One Saturday during the walk, I chatted with a local man who noticed me painting the mountain range to the west. He was running errands in a 4×4 with two Huskies in the rear and I was installed on a large rock near a crossroads. ~ Mr. Robert Raufast told me about the Guerre de Demoiselles in the Ariege. During 1830 to 1850, give or take a few years, locals rose up against the Maitre de Foret, officials (usually outsiders), who claimed wood from the region for the crown. ~ The people who lived in the region weren’t happy about losing their firewood and lumber. Disguised as women, the men hid in trees to scare people away from the forest, and built local fear that spirits were haunting the area, rumors that eventually would keep the officials away.
Still photo from film La Guerre des Demoiselles, directed by Jacques Nichet.
Image © Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
Later, I researched the historical event and found this fascinating book: Forest Rites : the War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-century France by Peter Sahlins. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994.
Quotes from the book follow:
“Nineteenth-century peasantry in the Pyrenees. Certainly there are linguistic affiliations: sylva, for example, was the term used in the eastern Languedoc, as in medieval Europe, to designate the totality of forest lands, including brush and pastures.”
“But there is little explicit evidence to make claims about the symbolic meanings of the forest in local peasant culture, especially the identity of the forest as feminine. After all, the forest could be considered a male space, insofar as it was primarily men’s responsibility to gather firewood and building materials from the forest. Moreover, many of the supernatural creatures who inhabited the forest had masculine characteristics, not to mention the phallic possibilities of trees. ”
“Yet the peasantry’s modes of exploiting the forests, their material techniques adapted to the harsh mountain environment, were clearly identified with a female space and as women’s work, for the male peasants “gardened” the forest. To the forest administration, this had the appearance of disorder and chaos. But to the peasantry, the forest was exploited in a mode that matched its material and symbolic characteristics: vitalistic, disorderly, and feminine.”
“The forests provided the food, wood, and timber essential to a peasant’s livelihood; they protected villages from rockslides and floods; they provided a source of cash income; and they gave protection, sites of refuge from the law. Forests were also inherently destructive. The fact that women in the Pyrenees could inherit property and act as household heads in the public domain led to a certain notoriety not unlike that of the Demimonde. ”
“The first reports of peasant men “armed and disguised as women” in the royal forests of Saint-Lary were near the district called the Castillonnais, several municipal pasture animals in the royal forests, against the restrictions on pasture animals in the royal forests.”
“But certain peasants of those same communes took matters into their own hands, chasing the royal charcoal-makers from the forests. By the last week in May, bands of men in the forest appeared regularly in their distinctive dress, cutting wood in prohibited areas and freely pasturing their herds of sheep without regard for the restrictions. Men ‘entirely disguised as women,’ gathering to the sound of a seashell [conch shell], chased several forest guards from their houses with guns. At Illartein, during the night of 27 June, and at Bordes, during the night of [omission in the original 19th c. text], peasant rioters presented themselves as Demoiselles to the village innkeepers, warning them not to take in guards.”
In 1983, a film by director Jacques Nichet captures the rebellion of Pyrenees men and women in La Guerre des demoiselles shown in 2011 in a cultural Festival of Resistance.