theorists say the King, Molière's protector, arranged that--conspiracy theorists in history are just like conspiracy theorists in daily life; they believe accidents happen only to people who do not interest them.) The point, rather, is in how the claim is used. This is the kind of thing traditional historians don't like to admit about famous persons who have often been taken as role models. And there is a certain amount of outright sensation-seeking among proponents of the incest claim. Both of these reactions are manifestations of an ideology, and neither is a scholarly reaction. Ideology and scholarship are sometimes confused with each other, but there are fairly simple ways of telling them apart. Scholars check before they make any leaps, and if they don't know something, they are bound by their discipline to say they don't. In this case a very basic rule is involved: however badly we might want to make a case, the past didn't always leave us the kind of evidence we wish for.
Molière's marriage is fun because it involves scandal, incest, an older man hitting on a younger woman, the sort of thing that catches our interest and obviously caught the interest of our ancestors for lots of the same reasons it does ours. But it is important, not because it is fun, but because it illustrates another of the principles teachers and researchers have in common. I was able to prove something about my Belgian manuscripts. But none of the arguments made in the Molière case actually prove he did or did not marry his own daughter. And that is the right thing for the teacher to say.