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The French and Christian women

· ​Interview with Elisabeth Dufourcq ·

Elisabeth Dufourcq is the author of an important work, Histoire des Chrétiennes, reprinted in 2015 by Tallandier, and also of a study on women religious missionaries, Les Aventurières de Dieu (JC Lattès, 1993), which was awarded the bronze medal by the Académie Française. She is a Doctor of Political Sciences, a former member of the National Committee and former Secretary of State for Research. At the age of 78 she teaches History of Sciences at the Institut Catholique in Paris.

St Genevieve (19th century)

When in history do we first encounter Christian women involved in politics in France?

If you are referring to the territory, since the term “France” appeared only later, a few figures emerged immediately after the end of the Roman Empire. The genius of Christianity, after the fall of the Empire, was to have succeeded in evangelizing the recently arrived new conquerors and to have been able to Christianize them in a relatively peaceful manner. Pope Gregory the Great was able to organize marriages between sovereigns which produced a sort of domino effect: Clotilde married Clovis, then Clovis’ daughters married Saxon princes in England. And the English Saxons set off to evangelize their grandparents who were natives of Saxony. However, even earlier there had been a very interesting phase, that of the great aristocratic women of Roman Gaul and of Cappadocia. Here the most emblematic figure is undoubtedly that of Macrina to whom one of her brothers, Gregory of Nyssa, dedicated his Life of Macrina. Having received a careful biblical education from her childhood, Macrina lived in an extremely simple way. On her father’s death she decided to consecrate herself to a “non-material and more ascetic life”, the life of a nun, to the point that when she herself died she possessed nothing but a cross and an iron ring. St Macrina lived in advance the ora et labora of the Benedictines: she worked with her hands and recited the Psalms. And this same model is imitated in the Bordeaux region.

The culture of work must have been very important among the first figures of Christian women who were to make an impact on their time.

Yes, the cult of work marked Europe to the point that today we are still nostalgic for it. In Benedict’s Rule there is a very beautiful formula. If you have no work you must ask for some. Thus there have been women religious who have copied manuscripts, have taught and have been active in hospices. From the fourth century several aristocratic women worked and lived very modestly; they spun and they cooked. But this cult of work is inseparable from that of thriftiness. From this stems an idea that I find very interesting: there is an equality between men and women precisely from the moment that they practice great frugality. Since the early Christian centuries, this spirit, that of the Desert Mothers, has animated an entire arc of territory which stretched from Egypt to Ireland, passing through the monasteries of Jouarre, not far from Paris.

This was the case of St Genevieve, in a certain way patron saint of committed Catholic women in the city of Paris.

Genevieve was both very rich and very thrifty. She came from a family of great Frankish leaders to whom the Romans hadgiven much land and she took the veil at the age of 20. She had great authority because her practice of fasting brought her prestige and she exercised the functions of curator, that is, she was responsible for the maintenance of streets and for supplies, hence she occupied a key position in Paris. When Attila threatened the city in 451, she gathered the mothers of families in the baptistery of the city to urge them to pray and she forbade the notables from transferring their possessions to safer cities. Attila’s army withdrew and Genevieve’s prestige increased. However, I am not quite sure that Genevieve is one of the most up to date models, given that she belonged to the early phase of feudalism. It is nevertheless certain that she was a woman who could speak to the important people of this world. But an analysis of her Life brings us back to the idea that a woman’s authority is always linked to great frugality, whether in the case of Genevieve or of Radegund, the wife of a Frankish sovereign venerated as a saint, of St Joan of Arc or even of Blanche of Castille, who played a leading political role as the regent of her son, Louis ix, the future saint, when he went on a Crusade. In France, but more generally in Europe, women played a fundamental political role until the reign of Philip the Fair, when the Salic Law was introduced.

Did the Crusades have an impact on the commitment of women to political issues?

Yes, of course. At the famous Battle of Hattin in 1187, the French cavalry was decimated. For 30 years, an entire generation, it was the women who managed the castles. At the beginning of the 13th century when the castles were abandoned by the knights who had left or had died in the Crusade, all the oaths of fidelity to the sovereign were transferred to the widow. All the acts of feudal law were signed by her. In France, on the King’s death Queen Blanche of Castille took the role of regent for a long time before her son came of age. In the absence of Louis ix who had departed on a Crusadeit was she who monitored the construction of the Sainte-Chapelle. And when he came to the throne the sovereign showed deep deference to his mother, often giving her a pre-eminent role. In 1241 he consented to her presiding at the General Chapter of Cluny, and the monks knelt before her to pay her homage. The importance of the birth of courtly love should also be emphasized. In fact we still do not understand why this poetry centred on the figure of a woman developed in the 12th century but indeed this development took place. Even before the Crusades, some women played very important roles. This is the case of the powerful Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who supported the Gregorian reform. At the height of the Investiture Controversy, when Gregory vii was threatened and in armed conflict with the Emperor, it was in her castle that he sought shelter and it was in her fortress at Canossa that in 1077 the Pope received the Emperor Henry iv, at last subdued.

Joan of Arc (1485)

In France Joan of Arc played an important role to the point that still today she is the object of much political exploitation. And yet, reading the records of her trial, one is struck to note how she fought against the exploitation of spirituality.

All this is very modern! Here is a woman who had no advocate or any legal training but who was so intelligent that she never failed to refer her accusers to the nature of their accusations. She had common sense and instinct, she understood both what was political and what was spiritual. And when she was asked to swear on what she was to be asked, “in matters of faith on what you know”, she answered: “I do not know on what you want to question me. Perhaps you will ask me about things that I will not tell you”. When asked to recite the Our Fathershe refused, saying: “Hear my confession and I will willingly recite it to you”. Before being put in prison she had an extraordinary influence on the army, she impressed the soldiers. And she had that influence because of her way of praying and her direct relationship with God. She certainly had an extraordinary charism.

Joan of Arc’s destiny brings me to think of that, no less extraordinary but more discreet, of those adventurers of God, the missionaries to whom you have dedicated the four volumes of your thesis. Although they were not political women, they played an important role in the society in which they settled.

Of course, their destiny too was extraordinary. They were women from the Sarthe who founded works in Chile, Brazil and Peru, who are considered monuments in those countries even though they were completely unknown in their native villages. Examples such as these abound: a Sister of St Joseph of Chambery who settled at São Paolo in Brazil when it was still a village, or Justine Raclot, Mother Matilda, the first woman missionary in Japan in 1872, of the Congregation of the Infant Jesus Sisters, or Nicolas Barré, a pioneer in the education of youth. There are many theses to be written! In the 19th century emulation in the spiritual life and mysticism were vehicles of a very creative spirit of female initiative. In one century those women built hospitals and educational empires on the five continents.

The 19th century of God’s adventurers was followed by the 20th century with its World Wars. Who in your opinion were the great figures of French Catholic women in war time?

I think straightaway of Geneviève de Gaulle, the General’s niece, deported to Ravensbrück in 1944. There were 40,000 deported women in the concentration camp and all religious activity had been prohibited there since 1942. Five hundred women arrived in August, including Yvonne Baratte, a Christian woman who died on Passion Sunday in 1945. Her companions testified that every Sunday the Christians in the camp would gather to recite together a few passages which they remembered from the prayers of Mass. Geneviève de Gaulle was one of those women. She had arrived there in February 1944, her body covered in sores, having been beaten by an SS guard. She spoke German and it was thanks to her that the camp came to learn of the liberation of Paris. Those women then chanted the Magnificat. Beside Fr Wrezinski she was then involved in Tous pour la Dignité [All Together in Dignity ](atd) Quart Monde, of which she was President in France for about 30 years. Throughout her life she dedicated herself to the most underprivileged people. These were women who, despite being prisoners, carried the Gospel within them and resisted thanks to Christianity. They were women of the mettle of a Joan of Arc, who saw the errors of their judges and tormentors, or of a Madeleine Delbrêl, endowed with enormous common sense and great psychological intuition. In speaking of her, it is necessary to recognize the importance of the Girl Guides Movement in the emancipation of many women: it provided roles of responsibility and an ecological dimension. It was a school of extraordinary autonomy.

You are Christian and have had a political career; which is more difficult in politics, being a Christian or being a woman?

The two things go hand in hand. After 1981 I founded an independent trade union and my political action thus began with unionism through a search for freedom. I am likewise very sensitive to Christian independence, to independence of thought. I have frequented many wealthy circles and I have not been impressed. What is certain is that in unionism I never came across the archaism and male chauvinism of political spheres. One sentence I have frequently heard is “she says so because she is a woman”. It is in politics that I have rediscovered that I am a woman.

Marie-Lucile Kubacki

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