Marie Françoise Rose Le Chevalier de Longueil, married at 11 years and 18 days

tanlistwa, Mariage de Louis de France, duc de Bourgogne, et de Marie-Adélaïde de Savoie

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I don’t know where to start. How do you find a sympathetic catchphrase to tell the story of an 11-year-old girl’s wedding? Today, with a knot in my stomach, I tell you about Marie Françoise Rose.

Marie Françoise Rose was born on 5 September 1754 in Fort-Royal (now Fort-de-France) and baptised there on 17 September. She was the legitimate daughter of Mr Adrien Louis Le Chevalier, écuyer, seigneur de Longueil, a Norman, and lady Marie Dorothée Lavallée Lestibaudois, from a wealthy Creole family. She had a brother Jean Louis Marie Nicolas born the previous year. These parents had married in 1752; they owned property in La Case-des-Navires (now Schœlcher). But then, in March 1755, the brother died and in December 1755, the mother died. What happened to the little girl who was not yet two years old? This is explained in a plea by the King’s Attorney General to the Sovereign Council of Martinique in 1766. « This young lady having lost her father and mother at a very young age, her maternal grandfather, Mr Lestibaudois, who is also domiciled in the parish of this town, was elected her guardian ».

The father had also died and Marie-Françoise Rose, an orphan, had been placed in the care of her grandfather, Jean Baptiste Lestibaudois, himself a widower since 1757. The plea continues the exposition of the facts.

« The considerable fortune possessed by the demoiselle de Longueil made her sought after for marriage at a very early date. Among a great number of suitors, who presented themselves, the Sieur François Benoist Ducours de Thoumazeau, Captain in the regiment of Vermandois was preferred by the Sieur Lestibaudois, who concluded and stopped this marriage towards the beginning of last year, without nevertheless that it appears that he had consulted any other paternal or maternal relative.
The lord Ducours de Thoumazeau having on his side obtained on 31 July last the permission of M. Le Général required for the marriage of the officers, the parties prepared to celebrate the one in question.
The young lady of Longueil who was then in the convent of the Ursuline Ladies of Saint-Pierre was withdrawn and placed with Sieur Ducours brother of the future with whom she has always continued to live until the celebration of the marriage. »

While the child was ten years old and receiving a semblance of an education in the convent, she was the object of negotiation by men, the grandfather deciding who he thought would be the best match, the best deal for the family. Marie Françoise Rose was therefore taken out of school overnight and placed with her future husband’s family. And so, in September 1765, in Carbet, the marriage of an 11-year-old girl and a 29-year-old man was celebrated. The act recorded in the parish register justifies this as follows:

« Having regard to the permission granted to the said Messire Descours de Thomazeau by M. Count d’Ennery General of this island on 31 July last to contract the said marriage, the letter from the mission of the secular priests of the Windward Islands dated that day in which it is said that the laws which set the age of puberty at 12 years for girls and 14 years for boys, except those in which nubility preceded this age, canon law says that one must rather regulate oneself on the disposition of the body than on the number of years, the marriage of (Demoiselle) de Longueil can thus be celebrated if she is nubile, even if the 12 years would not be entirely accomplished, This is something of which her parents can be informed and can give you sufficient assurances, having regard also to the act of notoriety passed today by Me Jounir, Royal notary of this island, by which it appears that the sieurs and dames Jean Baptiste Lestibaudois, former officer of the Cavalry, inhabitant of the Case Navire, grandfather and guardian of the said future young lady, Marianne Littée wife of Messire Jacques Descours sieur de Thoumasseau, Elizabeth Mazete daughter of full age have certified, attested and affirmed that they know perfectly well the said demoiselle de Longueil and know positively that she has acquired the state of nubility of which they fixed the time at 29 June last. (…)
in the presence of Monsieur Jean Thomas de Monchy Marquis d’Hocquencourt, knight of the royal and military order of Saint Louis living (…), Sieur Jean Baptiste Lafaye living (…), Messire Jean Louis Perinel Du May councillor at the Conseil Supérieur (…), Joseph Diant merchant (…) »*.

I am well aware that marriage in the eighteenth century was as much about the union of a couple as (and probably even more so) the social and economic alliance of their families, especially in noble families where there were also issues of prestige. But I am still aghast; at this period, the average age at first marriage was 24-25 for women, 27 for men. Even if you look at the figures specific to the nobility, the average age for women is 19-20.

Let’s start again. So we have a notary and four witnesses who turn a blind eye to the bride’s age. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the governor, who authorised the marriage, because the groom is an officer and for senior military personnel marriage was subject to authorisation; but I don’t know what these requests for validation of unions look like or whether details such as the bride’s age were provided. For the others, we have a 29 year old groom, a priest, a 60 year old grandfather, a sister-in-law of the groom and an unknown adult who agree on the dispositions of the body, its state of puberty, in other words here the reproductive capacity of an 11 year old girl, in order to justify the union which apparently could not wait until the child was 12. Because yes, until 1792, the nubility (state of a person of marriageable age) of girls was set at 12, that of boys at 14 (and not 24 as noted in the original act if you go to consult it). Even for the princely marriage of Louis of France, Duke of Bourgogne, and Marie-Adélaïde of Savoie (born on 6 December 1685), for which the stakes were high, they have waited for the bride’s 12 years and one day.

Today, nubility in France is fixed at 18 years for women as for men, an age which is also the same as the matrimonial and civil majority (the majority was 25 years at the time). But here, in addition to the extreme youth of the wife, you will also note the extreme age difference with the husband: 18 years. I looked in my database to see if I could find marriages with young minors or large age differences, because I know that people tend to think that this was « normal » or « common » at the time, but it really wasn’t! I found ten young women married between 12 and 18 and two young men (one at 14, the other at 16) for about 900 marriages giving age indications between 1670 and 1794 in 7 parishes in Martinique. Nowadays, these people would be called non nubiles, minors, but at the time they all fell within the scope of the law in force for marriage. The age differences between these brides and their spouses range from 5 to 25 years. Catherine Desveaux shared the fate of Marie Françoise Rose. In the parish of Marin in 1679, she was married, at the age of 12 years and 20 days, to Léon Chevalereau whose age was not specified. Some research has enabled me to determine that he was then 37 years old (a man 25 years her senior). In any case, these cases are far from being the norm.

Even if I can reasonably understand what was at stake in these marriages for those who carried them out at the time, it is no less shocking for me today; the union of Marie Françoise Rose was not only out of the ordinary, even in its time, but it was also theoretically illegal, unlike that of Catherine Desveaux. The prosecutor based his assertion on 3 formal defects:

  1. the lack of publication of banns in the parish of the residence of the Miss de Longueil,
  2. the absence of the presence of the parish priest of the residence of the young lady,
  3. and the lack of competent age of the said young lady married at 11 years.

It is on these three grounds that the prosecutor contests the validity of the marriage and initiates proceedings to have it annulled. You can find the full details of his plea in the file of François Benoit Descours de Thomazeau. There is no need to go back over the age; it is 12 years old and the argument of the dispositions of the body is fallacious. As for the domicile, this formal defect shows how the marriage arrangement had been constructed between the grandfather and the future husband, for they knew perfectly well that they were breaking the rules; to avoid too much publicity for this questionable marriage in Fort-Royal, the parish of origin of Marie Françoise Catherine’s family, they had sent the girl to live for some time with her future in-laws in the parish of Carbet in order to be able to claim, at least I suppose, that this was her habitual residence.

What happened to the illegal marriage? What did the members of the superior council charged with ruling on this case decide in February 1766? As Intendant Peynier wrote on 12 February: « You will have reason to be surprised, Monsieur le Duc, that the conclusions of the Procurator General have not been followed, and that the High Council has declared that there was no abuse in the said marriage. We were not of this opinion, Count D’Ennery and I, but the judgment passed notwithstanding the conclusions, by a plurality of nine votes to five. » The local justice thus decided. Valid marriage. Do you remember the witnesses to the marriage? Jean Louis Perinel Du May, who was one of the members of the Sovereign Council since 1752, was present to celebrate the union.

Bernadette and Philippe Rossignol of the association Généalogie et histoire de la Caraïbe (Genealogy and History of the Caribbean) have mentioned this story in a rich article devoted to the Cours de Thomazeau family and this has enabled me to discover other archives. Two documents preserved in the Gironde archives are notably cited. One dated 7 March 1765 attesting that « Mr François Thomazeau, captain in the Vermandois regiment (… ) tall, blond hair, former Roman Catholic, wishes to embark in Bordeaux on the Marquis de Périgord, for Martinique where he is going on business »; the second document of 21 September 1767 mentions the same François Thomazeau « tall, blond hair » this time accompanied by his wife Marie Françoise Rose Longueil, « his wife, a Creole from Martinique of average height » wishing to embark for Martinique on the ship Les Quatre Frères.

Some time after the wedding and probably after the trial in February 1766, the couple had travelled to the kingdom of France. At the moment, I thought that the groom had wanted to introduce his young wife to his family. But that was not all he did! The trip was an opportunity to show prudence and to confirm this contested marriage in March 1767. Marie Françoise Rose was now 12 and a half years old. The registers of Castillonnès, commune of birth of François Benoist Descours de Thomazeau, thus contain an act « recognizing an impediment to their marriage which they must rehabilitate (…), considering the dispensation of three banns which they obtained from my lord the bishop of Agen (…), also the dispensation of the three to the fourth degree of consanguinity which they also obtained from my lord the bishop dated of the same day, we received again their mutual consent ». A dispensation for consanguinity from the third to the fourth degree which had not been mentioned on the occasion of the 1765 marriage? This meant that there was a common ancestor at the level of great-grandparents for one of the two spouses. By partially reconstructing the trees, I understood that Jean Baptiste de la Vallée Lestibaudois, Marie-Rose’s grandfather, had favoured a suitor, who in a way allowed the landed property to remain in the family fold. Jean Baptiste de la Vallée Lestibaudois’ grandparents were Jean Roy and Luce Le Bruman, ancestors he shared with François Benoist Descours de Thomazeau for whom the couple were great-grandparents. Were the two men really unaware of this filial link which united them and constituted an impediment to marriage (or at least the need to obtain a dispensation)? I doubt it.

The deal was well done; by marrying Marie Françoise Rose in September 1765, some months after his arrival in Martinique, and renewing the alliance in March 1767, François Benoist found himself the owner of a fine plantation in the West Indies, including a large sugar plantation and everything on it. In May 1768, Marie Françoise Rose’s grandfather died. On Moreau du Temple’s map of 1770, at La Case-Navire, the name of an owner appears: Thomazeau.

Marie Françoise Rose, a resident of the Case-des-Navires, died in July 1771, a few weeks before her 17th birthday. As nubile as she was, I have not found any descendants. Her husband left Martinique and remarried in France in 1773.

tanlistwa, Thomazeau, Case des Navires, Carte de Moreau du Temple, 1770
Les habitations de Thomazeau à La-Case-des-Navires en 1770

My research themes lead me to constantly deal with the discrimination and violence generated by racism, sexism, colonialism… in our past and present societies, but more than usual, researching and writing for this post has been trying. How did Marie Françoise Rose approach life and death? She had seen her close family members – her only brother, her mother, her father, her grandmother – die before they reached the age of reason. How did she feel about the men and women who had arranged her marriage? How did she perceive adults more generally? How did she live her life as a daughter-wife? In the space of 17 years she had also experienced the tsunami of the Lisbon mega-earthquake of 1755, the Anglo-French war and the British occupation of 1762, a few cyclones, including perhaps the destructive one of August 1766. Can one ever be ready for all that? Did she have moments of carefree, pure joy in her short, painful life? I will not have the answers to these questions. In closing this post, my thoughts go to the children of today who have similar fates, because contrary to what we have the right to expect from our societies, these practices persist.

Mes thématiques de recherches m’amènent à côtoyer sans cesse les discriminations et les violences engendrées par le racisme, le sexisme, le colonialisme… de nos sociétés passées commes actuelles, mais plus que d’habitude, rechercher et écrire pour ce billet a été éprouvant. Comment Marie Françoise Rose appréhendait-elle la vie et la mort ? Elle avait vu les membres de sa famille proche — son unique frère, sa mère, son père, sa grand-mère — mourir avant même d’atteindre l’âge de raison. Que ressentait-elle à propos des hommes et femmes qui avaient arrangé son mariage ? Comment percevait-elle plus généralement les adultes ? Comment vivait-elle son quotidien de fille-épouse ? En l’espace de 17 ans, elle avait aussi connu le tsunami lié au méga séisme de Lisbonne de 1755, la guerre franco-anglaise et l’occupation britannique de 1762, quelques cyclones dont peut-être celui destructeur d’août 1766. Peut-on jamais être prête pour affronter tout ça ? Avait-elle dans cette courte et douloureuse existence connu des moments d’insouciance et de pure joie ?  Je n’aurai pas de réponses à ces questions. En clôturant ce billet, ma pensée va aux enfants d’aujourd’hui qui ont des destins similaires, car contrairement à ce que l’on est en droit d’attendre de nos sociétés, ces pratiques persistent.

* In addition to the original spelling, the original text contains several large typographical errors (especially on names) which I have modified also in the French transcription.


French Bibliography

Archives nationales outre-mer

 Archives de Girondes 

Archives départementales du Lot et Garonne

Archives territoriales de Martinique / Banque Numérique des Patrimoines Martiniquais

  • acte 204 (vue 26) du registre paroissial du Marin 2E18/1 pour le Mariage de Catherine Desvaux en 1679


French Webography

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