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Showing posts with label france. Show all posts
Showing posts with label france. Show all posts

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Damn, Girl-Jeanne de Clisson, Bloody Lioness of Brittany

Shrouded in mythology, Jeanne de Clisson was one of the bloodiest privateers of the 14th century. Born a wealthy lady of high rank, Jeanne took to the seas against the French after the execution of her much loved second husband Olivier. She proceeded to harry French ships--militaristic and merchant--on behalf of the English crown for 13 years before settling down into another happy marriage.

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Modern picture of Jeanne done in
the artistic style of the time. It is
unknown exactly what Jeanne
looked like.
Born Jeanne de Belleville, Jeanne was born in 1300, and married wealthy land owner Geoffrey de Chateaubriant at the age of 12. Very little is known about Jeanne's first marriage, but she did have two children with Geoffrey--a son and a daughter. The son would inherit the Chateaubriant estate after Geoffrey's death in 1326, and the daughter would later inherit the de Belleville estate, as Jeanne had no living brothers.

Jeanne married again in 1330, this time to Olivier de Clisson, a widower and great friend of Charles de Blois. Though neither left a diary saying 'I <3 Jeanne/Olivier', tradition holds that their marriage was a love match. They would have five children together and live happily for 13 years.

The political situation of the time was more than tense. France and England were having at it (when were they not?), this time over Brittany, a northern Duchy in what is now France. At the time, the English still had extensive holdings in modern France, inherited from Eleanor of Aquitaine. The English, however, were having difficulties holding onto those territories, and had been at war with France off and on for several hundred years.

At Jeanne's time, England and France were involved in what would come to be called the Hundred Year's War, the same war which Jeanne d'Arc would fight and die in. (Remember, this is the HUNDRED Years war.) The war was over possession of Brittany, the territory in which Jeanne lived. Formerly an independent Celtic state, Brittany had become an independent Duchy. It was technically beholden to no other country, but had the misfortune to be surrounded by two major powers who were constantly trying to take it over. Brittany managed to hold strong until 1341 when Duke John of Brittany died without a direct heir.

The duke's death left two potential heirs to the Duchy, one backed by the French, another backed by the English. As was usual with such land disputes, France and England merrily began another war, hacking away at each other's populations and infrastructures mercilessly. Olivier, as a friend of Charles de Blois, the French candidate for the Duchy, was called away to command in the war, being posted at a fort in Vannes.

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Olivier kneels on the scaffold, awaiting his death. He is
surrounded by the corpses of other noblemen executed
for treason.
During the siege of Vannes Olivier was taken captive by the English. He was later released in a prisoner exchange, but his friend Charles de Blois was suspicious. Charles suspected that the English had had French help when they took Vannes, and he suspected Olivier. He condemned Olivier for treason, and had him executed without trial in August of 1343. Olivier's head was sent to Nantes, and placed on a spike above the city.

Jeanne was, understandably, distraught.She took her sons to see their father's decapitated head, and told them that he had been murdered by Charles de Blois. Shortly after, she sold all of her land, and gathered a force of men loyal to her and Olivier's memory. With her men she set off on a revenge mission that would last nearly two decades.

First stop on the revenge tour was the castle of Galois de la Heuse. Galois was a supporter of Charles de Blois, and had been friendly with Jeanne's husband. Why Jeanne chose Galois' home for her first scene of revenge is uncertain, but what is known is that Galois never saw it coming. He opened the gates to let Jeanne in, and was, presumably, quite surprised to soon find himself and most of the people who lived there slaughtered. Jeanne's force left a few survivors to spread the news, then took to the seas where they could make the most impact.

With money from the sales of her lands, Jeanne purchased three ships. They were painted black, and outfitted with red sails. The sight of those ships struck fear into the hearts of many a sailor when Jeanne and her crew overtook unsuspecting French ships in the mist on the English Channel. Those ominous ships meant almost certain death to almost everyone on board the captured vessel. Jeanne only spared one or two members of each crew so there would be a survivor to carry tales of her exploits.

Noble status didn't protect seafarers from Jeanne's crew. Jeanne had a particular hatred for members of the nobility, and legend had it that she would behead noblemen herself. This, combined with her general modus operandi, earned her the ephitet 'Bloody Lioness of Brittany'.

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Brittany on a map of modern France. 
Jeanne wasn't a simple pirate motivated by self interest. She was a privateer. She colluded with the English crown to provide supplies to their troops in France, and to destroy French ships. She received ships and men from the English government, and became an integral part of English naval strategy.

In 1356 Jeanne quit the murder on the high seas business, and married again, this time to Englishman Walter Bentley. Once again, all signs point to this marriage being a love match. The pair moved to a castle near the coast of Brittany, and lived peacefully. Jeanne died quietly in 1359.

Today Jeanne is all but forgotten, and the few stories we have about her are romanticized with myth and legend. It is difficult to say which parts of her life are true and which are fiction, but what few concrete records we have of her paint a vivid picture of a strong woman unafraid to get her hands dirty (or, you know, murder someone.)

Sources
Jeanne de Clisson
The Lioness of Brittany
Jeanne de Clisson, the Bloody Lioness of Brittany


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Damn, Girl-Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges was essentially the French Mary Wollstonecraft, if Mary Wollstonecraft had been a pacifist who published inflammatory material during one of the most violent times in history. Abolitionist, feminist, and children's rights activist, Olympe de Gouges fought for the rights of the disenfranchised during the height of the Reign of Terror through her pamphlets and plays. Though she remained a semi-loyal monarchist until her death, her writing was a big part of the French Revolution, and her writings on gender and racial equality continue to influence civil rights thinkers to this day.

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Olympe de Gouges
Olympe was born Marie Gouze in the French town of Montauban. The daughter of a butcher and a lady's maid, Olympe was given a cursory education, and was raised speaking the regional language of Occitan. Not much is known about her early life, but it is known that at age 17 she married Louis Aubrey, an officer in the French Army who was much older than her. Their marriage was short lived, with Aubrey dying only a few years later. While Marie and Louis did have a son, it was evidently an unhappy marriage, because after Louis died Marie moved to Paris, changed her name, and vowed never to marry again.¹

 Now named Olympe de Gouges--a mash up of her mother's first name and father's last name-- Marie set about trying to become a writer. Though she wasn't well read, and didn't have the most thorough of educations, Olympe was hardworking and determined By 1778 she had had her first play published.

One of Olympe's favorite mediums was the theater. She wrote around 40 plays, twelve of which survive, ten of which were published, and only 4 of which were ever produced. Writing exclusively for the Comédie Française, Olympe had to deal with the sexism of Comédie Française producers and actors, which severely hindered the publication and production of her plays during her lifetime.

Olympe's plays adhere to the proud tradition of theater as activism. Her plays covered the controversial subjects of the time--slavery, divorce, the immorality of debt imprisonment, political extremism, and inequality of the sexes. One of her plays, L'Esclavage de Nègres, ou l'Heureux naufrage [Black Slavery or the Happy Shipwreck] was sabotaged by both performers and outside protesters because of its controversial advocation for the freedom of African slaves.

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Dedication page of The Declaration of
the Rights of Women
Around the time of her arrival in Paris, rumors started flying that Olympe was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Pompignan, or King Louis XV. While most likely untrue, these rumors gave Olympe access to the higher echelons of pre-Revolution French society. It was here where Olympe found patronage, and made friendships among the nobility that would influence her moderate, soft-monarchist views.

Olympe believed that a monarchy was essential to a country's survival, but she didn't believe in the French monarchy of the time. She repeatedly warned and entreated the House of Bourbon to treat its citizens, especially the women better. Her seminal work The Declaration of the Rights of Woman was even dedicated to Queen Marie-Antoinette, in hopes that the Queen would identify with Olympe's writing as a woman, and move for political change.

The Declaration of the Rights of Women was a direct, rage filled response to the glaring omission of women and women's rights in The Declaration of the Rights of Man. In it, Olympe revised the declaration, and gave specific rights to women that echoed the same rights assigned to men. In it, she also advocated for a revision of the marriage contract, and wrote her own marriage contracted which brought two people together in an equal union where property and children were shared.

Loyalty to the monarchy aside, Olympe's real loyalty lay with France. She abhorred violence, and believed that war was a violation of the social contract between nation and citizen. She repeatedly advocated for peaceful methods of resistance, and her thinking influenced the great activists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Olympe was considered a political moderate for her time, though being a moderate during the French Revolution isn't really saying much by today's standards. She often satirized political extremism in her writing, and condemned the political violence happening during the revolution. However, moderate or no, Olympe did eventually end up on the side of the revolution.

It was after the revolution that Olympe's writing switched from plays to pamphlet's, and her work became dangerously political. Her assertions that injustice against women was the root of societies ills, and criticisms of The Declaration of the Rights of Man brought her to the attention of the revolution. Her advocacy for equality of the sexes, and criticisms of Revolution leaders led to her imprisonment, trial, and eventual execution.

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The execution of Olympe de Gouges
Though she was executed for crimes against the revolution, Olympe was, in no way, unsuccessful. Not only has she had a lasting legacy, but she was successful in her own time. She heavily petitioned for the right to divorce through plays and pamphlets, and in 1792 France was the first country to legalize divorce. Civil rights were also given to illegitimate children, and a voluntary tax system proposed and outlined by Olympe was also adopted.

But not only successful in her own time, Olympe's legacy has impacted the world for generations. Along with Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe was one of the founding mothers of feminism. She encouraged women to band together, and identify as women, something that has influenced the modern idea of citizenship. Her work is studied among philosophers and feminists theorists today.



¹I have been unable to find any information on Olympe's son--Pierre Aubry de Gouges-- during this time. Whether or not he went to Paris with her is unknown, however he did end up serving as a General with the French Army in South America. If you have any further information about him, please share in the comments!

Sources
Olympe de Gouges Biography
Marie Olympe de Gouges Facts
Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)
Welcome to Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges--French Writer

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Damn, Girl-Christine de Pizan

Just as Sappho is the Mama Lesbian, Christine de Pizan is the Mama Feminist. Christine was the first European woman to make a living from her writing, and her book The Book of the City of Ladies was one of the first books on feminism ever written.
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Christine at her desk.

Born in 1364, Christine started her life in Venice, but her family moved to France when she was three years old. Her father, Thomas de Pizan, had received an appointment as astrologer to Charles V. Living with the royal court gave Christine access to a vast library or literary and rhetorical works. Though not much is known about her education, or if she was even formally educated at all, the quality of her literature show that Christine was obviously well read.

At the age of 15 Christine married royal secretary Etienne de Castel. It is unknown if they were  happy or not, but they did have three children¹ together before Etienne died of the bubonic plague after ten years of marriage. Etienne's death left Christine with no source of income, a substantial amount of debt, and two children and a recently widowed mother to support.

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Illuminated page from The Book of
the City of Ladies
Luckily, Christine was a talented writer, and the French court had a fever that could only be cured with more poetry. Christine put out ballads about love, loss, and widowhood which brought her to the attention to royal patrons like Isabelle of Bavaria, the Duke of Orleans, and the 4th Earl of Salisbury.

For the first few years of her career, Christine mostly wrote poetry and moralistic works. Until in 1402 when Christine decided to pick a fight with a dead man. ²

Jean de Meun wrote a second half to The Romance of the Rose in 1280ish. In his poetry, de Meun was biting and cruel about ever member of society, but Christine took particular offense at the way he treated women in his works. He portrayed women as little more than one dimensional seductress ruled by their own lusts.  In her response Christine argued that women are much more complex than de Meun portrayed them. She starts by criticizing de Meun, but ends by criticizing the entire European canon at the time, censuring the many works about the nature of women, none of which were written by women.

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Christine writing
This sparked a long term literary debate which would bring her to the attention of monarchs around Europe. It also sparked a long term passion for writing about women and women's history. In her seminal work The Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan imagines a world built by women, for women, free from misogyny. Within that framework she tells the stories of the great women who came before her, without the misogynistic bias that colored the accounts of so many male writers.

In around 1415 Christine retired a convent with her daughter. The increasing political unrest, and the disaster at the Battle of Agincourt, had her rattled, and she was ready to retire from public life. In 1429 she released The Tale of Joan of Arc, a ballad that basically fangirled over Joan of Arc and her victories. The Tale of Joan of Arc was Christine's last work, and she doesn't appear in public record anywhere else. It's generally assumed that she died shortly after.

Christine had a massive impact on the writers and political leaders of her day. Her works attacking the traditional patriarchal society influenced other female writers, and also influenced future female monarchs, such as Louise of Savoy, Anne of Brittany, and Leonor of Portugal.


¹A daughter named Marie, a son named Jean, and a second unnamed son who died in infancy.
²A move I cannot help but applaud. It's the sort of thing I have done would do.

Sources
Christine de Pisan-Brooklyn Museum
Christine de Pizan: Her Works
Christine de Pisan-Britannica
Christine de Pisan-New World Encyclopedia
Christine de Pisan-Biography

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Damn, Girl-Louise of Savoy

Louise of Savoy was the mother of a King, and one of the most powerful women in Europe at her time. She ruled France in her son's absence, and, along with Margaret of Austria, negotiated the Peace of Cambrai or 'Women's Peace', which would end the war between France and Spain for nearly a decade. She was an amazing diplomat, and held her country and family together during times of great political stress.

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Louise
Louise was born in 1476 to the poor, more or less landless, Duke of Savoy. He wasn't a very good father, and Louise's mother died when she was seven, so she was packed off to the French court to be raised by her aunt, Anne of Beaujeu.

At the time, Anne basically ran France. She, along with her husband Pierre, had been appointed as regents until Charles VIII reached majority. Though Pierre was technically a regent as well, it was Anne who ran the country. She wasn't an overly affectionate woman, but from her Louise learned the art of diplomacy and statecraft.

While under Anne's care she also met Margaret of Austria; a favorite to marry King Charles when he came of age. Though Margaret and Charles never married, Louise and Margaret stayed in close contact throughout their lives.

In 1488, at age twelve, Louise married Charles of Orleans. Charles was much older than Louise, and had two mistresses--Antoinette of Polignac and Jeanne Comte--who lived with him. Despite all this, Louise and Charles had a relatively happy marriage. Louise befriended both Jeanne and Antoinette, and later entrusted Jeanne with guardianship of her children, and took Antoinette into her service as her companion.

Charles died in 1496. Leaving 19 year old Louise a widow with two small children, one of whom, Francis, was second in line for the throne

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Francis I
Despite challenges from her male relatives, Louise managed to keep custody and guardianship of her children. When Charles XIII died in 1498, Francis became heir to the throne. His uncle, Louis XII, had been unable to produce any living sons, and had only two daughters, Renee and Claude. Much to Louise's chagrin, Francis and Claude were married in 1514

After Louis' death later that year Francis ascended to the throne, and relied heavily on Louise for help with ruling. It was she who made many of the state appointments, and it was to her that Francis left the responsibilities of ruling to when he decided to go to war against the Italian States.

Francis was only 21 when he came to the throne, and he was eager to prove himself just as much of a military man as his Spanish and English counterparts. Louise was unable to talk him out of it, so she dutifully helped raise the funds for his wars, and served as regent while he was away.

Louise's first regency lasted for less than a year, and was fairly unremarkable. Her second regency in 1525, however, was considerably more stressful. While fighting in Pavia, Italy Francis was captured by the Spanish-Italian forces, and taken off to Madrid.

Louise must have been devastated, not to mention worried sick, but she didn't let it affect her judgement. She was responsible for France, and she would see that France was taken care of. She took up residence in Lyon, and summoned the members from the parliaments of Paris, Rouen, and Bordeaux to advise her. She tasked the Paris Parliament with defending Northern France, and set the rest to raising the necessary funds. All the while, she was in contact with the Spanish king in Madrid.

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Margaret of Austria
With the help of her old friend Margaret of Austria, Louise was able to arrange for the release of her son, and a temporary peace with the Spaniards and Italians. The terms were steep. Two of Francis' sons would be sent to Madrid as hostages, and France would have to cede Burgundy. Despite the unappealing terms, Louise agreed, and traded two of her grandsons for her son.

As for the rest of the treaty, well, in Louise's own words, promises made under duress were meaningless. Burgundy stayed with France, and Francis went back to waging merry war against the Spanish and Italians. Unamused, the Spanish king took out his frustrations on Francis' sons. That was around when Louise decided that this war needed to end.

In 1528, Louise and Margaret of Austria, the Spanish regent in the Netherlands, started covertly talking about making peace. There were a lot of issues on both ends, but thankfully Louise and Margaret were both much wiser than their counterparts. In July of 1529 they met in Cambrai to officially make peace. Under the terms of their treaty, France would keep Burgundy, and Francis could ransom his sons in exchange for an unholy amount of money. Francis would marry Elanor of Portugal, the Spanish King's sister, and the war would stop. This peace held for seven years.

However, Louise's health didn't. Louise suffered from gout, colic, stomach pains, and a number of other illnesses. Her infirmity was only further aggravated by the fact that she refused to slow down. in 1531, just two years after she negotiated the Ladies Peace with her friend Margaret of Austria, Louise died.

Sources
Louise of Savoy: The 'King's Mother' and Regent of France
Louise of Savoy
Louise of Savoy (1476-1531)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Damn, Girl-Jeanne II of Navarre

Jeanne (sometimes anglicized to Joan) II d' Albret of Navarre was basically a smaller scale, likable, Henry VIII . These two are very similar in that they both brought the Reformation to their country, they were both married more than once, and they both liked making life difficult for the French. The pair were even related by marriage for some eight years. However, unlike Henry, Jeanne wasn't a dick who murdered her friends, spouses, and national economy. Jeanne was a brave and altruistic defender of her faith.

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A young Jeanne d'Albret
Jeanne was Queen of Navarre, and if you don't know what the hell a Navarre is, don't worry, I didn't know either until I looked it up. I'd assumed it was a region of northern France, much like Brittany, but it turns out Navarre was like a big Andorra. However, unlike Andorra , Navarre was a warring political entity that wasn't content to remain in their valley and go about their business. Navarre was an important part of medieval politics, and it did not take its assimilation into France and Spain quietly.

The only child of an unhappy union, Jeanne was raised away from her parents, and given a somewhat lackluster humanist education. Girls, even royal girls, weren't thought worthy of writing about very much during the Renaissance, so not much is known about Jeanne's early childhood, other than that she was raised by a family friend--Aymee de Lafayette-- and educated by Nicolas Bourbon.*

It isn't until 1540 that Jeanne really shows up in historical record. Like many royal girls of the era, Jeanne's real worth to her family was her marriageability and usefulness as a political pawn. At the ripe old age of 11, Francis I, King of France and Jeanne's uncle, decided that Jeanne should get married to the much older William de la Marck, Duke of Cleves (Anne of Cleves' brother.) 

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Map of Navarre (and other places)
Now, neither Jeanne nor her parents were too thrilled about this match. Her parents were peeved that the King of France had overridden their wishes that Jeanne marry Phillip of Spain, and Jeanne just plain didn't want to marry the man. Jeanne resisted the match and defied the french king, but it was to no avail. in 1547 she was married to William, kicking and screaming. Her dress was so heavy that she could not walk down the aisle, and instead had to be carried. Luckily for Jeanne, after a symbolic consummation of their union she returned to France to live with her family until she reached maturity.

In 1545, after eight years of marriage, Jeanne's marriage to William was annulled. The official reason was that Jeanne hadn't consented willingly to the marriage, and had been forced, but the real reason for the annulment was that an alliance with Cleves was no longer important to Francis. This was fantastic for Jeanne, because in 1548 Jeanne was able to marry Antony de Bourbon**, a man she loved, or at the very least liked. 

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Antony de Bourbon
When Jeanne's father died in 1555 she became the official Queen Regnant of Navarre, though her husband Antony was king in all but name. Despite the initial attraction, the marriage between Jeanne and Antony seemed to have been a rocky one. While they did have three children together, Antony was notoriously unreliable, and could be physically abusive when he didn't get his way.

The next historically important event of Jeanne's life happened in 1560 (or 1562) when she publicly declared herself a Calvinist. She had attended a Calvinist meeting in Paris during the wedding of Mary Stuart and Francis II, and it changed her life. She described the experience in her memoirs as being 'rescued from idolatry' and 'received in His [God's] church'. Jeanne converted, and she convinced her husband as well, because in 1862, Antony also declared himself a Calvinist.

Being a Protestant Monarch during the Reformation was a tricky affair, and Navarre had the bad luck to be sandwiched between two large Catholic powers--Spain and France. The English could get away with doing as they damn well pleased, thanks to their distance from the rest of Europe, and the German states had each other to rely on for defense, but things were tricky for Navarre. It's no surprise then that shortly after his declaration Antony recanted, and proceeded to lead Catholic forces against the Huguenots.

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La Rochelle
Jeanne was devastated by Antony's defection. In her memoirs she described herself as having 'a thorn put not in [her] foot, but in [her] heart'. She herself, however, never recanted her beliefs, even when Antony threatened her with violence, and France and Spain threatened her with invasion. Jeanne was a stubborn woman, and when Antony died later that year, she set about turning Navarre into a Protestant nation.

On the Reformation scale, Jeanne swung more towards the Puritan end of the scale, and her political reformations proved it. She made laws against gambling, prostitution, blasphemy, and drunkenness, as well as the more tradition laws abolishing Catholic ceremonies, and seizing Church property.*** Her next step was to send funds and military assistance to the embattled Huguenots at La Rochelle.

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Jeanne in her older years.
Not only did Jeanne send assistance, she went to La Rochelle herself and organized the women there. She assisted in defense strategies and peace negotiations with the French soldiers. It can be said, almost without doubt, that it was her fighting, and her beliefs that led her Calvinist raised son--Henry IV--to issue the Edict of Nantes, which granted Huguenots substantial rights in France, as well as ending the fighting between the two groups.

With much protestation, Jeanne reluctantly agreed to a marriage between her only son, Henry, and the catholic Margaret of France, sister to the French King. It was shortly after her arrival in Paris to attend the wedding that Jeanne died suddenly of tuberculosis, leaving Henry King of Navarre. 


*Incidentally, Nicolas Bourbon was also responsible for parts of Anne Boleyn's humanist education. 
**Another important fact about Antony de Bourbon, he was in line for the French throne. This enabled his and Jeanne's son Henry to become king of both France and Navarre, uniting the two nations in much the same way James VI/I united England and Scotland
***Unlike Henry VIII, when Jeanne seized the property of the Catholic Church, she didn't use it to enrich herself and her friends. She gave the funds to Calvinist ministry's and to schools. Additionally, when the staunch Catholics of her kingdom rose in rebellion, she suppressed them with force, and then used legal pressures to make them back down. She liberally pardoned rebels, and did not execute vast numbers of rebels like Henry did.

Sources
Jeanne d'Albret--Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia--6th Edition


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Damn, Girl-Chevaliere d'Eon de Beaumont

The Chevaliere*, or Chevalier, depending on who you ask, d'Eon was one of the most colorful figures of the 18th century. Assigned male at birth, and named Charles Genieveve Louisa Auguste Andre Timothee de Beaumont, the Chevaliere is notable for her service in the french military, for being a spy, and for coming out as a female, and living as Lia de Beaumont in the latter part of her life. She was a free mason, a champion fencer, a lawyer, a decorated war hero, and a celebrated author.

Image result for Chevalier d'eonIt was 1755 and, no surprise, the French were scheming. Relations with England were growing uneasy, and King Louis was attempting to put his cousin on the Polish throne. The Russian Empress, Elizabeth, refused to meet with any French ambassadors, and the French government was actively working against itself. It was this environment that the Chevaliere first got her start.

The Chevaliere was sent with the French diplomatic mission to Russia under the guise of a lowly secretary. The truth of her mission, however, was much more complex than that. d'Eon was there as part of le Secret du Roi--Louis' secret spy agency that was so secret, most of the French government didn't know about it. At the time of the Chevaliere's service, the group was dedicated to helping Louis put his cousin on the Polish throne, essentially giving France control of Poland. d'Eon's mission was to get the good will of Empress Elizabeth. There was just one problem, the Empress refused to see any of the French diplomats.

So the Chevaliere and the people back in Versailles put their heads together, and came up with a brilliant idea. d'Eon would be disguised as a woman, and infiltrate the court of the Empress that way. The idea was that Empress Elizabeth would be more open to speaking with a female French diplomat. They were absolutely right.

Seven years later the Seven Years War is going poorly for France. d'Eon left Russia to serve as a dragoon in the French army. She was the Secretary to the French ambassador, and she must have been very helpful at the peace talks between France and Britain, because she was later awarded the honor of the Order of St. Louis, which, I have been told, is a big deal.

After being decorated, d'Eon was sent to London to assist the current French ambassador to England, the Comte de Guerchy. Unfortunately, the pair did not get on. d'Eon's overspending, and her insubordination made her a liability, and she was recalled by the French government in 1763.

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Had the Chevaliere returned to France as ordered, she most likely would have been thrown in the Bastile or worse. That was an unattractive option for d'Eon, so she decided to blackmail the French government. d'Eon was still a member of le Secret du Roi, and was in possession of certain sensitive information. Since the end of the Seven Years War the French had given up their ambitions in Poland, and were working towards an invasion of England. The Chevaliere threatened to expose the duplicity of the French government if they didn't assign her a pension, and let her live in peace.

The French government was, understandably, a tad uneasy about this arrangement, and were delaying their decisions. To hurry them up, and show that she meant business, the Chevaliere published her first tell-all book, filled with secret correspondence she had received as a spy. She promised that more would follow.

France quickly acquiesced to her demands, and d'Eon became an overnight celebrity. Her book was incredibly popular, but it was the mystery surrounding her gender that really had the English people hooked. See, the Chevaliere continued to dress up in women's clothes, even after quitting the court of Empress Elizabeth. She maintained a sense of mystery about her gender, to the point where people made bets about whether or not she was a boy or a girl. d'Eon herself refused to say.

After fifteen years in England, France reached out an olive branch. d'Eon would be allowed to return home on the condition that she assume the role and appropriate clothing of her gender. the Chevaliere jumped on the opportunity, and went back to France.

However, the transition was difficult for her. She wanted to keep her dragoon's uniform as a symbol of political power, and to maintain the same amount of political influence that she had before. The French government wasn't too keen on this. Several times she was forceably dressed in female clothes, and her political opinions were consistently ignored. She was, essentially pushed to the side, and in 1785 she moved back to England.

d'Eon was able to live off her pension for a while, but in 1789 the French monarchy was abolished, and the Chevaliere was left without a source of income. To support herself, she gave swordsmanship exhibitions, wearing her Cross of St. Louis, and branding herself as an Amazon. The English people welcomed her back with open arms, but as the Chevaliere grew older she grew increasingly more isolated. When an injury made her stop fencing in 1796 she moved into a flat with another old woman, and rarely left her home after.

Image result for Chevalier d'eonAfter her death it was, of course, discovered that the Chevaliere possessed male genitalia. This news, of course shocked the world. Most people believed the Chevaliere to be female, and there had even been court cases that confirmed this, the most convincing argument being that the Chevaliere said she was female.

And there is a large amount of evidence saying that the Chevaliere truly identified as a woman, and that it wasn't a guise she adopted for social and diplomatic purposes. The Chevaliere experienced a religious awakening in her later life, and affirmed that not only did she believe herself to be a woman, but that God had told her she was a woman.

Historian's today waver about d'Eon's sexuality, but d'Eon knew d'Eon best. If she said she was a woman then she was a woman, and while today's gender politics are very different from gender politics of the past, the fact remains that d'Eon identified as a woman, and that identity should be respected.

Gender identity aside, d'Eon was an amazing woman. She was a talented and capable diplomat, and excellent writer, and a colorful person.

*A note on pronouns: since the Chevaliere maintained that she was a woman for most of her life, I have used feminine pronouns to refer to her here. No one would know the gender of the Chevaliere better than the Chevaliere herself, and on while the Chevaliere hasn't appeared to me in a dream saying that she prefers she/her pronouns, it is reasonable to assume that female pronouns are the appropriate pronouns to use when writing about her.

Sources
Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont
d'Eon, the Fresh Face
Charles, chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont
The Incredible Chevalier d'Eon, Who Left France as a Male Spy, and Returned a Christian Woman
The Chevalier d'Eon

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Damn, Girl(s)-Dahomey Amazons, the Fiercest Women This Side of the Mississippi

The African kingdom of Dahomey (today's Benin) is sometimes referred to as 'Black Sparta'. This is honestly a little insulting to the Dahomey, because the Spartans were Boy Scouts with peashooters in comparison to the fearsome armies of the Dahomey, especially the ferocious all-female units known as the Dahomey Amazons.


Modern Benin highlighted in red.
These Amazons were formed originally sometime during the late 1600s. They didn't start out as warriors, their initial purpose was to hunt elephants, but in the early 1700s the Dahomey King was so impressed by their fighting, that he enlisted the Amazons as his palace guard, from there they were assimilated into the regular army.

There was nothing 'regular' about the Amazons however. These ladies trained more strenuously than the men, and were required to undergo huge tests of strength and endurance. Part of their training required climbing thorn covered walls without showing pain, and fighting off masses of prisoners of war. They were fierce women, and they never ran away from a fight. Of course, a large part of this is due to the fact that Amazons who did try to run away were executed on the spot, but harsh desertion penalties aside, these women had a huge 'death before defeat' mentality. Their motto was literally 'Conquer or Die'.

One of the more grim parts of the training that all Dahomey solders underwent was 'desensitizing training'. This training was designed to help untested warriors get over their fear of killing people. Once a year prisoners of war were placed into baskets, and taken atop a high platform. Green recruits would then toss these prisoners off the edge of the platform. At the base of the platform was a group of angry Dahomeians ready to tear the prisoners apart.

Image result for dahomey amazonsAdditionally, the Amazons were committed to a life of celibacy. They were all, nominally, married to the King (much in the way that Catholic nuns are married to Jesus), but they were forbidden from having sex. This was because pregnancy prevented a woman from fighting, and the Dahomey Amazons were all about fighting. To further insure that these women refrained from pregnancy inducing activities, it meant instant death for any man to lay a hand on an Amazon. In fact, when an Amazon went out, she generally had a slave girl walking ahead of her with a bell. Whenever they heard the bell, men would draw off to the side of the road, and look the other way, just in case.

The Amazons came from all walks of life. Some of them were third tier wives of the King whom the king did not wish to sleep with. Some were women trying to escape a life of drudgery, and some were girls who's parents had deemed them 'difficult' and 'unsuitable for marriage'.

Like the mythical Greek Amazons, the Dahomey Amazons were known for their incredible fighting skills. And, as with all such amazing warriors, it's difficult to tell fact from fiction sometimes. However, the sheer number of 'myths' suggest that, whatever the truth, these women were pretty badass. Here is an incomplete list of some of the more incredible feats that have been attributed to them:

  • Tearing out a men's larynx's with their teeth
  • Literally ripping stockades apart
  • Wearing belts made of thorns
  • Defeating entire African nations.
  • Took on a group of 40 elephants. Not only did they survive, but they killed 3 of said elephants. 
One of my favorite, if a bit gruesome, stories about these ladies is how they would decapitate their dead enemies, then boil the flesh off the skull. After the skull had been defaced (literally), it would then be added to the massive pile of skulls that supported the king and queen's thrones. This may sound like a crazy story, but you can view these thrones in the historic Abomey Palace (HYPERLINK) today.

Image result for throne of king ghez
Throne of King Ghez. There are a lot fewer skulls. Also a Getty
Images watermark, because who can afford $175 for a picture?
(If you can afford that, and want to donate to this blog, feel
free to contact me any time.)
During the times that the Amazons fought, Dahomey underwent some massive expansion. They conquered all of Benin, and most of modern Nigeria. The Dahomey were fearless and a little cocky. They regularly took down nations much larger than themselves, but they took on too much when they messed with the French. 

See, in 1890 the French hadn't conquered the Dahomey, but they had made 'protectorates' of the Dahomey's neighbors, and so when the Dahomey Amazons when a-raiding, they stepped on the toes of the French. And by 'stepped on the toes' I mean that one Dahomey Amazon decapitated the governor of the city, and wrapped it in the French tricolor.

While the French admired the Dahomey as fighters, that sort of insult obviously couldn't stand, so the French hit the Dahomey with everything they had. Thought they fought bravely (and visciously. aforementioned larynx tearing happened in the engagements against the French), the French defeated the Dahomey, and most of the Amazons were killed.

Image result for dahomey amazonsThere were 50 Amazons who survived, and most of them are said to have joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Most of them died in the early 1940s, but one woman, Nawi, lived until 1979. She lived well over a century, and was, probably, the last of the Amazons to die.

These women were vicious and ferocious. Their fighting tactics could make even the most desensitized of people squirm (which is why I haven't gone too in-depth), and if they lived today they'd almost certainly be categorized as war criminals. However, they are particularly notable because they were the first all female fighting regiment in all of documented history. They put the fear of God into the French (metaphorically) to the point that there was a specific addendum in the peace treaty that said that no Dahomey woman could ever pick up a weapon again. 

Sources