La Guerre des Demoiselles – The War of the Maidens

This is one war that you are unlikely to find in the history books. It took place in the Ariege Department of France in the 19th century but was at its height in 1829-32.

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In 1827 the government brought out a new forestry code to be applied by 1829. This code prohibited what local people regarded as their long-established traditional rights in respect of how they accessed and used the forests around them.  They used wood for building, collected firewood, hunted, fished and gathered food and used parts of the forest for pasturage for their small herds and flocks.

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The implementation of this code was a disaster for them and anyone caught breaking the new laws was subject to a heavy fine and/or imprisonment.

To make matters worse growing industrialisation also created a need for charcoal and deforestation started to take place on a grand scale. The charcoal burners, the forge masters and the forest wardens (known as ‘the salamanders’ because of their yellow and black uniforms) became the most hated classes of men amongst the mountain people.

Les Demoiselles (the Maidens) made their first appearance in Saint-Lary in May 1829. Twenty forest guards found six trespassing shepherds and their flocks and tried to seize them. They were quickly surrounded by around a hundred Demoiselles who hurled insults, threats and stones until the forest guards were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Other bands of Demoiselles began to form in many of the villages and from this point a type of guerrilla war broke out, confined at first to the Couserans and western parts of the Ariege but eventually spreading throughout the Department.

The name Demoiselles derived from the disguises the groups of men adopted – blackened or masked faces, a sheepskin or veil over their heads, long white shirts worn over their trousers like a dress. They commanded huge local support and the different village groups communicated either by horn toots or by smoke signals.

The king and his government marched in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmes to quell the uprising but to little effect. The reason was simple. The Demoiselles knew the wild, mountainous terrain and the soldiers did not. Of those Demoiselles who were arrested most were quickly released as there were no witnesses to speak against them.

The ineffectiveness of these measures prompted the government to take more severe action. The fines for incursions in the forest were substantially increased and payable on the spot which for many was impossible. For good measure there was also a huge increase in taxes.

Nothing daunted the Demoiselles continued their resistance and from 1830 they marched and protested – these protests turning increasingly more violent. They targeted in particular the forge masters who took wood in great quantities to feed their forges and the ‘Salamanders’ who were supposed to protect them.

Finally a Commission was established to find a solution. In 1831 a ministerial decree restored the grazing rights to the people and a second decree cancelled the code of foresters which started the war in the first place. As an additional act of benevolence, the government gave a general amnesty to all imprisoned and called a halt to any further judicial proceedings.

Over the next thirty years the rebellion never quite died away; rather it smouldered sullenly, bursting into flames every now and again and the Demoiselles would rise again to harass charcoal burners and forge masters.  However the arrival of the railway and the discovery of iron ore in the area reduced the need for charcoal, put the brakes on deforestation and the Demoiselles disappeared quietly back into the forests.

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6 thoughts on “La Guerre des Demoiselles – The War of the Maidens

  1. What a fantastic story and one, you are right, I would never have found on my own. I love the image of the men with blackened faces, sheepskin wig or veil and long dress like shirts for all the world looking like a band of vicious young women beating off the opposition. French country folk have always been good at Résistance, non? I would like, if I haven’t recommended her before and if you haven’t come across her, to recommend Nessa from ‘Life Dans La Lune’ — she is a little further North in Tarn et Garonne, is a wonderful historian and writer and I do think you would enjoy one another’s blogs. https://vanessafrance.wordpress.com/ I so enjoy your stories. I don’t have a kindle so haven’t been able to work out how to get your book but I’m working on it (I have a cunning plan ….) Hope life treats you well xx

  2. thank you. I only fell over the story by chance. I do follow Ness and really enjoy her posts but thanks for the idea.
    You don’t actually need kindle to get my book. Amazon will let you down load for free a reading device and then you can enter the world of ebooks which is, I have to say, not as much fun as holding the real thing in your hands. However, it does save on storage and dusting…if you indulge in such a hobby! 🙂

  3. This is wonderful. It seems like this was the French equivalent of the Enclosures Acts in Britain, which worked, of course – and the Rebecca Riots which sort of did. It’s good to think that people-power can work. I’m so glad you’ve stumbled across it. Is it not well known in France, then?

  4. Hi Cath – I also saw similarities with the Luddites – not with the issue but with the manner the people carried out their protests. I don’t think it’s well known except perhaps in the Ariege itself where there is still a fiercely independent spirit ready to rise up if something the Ariegeois hold dear is threatened. I found reference to it in an old book I picked up at a vide grenier along with other tantalising snippets that I shall research in due course.

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