Blog Post

February 2022 – Of Fishwives and Politics, Then and Now

Carrie F. Klaus for the SSEMWG Blog

On February 2, 2021, as she prepared to address France’s National Assembly during a debate over extending the state of emergency declared in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Mathilde Panot, a representative of the Val-de-Marne district just outside Paris, heard the words “folle” (madwoman) and “poissonnière” (fishwife) launched at her by another delegate. In a tweet the next morning, she posted a video of the incident, called out the sexist slurs, and demanded an apology and a sanction. She also sent a formal letter to the President of the Assembly. In the tweeted video, Panot included clips of other women who have faced misogynist attacks on the floor of the Assembly in recent years, including a female delegate who received catcalls because of her flowered dress; one whose speech on gender parity was interrupted by a male delegate who shouted “C’est qui cette nana?” (Who’s that chick?); one whose remarks were interrupted by male colleagues making cackling noises, to which she responded “Je ne suis pas une poule!” (I am not a hen!); a Minister of Culture and Communication, Fleur Pellerin, who was compared to a flowerpot because of her name; and a woman who, when addressing the Assembly, was asked if she would be at the usual hotel at the usual time.[1]

The incident with Panot caught my attention because I was working at the time on a chapter examining the contributions of Parisian fishwives—the harangeres des Halles, herring-sellers of Les Halles—to the Fronde, a series of rebellions against the crown in mid-seventeenth-century France. Les Halles, the massive food market in the center of Paris that was dubbed “le ventre de Paris” (the belly of Paris) by Émile Zola in the nineteenth century, was the city’s main wholesale market from the twelfth century all the way up until 1969, when its activities were moved to their present location in the suburb of Rungis. In Politics in the Marketplace, Katie Jarvis describes the political and economic importance of Les Halles at the time of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. “The king depended on a well-maintained food supply to keep order,” she explains. “Therefore, the monarchy was heavily invested in activity in Les Halles. Any nongrain foodstuff entering the capital was directly routed to Les Halles, where officials regulated its distribution. This was no small feat: wholesalers annually sold 350,000 sheep, 120,000 calves, 80,000 cattle, and 40,000 pigs at Les Halles.”[2] Jarvis’ research suggests that three quarters of the food merchants in the main markets of Paris—including Les Halles on the Seine’s Right Bank and its satellite market at the Place Maubert on its Left—were women, numbering about a thousand by the start of the Revolution in 1789. Although we must adjust these figures downward for the middle of the seventeenth century, when the population of Paris was about two thirds of what it was by the end of the eighteenth (about 440,000 during the Fronde compared to about 650,000 during the Revolution[3]), the market women’s impact is clear.

These women gained fame not only for their economic activities, but also for their verbal dexterity. In his history of Parisian French, R. Anthony Lodge explains that through regular interactions with suppliers, customers, and colleagues, and as they dealt with speakers of various registers and of regional dialects and languages, the female food merchants of Les Halles would by necessity have become skilled communicators.[4] Male leaders of the Fronde—most notably François de Vendôme, Duke of Beaufort—drew upon the market women’s rhetorical prowess and wide influence, hiring them to spread ideas and information orally among illiterate Parisians. Even Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the chief minister of regent Anne of Austria and the frondeurs’ number-one enemy, tried to recruit the most famous harangere, a woman known as Dame Anne, to his cause.[5]

The market women also faced misogynist push-back, as demonstrated by the pejorative connotations that the term harangere had acquired by the seventeenth century (like its English equivalent fishwife). In 1690, Antoine Furetière wrote in his Dictionnaire universel, “On appelle figurément & par ressemblance toutes les femmes rustiques fortes en gueule, qui disent des paroles, ou qui font des actions sales & insolentes, que ce sont des Harangeres, qu’elles disent des injures de Harangeres, parce que ces sortes de femmes sont grossieres & insolentes”[6] (All coarse, loud-mouthed women who speak words, or commit actions, that are filthy & insolent, are called figuratively & by similarity Harangeres, and are said to speak Harangeres’ insults, because those kinds of women are crude & insolent). Parisians paid attention to the harangeres, though, crude or not. Fishwives’ voices, no doubt ventriloquized, figure prominently in the popular press of the Fronde, the more than five thousand pamphlets—called collectively Mazarinades[7]—that appeared in Paris and in cities like Rouen and Bordeaux from 1648 to 1653. Fishwives speak most often, not surprisingly, in Mazarinades published during the blockade of Paris from January to March 1649, when the regent and cardinal tried to break an alliance between the Parlement and people of Paris by cutting off supplies of food and other goods.

What was it about the fishwives’ voices, I wondered, that made them so useful to propagandists, but that prompted such a chilling response, aimed so obviously at discrediting and disarming these eloquent speakers? And why has this response persisted, to the point that a female legislator in twenty-first-century France can be disparaged as a “fishwife”?

Perhaps most importantly, there seems to have been real power at stake. The premodern harangeres who speak in Mazarinades invariably express either threats of violence or the ability to stand strong against the blockade, sometimes both. In Les Menasses des Harengeres Faites au Boulangers de Paris, à faute de pain (The Fishwives’ Threats to the Bakers of Paris, for lack of bread), the sole royalist pamphlet in which a fishwife speaks, a “grosse Harangere” (fat fishwife) places the blame for the blockade on Parisian bakers, whom she accuses of concealing wheat in order to drive up the price of bread. She warns that she will pillage their shops and homes in search of grain or flour that may be hidden in attics, bedrooms, beds, ashes, trunks, buffets, or cabinets. She will break through walls, tear up floorboards, and smash chimneys. If she finds nothing, she says, she will go after the bakers themselves: “Si je n’en trouviens pas je bouterons à mort/Ces méchans Boulangers qui nous font tant de tort” (ll. 35-36) (If I don’t find any, I will strike dead/Those nasty Bakers who do us such harm). By contrast, the frondeur fruit- and herring-sellers who address Anne of Austria in the Plaintes d’une Fruictiere, et d’une Harangere envoyées à la Reyne (Complaints of a Fruit-seller and of a Fishwife sent to the Queen) boast of an overabundance, claiming they have plenty of spinach, chard, cabbages, turnips, parsley, onions, leeks, apples, butter, cheese, herring, cod, mackerel, and hake to sell, and they seek permission to expand their clientele. They declare their allegiance to the Parlement, as do the fishwives who speak in La Micaresme des harangeres, Ou leur entretien sur les affaires de l’Estat (The Fishwives’ Mid-Lent, Or their conversation on matters of State), who also affirm their ability to withstand the blockade.

The liveliest—and bawdiest—of these pamphlets are three “gazettes” from the marketplace that have garnered linguists’ attention for their representation of Parisian patois.[8] A fishwife in the Gazette des halles (Gazette from Les Halles) says that Mazarin should be hung on the scaffold and his testicles fed to cats (ll. 7-15). Another, named Dame Denise, in the Gazette de la Place Maubert (Gazette from the Place Maubert), calls him a “parfide enragée de traistre” (l. 58) (perfidious rabid traitor) and a “ladre vilain gadoüart” (l. 60) (stingy and vile latrine-emptier). Dame Denise returns in the Suitte de la Gazette de la Place Maubert (Sequel to the Gazette from the Place Maubert), lifting her voice in song to fantasize, “Son plus biau member/L’ayant hàgé/A tout nos chiens je le ferois mangé” (ll. 214-16) (Having chopped up/His finest organ/I would feed it to all our dogs). As in the previous pamphlets, the fishwives in these gazettes, which came out in March 1649 during negotiations between the Parlement and the crown, indicate that there is ample food in Paris and that the Parlement should hold the line.

Several of the Mazarinades that give voice to harangeres acknowledge the existence of an association between fishwives and folie, madness. The harangere in the Plaintes says she knows the regent may not take her seriously: “Ma foy si vous m’en croyés, je ne suis qu’une folle, & vous ne devez pas prendre mon conseil” (6) (You may well think that I am nothing but a madwoman, & that you should not take my advice). In Le Caquet des marchandes poissonnieres et harangeres des Halles, sur la maladie du Duc de Beaufort, soupsonné de poison (The Cackle of the Fishwives and Herringwives of Les Halles, on the illness and suspected poisoning of the Duke of Beaufort), fishwives who have heard wrongly that Beaufort has been poisoned march to his side, offering food to aid in his recovery and vowing to seek revenge on his poisoner. Insulted by a city official who dismisses their concerns, a Dame Macée retorts, “Aga, je ne somme pas des bouffonnes ny des folles” (11) (Look, we are not clowns or madwomen). Although the harangeres are, in this case, misinformed, the pamphlet’s author shows them to be dedicated to the Fronde and capable of collective action. They are a force to be reckoned with.

In a verse letter published in his Muze historique, journalist Jean Loret relates the arrest in January 1653, near the end of the Fronde, of the real Dame Anne, the woman Mazarin tried in vain to recruit as a public supporter of his policies.[9] This arrest was part of the crown’s attempt to pave the way for the cardinal’s return to Paris after a period of exile.[10] Loret calls Dame Anne “La plus séditieuze folle/Qui soit de l’un à l’autre pole” (ll. 81-82) (The most seditious madwoman/who exists between the poles), and he informs his readers that many expected her to hang from the gallows. Instead, however, the regent sent her to Les Petites-Maisons, the infamous Parisian hospital for the criminally insane, extinguishing her power even more thoroughly by sending the message that this notorious fishwife was not a political threat, but merely mad.

The insults directed at Mathilde Panot—“folle” and “poissonnière”—have a history. They also suggest that she, like the fishwives discussed above, is seen as a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, in October 2021 she succeeded Jean-Luc Mélenchon as president, in the National Assembly, of the far-left party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) that he founded. Mélenchon has announced his bid for the French presidency in the elections that will take place in April 2022. Pierre Henriet, source of the attack on Panot, represents La République en Marche (The Republic on the Move), the centrist party founded by current French president Emmanuel Macron, who will almost certainly run for reelection. Henriet, incidentally, offered a tepid apology, tweeting on February 3, 2021, “Si elle se sent à tort insultée, je la prie de bien vouloir m’excuser” (If she feels wrongly insulted, I ask her to accept my apology). He later received a fine equal to a quarter of his monthly stipend from the Assembly, 1405 euros (about 1700 U.S. dollars at the time).

As I followed this story, I wondered if tweets were today’s equivalent of the verbal sparring that took place in the food markets of seventeenth-century Paris, and I thought about differences between political discourse in France and in the United States, and about how misogyny might be just as rampant in the United States, but would surely not be expressed as openly by lawmakers here as it had been in the National Assembly. After all, wasn’t France up in arms about perceived limits on free speech in the United States and about #MeToo and le wokisme making their way across the ocean and infiltrating institutions in the French Republic?

Then, in March 2021, the chair of Michigan’s Republican party, Ron Weiser, called three powerful women Democrats in that state—Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson—witches, and I realized I was wrong. “Our job now,” Weiser told his fellow Republicans, “is to soften up those three witches and make sure that we have good candidates to run against them, that they are ready for the burning at the stake.” Whitmer responded with a tweet recommending Lindy West’s The Witches are Coming, a feminist cultural critique published in 2019. Nessel responded, also by tweet, with an edited photo showing all three women in witch hats. She wrote, “Witches who magically decrease Covid spread, increase voter turnout and hold sexual predators accountable without any help from the legislature? Sign me up for that coven.”[11]

Although my heart sank, the Michigan governor and attorney general made me laugh, and they gave me hope. Centuries-old insults aimed at containing women of power and influence remain viable weapons in the arsenal defending the patriarchy on both sides of the Atlantic, that much is clear. Women persist, however, in defusing these weapons and in disarming their detractors. What’s more, if the sexist slurs had, and have, political currency, the feminist comebacks do, too, as both the Mazarinades and the tweets show. The question before us today is how much longer women will be called fishwives and witches. How many more labels will they have to reject or reclaim? Plus ça change.

[1] “‘Insulte sexiste’: la députée Mathilde Panot (LFI) demande des ‘excuses’ et une ‘sanction.’” Le Monde Feb. 4, 2021.

[2] Katie Jarvis, Politics in the Marketplace: Work, Gender, and Citizenship in Revolutionary France (Oxford University Press, 2019), 19.

[3] Jean-Noël Biraben and Didier Blanchet,“Essay on the Population of Paris and its Vicinity since the Sixteenth Century,” Population: An English Selection 11 (1999): 183-84.

[4] R. Anthony Lodge, A Sociolinguistic History of Parisian French (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 154-60.

[5] Hubert Carrier, La Presse de la Fronde (1648-1653) (Geneva: Droz, 1989-1991), 1:119-22; Michel Pernot, La Fronde (Paris: Éditions de Fallois, 1994), 114, 208, 216, 293.

[6] Antoine Furetière, Dictionnaire universel, Contenant generalement tous les mots françois, tant vieux que modernes, & les Termes de toutes les sciences et des arts (The Hague: Arnout and Reinier Leers, 1690).

[7] This term comes from the satirical La Mazarinade (1651), attributed to Paul Scarron.

[8] See Lodge, A Sociolinguistic History.

[9] J. Ravenel and Ed.-V. de La Pelouze, eds., La Muze historique ou recueil des lettres en vers contenant les nouvelles du temps, vol. 1, 1650-1654 (Paris: Janet, 1857), 334-35.

[10] Carrier, La Presse de la Fronde, 1:121-22.

[11] Hannah Knowles, “Michigan GOP leader calls top Democrats ‘witches,’ jokes about assassination of Republicans.” Washington Post April 30, 2021.


About the Author

Carrie F. Klaus is Professor of Global French Studies at DePauw University.  She is the editor and translator of Jeanne de Jussie’s The Short Chronicle (University of Chicago Press, 2006) for the Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series. She has also published essays on Jussie and on Marguerite de Navarre, including “Shaping the Legacy of Louise de Savoie: A New Reading of the Heptaméron” (Romance Notes, 2020). She is the recipient of a short-term fellowship from the Folger Shakespeare Library for her investigation of women’s voices in the political pamphlets of the seventeenth-century Fronde and has published two articles on this topic: “Eloquence Unchained: Women, Poetry, and Politics during the Fronde” (Early Modern Women, 2019) and
“Calling for Peace, Preparing for War: The Revolutionary Voice of Saint Genevieve during the Fronde” (Sixteenth Century Journal, 2020).

One thought on “February 2022 – Of Fishwives and Politics, Then and Now

  • L.G. Paris

    How appropriate. Misogyny in France today and a link to the 17th – C. that rehabilitates Parisian women of the markets. Not much work has been done about them. To be added to 17th – C studies from a feminist point of view to Madeleine de Scudéry, Villedieu, LaFayette, etc. etc.

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