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Life in Rural France

Living the French Dream….The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

A picture from 1911 of a women getting ready to protest about voting

3 Women Who Changed French History: Celebrating International Women’s Day

Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day and to celebrate I’m looking at three women who changed French history. But rather than looking at the obvious ones, such as Joan of Arc, Marie-Antoinette, or Marie Curie, I thought I’d look a little closer to home.

Living as I do in the South West of France I’m surrounded by history. We literally have a chateau on every corner and each little village has a story to tell. 

Throughout history, women have had a tough ride often not given the credit they deserved, and yet they’ve played a major role in so many historical events. 

So on International Women’s Day, I’m looking at the lives of three extraordinary women and telling their stories.

Are their names instantly recognisable? I’ll let you be the judge.

Aliénor of Aquitaine (c. 1122 – 1 April 1204)

A drawing with a woman on horseback holding a sword said to be Eleanor of Aquitaine
Image: unifiedcommerce.com

Eleanor of Aquitaine. Born in Poitiers her exact date of birth isn’t known but it’s thought to be around 1122. The daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aenor de Châtellerault, she was married to not one but two kings.

In fact, she’s the only woman to have been married to a king of England and a king of France, separately. That aside, she’s our first featured woman in French history.

Known as the rebel queen of the middle ages, she was one of the most powerful and influential women of her time, known for her beauty, intelligence, and political acumen. 

At just fifteen years of age, she married Louis VII of France, becoming queen of one of the most powerful nations in Europe.

Just before her marriage she was made an orphan and inherited Aquitaine, which at the time was one of the most powerful dukedoms in France. 

Can you imagine not meeting your husband till the day of your wedding? I certainly can’t.

Be that as it may, Aliénor married Louis VII, who was then a dauphin and not yet king, in Saint André Cathedral in Bordeaux. He was only sixteen and she was fifteen.

Used to beautiful things Aliénor had expensive taste. Her arrival, a few years later, at the royal court in Paris caused a few heads to turn and was quite the scandal with her flowing robes, furs, and provocative way of dressing.

Being a Woman in the Middle Ages

She struggled to accept the limitations being a woman placed on her which quickly earned her the title of a rebel. This was even further cemented when she accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade, which was unheard of for a woman.

And after ten years of marriage, having produced two daughters and no male heir, she managed to get a divorce. Only after she’d petitioned the pope twice.

As you can see Aliénor was no pushover and could certainly not be accused of being weak. But her story doesn’t stop there. She then married the future king of England, Henry II who was her ex-husband’s rival, in secrecy.

He was the ​​great-grandson of William the Conqueror and although this marriage was more productive, with five sons and three daughters, it was still not an easy one.

Aliénor was imprisoned for sixteen years for treason by her husband when she supported her eldest son, another Henry when he revolted against his father the King.

But between them, they created a dynasty that lasted from 1152 until 1453. Their seven children made strategic marriages ensuring powerful alliances between many countries in Europe.

There’s a story about Aliénor crossing the alps through the snow on horseback to deliver a ransom when Richard the Lionheart, her 3rd son, was kidnapped by the duke of Austria. She managed the negotiation of the ransom when he was handed over to the Emperor of Germany who was holding Richard captive.

No stone was left unturned till she got him back.

A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Aliénor was also responsible for introducing England to many of the different spices we use today. She encountered so much on the crusades that she brought with her knowledge of spices such as cumin one of my favourites, as well as ginger and cinnamon.

But it wasn’t till Henry died that she was able to come into her own. Before that, she’d lived in the shadow of first Louis and then Henry. Once Henry died she became both Queen Mother and Queen Consort ruling on behalf of Richard and then her son John.

She never forgot her heritage and remained supportive of Bordeaux and the Aquitaine region. Her legacy has inspired generations of women to break free from traditional expectations and pursue their dreams and ambitions.

On International Women’s Day, we celebrate Aliénor’s life and legacy.

Lady Carcas - Fact or Fiction

It’s no secret that I love the fortified city of Carcassonne and its approximate 2,500 years of history. And if you decide to visit it’s definitely worth doing the Cité de Carcassonne Guided Walking Tour so you don’t miss anything.   

But today I want to tell you a story, the story of the legend of Lady Carcas. Is she a fictional character dreamt up by those wanting to sell the history of Carcassonne? Or is she a woman who changed french history? 

Well according to legend it was Lady Carcas that gave Carcassone its name. If we take a step back in time to the 8th century we’ll find Carcassonne under the rule of the Saracens.

The city was under siege by Charlemagne who was trying to regain control for the Franks.

The Siege of Carcassonne

Ballak, the Muslim prince of Carcassonne was killed during this siege, and his wife, Lady Carcas, stepped up and took charge of things. The siege had raged on for five years, and the people of Carcassonne were despairing, fearing that they would soon be overrun and slaughtered by the enemy.

But Lady Carcas had devised a cunning plan.

Food was scarce but there was one remaining pig. She ordered her people to gather all their last remaining scraps of food and feed it to the animal to fatten it up.

The pig was then thrown over the city walls, and when Charlemagne and his men saw it they assumed that the people of Carcassonne had plenty of food and were well-prepared for a long siege.

Impressed by the apparent abundance of food, they decided to retreat, leaving Lady Carcas and her people victorious. So much so that they decided to ring the city bells in celebration.

Upon hearing this one of Charlamagne’s men shouted Carcas sonne, Carcas rings, and that’s how the city got its name.

More than just a Great Legend

A replica of the bust of Lady Carcas can be seen welcoming visitors at the drawbridge entrance to the old Cité. The original statue dates back to the 16th century.

A local delicacy called “Friandises de Dame Carcas”, a shortbread style of biscuit is also sold in and around Carcassonne. And there is even an inn named after her, Auberge de Dame Carcas.

But Lady Carcas is more than just a legend – she is also a symbol of strength, resilience, and ingenuity.

Her story reminds us that women have always played an important role in history, even when their contributions have been overlooked or forgotten.

Olympe de Gouges (1748 - 1793)

Portraint of Lympe de Gourges from the 18th century
© Olympe de Gouges/WikiCommons

Born in Montauban about 50km north of Toulouse Olympe de Gouges was a political activist and is considered to be one of the first feminists.

Originally born Marie Gouze she took on the pseudonym of Olympe de Gouges after the death of her husband. The name was derived from her mother’s first name and her family name. 

She moved to Paris with her son and became involved in the literary and political circles of the time. As a playwright, she used her work to voice her opinions on freedom of speech and human rights. 

One of the first Female Advocates of Human Rights

Originally a supporter of the French Revolution she soon changed her mind when she realised that the equality was in favour of men only.

In 1791, she wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne) which was in direct response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The French Constitution of 1791 didn’t allow for things such as a woman’s right to own property, have marriage equality, or get divorced. This being the case what had women gained from the revolution? Olympe de Gouges argued that men and women should be equal and anything less was immoral and wrong. 

She was extremely vocal in a time when women had nothing. They were second-class citizens to men and their opinions counted for nothing. But she wanted to change things, none of which did much for her reputation with the leaders of the revolution.

“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must also possess the right to mount the rostrum.”

Olympe de Gouges

Feminism wasn’t the only thing she was passionate about though. She campaigned tirelessly to get rid of the death penalty, the right to get divorced, and better facilities for the poor.

Her play “L’Esclavage des Nègres”, encouraged people to join her in the fight against slavery.

Eventually, though, her outspokenness, writing, and campaigning got her into trouble and she was arrested. Despite having been a supporter of the Revolution the prosecution argued that her writing showed support for the Royalists.

She was sentenced to detail and executed by guillotine on November 3rd, 1793.

Sadly, it wasn’t until the 20th century that her work was rediscovered and her contributions to the women’s rights movement were recognised.

Today, Olympe de Gouges is remembered as a pioneer of women’s rights and a champion of equality.

Her declaration and her plays continue to inspire women around the world to fight for their rights and to challenge the status quo. On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the life and legacy of Olympe de Gouges.

Bon Journée Internationale de la Femme

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