Impenetrable in their dissimulation, cruel in their vengeance, tenacious in their purposes, unscrupulous as to their methods, animated by profound and hidden hatred for the tyranny of man… – Denis Diderot, “On Women”
As I have written on numerous occasions, the fallacious notion of the prostitute as a specific type of woman, with characteristics that set her apart from all other women, is a relatively recent one. Prior to the mid-19th century it was widely understood that transactional sex was a normal female behavior, one that any woman might engage in under the proper circumstances. This is not to say that it was accepted and condoned; far from it. But nobody imagined that a woman was entirely defined by the act, either, nor embraced the foolish fantasy that only women of a certain background or experience made the choice. I have also often pointed out that women are far more pragmatic than men like to believe; many if not most of us, even those from relatively sheltered lives, are perfectly capable of trading sex for money or other advantages should the need arise.
Case in point Jeanne-Louise de Belleville, Dame de Montaigu, born in 1300 to the powerful Breton nobleman Maurice IV of Belleville-Montaigu and his wife Létice de Parthenay. She was married off at the age of 12 to a 19-year-old nobleman named Geoffrey de Châteaubriant and bore him two children. Geoffrey died young in 1326, and four years later she married Olivier III de Clisson, bearing him five children. But while her first marriage seems to have been a typical one, the second one was unusually passionate for a 14th-century noble couple. The two were extremely close, and Jeanne was very devoted to him…so devoted, in fact, that what would have been the easy and unremarkable life of a wealthy French noblewoman became remarkable indeed after her husband was executed for treason in 1343.
It happened like this: in the early part of the Hundred Years War, there were two rival claimants for the title of Duke of Brittany; Charles de Blois was favored by the French and John de Montfort by the English. Olivier was on the French side, but after he lost Vannes to the English in 1342, de Blois complained that Olivier had not fought enthusiastically enough, and accused him of having defected to the English. Olivier responded, predictably enough, by defecting to the English, but was captured by French forces and beheaded by order of King Philip VI on August 2nd, 1343; in a particularly barbaric touch, his severed head was then displayed on a pole at Nantes. Jeanne was devastated by his death and furious at the King and de Blois, and swore revenge on both. But while a lesser woman might’ve been content with cursing them from afar, spreading rumors or bribing someone to poison the royal wine, Jeanne was no ordinary woman. She promptly sold off all of the Clisson lands the King had not seized, purchased the three best warships she could find, and had them painted black and rigged with sails dyed blood-red. To raise money for a crew and to win allies from amongst the other Breton noblemen (who were none too fond of the French to start with), she sold her favors to them and charmed them into swearing to support her. Keep in mind she was 43 years old at the time, had borne seven children and presumably had only been to bed with two men before this; she must have had a powerful charisma.
But that charisma, however great, paled beside her hatred. From 1343-1356 the “Lioness of Brittany” mercilessly hunted and pillaged every French ship she could find, slaughtering the crews except for one or two who would be released on shore to tell the King who it was that had done the deed. At the Battle of Crécy (1346), she helped to secure an English victory by bringing in supplies on her ships. And after King Philip died in 1350, Jeanne only got worse; apparently enraged at his having escaped her wrath by fleeing into Hades, she began specifically hunting down ships owned by French nobles, and whenever she caught one she would personally behead him with an axe and have his body thrown into the sea, despite the fact that she could’ve made tremendous profit by ransoming them. Were this a Hollywood movie, she would have eventually caught up with Charles de Blois and given him his comeuppance, but real life is rarely so neat; de Blois not only outlived the Lioness by five years, but was also made a saint (though the canonization was annulled by the next pope on request from the English-supported Duke John V of Brittany, whose side had eventually won). By the time she was 56 Jeanne’s thirst for vengeance was apparently slaked at last; she retired from piracy, married Sir Walter Bentley (who had personally fought de Blois) and settled in Hennebont, France, where she died in 1359. Her son, Olivier Jr, earned the sobriquet “The Butcher” for his fierceness in war; he obviously inherited that from his mother, whose ghost is supposed to haunt the ruins of the old Château de Clisson (which was destroyed during the French Revolution).
Jeanne de Clisson was neither poor nor disadvantaged; neither sexually abused as a child nor mistreated by a husband; and neither homeless nor addicted to any drug. Perhaps it could be said that she was emotionally disturbed by the loss of her beloved husband, but if so it was a very lucid kind of madness: Jeanne knew exactly what she was doing, and chose to sell sex as a means toward that end. And though most whores have far more mundane goals than the death of a king and the downfall of an entire country, our choices are every bit as pragmatic – and often as temporary – as hers.