Stories of children raised by animals or isolated in the wilderness changed radically in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. What had once been stories of the founders of technologies and civilizations — Romulus and Remus are the paradigm — became stories of children who came from nowhere, and ended up nowhere. The earlier stories are of wild and sovereign outsiders, indifferent to our ways because of their innate majesty; the latter stories, the ones we live with now, are of children to whom we owe nothing but pity, or perhaps disgust.
As I argue in How Not to Make a Human, the meaning of the stories changed when stories of feral children became assimilated to the figure of the so-called wild or forest men: woodwose in Middle English,The second element of the word, *wasa, is of uncertain meaning and origin: see Bosworth-Toller. moriones elsewhere.Konrad of Magenberg’s fourteenth-century Book of Nature They became kin to the man captured in the Jura, described in a 1403 letter, armed with terrible nails, covered with hair, and beneath that, a layer of moss, and unable to speak: taken to a monastery, he refused the food he was offered, and died nine days later.Raphael Zhender, “La Lettre XXXIII de Nicolas de Clamanges (1403): a propos de deux nouvelles en langue latine,” Bulletin du Cange 59 (2001): 203-42 Untamable, incomprehensible, available to civilized people only as mysterious figures of the forest, wild folk were figures primarily of curiosity.
Memmie le Blanc, the so-called Wild Girl of Songy, represents another conceptual function for the wild children: the anthropological figure out of prehistory, representing the point just prior to humans becoming humans. In these stories, the feral children is anthropomorphic — shaped like a human — and latently human, but as yet without human civilization. Who Le Blanc actually was has been solved largely by Serge Aroles, the pen-name of a French surgeon, Franck Rolin. Archival examinations, chiefly of port records from Marseilles, establish that Le Blanc was likely a girl of Meskwaki origin, from the Great Lakes region, and a survivor of the massacre of her people by the French in the second decade of the eighteenth century.Charles Martijn, an enthnohistorian and archeologist in Quebec, has also provided fascinating background, available here from a Listserv post from April 23, 1999. Made a household slave to Marie-Charlotte Charest — who became, through marriage, the Madame de Courtemanche — she was brought her to France in 1720 after Eskimo attacks burned down Courtemanche’s home in Labrador. Their arrival in Marseilles coincided with last arrival of the Black plague in Europe; stymied by customs fees levied on the ship’s cargo of cod, Courtemanche was able to leave the ship only by securing a loan from a local silk merchant named Ollive in exchange for Le Blanc. Le Blanc seems to have met another enslaved girl at Ollive’s manufactory, a Black girl perhaps of Sudanese origin, and the two escaped together. Le Blanc next turns up in the records, alone, nearly a decade later, captured, far from Marseilles, in Northeastern France. Taught to speak French, to eat French food, and to become a good Catholic, Le Blanc secured various royal patrons, and, when she dies in her early 40s in Paris, fairly well off, her story had been, for decades, a topic of fascination among Enlightenment intellectuals.
To them, she was a being only barely possessing culture, language, or humanity, a transitional point between what we once were and what we are now. The poet Louis Racine, the dramatist’s youngest child, furnishes a representative example of such philosophical interest. His Second Epistle on Mankind (Epitre II sur l’Homme) imagines her as a murderer, and as a witness to the cruel manners of our distant ancestors, and speaks of her language like this:
Ce n’étoient point des mots qu’articuloit sa bouche:
Il n’en sortoit qu’un son, cri perçant et farouche.
[It was not words her mouth articulated:
Only one sound came out, a piercing, wild cry.]translation from Julia V. Douthwaite, The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002
Le Blanc’s story, first printed in French newspapers, and retold at length elsewhere, was turned into a sustained narrative by Marie-Catherine Homassel-Hecquet, whose 1755 Histoire d’une jeune fille sauvage was translated into English in 1768, and furnished with a preface by the Scottish speculative philosopher James Burnett, Lord Monboddo. Burnett’s preface speaks of her language in the following terms: “her language was no more than a collection of guttural sounds with very little articulation” (x); she spoke “from the throat” (ix) and made very “little use of the tongue, and none at all of the lips” (xiv); “when she laughed, she did not open her mouth as we do, but made a little motion with her upper lip and a noise in her throat, by drawing her breath inwards” (xi). Burnett is essentially repeating Homassel-Hecquet, who describes Le Blanc’s speech as “the squeaking cries she uttered through her throat, by way of language” (14) and “her language, which was nothing but shrill piercing cries, formed in the throat, without any articulation or motion of the lips” (29). This “language of her country” (ix), of which she is said to remember “only the tone…and manner of speaking, and some wild cries” (ix), is a language that, according to her French and Scottish witnesses, has almost none of the characteristics of language.
Medieval linguistic theory divided sound into at least two categories, confusa and articulata, with only the latter divisible into syllables; to further distinguish the paradigmatic human voice from birdsong, some medieval linguists added a third category, sounds that were rational and articulata: key to these theories is that anything recognizable as language could be written down and split into syllables. A spoken language said to be with “very little articulation,” made up of “guttural sounds,” produced from the throat without tongue and lips, is a language possessing few of the characteristics that would make it articulate. There is of course absolutely no need to take these witnesses’ records as correct: Le Blanc had spent a decade on the run, and she was taken from her culture when very young. Julia Douthwaite rightly identifies the novelistic, romance elements in Homassel-Hecquet’s account (45). Furnished with that skepticism, we should take this portrayal of her language as being of a piece with the equally dubious descriptions of Le Blanc as not quite yet human.
She is said to be able to “climb trees” (v) “like a squirrel” (vi), helped along by her unusually large thumbs (viii)– that James Burnett argued that Orangutans are humans is surely relevant here; in her childhood, she swam “like an otter, or any other amphibious animal” (vi); she can see in the dark unusually well (33). Prior to being enslaved, she remembers that she lived in “little huts above the water, like beavers” (v), which were not houses, “but only holes under ground” (25). She wore “no clothing but skins” (vii): clothing made of animal hides is, of course, clothing too, but Burnett’s characterization of her clothing this way certainly helps his thesis, which is that she helps illustrate the “progression of our species from an animal so wild, to men such as we” (xvi), which is to say, how “the rational man has grown out of the mere animal” (xvii). Despite receiving a transfusion of French blood, and thereby losing “all her extraordinary bodily faculties,” she still retains, like the consort of Kafka’s civilized ape, Red Peter, “a certain wildness in her look” (ix),“A Report to An Academy,” “During the day I don’t want to see her. For she has in her gaze the madness of a bewildered trained animal [den Irrsinn des verwirrten dressierten … Continue reading just enough of her wildness to enable her to continue to illustrate to us what we once were. She is made to stay in her position of liminality, converted enough to Frenchness to show that civilization can be made to happen, but not converted so much that she disappears, and that she challenges the superiority of natural, inborn Frenchness.
To make that argument, Burnett and, before him, Homassel-Hecquet, and before them, Racine and the others, all must contradict the evidence they themselves provide. Le Blanc does already have articulate language, because her French and English ethnographers write it down; she has a pouch with characters on it: that is, she has writing. She remembers funerary customs. She, of course, remembers the clothing she once wore. The problem here may be that they cannot quite recognize the transitional creature.
On this point, finally: I wonder about their worrying at such length her skin color: she is dark, or only painted Black; she is “naturally white,” which is itself evidence that she is member of a civilized Native people rather than what the French, at the time, portrayed as the savage, cannibalistic Eskimo. Her Black companion drops out of the narrative, murdered, most of the early records say, by Le Blanc herself, but, per other records, actually shot by a French nobleman, Lord Bar de Saint-Martin, who perhaps mistook her and Le Blanc for devils. If I had time, I would lean on eighteenth-century French debates about the civilization and humanity of the Black people the French enslaved to such enormous profit: it seems to me that the Le Blanc’s whiteness — it’s right there in the name they gave her! — is a screen over the French refusal to admit the full humanity of Black people. Killing the Black girl off — and blaming the murder on Le Blanc — and worrying only about the assimilability of Meskwaki obviously helps the story’s construction of white innocence.
What would the story have been had it been the Black girl who survived the wilderness escape?
More on this in the seminar!
|↑1||The second element of the word, *wasa, is of uncertain meaning and origin: see Bosworth-Toller.|
|↑2||Konrad of Magenberg’s fourteenth-century Book of Nature|
|↑3||Raphael Zhender, “La Lettre XXXIII de Nicolas de Clamanges (1403): a propos de deux nouvelles en langue latine,” Bulletin du Cange 59 (2001): 203-42|
|↑4||Charles Martijn, an enthnohistorian and archeologist in Quebec, has also provided fascinating background, available here from a Listserv post from April 23, 1999.|
|↑5||translation from Julia V. Douthwaite, The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002|
|↑6||“A Report to An Academy,” “During the day I don’t want to see her. For she has in her gaze the madness of a bewildered trained animal [den Irrsinn des verwirrten dressierten Tieres im Blick]. I’m the only one who recognizes that, and I cannot bear it.”|