Saturday, March 24, 2007

Clémence Isaure: A Legend Born from a Scam

The statue pictured on the left is intriguing from the moment one first lays eyes upon it. With sharp lines and curves she stands watch over a small triangular plaza with an air both haughty and demure. The fountain upon which she rests is as fanciful as the Lady is attractive, decorated with creatures both exotic and common; monsters and turtles seem to pay her homage. And the inscription upon the basin of the fountain: “LEGS SAGE.” It would be a great name for a character in a TV show. A tough yet tender policewoman with a striking set of gams one gets to have a good look at every time she pulls a small but powerful handgun from her ankle holster. Yes, this statue is infused with sensuality; her body seems to strain against the dress at all the important places, the dress which is so voluminous it threatens to envelope her lovely forms completely. It is this tension which undoubtedly gives the piece such an erotic charge. So. All that is a good fancy tongue roll but it still begs the essential question: Who is this sexy dame?

According to the website of the Mairie of Toulouse, the fountain represents “la Belle Paule,” an unbelievably beautiful woman of Renaissance Toulouse. Here is the Mairie’s description:

The Belle Paule fountain is situated at the angle of the rues Concorde and Falguière. Clémence Isaure, alias “la Belle Paule,” lady of the Floral Games, keeps watch atop a column of crystalline appearance upon which the bodies of young girls are etched.
She was realized in 1910 at the initiative of Toulouse businessman Octave Sage[1], who, wishing to embellish his quarter, turned to [sculptor Leo] Laporte Blairsy.

The fountain mingles children, flowers and monsters in the form of serpents. Flowers and lianas support tortoises, reared up on their hind legs, spitting water. Toads and disturbing gargoyles complete this "fauna".

The electricity and lighting were redone in 1996.

The Mairie's text is a misidentification. “La Belle Paule,” was a real person: Paule de Viguier, born in 1518 [elsewhere it is said “certainly after 1535] and died on March 13, 1610. In Toulouse there is a street named after her. Clémence Isaure was a myth, but there's a street named after her too. How could the Mairie have gotten it wrong? Apparently they are not alone. An interesting corroboration of this is to be found in a discussion of Belle Paule in letter 37 of L'Association des Amis de l'Hôtel d'Assézat:

Contrary to what some might think – sometimes confusing her with Clémence Isaure – [la Belle Paule] was not a myth, but a very real Toulousaine whose existence has been proven many times over and whose genealogy was established with precision by Mr. André Navelle.

Perhaps the confusion has arisen from the fact that Paule de Viguier and Clémence Isaure were “born” roughly at the same time, and that Paule de Viguier was later in life a patron of the arts and learning. Perhaps it is because both have strong associations with a feminine ideal. Whoever the real Paule de Viguier was, her identity has been claimed by posterity as an exemplar of virtue, chastity and beauty. Clémence Isaure is likewise identified.

Who then, was Clémence Isaure? Another text elaborates but little upon her function as the “lady of the Floral Games,” touching upon her role both as patron and somewhat mystical embodiment of the feminine ideal:

In the history of Toulouse, the origin of the Floral Games appears inseparable from the mysterious memory of Dama Clemensa, considered the inspiration and benefactress of poets. In the last third of the 15th century, a scholar of the Renaissance, Guillaume Benoît, in a treatise on wills, refers to the bequests given to the city by the illustrious Lady Clémence, distributing gifts of silver flowers to inspire eloquence among the young.
Since 1527, an elegy to Clémence Isaure has been read annually for the feast of May 3rd.


On the eve of the revolution, Florian's novel popularized the legend of Clémence Isaure in which the scholars of the romantic period wanted to discover an embodiment of the mystic poetry of the troubadours.

Tantalizing, but a bit short on detail. How did the origin of the Floral Games come to be associated with Clémence Isaure? Why does Benoît refer to her bequests? According to (eek!) French Wikipedia:

In 1515, when the Consistoire du Gai Savoir and the Capitouls quarreled, the mainteneurs decided to declare their independence: they changed their name to the Compagnie des Jeux Floraux and demanded municipal funding for their events.

To support their demand, they invented the character of Clémence Isaure, who they claimed had bequeathed all her possessions to the city provided that the Floral Games were organized every year. Her legacy included, for example, the “meadow of seven denarii”[2]

To convince the magistrates, they offered as evidence the sepulcher of Bertrande Ysalguier, the statue of which held in its clasped hands an iris, symbolic flower of the “Gay Science.” At the same time, they invented a past for her, creating records from whole cloth. The statue would be modified a century later to cement the legend: the head was replaced, flowers were substituted for the rosary in the right hand, the charter of the Floral Games was placed in the left hand and the lion was removed.

So, because of a power struggle over the control of city funds, the troubadours concocted a character from thin air, creating all the necessary documents to prove her existence, even going so far as to proffer the tomb of another as that of their benefactress. There's a great novel in here. Let’s see if there’s more detail to be had:

On May 3rd 1324, some rich bourgeois organized a poetic joust between troubadours, trouvères and minstrels from near and far.[3] Thus was born the first poetry contest in Europe, if not the world.[4]


To lend weight to their initiative the organizers of the competition offered as a prize a gold violet and called their group the “Compagnie du Gai Savoir.” 

The Capitouls—the bourgeois who controlled the city in the name of the Count of Toulouse—added a silver marigold and a gold wild rose to the prizes, which were announced each year.

In 1515, the company took the name of Compagnie des Jeux Floraux. It was placed shortly after under the patronage of Clémence Isaure, a lady of the previous century who had made to them a gift of her possessions…but whose existence if anything was unproven.


The jury of the Floral Games proved its wisdom by rewarding a gold lily to a young Victor Hugo at 19 years old. Chateaubriand was also crowned. And of course there is poet François Fabre d'Églantine who has bequeathed to us the revolutionary calendar and “It rains, it rains, shepherdess…” (The second part of his name recalls the silver wild rose [eglantine] won in the Floral Plays and thus he was very proud!)

Historically, this adds little to answer our questions, but the symbolism of the flower is ever-present. The prizes awarded to the poets are all flowers which have been variously considered as symbols of the Virgin. The lily's sweet fragrance and white color have long been seen as a sign of Mary's humility and purity. The violet has also been thus considered. The marigold, whose English name comes from “Mary's Gold,” represents for many believers her domesticity and simplicity. Sometimes it represents her sorrows; indeed, the French for marigold, souci, can also mean “cares” or “worries.” The rose is associated with Mary in many contexts, especially as Queen of Heaven, and many miraculous appearances of Mary--such as the Virgen de Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico--involve roses. The rose is also associated with Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.

St. Thérèse, having promised to send the faithful roses from Heaven, is called “the little flower” and her shrine at Lisieux is one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in France. The church in Toulouse dedicated to Sainte Thérèse can be found on the rue Belle Paule, and a statue of her features prominently in the nave of the church of the Daurade.

In the basilica of the Daurade where the elegy to Clémence Isaure is read, the Black Madonna there is sumptuously adorned with lilies. The origin of Black Madonnas has been linked with the Song of Solomon 1:5 (“I am black, but comely”) as far back as St. Bernard. In the next chapter--2:1 and 2:2--we find the following: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys” and “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” These erotic verses make the mix all that more interesting. Flowers are sexy. Just ask Georgia O'Keefe. Is it any wonder that Notre Dame de la Daurade presides over childbirth and is appealed to by those in a family way? There is eroticism in her chastity. Clémence Isaure and Notre Dame serve a similar function as the unattainable lady, untainted by yet forever an object of desire. One can attain the flower, if only.... It would appear significant in this context that the seven troubadours who founded the Games first convened in a monastery orchard, for the Black Madonnas are frequently associated with planted fields, trees and vegetation. A painting (c. 1893) in the Mairie of Toulouse has Clémence appearing to the troubadours in a sacred grove accompanied by three virginal muses. Although more pagan it its overt symbolism, there is something of an apparition of Mary in the depiction. To her right there is a statue of Pallas Athena; according to legend, when a lake was drained at the site of the Daurade basilica, a statue of Pallas Athena was found.

The prizes of the Floral Games are associated with a feminine ideals, just as the very games themselves were made possible by the generosity of another idealized woman. We have already noted that the prizes were attributed to Dame Clémence, Lady Clemency; no surprise then that it is to the Vierge Noire of the Daurade where the Academy brings these prizes to be blessed each May, when the elegy to Lady Clémence is read. One author points out that the Virgin Mary was the original spiritual benefactress of the Games and that Clémence Isaure became its earthly one, but over time she assumed the role of a Celestial Virgin. A bust (below, left) of Clémence from 1882 sits on a socle decorated with a lyre and flowers, and her clasp is decorated with a representation of the Virgin. Another brief text further illustrates how the Virgin and Isaure were conflated:

The origins of the Floral Games in 1323 have long been known; their history rests on documents whose authenticity is above suspicion and the name of Clémence Isaure does not appear in these documents. At the beginning of the 16th century, the historical memory of the Floral Games had become significantly weakened in Toulouse. For close to two centuries the crowned poets celebrated the Holy Virgin--a subject which over time custom had made obligatory—by striving to find new epithets for the object of their worship. One is able, by going through the verses of the Toulouse school of the 14th and of 15th centuries which have been preserved for us, to collect the elements of the poetic litanies to the Virgin. In the 15th century, the leniency of the mother of Jesus was particularly celebrated and, in 1471, a poet called upon the Virgin under the name of Monfort del monte Clemensa (Lenient Comfort of the World). From there, little by little, spread the false idea that this “Clemensa,” a name which glided ceaselessly over the institution of the Floral Games, must have been a woman who had really existed and carried the name of Clémence; to explain the sort of worship which was rendered her, the supposition arose that this lady Clémence had founded or endowed the poetic institution so dear to Toulouse.

The first author who believed[5] in the real existence of Clémence appears to be Guillaume Benoît, counselor to the parliament of Toulouse (d. 1520). In 1527, the celebrated Etienne Dolet composed and solemnly recited in Toulouse a piece of Latin verse “about a certain woman, founder of the floral games” (de muliere quandam quae ludos rarios Tholosae constituit). The name of Isaure appeared for the first time in 1549, in a ballad rewarded by the Floral Games; the name is that of a legendary count of Toulouse, to which the poet saw fit to connect the most legendary Clémence. Strangely, the local propagation of the faith in Clémence Isaure was facilitated by the Capitouls of Toulouse, who—eager to take a part of their financial management from the control of the parliament—claimed that most of the realties of the city came to them from this lady, and consequently could not be considered as "common deniers, nor gifts or grants of the king." Thus welcomed as authentic and solemnly installed in the Capitol, in 1557, was a statue of Clémence Isaure that was said to have been found in the church of the Daurade and an epitaph was invented for the occasion, probably by Marin Gascon, consul and historian of Toulouse. The academy of the Floral Games had been taken under the special protection of Clémence Isaure for a long time, and her eulogy was pronounced every year in a solemn session which took place on May 3rd; we understand from then on how difficult it was for not only the masses, but even certain learned scholars, to accept the nevertheless indubitable conclusions of historical criticism.

This extended entry makes bit clearer what happened around the time Dame Clémence was invented, although it leaves some things unexplained.

 According to the legend Clémence Isaure was born in 1450 to a large and venerable Toulousain family. In her youth, she fell in love with a valiant knight, a lover of poetry and the arts, who died in combat. Clémence carried a torch, and never married. She devoted herself to the arts, earning praise for her verse from the Compagnie du Gai Savoir. During the war with the English she kept the Floral Games alive by taking it upon herself to provide for the prizes given out and through her charm, grace and financial support brought the contest back into vogue. Upon her death in 1500 she bequeathed to the city all her numerous properties, charging the Capitouls with providing for the expenses of the Company of the Floral Games. As of 1527, one of the mainteneurs spoke in praise of Clémence Isaure at each opening of the Games. She had literally become--by dint of her well-known chastity, her protection of and participation in the Games--a muse.

By 1558 the Capitouls seemed to have forgotten the stipulations of Clémence. In the course of a public meeting, one Jean Bodin of Angers publicly harangued them and they in turn asked Bodin to provide the contract of donation.

Somehow Bodin manged to create the impression that the Capitouls had destroyed this contract to escape their charge. At the end municipal officials were forced to respect their obligations.

But uncertainty lingered. Many doubted the existence of Clemence, despite the fact that her alleged father--Louis--was registered in the city records. Some even think that the Capitouls themselves invented the character in order to enrich the city, many skeptics perhaps none to happy that she had bequeathed so many valuable properties. It did not help that her statue, still on view in the hôtel d'Assézat, is a fake and that no record of Isaure's will was to be found.

According to Gérard de Sède, even skeptics of the day noted that "Lady Clemency" had been a title of the Virgin since the 14th century. He says some claimed that "Isaure" actually mean Isis Aurea: "Golden Isis." Placing her alleged grave under the Madonna in the Daurade--a Black Madonna whose name means "Golden"--thus evidences the purely symbolic nature of her name. De Sède mentions that others connect Clémence with something brought back from Isauria, a region of Asia Minor, by the crusaders via Constantinople . The members of the company, he reminds us, were sworn to secrecy; it appears that Gay Science might in fact have been a secret doctrine kept hidden in symbols, perhaps Catharism. He muses that Clémence might have been invented as a smokescreen to hide the real purpose of a powerful secret society. So at least we can exhale now that the inevitable link to Catharism has been made. It is amusing that Leo the Isaurian was an iconoclast Emperor in Constantinople and that the Cathars, who were being persecuted in Languedoc as their ancestors the Bogomils were being harried in the old Byzantine Empire by Crusaders there, were also noted for their iconoclasm. But as for Gérard de Sède, anything he mentions in connection with the subject should be taken with a hefty dose of salt, for it was he and Pierre Plantard who hatched the Priory of Sion hoax.

A chronicler of Toulouse quotes these verses in his work devoted Clémence:
“Our Isaure does not share anything with this transitory World.
And you who ask for traces from the ground
Look rather towards the skies…”

[1] Which gives a humorous secondary meaning to the inscription on the base: “Legs Sage” could be read both as “Wise Legacies” or “Sage’s Legacy.”
[2] A denarius was a 3rd century Roman coin originally valued at “ten asses.”
[3] According to the charter of the Floral Games, Las Leys d' Amor (“Laws of Love”) written by Guillaume Molinié in 1356, seven troubadours gathered in 1323 in an orchard and decided to organize a contest for the best poem. One year later, May 3, 1324, Arnaud Vidal of Castelnaudary won the prize with a song dedicated to the Virgin in front of a jury made up of the seven mainteneurs of “Gay Science” and twelve Capitouls.
[4] Umm, except perhaps for those held in ancient Greece, just to name one obvious example.
[5] Or at least claimed to believe....
Translations by Daurade


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  2. What has Madonna to do with Clemence Isaure?

    1. Hehe. The first anonymous comment is spam I'm guessing. My "very pertinent comment" remark is me just being silly/sarcastic!


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