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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Jeanne de Clisson

Portrait of the female pirate. 1845. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

Known as the Lioness of Brittany, Jeanne de Clisson (née de Belleville) (1300-1359) has become somewhat of a legend. A woman of noble birth, it was not until her third husband that her life began to take shape. She married Olivier IV de Clisson in 1330. Together the pair held a sizable area of land; Jeanne controlling areas in Poitou, and Olivier holding a castle at Clisson along with other territories. The couple had five children among them. Despite this auspicious start, the continual rivalries between France and England (specifically the Breton War of Succession) resulted in the shocking and wrongful execution of her husband. Her attempts to free him ultimately brought her into trouble with the law, and with the French King Philip VI. Her fury over her husbands execution led her to embark on a 13-year long career as a pirate and privateer.

Jeanne managed to raise a force of 400 men and outfit three warships (with the assistance of the English king). Jeanne would sail the English channel looking for French commerce ships and kill all the crew members except for a few (so they could report the news back to the French king). It was in this fashion that she obtained her moniker of the Lioness of Brittany. She painted her ships black and dyed the sails red. The flagship of her "Black Fleet" was aptly named My Revenge. The violent and purposeful life of Jeanne de Clisson stands out in history but it is sometimes difficult to separate legend from fact. While she is often called an English privateer there is no proof of such an agreement in the records. French historian Jean Froissart wrote in his famous Chronicles of Medieval History and the Hundred Years War, that Jeanne had the "heart of a lion". And almost four centuries later, writer Émile Pehant wrote a novel about Jeanne de Belleville that pulled facts from her heroic yet gruesome life and wove it into a romantic legend. Scholar and author of Pirate Women External, Laura Sook Duncombe, points out the freedom that came from piracy: freedom from unfair laws and corruption. Jeanne de Clisson was not the only Jeanne to fight back to establish a place in the world. Jeanne de Montfort from the same era has an equally compelling, and more completely documented history. And not far into the future would come the most famous Jeanne of all, Jeanne d'Arc. Each of these women attest to the courage and boldness that women have exhibited in difficult and unjust times.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Medieval Women.

Print & Digital Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.