Sunday, November 30, 2008

Week 6 - Memmie Le Blanc, the Savage Girl of Champagne

One of the most interesting stories in the realm of feral children is that of Marie-Angelique Memmie Le Blanc, or Memmie, a feral children discovered in France. Her case is so intriguing because it is shrouded in mystery; it is still not known for sure where Memmie truly came from. This once again presents the limitations of studying feral children; Memmie Le Blanc was discovered in 1731, a time far too long ago to have had the proper technology or scientific method to analyze feral children.

Memmie was first spotted in the woods surrounding the village of Songi in France. A small black girl, she appeared to be around ten years old; she slept in the trees of the countryside, and carried with her "a small club, thicker at one end than the other" (Newton, 53, 2002). The villagers devised a plan to catch her; they sent a woman with a child in her arms to the tree where the wild girl was resting. The woman acted kind and friendly to Memmie, and offered fish and vegetables. The wild girl began to crawl down from her tree, and the woman backed away; Memmie followed. After some time, men in wait leaped from their hiding places and snatched up the wild child.

The villagers and the Viscount d'Epinoy, who took special interest in the child, tried speaking to Memmie, "but she could not understand a word of French" (55). When given an unskinned rabbit, she "instantly stripped its skin and devoured it" (55). The little girl obviously had some skill and knowledge of living in the wild; however, she had no knowledge of language or communication. A pouch was wrapped around her body; inside of the pouch was "a small knife, inscribed with strange characters" (55). After washing the girl several times, the villagers discovered that she was not in fact black, but actually white; the blackness of her skin had been caused by dirt, and oddly enough, paint.

Her knowledge and skill of the wild became more prevalent and noticeable as her time in the village went on. She ran incredibly quickly with a galloping gait, "not at all putting one foot down and then the other, but skipping, jumping" (59). Her fingers and thumbs were larger than ordinary, as she had grasped many tree branches and limbs. She dug for roots in the garden, and imitated bird's songs in the trees. Her eyes moved and darted quickly.

Memmie was sent to St. Maur, a hospital in Chalons, a large town in the region of Champagne. Teaching began, and the girl began to speak French with not too much difficulty, leading others to believe that she already had some basic knowledge of French. Memmie was weaned off of eating raw meat, and instead was fed cooked food and wine; this had disastrous results. The girl began vomiting and became sick; when a physician bled her, claiming "it was necessary to get some French blood in her veins," (58), the sickness worsened. She was rushed off to the Roman Catholic Church, where she was baptized and named. While a doctor managed to nurse her back to health, she never permanently recovered.

Over the next ten years, little is known of what happened to Memmie Le Blanc. However, it is known that she became fluent in French, and lost many traces of her savage behavior. She moved from place to place, and was cared for by many, including the Queen of Poland. She met the famous scientist Charles-Marie La Condamine, and traveled to several convents, including a Parisian convent at Chaillot. It was here that a window fell on her, permanently sending her into bad health and destitution. She was cared for by Madame Hecquet, who eventually wrote Memmie Le Blanc's biography. It is said that Madame Hecquet was a pseudonym for La Condamine himself; it is unknown whether or not this is true.

James Burnett, or the Lord Monboddo, took great interest in Memmie Le Blanc and came to meet her. It was at this meeting that Memmie, fluent in French, told the story of how she had been "snatched away from her own country" (65) when she was only seven or eight years old. She had black painted on her, and was sent aboard "a great ship and carried off to a warm country" (65). The ship wrecked, and she and another black girl swam away to shore. The two helped each other survive, and traveled a great distance. They swam across a river, where Memmie found an abandoned chaplet; however, as she reached to pick it up, her companion "struck her outstretched hand as hard as she could with the club she carried" (67). Memmie struck back, and hit the girl in the head; however, she felt guilty for this, and covered the girl's wound with frog's skin. After this incident, the two went their separate ways, and Memmie ended up at the village of Songi.

Both Madame Hecquet and James Burnett sought to find the truth of Memmie's origins. Hecquet was convinced that Memmie was an Eskimo, as she loved raw meat, had pale white skin, and loved the water as well. She sought to prove this by allowing Memmie to play with a collection of dolls; "among them were an Eskimo and his wife carrying her baby" (78). As soon as Memmie saw the dolls, she grabbed the Eskimo couple, even though the other dolls were "more colorful and more interestingly adorned" (78). Hecquet became overjoyed; however, Memmie's connection to the dolls "grew weaker and weaker," (78) but Hecquet disregarded this. She was convinced that she had discovered the truth of Memmie's origin.

Burnett, on the other hand, did not believe that Memmie was an Eskimo for a moment. For one thing, Memmie did not, in fact, look like an Eskimo, as she was "fair-complexioned, smooth-skinned, her features soft as a European" (81). Burnett concluded that Memmie was a Huron, a member of a North American Indian tribe, as her weapons were "typical of the Huron tribe" (81), as was her lack of certain consonants. Her looks matched those of the Huron tribe as well. However, it is difficult to explain why Memmie instantly grabbed for the Eskimo doll. It is possible that she encountered Eskimos in her travels on the ship; or, perhaps she confused the Eskimo for another culture, perhaps even a Huron native.

By 1779, La Condamine had died, and Madame Hecquet had vanished (possibly because they were one and the same). In 1799, Burnett passed away. At this point, Memmie Le Blanc had already vanished from the world's sight. It is unknown what her final fate was. However, the mysterious tale she presents remains one of the most interesting in the study of feral children. If Memmie was in fact a Huron, how could she have learned French so easily? Even if she had been an Eskimo, she would not have learned French, a completely different language, with such relative ease. Memmie's case also shows how the environment and the actions you take can have a lasting effect on your physical being, as shown by the sickness caused by Memmie eating cooked meals.

Ryan

References

Newton, M. (2002). Savage girls and wild boys: A history of feral children. London: Faber and Faber.

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