Michel, Louise (1830–1905)
Michel, Louise (1830–1905)
French anarchist and writer whose heroism during the Paris Commune insurrection and subsequent imprisonments, and example of selfless devotion to her ideals, made her one of the most celebrated female revolutionaries of her time. Name variations: "La Vierge Rouge" (The Red Virgin). Pronunciation: Loo-EESE Mee-SHELL. Born Clémence-Louise Michel on May 29, 1830, in Vroncourt (Haute-Marne), France; died in Marseille of pneumonia and exhaustion, on January 9, 1905, and was buried in Levallois-Perret Cemetery, Paris; daughter of Marie-Anne (called Marianne) Michel (1808–1885), a servant, and an unknown father, probably Marie-Anne's master, Etienne-Charles Demahis, or (more likely) his son Laurent; educated at home and then took teacher's training for three months at Lagny in Madame Duval's school (1851) and at Chaumont (1851–52); never married and had no descendants.
Founded and ran private schools off and on in Haute-Marne (1852–56[?]); taught in private schools in Paris, gradually becoming interested in left-wing politics (c. 1856–70); was active during the siege of Paris (Franco-Prussian War), running a school for poor children, taking part in demonstrations, and working on vigilance committees (1870–71); continued social work and teaching but also became a nurse and soldier during the Paris Commune, was arrested and sentenced to deportation to a prison colony for life (1871); after imprisonment in France (1871–73), sent to New Caledonia, where she taught the native Kanakas until amnestied (1873–80); triumphantly returned to France, began a career of anarchist speech-making, and was imprisoned (1883–86); mother died (1885); shot in the head at Le Havre by a would-be assassin (1888); arrested for incitement but released, then moved to London (1890); after a triumphal return to Paris, resided alternately in Paris and London, making frequent speaking tours in France until her death (1895–1905); return of her body to Paris for burial occasioned a huge but peaceful leftist demonstration (1905).
Principal writings (published in Paris unless otherwise noted): Mémoires (F. Roy, 1886, English version, The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, ed. and trans. by Bullitt Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1981); La Commune (P.-V. Stock, 1898). Selected other works: Le Livre du jour de l'an, historiettes, contes et légendes pour les enfants (J. Brare, 1872); La Misère, en collaboration avec Jean Guétré (A. Fayard, 1882); Les Méprisées, en collaboration avec Jean Guétré (A. Fayard, 1882); Le Bâtard impérial, en collaboration avec Jean Winter (Librarie nationale, 1883); La Fille du peuple en collaboration avec Adolphe Grippa (Librarie nationale, 1883); Légendes et Chants de gestes canaques (Kéva, 1885); Les Microbes humains (E. Dentu, 1886); Le Coq rouge, drame en 6 actes et 8 tableaux (Edinger, 1888); Le Monde nouveau (E. Dentu, 1888); Les Crimes de l'époque (N. Blanpain, 1888); A travers la vie, poésies (A. Fayard, 1894); Oeuvres posthumes, t. I: Avant la Commune (Alfortville: Librarie internationaliste, 1905); Le Claque-dents (E. Dentu, n.d.).
If she perhaps was not the most famous woman in France when she faced the 4th Council of War for sentencing on December 16, 1871, Louise Michel—garbed in black as she would be for the rest of her life—was undoubtedly the most notorious. Eighteen months before, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, it would have been quite impossible to predict that this Paris schoolmistress would emerge from near total obscurity to command such attention. Those fevered months changed her life forever; in a very real sense, she spent her remaining years trying to recapture that moment.
Louise Michel, a romantic who wrote poetry all her life, was born in the hamlet of Vroncourt in 1830 during the heyday of the Romantic movement in France and passed her first 20 years in the romantic setting par excellence of a gloomy, tumbled-down château, nicknamed "The Tomb," in one of the most rural of départements, Haute-Marne (some 140 air miles ESE of Paris), the same region that had once sent forth Joan of Arc . Her mother Marianne Michel , one of six children of a widow of literate and pious peasant stock, was taken in by an aristocratic family and raised with their children. Louise was the daughter of Marianne and either Laurent, the son, or Laurent's father, Etienne-Charles Demahis. After some family storms, Laurent moved to a nearby property, while Marianne and Louise stayed where they were. Louise always considered Laurent her father and called Etienne-Charles and his wife, Louise-Charlotte-Maxence Demahis (née Porcquet), her grandparents. They treated her with utmost kindness, and the local peasantry respectfully called her "Mademoiselle Demahis" despite the scandal of her birth.
Louise's grandmother's death (1850), preceded by those of her grandfather (1844) and father (1847), abruptly closed what to most appearances was an idyllic childhood, for Laurent's widow sold the château, thus forcing her and her mother out—though with a modest inheritance of 8.5 hectares (21 acres) and 8–10,000 francs from the grandfather's will. Louise had been very well educated, to a limited extent in the local school but mostly at home. Both the Demahis and Porcquets were of the noblesse de la robe (the judicial and administrative nobility). Etienne-Charles had been inspired by the Enlightenment's gospel of liberty and human rights. During the French Revolution (1789–99), he altered his name to "Demahis" from the aristocratic "de Mahis" and, unlike most nobles, remained true to the Revolution's principles after the Bourbons returned in 1814. Louise, obviously bright and imaginative, drank in colorful stories of the Revolution and staged scaffold speeches and mock executions with her playmates.
While she was feeding on legends of the Revolution and even more romanticized legends of her presumed Celtic (Breton) and Corsican ancestors, her grandfather also recognized in her a parallel streak of realism and hence encouraged her to read widely in the sciences, to collect specimens, and to perform simple experiments. (She later recorded her disgust at the omission of science in the education traditionally given to girls.) At the same time, however, she was influenced by the piety of her Michel relations, notably an Aunt Victoire, and her grandfather's death; she even thought of becoming a nun to pray for his irreligious soul. The religious life was not out of the question; marriage, given her education and individualistic, liberated personality, seemed problematic and, besides, held little attraction for her. She was "ugly," as she described herself: a high, sloping forehead, a large nose, a very wide mouth with a thin upper lip and pouting lower lip, skinny arms and legs, a deep voice, and robust gestures and movements. Her eyes—very dark and luminous—were about her only attractive physical feature. In her early teens, two local suitors showed up. She found their male pretensions to lordship ridiculous and told them so. She later would write, "I have always looked upon marriage without love as a kind of prostitution."
Two other traits from her childhood stand out. She loved animals of every kind and always kept numerous pets. The unthinking cruelty of the peasants toward animals sickened her. She later declared that "the origin of my revolt against the powerful was my horror at the tortures inflicted on animals." The other trait was her habit of giving away to the needy whatever might be at hand, whether hers or not. She seemed devoid of any proprietary sense and as a child would steal food or money from her grandparents (who were in narrow straits) to give away, even after warnings. Her sympathy for any sufferers, human or animal, simply overrode ordinary prudence or even regard for the generally accepted rights of others.
Forced now to support herself and her mother, Michel became a schoolmistress, about the only choice (save for a nun's habit) for an educated, respectable, single young woman. She earned certification (1852) through courses at Madame Duval's school in Lagny and the state institute in nearby Chaumont and began a career, in private schools, the details of which are vague because for unknown reasons her professional file vanished from the archives near the turn of the century and because her Mémoires (1886) is thin and unreliable on this period. She opened her own school in Audeloncourt in 1852, went off to Paris in 1853 to teach, but returned to Haute-Marne because her mother was ill; Michel tried to start another school in Audeloncourt, failed, opened one in Clefmont (1854–55), left and started one in Millières (1855), and finally, in 1855 or 1856, left Haute-Marne for good to teach in Paris, first at Madame Vollier's school and then, having sold the last of her land to finance it (1865), at her own school at 5, rue des Cloys, later (1868) at 24, rue Oudot.
Ihave finished. If you are not cowards, kill me.
—Louise Michel to her court-martial judges, 1871
Louise Michel was a talented teacher, intelligent, informed, imaginative—and unconventional. In her Mémoires, written after she had become a famous revolutionary, she portrayed herself as, even in Haute-Marne, an outspoken Republican and hence often in trouble with Emperor Napoleon III's officials. For example, she had her pupils sing the forbidden "Marseillais," told them not to pray for the emperor's health as they had been taught, and was reproved by the prefect of Haute-Marne himself for writing a piece in the local paper implying that Napoleon III was a new Domitian, a persecuting Roman emperor. Yet the authorities repeatedly granted her permission to open schools and furnished her with letters of recommendation, which they surely would not have done had her opinions and behavior been as politically "advanced" as she later asserted. In fact, her opinions evolved over a long time, for it is not clear that she became a Republican before the 1860s. Until then, she seemed most influenced by a misty medieval royalism, the Catholic fervor and social conscience of Félicité de Lamennais, and the romantic (but now increasingly Republican) humanitarianism of Victor Hugo—with whom, remarkably, while still in her teens she began a correspondence which lasted until his death in 1885.
Michel doubtless had felt stifled in Haute-Marne. Paris freed her to fulfill her intense desires for knowledge and self-expression. She became a regular at public courses of all kinds, notably the sciences, and at Republican lectures by Eugène Pelletan, Jules Favre, and others, steadily gravitating leftward. She encountered feminism in the Société de Droit des Femmes (run by Mme Jules Simon, André Léo , and Marie Deraismes ), which advocated equal education and better pay, and in 1869 she became secretary of the Société Démocratique de Moralisation, dedicated to finding workers food and jobs. She also encountered the Blanquists, followers of the Republican revolutionary conspirator Auguste Blanqui, and may have joined Karl Marx's International Workingmen's Association.
Michel's debut in political agitation came on January 12, 1870, when, dressed as a man ("so as not to bother or be bothered by anyone") and carrying a concealed knife, she joined the immense demonstration at the funeral of Victor Noir, a Republican journalist assassinated by Prince Pierre Bonaparte. "Almost everyone who turned up at the funeral," she later wrote, "expected to go home again in a republic, or not to go home at all." But no insurrection occurred. The pattern would become fixed for her: forever hoping—even expecting—the next meeting or demonstration or uprising would set in motion The Revolution which would open the gates to Humanity's glorious future. As fate would have it, the dramas played out in the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870–January 28, 1871), including the great siege of Paris, and the ensuing bloody tragedy of the Paris Commune (March 18–May 28, 1871) would supply immediate reinforcement for this pattern. Their melodramatic trappings and intensity swept Michel into an unrestrained involvement from start to finish.
She took part in peace demonstrations on the eve of the war, but once France was invaded she became a fiery patriot, infuriated at the government's incompetence. She first drew serious notice when, with two other women (André Léo and Adèle Esquiros ), she circulated a letter from the historian Jules Michelet calling for the release of several Blanquists arrested for seizing weapons from a barracks in order to overthrow Napoleon III's regime. They took the letter with several thousand signatures straight to the military governor of Paris, an almost scandalous thing for women to do. The appeal failed, but the fall of the French Empire on September 4, after the battle of Sédan, saved the rebels. During the ensuing great siege of Paris by two German armies, Michel ran a school for 200 girls aged 6–12 and a shelter for younger refugees, but she also organized the Women's Vigilance Committee of
Montmartre and was active in both and in the men's committee: "No one was very much bothered by the sex of those who were doing their duty." These committees roused spirits, denounced slackers, cared for soldiers, and saw to enforcement of siege regulations. Michel also joined demonstrations—to send aid to besieged Strasbourg, to protest the Republican government's lack of military and democratic zeal (October 31), to advocate enrollment of women (for which she was jailed on December 1–2 on a mistaken charge that she had organized it), and finally a violent demonstration (January 22) opposing surrender, when she dressed as a National Guard and carried a carbine.
By late January, resistance to German troops throughout France had been crushed, the country was exhausted, and a majority of the French wanted peace. Only the Radical Republicans and Socialists wanted to continue the war "to the last ditch." After two months of growing mistrust between the government (who were negotiating peace terms with the Germans from Versailles) and the suffering populace of Paris, the Paris Commune revolt began when the government suddenly tried on the night of March 17–18 to seize the artillery being held by the Paris National Guard. It was Louise Michel who first spread the alarm through Montmartre (the most important site) and who marched up the heights at dawn, at the head of a throng, to foil the seizure. It was her magic moment: "The Butte was enveloped in a white light, a splendid dawn of deliverance." The government, its attempt bloodily foiled, settled in to besiege the rebel city, now dominated by an amalgam of left-wing elements.
Michel was the outstanding female soldier of the Commune: "I love the smell of powder," she confessed. In the uniform of the 61st Battalion of the National Guard, she fought with utter disregard for her life, earning the affection of the soldiers though not of most officers, who disliked having women on battlefields. Tireless, she also organized ambulance nurses to remove the wounded from the field, nursed soldiers herself, continued with the Montmartre Vigilance Committee, presided over a "Club de la Révolution" which passed all manner of radical proposals (including a total revamping of all laws and the judiciary), sent in ideas for educational reform, continued her school and refuge, and once even slipped through the lines to Versailles and back to prove that her (rather harebrained) proposal to assassinate French president Louis Thiers was feasible. She was not, however, a high-level leader, e.g., on the Central Committee of the "Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and the Care of the Wounded" led by the Marxist Elizabeth Dmitrieff , or a "captain of guerrillas" as the government later charged.
Michel fought to the last when Montmartre fell early in "Bloody Week" (May 21–28), barely escaped death or capture, but gave herself up (May 23) to release her mother, who was being held hostage for her capture. She endured the horrors of the march to Versailles and the encampment on the Sartory plain, was singled out with some other "ringleaders" and twice examined by a court-martial, and finally was tried (December 16), convicted of armed rebellion (after more serious charges were dropped), and condemned to life under guard in a prison colony. She had admitted only the minimum at first, but especially after her pleas failed to save one of the Commune's leaders, Théophile Ferré, she defiantly confessed everything and even claimed responsibility for acts she had not committed. She probably had fallen in love with Ferré (though he did not reciprocate), and his execution (November 28) left a permanent wound in her heart. At her trial, she made a sensational appearance garbed and veiled in black, a spectral symbol of 25,000 dead Communards, accepted no attorney, challenged the judges to put her to death, and refused to appeal her conviction. Victor Hugo afterward exalted her bravery in a long poem, "Viro Major." (Verlaine would do likewise upon her 1883 conviction.)
After a long delay, Michel sailed on a prison ship to New Caledonia (August 24–December 10, 1873). During the voyage, her friend and fellow convict Nathalie Lemel completed Michel's conversion to anarchism which her experiences in the Commune had begun. Michel had told her judges that the Commune had meant "government by the governed while awaiting a great simplification." The failure of all the leaders of every political stripe during the war, including the Commune, had convinced her that "power itself is worthless, no one can do anything with it, and it's dead." Her long political evolution had ended: she was a devoted anarchist to the end of her days.
Life in the New Caledonia prison colony was difficult at best. Michel became revered by her fellow prisoners as a saint, selflessly caring for them, nursing and teaching and giving away whatever she had to the needy. Typically, she took a keen interest in her natural surroundings, conducted botanical experiments which helped to develop a strand of wheat suitable to hot climes, and through observing the native Kanakas helped to pioneer a new science—ethnography. She taught some to read and sided with them during their ill-fated revolt (1878) against the harsh French rule. Back in France, meanwhile, a long struggle resulted in a general amnesty for all the convicted Communards. Louise Michel, whose notoriety in 1871 had blossomed into fame during her exile, returned in triumph to Paris on November 9, 1880.
For the last 25 years of her life, Michel—when not in prison—lived a treadmill existence of travel and speech-making for anarchist and other left-wing causes. Dressed always in black and preaching even the most radical ideas calmly but with compelling conviction, she held great sway over audiences large or (as they often were toward the end) small. The police tracked her every move, while she, with her streak of mischievousness, enjoyed confounding them. Yet she was often amazingly naive about situations and over-trustful of people around her. She was jailed several times: 15 days in 1882 for disrespect toward authorities; solitary confinement, March 30, 1883–January 14, 1886 (though with some visits allowed to attend her dying mother) on a largely framed-up charge of inciting unemployed demonstrators to pillage; September–November 1886 for attempted incitement; April 30–June 4, 1890, for incitement of violence; and on September 16, 1897, arrest and deportation from Belgium. Fearing (with good reason) that the authorities might have her declared insane and put away for life, she took refuge in London (July 29, 1890) and did not return to France until November 13, 1895; thereafter, she alternated between London and Paris. She wanted to visit the United States and Russia, but nervous governments blocked her. Virtually all her public activity was confined to France, with Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Algeria the only other places she visited even briefly. Michel raised considerable funds for her causes over the years but often gave away what little she retained for her keep. She always hoped her voluminous writings would support her, but in vain. Until she died, she received a monthly allowance from the radical journalist, scandalmonger, and fellow deportee to New Caledonia, Count Victor ("Henri") Rochefort; also Anne, duchesse d'Uzès , a wealthy feminist (and royalist), gave her money when she would ask.
On January 22, 1888, while speaking in Le Havre, Michel was shot by a drunken man who took offense at her views. The bullet lodged permanently in her left temporal region. She took pity on the man and his poor family and refused to press charges. Her views on violence in fact betrayed a certain ambivalence. During the wave of anarchist bombings and assassinations in the 1890s, she stood by the perpetrators; but she herself believed humanity would be freed of its oppressors by a "spontaneous" general strike or uprising by the oppressed which did not have to be ignited by "the Deed" or the use of terror. When she joined the peace movement around 1900, she even began to suggest that The Revolution might be made peacefully. As for the Marxists, she sometimes shared causes (especially labor issues) and platforms with them but finally split with them for good in 1896, charging that they were founding a "new state religion," "a new papacy" with an "infallible hierarchy."
Michel was an outspoken feminist, but unconventional. She preached absolute equality and respect between the sexes. At her 1883 trial, she stated, typically, "What is surprising to you, what is appalling to you, is that a woman is daring to defend herself. People aren't accustomed to seeing a woman who dares to think." Husbands and wives should be "companions." But as an anarchist, she put no stock in voting and thus none in women's suffrage per se. Women should in no way separate their cause from humanity's, the fight for progress and universal peace. By 1890, she also was not favoring promoting work for women outside the home; in any event, women should not have to work outside. And by 1899, she was advising poor parents against giving too much education to their daughters lest they encourage a taste for luxury and thus incline them toward prostitution, which she abominated.
While on yet another tour, Michel died on January 9, 1905, in a drab Marseille hotel from pneumonia compounded by exhaustion. Anarchism was a decade past its peak, yet such was her fame and the respect for her courage and integrity that her Paris funeral drew upwards of 50,000 people. To the government's relief, the demonstration was largely peaceful. Coincidentally, that very day (January 22) "Bloody Sunday" in St. Petersburg began the Revolution of 1905, harbinger of the Russian Revolution she had lately been predicting.
Lemel, Nathalie (1827–1921)
French socialist, anarchist, and Communard. Born in 1827; died in 1921.
Member of the Socialist International, Nathalie Lemel became involved in radical politics during the epidemic of strikes and growing spread of trade-unionism in the France of the 1860s. Once a bookbinder, she founded a workers' restaurant with another bookbinder during the Paris Commune of 1871, but was deported with Louise Michel after the fall of the Commune. She later returned to France (1880) and continued her work with socialist and feminist groups until the start of World War I.
During her life, Michel was aided and cared for by a succession of female companions—Julie Longchamps (in the 1850s–60s), Marie Ferré (d. 1882, sister of Théophile), Nathalie Lemel, and (from 1890) Charlotte Vauvelle . Absent firm evidence, speculations abounded then and later that she was a lesbian, a virgin, no virgin, bisexual, had relations with Ferré or Hugo, and so on. But her strongest attachment was to her mother, whose care was her constant concern and for whose tragedy she, the bastard daughter, probably felt responsible. Her Mémoires, published a year after her mother's death, constantly evokes the terrible pain of that separation.
Michel was no theorist of anarchism. She knew Prince Kropotkin well, for example, but paid little attention to his—or anyone else's—philosophy. When not speaking, she wrote—not anarchist tracts, but vast reams of poetry (some of it fairly good) and endless, wildly disordered, absurd, blood-and-thunder novels nobody could read. Her Mémoires and account of the Commune, though, are of permanent value, however unreliable in their details. Asked what she would put in place of society's existing organization, she replied, "That doesn't disturb me much. After the Revolution some grand and productive idea of social renovation will emerge from the inspiration of the moment." Nor was she a party organizer or operative. During the Boulanger crisis (1885–89) and the great Dreyfus Affair (1894–99), she deplored the divisions among the anarchists, though she herself condemned militarism and anti-Semitism, but she refused to be lured to support any faction or the threatened Third Republic.
Rather, Louise Michel was a secular saint, prophet, and martyr, whose trials, exile, imprisonments, and endless pilgrimage through meeting halls and demonstrations caused millions to admire her courage if not necessarily her opinions. She glimpsed a vision on that charge up to the Butte de Montmartre, and it led her on: "When the Revolution comes, you and I and all humanity will be transformed.… That hope is worth all the sufferings we undergo as we move through the horrors of life."
Durand, Pierre. Louise Michel, la passion. Paris: Messidor, 1987.
Edwards, Stewart. The Paris Commune 1871. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971.
Girault, Ernest. La Bonne Louise: Psychologie de Louise Michel. Paris: Bibliothèque des Auteurs Modernes, 1906.
Goldsmith, Margaret. Seven Women against the World. London: Methuen, 1935, pp. 91–117.
Kieffer, Martin. "Louise Michel, the 'Red Virgin,'" in American Society Legion of Honor Magazine. Vol. 44, no. 1, 1973, pp. 35–53.
Lejeune, Paule. Louise Michel, l'indomptable. Paris: Editions des Femmes, 1978.
Michel, Louise. The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel. Edited and translated by Bullitt Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter. University, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1981.
Mullaney, Marie Marmo. "Sexual Politics in the Career and Legend of Louise Michel," in Signs. Vol. 15. Winter 1990, pp. 302–322.
Thomas, Edith. Louise Michel ou la Velléda de l'anarchie. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.
——. The Women Incendiaries. Translated by James and Starr Atkinson. NY: George Braziller, 1966. Trans. of Les Pétroleuses (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1963).
Boyer, Irma. Louise Michel: "la Vierge Rouge." Paris: A. Delpeuch, 1927.
Horne, Alistair. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870–71. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1965.
Hugo, Victor. Oeuvres complètes de Victor Hugo. Paris: Albin Michel/Imprimerie Nationale, 1935. "Viro Major," 12:82–3; notes, 12:360–61, 404; and plate, 12:489.
Lissagaray, Prosper Oliver. History of the Commune of 1871. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling . NY: Monthly Review Press, 1967 (1886).
Rougerie, Jacques. Procès des Communards, présentés par Jacques Rougerie. Paris: Julliard, 1964.
Thomas, Edith. Louise Michel. Translated by Penelope Williams. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980. Trans. of Louise Michel ou la Velléda de l'anarchie (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).
Tuchman, Barbara. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1941. NY: Macmillan, 1966. "The Idea and the Deed," pp. 63–113 (on anarchism).
Verlaine, Paul. Oeuvres complètes de Paul Verlaine. Paris: Albert Messein, 1911. "Ballade en l'honneur de Louise Michel," vol. 2, pp. 39–40.
Louise Michel's letters and manuscripts are located principally in Paris in the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand , the Bibliothèque nationale, the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, the Musée de Montreuil, and the Musée Victor Hugo; her personal papers are in Amsterdam (Netherlands) at the International Institute of Social History. In Paris, the Archives historiques de la préfecture de police contains important dossiers and clippings on her activities.
"The Paris Commune: 1871." Films for the Humanities and Sciences (FFH). Princeton, NJ.
David S. Newhall , Professor of History, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (Edwin Mellen Press, 1991)