The Red Virgin : Memoirs of Louise Michel

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(1830 - 1905) ~ Leader of Paris Commune Partisans and Radical Anarchist Feminist : Michel was a schoolteacher and active in the Paris Commune and the French Revolution of the 1870s -- both in looking after the wounded and fighting. She was transported to New Caledonia, but returned to France after the Communards were granted amnesty. She was much admired among the worker's movement. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• " I advanced in the tale I came to love reliving this time of struggle for freedom, which was my true existence, and I love losing myself in the memory of this." (From : "Memories of the Commune," by Louise Michel.)
• "Now we go quiet; the fight has begun. There is a hill and I shout as I run forward: To Versailles! To Versailles! Razoua tosses me his sword to rally the men. We shake hands at the top; the sky is on fire, and no one has been wounded." (From : "Memories of the Commune," by Louise Michel.)
• "One of the future revenges for the murder of Paris will be that of revealing the customary infamous betrayals of military reaction." (From : "Memories of the Commune," by Louise Michel.)


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Translators' Introduction Even today, Louise Michel, who won fame as the “Red Virgin” during the Paris Commune of 1871, remains a heroine to the French Left. While Karl Marx sat in the British Museum writing tracts, Michel was facing French government troops across the barricades of Paris. While her contemporaries were just beginning to decry colonialism, she, as a convict in New Caledonia, was involved in the Kanaka uprising of 1878. Freed by the amnesty of 1880 from her exile at the other end of the earth, she returned to France and the speaker’s platform, and except for several periods in prison she continued her revolutionary exhortations until her death in 1905. Born illegitimately on 29 May 1830, Louise Michel was brought up by her mother and paternal grandparents in a half-ruined, fortified manor house in the Haute-Marne. Her paternal grandfather, Etienne-Charles Demahis, was descended from nobility and had changed... (From :

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Chapter 1. Introduction People have often asked me to write my memoirs, but whenever I have tried to speak about myself I have felt the same repugnance I would feel about undressing in public. Today, in spite of these feelings, I have decided to put together a few of my memories. My life is full of poignant memories, and I will expose some very personal feelings. I will tell them randomly as they come to mind; if I give my pen the right to wander, I have paid very dearly for this right. My life has been composed of two very distinct parts that form a complete contrast. The first was made up of dreams and study; the second of events, as if the aspirations of the calm period came alive during the period of struggle. I will go to some lengths to avoid mentioning the names of persons whom I lost sight of long ago, to spare them the disagreeable surprise of being accused of conniving with revolutionaries. It might become a crime for them to have... (From :

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Chapter 2. Vroncourt My childhood nest was a tumbled-down chateau. At its corners, the same height as the main building, were four square towers with roofs like church steeples. The south side had no windows, only loopholes in the towers, which made the building look like a tomb or a castle, depending on the point of view. A long time ago, people called the place the Fortress, but when I lived there it was usually called the Tomb. To the east lay a vineyard, and we were separated from the little village of Vroncourt by a grassy stretch as wide as a prairie. At the end of it, a brook flowed down the only street in the village, and in the winter the brook became so swollen that people in Vroncourt had to put stepping stones in it to make it passable. Further to the east there was a screen of poplars, and the wind murmured sweetly as it blew through those trees; and then, rising behind everything, were the blue mountains of Bourmo... (From :

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Chapter 3. The End of Childhood As the seed contains the full-grown tree, all life from its very beginning contains whatever it will be—whatever, despite everything, it must become. Thus, I am trying to go back to the sources of the events in my life. One piece of verse I found in my old papers sketched out the pattern my life would take. The Voyage At the rim of the desert how immense is the sky. On your new unknown path, child, where do you go? What do you hope for, now hid in deep mystery? —If only I knew. Toward beauty and goodness! Child, what’s your choice? Peace, calm, and surrender? You could live like a bird and build up your nest. Hear, while there’s time; shun the hard brutal path, Where your fate will be damned, and your life will be tears. I don’t w... (From :

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Chapter 4. The Making of a Revolutionary Above everything else I am taken by the Revolution. It had to be that way. The wind that blew through the ruin where I was born, the old people who brought me up, the solitude and freedom of my childhood, the legends of the Haute-Marne, the scraps of knowledge gleaned from here and there—all that opened my ear to every harmony, my spirit to every illumination, my heart to both love and hate. Everything intermingled in a single song, a single dream, a single love: the Revolution. As far back as I can remember, the origin of my revolt against the powerful was my horror at the tortures inflicted on animals. I used to wish animals could get revenge, that the dog could bite the man who was mercilessly beating him, that the horse bleeding under the whip could throw off the man tormenting him. But mute animals always submit to their fate. In the Haute-Marne, the brooks and the lush fields... (From :

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Chapter 5. Schoolmistress in the Haute-Marne When my grandparents died and I had to leave the Tomb, I began to prepare for my examinations as a schoolmistress because I wanted to make my mother happy. There was little money, but the arrangements for my legal protection were complex. My mother served as one guardian and M. Voisin, a former magistrate, was another, just as if they were administering a fortune. The attorney, Maitre Girault, notary at Bourmont, served as surrogate of the court. People said that all this wasn’t enough to keep me from immediately wasting the eight or ten thousand francs in land that I had inherited. For the moment, however, I devoted myself to my education. Except for three months at Lagny in 1851, my whole higher education came from the teacher-training course under Mmes Beths and Royer at Chaumont. I see Chaumont now as it was then. I see the Boulingrin, the street of Choignes with its sinis... (From :

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Chapter 6. Schoolmistress in Paris When I left the Haute-Marne to become a schoolmistress in Paris, I had to leave my mother and grandmother behind. Being separated from them made me suffer deeply, but I hadn’t yet given up the hope of making a happy future for them, and I held tightly to that illusion. I became a teacher in Mme Vollier’s school at 14, rue du Chciteau- d’Eau in Montmartre. From the time I went to Paris until Mme Vollier died in my own school four years before the Siege, we never left each other. Her portrait is among my most precious souvenirs that my mother preserved carefully for me—half-faded portraits, worm-eaten books, bunches of yew and pine, and withered red carnations and white lilies. Today those souvenirs also include the white roses with drops of blood on the petals which I sent my mother from Clermont. I see the pupils at the rue du Chateau-d’Eau again in groups. There... (From :

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Chapter 7. The Decaying Empire The city of Paris condemned our school building on the rue du Chateau- d’Eau. Mme Vollier hoped in vain that after its demolition we would get an indemnity which would let us establish a day school in the suburbs. Julie had received a small sum from her family, and she struck out on her own. Relinquishing her share in the partnership to us, she bought a day school in faubourg St. Antoine; I chose not to go with her, but on holidays we got together, and on Thursday evenings I gave music lessons at her school. My mother sold all her remaining land except the vineyard to give me enough money to buy a day school in Montmartre. The poor woman, how little she got back for that money, and what sacrifices she and Grandmother imposed on themselves to raise it! Mme Vollier and I lived in the day school. Her sons gave her an annuity, and gradually the number of our pupils increased, so that for schoolmistresses we... (From :

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Chapter 8. The Siege of Paris Despite overwhelming support given Napoleon III in a plebiscite held in May 1870, the emperor was coming under increasing political pressure, and his government tried to win public support through an adventurous foreign policy. Conflict with Prussia over the nomination of a German princeling to the empty throne of Spain led the French government to decide for war against Germany on 14 July 1870. Two weeks later Napoleon left Paris to join the French military forces. The Germans defeated the French army decisively at Sedan on 1 September 1870, and captured the emperor. Crowds in Paris began to demonstrate two days later, and on September 4, amid severe disorder, the Paris mob proclaimed the Republic. A Government of National Defense headed by Napoleon’s military governor of Paris, General Trochu, took power in the name of the Republic. Two weeks later German forces surrounded Paris. During the... (From :

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Chapter 9. The Commune of Paris After Paris surrendered to the Prussians in January 1871, the other French forces agreed to an armistice, during which the Prussians allowed the French to elect a national government, there being some doubt whether the self-proclaimed Parisian government could speak for France as a whole. Expected to decide on the terms of the peace, that new government met first at Bordeaux and then moved to Versailles, just outside Paris. Monarchists dominated the new Versailles govern¬ ment, and until the divisions between those who supported rival pretenders to the throne became evident, it seemed likely that the Versailles government would reestablish a monarchy in which the dreams of republicans and revolutionaries would dissolve. On January [.sic; February] 22, the Committees of Vigilance were closed down, and newspaper publication was suspended. The Versailles reactionaries decided they had to disarm Paris. Napoleo... (From :

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Chapter 10. After the Commune Somehow I managed to escape from the soldiers trying to arrest me. Finally the victorious reactionaries took my mother and threatened to shoot her if I wasn’t found. To set her free I went to take her place, although she didn’t want me to do it, the poor, dear woman. I had to tell her a lot of lies to convince her, and as always she ended up believing me. Thus I saw to it that she returned home. They took me to the detention camp in the 37th [sic: 43rd] Bastion, near the Montmartre railroad. Even that far out, fragments of paper ash coming from the burning of Paris blew like black butterflies. Above us the lights of the fire floated like red crepe. And always we could hear the cannon. We heard them until May 28, and right up to that day we said to each other: “The Revolution will take its revenge.” At the 37th Bastion, in front of the dust-filled square where we... (From :

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Chapter 11. The Trial of 1871 This chapter consists of an account of the trial as reported in the Gazette des Tribunaux that Louise Michel included as an appendix to her memoirs. Sixth Court-Martial Board (Versailles) President of the Court: Delaporte, Colonel, Twelfth Cavalry Session of 16 December 1871 The Background of the Case against Louise Michel The Commune had an insufficient number of men for protection against the loyal members of the National Guard, so it established companies of children known as Wards of the Commune. It also tried to organize a battalion of amazons. This group was never formed, but women wearing fanciful uniforms and carrying carbines at their shoul¬ ders could be seen preceding the battalions that went to the ramparts. Among those women who seem to have exercised considerable influence in certain quarters was Louise Michel, ex-schoolmist... (From :

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Chapter 12. Voyage to Exile While I waited for deportation, I was kept in the Auberive prison. Once again I can see that prison, with its enormous cell blocks and its narrow white paths running under the pines. There a gale is blowing, and I can see the lines of silent women prisoners with their scarves folded at their necks and wearing white headdresses like peasants. In front of the pines burdened with snow during the long winter of 1872-73, the tired women prisoners passed slowly by, their wooden shoes ringing a sad cadence on the frozen earth. My mother was still strong then, and I waited for my deportation to New Caledonia without seeing what I have seen since: the terrible and silent anguish under her calm appearance. She was staying at her sister’s in Clefmont, which was very near the Auberive prison, and I knew she was well. She brought me packages of cakes and cookies the way she used to do when I was a student at Chaumont. (From :

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Chapter 13. Numbo, New Caledonia Louise Michel was fortunate. Those persons sent to New Caledonia and sentenced to the most rigorous deportation lived under conditions that were tolerable, if not easy. Basically, the authorities restricted Louise Michel and her comrades to a small territory near Noumea at the tip of the Ducos Peninsula. The issue of rations was insufficient, but the deportees were allowed to supplement their diets through their own efforts. After Henri Rochefort’s successful escape in 1874, the tyrannical Governor Aleyron replaced Governor de la Richerie, and the major problem of the deportees was an arbitrary administration which harassed them and cut off information about the world outside as much as possible. Medical care was minimal. Conditions, in fact, were more unpleasant than Michel suggests, but less severe than the government had intended. Four months after the Virginie left F... (From :

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Chapter 14. The Bay of the West When I was forced to go to the Bay of the West, I had a greater opportunity to observe the countryside that I loved. Between the Western Forest and the sea, there is a band of volcanic rocks, some standing like the menhirs at Karnak, others affecting monstrous poses, one even looking like an enormous rose with a few broken petals. At high tide the sea prevents people who are fearful of the water from prowling around. Dominating the Western Forest is the signal post. Covered with swallows resting on its supports, the signal post appears from afar to be a gigantic tree with spreading branches, and from their resting places the talkative swallows gossip with each other. The forest was beautiful. Lianas cover it with creepers twice a year, their branches floating in the air or thrown in mad arabesques. Almost all of them have white or yellow flowers, but different varieties of liana have differently shaped leaves... (From :

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Chapter 15. Noumea and the Return During my exile I used to let my mind return to France. From time to time down there in New Caledonia, with my gaze fixed on the sea and my thoughts free in space, I used to see the years gone by. I inhaled again the odor of roses in the yard, the hay just mown and lying in the summer sun, and the bitter reek of hemp. I saw it all again: thousands of details which had made no impression on me when they had occurred floated up from the depths of my memory. I discovered the sacrifices my mother had uncomplainingly made for me. She would have given me her very blood as piece by piece she had let me take everything we possessed so that I could promote ideas she didn’t share. All she ever wanted was to live near me in some quiet corner, in some village school lost in the woods. Now that I have returned to France I let my thoughts roam free in space to New Caledonia. After the cyclones I witnessed there, I... (From :

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Chapter 16. Speeches and Journalism, November 1880 — January 1882 I stayed in Lagny with my mother for almost two weeks, and then I returned to Paris to my first formal meeting. When I had come back to France the Social Revolution had been strangled. It was a France whose rulers mendaciously called themselves republicans, and they betrayed our every dream through their “opportunism.” It had begun ten years before in the drawing rooms of the Elys6e, when Foutriquet [President Adolphe Thiers] went in front with the Duke de Nemours. In the course of the evening the Count and Countess of Paris, the Duke of Alengon, and the Prince and Princess of Saxe-Co- burg-Gotha all came. The presence of these princes of Orleans was the occasion for that reception, the third dinner party that M. Thiers, the Orleanist President of the Republic, had given. After him as president came MacMahon, Marshal of the Empire. The more things change, the... (From :

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Chapter 17. The Death of Marie Ferre Marie Ferre had lived for a decade after the horrible events surrounding the arrest of Theophile. Persons whose brothers or fathers were sent to New Caledonia or to exile elsewhere know her devotion and indefatigable courage. At London the refugees had spoken to me about a few days she had spent there as if, by seeing her, they saw friends again who had disappeared during the slaughter. I believe they loved Marie more than I did, but none of us has her any longer. After I was arrested for the incident on Blanqui’s anniversary, Marie Ferre fell ill. Her heart had been weak for ten years, any emotion was dangerous for her, and after she suffered a short illness, death came for her on the night of 23-24 February 1882. At 47, rue Condorcet in Paris, there is a red room shaped like a lantern. Marie, when Mme Bias rented the room, told me about it. “It’s a real nest,” Marie... (From :

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Chapter 18. Women's Rights All the women reading these memoirs must remember that we women are not judged the same way men are. When men accuse some other man of a crime, they do not accuse him of such a stupid one that an observer wonders if they are serious. But that is how they deal with a woman; she is accused of things so stupid they defy belief. If she is not duped by the claims of popular sovereignty put forth to delude people, or if she is not fooled by the hypocritical concessions which hoodwink most women, she will be indicted. Then, if a woman is courageous, or if she grasps some bit of knowledge easily, men claim she is only a “pathological” case. At this moment man is master, and women are intermediate beings, standing between man and beast. It is painful for me to admit that we are a separate caste, made one across the ages. For many years the human race has been lying in its cocoon with its wings fol... (From :

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Chapter 19. Speeches Abroad, 1882 -1883 During the year after Marie’s death, I made speeches not only in France but also in Belgium, Holland, and England. More or less true accounts exist of the speeches I gave in Brussels in October 1882. They went very well except for the third or fourth speech. At that one some young fool who claimed his name was Fallou caused a disturbance. To explain why no one knew him in Brussels, he declared ingenuously that he had come from Paris the same time I did. To the crowd he stated that I had written an article in La Revolution sociale proposing the erection of a statue to M. Thiers!!! He claimed he had the issue that proved his allegations, and a large number of people believed his nonsense, even though the only article I had ever written about Thiers was one that began, “The little squirt has been castrated.” In spite of the objects that “friends of order” threw at the rostrum... (From :

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Chapter 20. Speeches in France, 1882-1883 In the summer of 1882 I made a lecture tour through northern France with Jules Guesde, in connection with a strike. The trip had some merry moments. In one cafe a dozen men came over and made a circle around us, looking at us the way curious animals do. I took out my sketch pad and began to draw their mugs. I wrote underneath the sketches “Skillful Stool-pigeon,” “Fool,” and “Spiteful Stool-pigeon.” They weren’t informers any more than we were, but they were so stupid, looking at us the way they did. One of them came and peeked over my shoulder; the others did too, and then we were rid of them. During the journey, there was another moment of comedy when one fellow went on and on telling another man about the burials of famous men he had seen; nobody could have been as complete a fool as this fellow was. I wondered if he was in earnest. When I realized he was,... (From :

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Chapter 21. The Trial of 1883 Several weeks after the trial at Lyon, it seemed to me that I would have been an accessory to cowardice if I did not use the liberty I was allowed—I don’t know why—to call up a new and immense International which would stretch from one end of the earth to the other. On 9 March 1883 there was a mass demonstration at the Esplanade of les Invalides, after which Louise Michel led a number of demonstrators across Paris. For that, she was accused of rioting and looting. A massive police hunt for her in Paris and throughout Europe ensued while she remained comfortably hidden at the home of the editor of L’Intransigeant, M. Vaughan. On March 30 she surrendered herself in a farce designed to make the police look as foolish as possible. I stayed in hiding for three weeks. While certain reporters claimed they were chatting with me in a house where I wasn’t present, other... (From :

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Chapter 22. Prison There’s no party without a morning after. Two years ago on July 14, I was taken to the Centrale Prison at Clermont. Women’s prisons are less harsh than men’s. I did not suffer from cold or hunger or any of the vexations our male friends underwent. As far as I am concerned, my stay in prison was as easy as it would be for any other schoolmistress. Solitude is restful, especially for a person who has spent a great part of her life always needing an hour of silence and never finding it, except at night. That is the case with a great number of schoolmistresses. In those silent hours of the night, she hurries to think, to feel alive, to read, to write, to be just a little free. At the end of the day, at the last lesson, she feels herself becoming an overworked beast of the fields, but a beast that is still proud, still lifting its head to go to the end of the hour without breaking down. When the... (From :

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Chapter 23. My Mother's Death For a while during my deportation my mother lived with a relative she had always been very fond of, at a little woolens shop opposite the Louver stores in Paris. After a time she went to live with other relatives in Lagny, and she was living there when I returned from New Caledonia. Four months after my return she moved back to Paris where we lived at 24 [sic: 36], rue Polonceau, and at that place we had fleeting moments of joy. With my mother and Marie near me, I was almost afraid, because happiness is such a fragile branch, and we break it when we rest on it. Two old women, friends of my mother, came to see her every day, and they gave her those little attentions old people love so much; my dear Marie stayed with her while I was away at meetings. My mother’s last home was at 45, boulevard Ornano on the fifth floor. There she underwent the long torture of two years without me before her death. In the mid... (From :

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Chapter 24. Final Thoughts I come to the end. Now that the black bird of the fallow field has sung for me, I want to explain what it means when a person no longer has anything to fear, when a person no longer has anything to suffer from. From the other side of sorrow, I can watch events coldly, feeling nothing more than the indifference a trash man feels as he turns over rags and tatters with his spiked stick. People wonder how all these things could have happened during the fifteen years which have just passed. When we are crushed, it only removes the last obstacle to our being useful in the revolutionary struggle. When we are beaten down, we become free. When we are no longer suffering because of what happens to us, we are invincible. I have reached that point, and it is better for the cause. What does it matter now to my heart, which has already been torn bleeding from my chest, if pen nibs dig into it like the beaks of crow... (From :

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Epilogue Much against her wishes, Louise Michel was pardoned and expelled— there is no other word for it—from prison in January 1886. By now, she was legendary. Or as Paul Verlaine put it in his “Ballade en l’honneur de Louise Michel,” she was “nearly Joan of Arc.” She was “Saint Cecilia / And the harsh and slender Muse / Of the Poor, as well as their guardian angel.” Now in her late fifties, Michel was indefatigable; she produced poetry, wrote several involuted novels, and marched incessantly to the speaker’s platform. And the summer following her release she was indicted once again, this time in company with Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue, and Susini, for “instigating murder and looting.” She was accused of saying that the government was composed of “thieves and murderers. Thieves are arrested and murderers are killed. Throw them in the water!” Although Michel... (From :


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