Category Archives: France
A Belgian farmer moved a rock and accidentally annexed France: the weird and wonderful history of man-made borders
This stone marked the boundary between Belgium and France. By moving it 2.29 metres, he expanded Belgium’s territory.
We must assume he had driven around it before — the stone was placed on this site in 1819, as part of the proceedings that established the Franco-Belgian border in 1820 after Napoleon’s defeat.
For the farmer, it stood in the way of his tractor. For the governments of France and Belgium, it was an active international border.
This story suggests a fragility to borders that contradicts their apparent solidity in an atlas or on Google Maps. Human history is, however, full of arguments about where the edges of property lie.
‘Beating the bounds’
Nations establish their borders through treaties. Rivers are sometimes relied on to set boundaries, but even here tensions rise when there are disputes about interpretation. Is the boundary on the river banks, the deepest part of the river, or the very centre of the flow?
The fact these measurements can even be calculated is remarkable. Expecting high levels of accuracy in a map is a recent development.
The first attempts at consistent accuracy were in 19th century military maps, such as Britain’s Ordnance Survey.
Later development saw the topographical charts used by bushwalkers and mountain climbers. But only with the arrival of digital mapping did it became normal to pin-point our location on a map in everyday situations.
The precise location of boundaries was usually part of local knowledge, kept and maintained by members of the community. For centuries a practice known as “beating the bounds” was followed in parts of Great Britain, Hungary, Germany and the United States.
Members of the parish or community would walk around the edge of their lands every few years, perhaps singing or performing specific actions to help the route stick in the participants’ minds. By including new generations each time, the knowledge was passed through the community and remained active.
Beating the bounds was a tradition of spatial knowledge that carried weight — it was accepted as evidence in cases of disputed boundaries. It was also part of a larger tradition maintaining borders through physical symbolism, whether for good or bad.
Britain has a long history of using enclosure (the fencing or hedging of land) as a means to excluding the poor from accessing common resources. In contrast, in colonial Australia, the first fences were built to protect essential garden crops from scavenging livestock.
Sometimes the importance of the border was demonstrated with an elaborate marker. The Franco-Belgian stone was carved with a date and compass points, representing not only a boundary but also the end of Napoleon’s destructive wars.
Likewise, the boundary markers of Sydney from the same period included the name of the Governor, Richard Bourke.
Manipulation … and incompetence
Formality was not always required. At a local level in the Australian colonies, boundaries were often marked by painting, slashing or burning a mark into a tree. These were easy to ignore, and frustrated landholders placed public notices in the newspapers cautioning against trespassing. People constantly took timber from private properties, or grazed their livestock without hesitation wherever was convenient to them.
Landholders included descriptions of their properties — detailing landmarks and neighbouring properties — in their notices, so there could be no doubt about which land was taken.
But these descriptions formed a circular argument: the potential trespasser needed to know who held each property in order to establish whose property they were about to enter. How effective they were at actually preventing trespass remains unclear.
Rivers were an obvious boundary marker, although European settlers quickly learned how to manipulate them to suit their own needs. By quietly blocking a section of river with trees and other rubbish, they could divert its route to suit their own wishes. By the time the surveyor came to verify or reassess boundaries, the landholder had been using their stolen acres for several years.
Throughout the 19th century, Australian survey departments devoted huge resources to undoing the confusion created by manipulation and incompetence in earlier years.
Markers of time
When the Belgian farmer this week got fed up with going around the stone and decided to move it, he was participating in a time-honoured tradition of manipulating impermanent boundary markers. But if he was able to move it, then who is to say it had not been moved before?
Historic boundary markers like this one have a habit of being in technically the wrong place, even if they are in precisely the right place to commemorate a moment in time.
Perhaps that is where their true significance sits.
Gordon McKelvie, University of WinchesterThe Wars of the Roses are normally portrayed as a series of battles between two warring houses, York and Lancaster, over who was rightly king of England. However, they were about much more than that. In many ways, the wars were really about standards of government.
Remembered mostly as an English-only affair, on the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, a key event in the wars, it is worth remembering how the wider politics of late-Medieval Europe, particularly France, shaped this important, and often commemorated, part of English history.
The Wars of the Roses were three distinct conflicts. The first phase of the wars ended when the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was usurped by the 18-year-old Edward IV, who then cemented his position by winning the Battle of Towton.
Conflict re-emerged a decade later, this time caused by the deteriorating personal relations between the Yorkist king, Edward IV, and his closest ally and advisor, the Earl of Warwick, later known as “the Kingmaker”. During this instability, problems in England were drawn into a wider sets of events. Foreign rulers, particularly the French king, Louis XI, and his main adversary, Charles, Duke of Burgundy, were able exploit these divisions.
A scandalous marriage
The Earl of Warwick started the 1460s as the key figure in government, with key military and diplomatic responsibilities that helped secure Edward’s newly won kingdom. However, as the decade progressed, Warwick’s control over the young king waned as Edward sought his council less and less. The key division between the two men was foreign policy, a key aspect of medieval government.
In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a knight killed fighting for the Lancastrians three years earlier. This was a scandalous marriage. Kings married to form wider alliances that would benefit the kingdom, never for love. The ceremony also occurred as Warwick was negotiating a union with a French princess, causing the earl much embarrassment.
A connected issue was the different visions that Edward and Warwick had of England’s role within wider European politics.
France was also politically unstable at the time, with Louis XI (nicknamed the “Universal Spider”) clashing with many of his leading subjects, particularly the Duke of Burgundy who had significant independent power.
While Warwick favoured an alliance with Louis, Edward preferred an alliance with the Duke of Burgundy.
The duke was more than simply a subject of the French king as Burgundy ruled over the Low Countries, which constituted much of modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. As such, Edward believed an alliance with Burgundy would provide England with stronger commercial ties with many Flemish and Dutch towns.
It also had the added advantage of avoiding an unpopular alliance with one of England’s traditional enemies, the French. The alliance was cemented when Edward secured the marriage of his sister to the duke in 1468.
Crisis and opportunity
While this was happening, many Lancastrians remained at large. The deposed Henry VI was eventually captured as a fugitive in July 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His French wife (Margaret of Anjou) and their son (Prince Edward) spent much of the 1460s trying to gain foreign allies to support a Lancastrian restoration, particularly the French king.
For Louis XI, however, Margaret’s cause was a lost one until divisions in England meant became beneficial to the French king. Little did he know that the situation in England was turning in such a way.
The fractions between Warwick and Edward were too big to fix. So Warwick allied himself with Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, instigating failed popular rebellions in 1469 and 1470, which caused them to flee to France. It was at this point that Louis XI brokered an unlikely alliance between Warwick and Margaret of Anjou, in which Warwick agreed to restore Margaret’s imprisoned husband as king.
The complex history of the following months can be boiled down to the key events. Warwick, backed by the French, invaded England in September 1470, though Margaret and her son remained in France until England had been secured.
Seeing his support collapse, Edward fled to the Low Countries, and Henry VI was restored as king. The Duke of Burgundy eventually backed Edward privately, giving him 50,000 florins and several Dutch ships. This allowed Edward to invade in spring 1471.
However, rather than facing one enemy, Edward IV faced two: Warwick and Anjou. After returning to England, he rallied enough troops and, on Easter Sunday, defeated an army led by Warwick at Barnet. Warwick was killed fleeing from the battle and his body put on display.
This should have ended the war, but Margaret, her son and many Lancastrians did not arrive in England until two days after the Kingmaker’s death. Margaret’s reluctance to cross the channel with her supporters (no doubt to the annoyance of the French king) meant that opposition to Edward was divided, which gave him the advantage in both battles.
The Yorkists regrouped and gathered more troops, before marching west for a second battle at Tewkesbury. The battle occurred just south of Tewkesbury Abbey, where the Yorkist army was able to overwhelm the Lancastrians led by Margaret of Anjou, whose 16-year-old son was killed in the fighting.
The twists and turns that led to Battle of Tewkesbury are more than just a good story. They tell us a lot about how English and European politics were intricately bound together, even during periods of civil war.
Both sides relied on foreign aid. France and the Low Countries were a places of refuge when the tide was turning against them, and the French were important backers. In all, this period in one of England’s most famous wars shows that civil wars, even in the middle ages, could be subject to foreign interference and the machinations of wider geopolitical events. Ultimately, the Wars of the Roses were not an exclusively English set of events.
In 1538, a new author burst on to the literary scene in Paris. Published by Denys Janot, four new works appeared within five years by a writer known as Hélisenne de Crenne.
The first was Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d’amours (The Torments of Love), a novel that depicted the disastrous consequences of an adulterous affair.
In 1539 came a collection of letters that explored women’s speech, education, friendship and legal rights among its topics.
In 1540 she published Le Songe (The Dream), a moral and didactic work in which a woman and her lover reflected upon the perils of lust.
Guide to the Classics: Virgil’s Aeneid
Hélisenne de Crenne was the pen name of Marguerite Briet, the daughter of a legal family from Abbeville. Few details of her life are certain, but we know that she obtained a legal separation from her husband, Philippe Fournel, Lord of Crenne, and moved to Paris, the centre of French literary activities and publishing. There she owned several properties. It appears that her son, Pierre, was a student there in 1548.
Hélisenne was the first living woman of the century to be printed in France and hers was the first autobiographical novel to be published in French. The publication of her works was remarkable in several ways.
Women represented less than 1% of all identifiable published authors in 16th-century France. Female literacy and broader education was not as high as for men at the same social levels.
Women at court were producing sophisticated intellectual and creative works that circulated in manuscript. Print publication provided a more open and visible expression than manuscript circulation, but was limited to a more select few. Even women in powerful social positions acknowledged expectations that women should restrict their speech to the domestic sphere.
Most women writers provided lengthy justifications or apologies for their venture into print. Hélisenne claimed to hesitate to make “mention of immodest love, which according to the opinion of some shy women could be judged more worthy to be conserved in profound silence than to be published for a widespread audience”. Nevertheless, she pressed on.
Rather than locate herself in a line of female authors, Hélisenne identified herself in a tradition of the male canon for her authority to write. The opening phrase of her Le Songe recalled none other than Cicero as her model:
…in imitation of him, the desire arose in me to relate in detail to you a dream worthy of recording.
Small books to carry
Print publication offered a woman without elite networks access to a large pool of readers, and perhaps a way to reach potential patrons at court.
The dedication of her translation to Francis I and her praise of his sister, Marguerite de Navarre (another prolific author whose works appears in print over the course of the century), in her Letters suggests that Hélisenne may have hoped for their patronage.
The staggered release of her writings seems to have been planned to heighten their impact. Her publisher, Denys Janot, mainly published works in French, targetting a popular market and using on-trend Roman typeface rather than the heavy, old-fashioned Gothic script.
Most of Hélisenne’s works, like those of other female writers, were in small sizes such as octavo, duodecimo and sextodecimo. These were portable and cheap, unlike the larger-sized folio and quarto scholarly and religious works intended to be consulted in libraries as part of a long-lasting record, though her translation of Virgil’s Aeneid was produced as a folio, with extensive woodcut illustrations.
A female perspective
Hélisenne was one of the first women writers who sought publication of her work seemingly as a conscious contribution to contemporary popular literature.
Her novel, The Torments of Love, involves an unusual structure, retelling the same events from the perspective of three different narrators: Hélisenne, her lover Guénélic, and Guénélic’s best friend, Quézinstra. Each section offers new insights to the overarching narrative, and each has its own distinctive tone and style.
The work’s balancing of elements from chivalric literature and a new emotional sensibility culminates in its conclusion as a battle between Athena and Venus over the book itself.
Her translation of Aeneid was equally radical, creatively embellishing the original from a female perspective with a highly sympathetic presentation of Dido’s plight and women’s loyalty in love.
She was very proud of her publication in the city that was the intellectual and publishing centre of France, saying:
… it is an inestimable pleasure to me to think that my books are on sale in this noble Parisian city, which is inhabited by an innumerable multitude of wonderfully learned people.
A commercial success
Hélisenne’s work were a commercial success, going through nine editions in a short, intense period to 1560.
Torments of Love is Hélisenne’s only work to be dedicated to female readers who she called “all honest ladies”. Elsewhere, she assumed her works would be of interest to everyone, including the king.
A later editor did not agree. Claude Colet explained in the introduction to the 1550 edition of her works that his extensive simplification of her Latinate style for young ladies was “to render the obscure words or those too much like Latin into our own familiar language, so that they will be more intelligible to you”.
The last known evidence of this groundbreaking author is in 1552 but, in her lifetime, she had achieved a remarkable series of literary firsts.
Swedish Viking hoard: how the discovery of single Norman coin expands our knowledge of French history
In the autumn of 2020, I was contacted by the field archaeology unit of the Swedish National Historical Museums, who are also known as the Archaeologists. They were excavating at a Viking-age settlement at Viggbyholm just north of Stockholm. During routine metal detecting of the site, they had located a very exciting find: eight silver necklaces and other silver jewellery along with 12 coins, everything delicately wrapped up in a cloth and deposited in a pot. In other words, a genuine Viking silver hoard.
As a professor in numismatics, the study of currency, I have spent my life becoming an expert in coins, so was called to help them learn more about this exciting discovery. It turned out to be a very interesting find. Most of the coins were the types that we usually see in Sweden: English, Bavarian, Bohemian (Czech) and Islamic coins as well as imitations of Islamic coins. But one of the coins was unusual.
A rare coin from Viking Normandy
Found within this hoard was a Norman coin from the late tenth century. It is only the second Norman coin found in Sweden, and they have rarely been found in the rest of Scandinavia. This is surprising because the duchy of Normandy was created when King Charles the Simple of West Francia (roughly modern-day France) gave a bit of land to the Viking chief Rolf (or Rollo) in 911.
You would have expected this affiliation to have led to an influx of Norman coins to Scandinavia, but this is clearly not the case. Maybe the reason is that the newly settled Vikings had learned from their Frankish neighbours to blend copper into the silver coins. And their Scandinavian cousins were only interested in high-quality silver coins, such as the English, German and Islamic ones.
But this is not the only interesting feature about the newly discovered Norman coin. It turned out to be of a type that had not been seen since the 18th century. Several scholars had doubted the very existence of this type of coin, arguing that the 18th-century record was a misreading. But the Viggbyholm find proved that they were wrong. The type did exist. So this Swedish find contributes to our knowledge of French history.
Viking Coins in Sweden
At the moment, I’m working in close collaboration with the Archaeologists to interpret the hoard. The coin shows that it should be dated to the last years of the tenth century. All the coins were turned into jewellery, mounted as pendants. The hoard was very carefully deposited within a house. This shows that the Viggbyholm hoard belongs to a category of hoards deposited for special reasons, maybe a ritual of a kind that we do not know the exacts details of.
Indeed, the average Viking hoard in Sweden is quite different.
Like Viggbyholm, it consists of a mixture of coins and other silver artefacts, the coins being of various origins. But contrary to Viggbyholm, coins and artefacts are often present in hundreds or even thousands. What’s more, coins, jewellery and silver ingots were often cut into pieces. They were bent and pecked with knives to check their consistency – good silver is soft. This is because the Vikings did not use coins as coins, they used them as silver bullion based on their weight.
Most of the coins were from abroad. When the coins left their homelands, whether from England, Germany, the Middle East or central Asia, their fixed value was effectively no longer guaranteed. In Sweden, they were merely bits of silver along with other silver artefacts. This is why the Vikings accepted all kinds of coins regardless of origin and age – provided that they were of good silver.
As a result, the obligatory tools of Viking tradesman were foldable scales and weights that could be brought along on long journeys. These items are often found in archaeological excavations, witnessing the Viking trade habits. Contrary to popular belief, Vikings were not only bloodthirsty raiders.
These Swedish Viking-age silver finds are part of a series of discoveries that have helped create a broader picture of Viking Britain, Ireland, the North Atlantic, Scandinavia, the Baltic, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Almost 900,000 silver coins are on record from these areas, besides other silver artefacts. Russia, Poland and Sweden have the most finds, with about 250,000 coins each.
Two-thirds of the Swedish finds are from the Island of Gotland in the Baltic, making it the place with the highest find density of medieval silver discoveries in the world. Thanks to an antiquarian tradition going back to the 17th-century, the Swedish finds are exceptionally well documented.
Written sources from this period are rare, so silver finds are extremely important for our understanding of Viking history. And as the Viggbyholm find demonstrates, new finds turn up and add to our ever-changing understanding of past society. This is what makes archaeology so exciting to work with.
In 1765, a young, peasant woman left a remote corner of rural France where her impoverished family had scraped a living for generations. She set out on a journey that would take her around the world from the South American jungles and Magellan Strait to the tropical islands of the Indo-Pacific.
Jeanne Barret (also Baret or Baré) was the first woman known to have circumnavigated the world. Abandoning her bonnet and apron for men’s trousers and coats, she disguised herself as a man and signed on as assistant to the naturalist, Philibert Commerson on one of the ships of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world.
During that voyage, Jeanne helped Commerson amass the largest individual natural history collection known at the time. Thousands of the plant specimens can still be found in the herbarium of the Paris natural history museum, although few bear Jeanne’s name.
Despite Jeanne’s singular achievement, she left no account of her journey or her life. She might have been entirely forgotten were it not for a dramatic revelation on a Tahitian beach in 1768.
Bougainville’s voyage famously promoted Tahiti as a utopian paradise of beautiful women and sexual freedom. But the Tahitian men were equally keen to meet European women and, despite her disguise, they swiftly identified Jeanne as one.
This revelation caused consternation on board and Bougainville was forced to intervene. He described Jeanne’s confession briefly in his best-selling narrative of the voyage. Having nothing but praise for her work, Bougainville ordered she be left alone to continue her work as a man.
Jeanne had done nothing wrong. French naval regulations did not forbid women from embarking, but there were penalties for men who brought a woman on board. Both Jeanne and Commerson insisted he was unaware of Jeanne’s ruse and that they did not know each other prior to the journey. As soon as the voyage reached French territory, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Jeanne and Commerson disembarked.
Jeanne’s adventure was soon retold in a book on celebrated women and in the philosopher Denis Diderot’s famous Supplement to the Bougainville voyage. She was ultimately awarded a French naval pension for her services.
The only known image of Jeanne appeared in a book of famous voyages, drawn long after her death. The image is probably allegorical. Loose sailor’s clothes represent her voyage, a bunch of flowers represents botany and the red cap presents her as Marianne, an iconic revolutionary symbol of liberty and the new French republic.
In reality, a servant and botanist like Jeanne would have worn gentleman’s clothes, carrying an assortment of pins, knives, bags, weapons and papers for collecting. Plants were pressed in the field in a portable plant press.
Despite such early renown, details of Jeanne’s life beyond her famous voyage were scarce. For many years, little was known about her past, what happened when she left the expedition in Mauritius in 1768, how she returned to France or what she did with the rest of her life.
Writing the biography of a woman about whom we knew so little was always going to be challenging. I found myself searching for a pre-existing model to base Jeanne on — in fiction or in history. But in literature, as in reality, women, the poor, the illiterate, the nonconformists and those from other cultures and languages are poorly represented.
When they appear, they are simplistic stereotypes — supporting characters for a lead role reserved for a wealthy, white man. A woman like Jeanne could be a peasant or a servant, a wife or a fallen woman — there was no conventionally acceptable opportunity for her to be an adventurer or an independent woman of her own means. She had to create that opportunity for herself.
Initial accounts of Jeanne focused on her work, appearance and sexual conduct. She was described as being indefatigable, an expert botanist and a beast of burden who carried heavy provisions while plant collecting. Men noted she was neither attractive nor ugly, but she behaved with “scrupulous modesty”.
Commerson suffered from an incapacitating leg injury during his journey, which limited his mobility. Jeanne was probably responsible for collecting most of the South American plants, of which over a thousand are still found in herbariums today.
When museum scientists began posthumously publishing some of Commerson’s species descriptions, pioneering evolutionary biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the only one who mentioned Jeanne’s contribution and courage. She was a servant, after all, so hardly warranted acknowledgement.
Commerson himself rarely mentioned Jeanne. It was not until after they left the voyage that he named a plant after her: Baretia bonafidia (now known as Turraea rutilans).
In his description of this plant, Commerson recognised her “thirst for knowledge” and that he was indebted to “her heroism, for so many plants never before harvested, all the industrious drying, so many collections of insects and shells”.
Nineteenth century accounts of Jeanne appeared as footnotes in the biographies of great men. Avoiding all impropriety, she was presented as Commerson’s “faithful servant”, like Crusoe’s Man Friday, or Phileas Fogg’s Jean Passepartout. An early biographer, Paul-Antoine Cap recounted a family story in which Jeanne loyally cared for Commerson on his deathbed in Mauritius and that she returned to live in his hometown in France.
“By way of remembrance and veneration for her former master, she left all she possessed to the natural heirs of the famous botanist,” he wrote. It was a story of boundless devotion much repeated in subsequent accounts.
It has been left to female researchers to uncover the details of Jeanne’s life. Attention has shifted to Jeanne as an individual, rather than an addendum to Commerson’s or Bougainville’s story.
In the 1980s, a local historian from Burgundy, Henriette Dussourd, uncovered the parish record of Jeanne’s birth in 1740 to a poor peasant family in the town of La Comelle. She also found a declaration of pregnancy (obligatory under French law) signed by Jeanne when she was 24-years-old. When she was five months pregnant, Jeanne had fled to Paris with Commerson, travelling under a new surname, as his housekeeper.
The circumstances are suspicious. Jeanne had presumably been working as a servant for the recently widowed Commerson and they moved to Paris to escape a local scandal. Early Parisian parish records were destroyed in the Commune fires of 1871, but Dussourd suggests a son was born, left in the Foundling Home and died young.
Since then, I have found that Jeanne had a second son while in Paris, who appears to have died while she was away on her voyage.
More recently, a biography in English has attempted to fill in the gaps left in the archival record. Glynis Ridley’s popular biography has been criticised for scientific errors and speculation, but her version of Jeanne’s story has propagated widely across the internet.
Unlike the loyal servant trope of the 19th century, Ridley utilises a modern cautionary tale to fill out Jeanne’s story – the well-rehearsed narrative that adventurous women inevitably come to a sticky end.
Ridley’s biography seeks to give Jeanne an agency that she lacked in 18th and 19th century accounts. She argues Commerson sought Jeanne’s advice as an expert herbswoman. Was an unsigned list of medicinal plants among Commerson’s archives, she asks, actually Jeanne’s work?
Appealing though this idea is, Commerson was, however, renowned for his medicinal teas, and herbal remedies were a staple of medical treatment at the time.
Nor is there any evidence Jeanne was taught to read and write by her mother, as Ridley suggests. My archival research found her mother died when Jeanne was 15- months-old. It seems more likely Commerson taught her to write and trained her in botany.
More controversially, Ridley contends that the story of Jeanne’s revelation as a woman in Tahiti was a cover for a gang rape on New Ireland, off Papua New Guinea. And that Jeanne fell pregnant and gave birth to a son in Mauritius.
This story originates from a description by the doctor on board Jeanne’s ship, Francois Vivez. Vivez disliked Commerson and intended to publish a salacious account of his servant when he returned to France.
In his manuscripts, Vivez describes Jeanne being attacked by her crew mates and her gender exposed after her identification by the Tahitians. While Vivez greatly embroiders his accounts, there is enough confirmation from other journals to suggest they are based on facts. On balance, it seems likely that Jeanne was identified as a women in Tahiti and some of the crew decided to confirm this for themselves when they were next ashore.
But was there a rape? It is difficult to interpret these 18th century accounts, written in either French or Latin and laden with historical contexts and classical metaphors that have long since lost their associations for modern readers.
Bougainville had ordered that Jeanne was not to be harassed. Rape was punishable by death in the French navy. Could a naval commander tolerate such a serious crime and insubordination to go unrecorded and unpunished?
It seems unlikely. In his only comment on the subject, Commerson noted Jeanne “evaded ambush by wild animals and humans, not without risk to her life and virtue, unharmed and sound”.
In any case, there is no evidence that Jeanne, suffering from scurvy and malnutrition, conceived a child on the voyage, nor of the obligatory declaration of pregnancy, or a child born in Mauritius.
A woman of means
Jeanne’s life in Mauritius and her return to France were actually more interesting than dramatic denouements that fulfil conventional expectations. The adventurous woman did not come to a sticky end.
She was not the faithful servant, comforting Commerson on his death bed. She was not left “alone, homeless, penniless” after his death, waiting for a man to rescue her. She did not return to Commerson’s hometown or remember him in death.
The archives tell a different story. I found Jeanne was granted property in her own right in Mauritius. When Commerson died, Jeanne was running her own profitable business. She bought a license to run a lucrative bar near the port.
By the time she married Jean Dubernat, a soldier in a French colonial regiment, she was wealthy enough to require a pre-nuptial contract. Her husband brought 5000 livres to the marriage while Jeanne brought a house, slaves, furniture, clothes, jewellery and a small fortune of 19,500 livres – two thirds of which would remain in her control. She was a woman of means.
Further research by Sophie Miquel and Nicolle Maguet in Dordogne, where Jeanne lived out her life after her return to France in 1775, has revealed more details. She purchased various properties including a farm, which is still recognisable today.
Her husband signed another legal document acknowledging these properties were shared equally with his wife. Jeanne gathered her family around her, including her orphaned niece and nephew, and ran a successful business as a landowner and trader – a far cry from her illiterate, impoverished childhood in Burgundy.
If we need a conventional story arc for Jeanne’s life, it should be rags-to-riches, rather than the loyal servant or road-trip tragedy. But better, surely, to construct Jeanne’s story with an objective attention to the archival record.
Jeanne was full of contradictions. She was a devoted aunt, yet left her own children in Paris to an unknown fate. She struggled to escape the constraints of France’s rigid class system and patriarchy, but also owned slaves. Her life does not always fit a comfortable familiar narrative structure.
What we do know reveals Jeanne as a confident, capable, resilient woman — neither victim nor hero but a complex, inspiring and unconventional role model.
Danielle Clode’s new biography of Jeanne Barret, In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World, is published by Picador Australia.