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17 July 2008

Marguerite Malaure (1665 - ?) lady's maid.

Marguerite was born in Pourdiac, near Toulouse, France. She was orphaned early, and raised under the supervision of the local priest.

She was placed as a lady's maid. In 1686 she fell ill, and had to be admitted to the Hotel-Dieu in Toulouse. The physician who examined her made a big deal of the irregularity of her genitals. She had both male and female organs. He insisted that maleness dominated in her organs, and that she was therefore obviously a man, despite her feminine appearance and the fact that she had menses. The authorities insisted that 'he' must henceforth dress as male, and only as male, and behave likewise.

This Marguerite found to be impossible. In addition she was faced with public harassment. The men clamoured for public exhibition of the subject of contention. She was frequently accosted and humiliated on the streets. Even the priest admonished her to reveal her unique features against the strong contemporary demand for modesty.

As a woman she ran away to Bordeaux, and was able to obtain work, and live undisturbed. However in 1691, a visitor to the city from her home town recognized her and denounced her to the authorities. She was arrested, tried and it was decreed that: 'her legal name shall be Arnaud de Malaure; she shall use men's clothes; and shall be forbidden, on pain of the whip, to dress like a woman'. This of course made her unemployable in that her only training was as a maid.

Harassed and desperate, she went to Paris, in male dress, sword at her side, and succeeded in being seen by a famous physician, Doctor Helvétius, who also brought in a surgeon, Doctor Saviard. After careful consideration, they concluded that she was a woman, but with a prolapsis of the uterus. They corrected this with surgery. They then put her on public exhibition. But they had no power to reverse the decision of a court.

She did manage to address a supplication to the king who appointed a commission to look into the issue. This is no little achievement. She had no money, was socially ostracized, and had to fight an archaic and difficult bureaucracy. The commission did decide in the end that she was a woman, and restored her sex and her name.
  • F. Gonzalez-Crussi. Three Forms Of Sudden Death, And Other Reflections On The Grandeur And Misery Of The Body. London: Picador. New York : Harper & Row vii, 207 pp 1986: 43-6.
  • “Marguerite Malaure : Prétendu Hermaphrodite”.

Careful with your French translation here. 'Prétendu' should be rendered 'alleged', not 'pretending'.

I admit that I do not fully understand the diagnosis of Uterine Prolapsis. An article here (with pictures) describes it. Most descriptions stress that it is something that may happen after childbirth and especially menopause. Malaure was too young for menopause. None of the accounts suggest that she had given birth, but maybe she had hidden the fact. I have given her birth year as 1665 in accordance with, but Gonzalez-Crussi gives it as 1655, which means that she would have been 31 when she went to the Hotel-Dieu, which leaves many adult years unaccounted.

You have to admire her feistiness. Her only experience that of a maid in a provincial town, she goes to Paris, seeks out one of the best doctors in France, and then after that goes to the king and gets a commission of enquiry.

The Helvétius family, originally named Schweitzer, was a dynasty of doctors, of whom the most famous was Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715 - 1771).

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