Alberte-Barbe d'Ernecourt

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Entry by Micheline Cuénin, 2004

Born in 1606, Alberte-Barbe was the only daughter of Simon II d'Ernecourt, a gentleman at the court of the Duke of Lorraine, and Marguerite Housse de Watronville; she thus inherited several fiefs in the duchy. Her upbringing was entrusted to her aunt, Baroness of Etrepy, near Vitry-en-Perthois, who gave her a thorough education including household management, humanist culture, hunting, and horse-riding. At the age of sixteen, her father married her to Jean-Jacques de Haraucourt, Lord of Saint-Baslemont near Contrexéville, a well-born but poor Lorraine knight and a favorite of Duke Charles IV. The couple lived in the castle of Neuville-en-Verdunois on lands belonging to the bride. There, her husband taught her to share his two sole loves horses and warfare. While he fought enthusiastically at his prince's side, his wife's shrewd management of her lands enabled her to pay the vast ransoms demanded by the French when they captured him in 1632 and 1633. Haraucourt then followed the duke to fight in Germany with the Imperial army, while the duchess kept the peace for her vassals in the Bar region, laid waste by the occupying French forces. Alberte-Barbe fortified her fief and built up an army led by a young protestant officer recommended by her husband; with a superb stable of horses she was able to turn her fief into a miniature state of its own. She took in peasants from nearby villages along with the best craftsmen in the region, allowing them to work in peace, tax-free, in what soon became a haven of prosperity the sole condition being that they serve in her army in case of need. The French were rapidly defeated, but the struggle was much more fierce against the Lorraine and imperial mercenaries Croats, abandoned by their generals after the French defeat at Mainz in 1635, who swept across the region, killing and taking hostages for ransom. Dressed in men's clothing, Alberte-Barbe put into practice her knowledge of warfare: her small army used short, sharp strikes and other tactics to keep the enemy in check, terrorizing them with lightning-quick charges. She came to the defence of Bar and Verdun, bringing in food supplies and winning the admiration of the governor of Verdun, the Marquis of Feuquières, who begged the king to put her in command of a unit based in Neuville. Preferring her freedom, Alberte-Barbe refused this charge. In the year 1644, her son succumbed to the plague and her husband was killed in Germany. A hostile entourage intimated that this double blow was divine punishment for her male attire and the enthusiasm with which she had waged war. Deeply affected, she limited herself to protecting the nearby sanctuary of Benoîte-Vaux sometimes in pitched battle from the "Cravates" (as the Croats were called), and escorting convoys of supplies to Verdun. The captains of the French army paid homage to her by commissioning a huge painting by Claude Deruet, which showed her in the midst of her exploits. On the home front, Alberte-Barbe educated her vassals by promoting literature and art. She owned an extensive library and was well-versed in classical, patrological, and even gnostic literature, reading the Bollandist Jesuits and writing works of piety herself (including an Examen de conscience which was widely read at the time) and religious tragedies, now nearly all lost. She also wrote motets for her chapel choir. When Lorraine was handed over to its new governor, La Ferté-Sennetaire [Senneterre], who bankrupted the Three Bishoprics, Alberte-Barbe's ruin ensued. He requisitioned everything she owned horses, herds, and furniture as well as her best servants, forcing her for four years to be no more than an unwelcome guest in her own occupied home. Weakened by illness and resentment and the blow to her honor, she took the veil of the Poor Clares in Bar-le-Duc, but convent life proved too much for her fragile health and she returned home the following year, dying on May 22, 1660. She left one daughter, Marie-Claude, who married Louis des Armoises, sieur de Commercy, in 1646. In a realm where strong women were scorned, Alberte-Barbe de Saint-Baslemont was rapidly forgotten. Only in the Meuse region has her memory lived on: in the church of Neuville-en-Verdunois fresh flowers continue to adorn her tomb. Her castle, today owned by the regional authority, is kept in good condition yet not open to the public. Her tragedies, steeped in the humanist erudition of the previous century, were forgotten until recent times; they are now being viewed anew as precious records of the pre-classical theater.

(translated by Susan Pickford)


- ? : Examen de conscience. Mentionné dans le P. de Vernon, L'Amazone chrétienne, ou les aventures de Mme de Saint-Balmon qui a conjoint heureusement une admirable dévotion et la pratique de toutes les vertus avec l'exercice des armes et de la guerre, Paris, Metura, 1678 (privilège du 30 mai 1660).
- 1650 : Les Jumeaux martyrs, tragédie, Paris, Augustin Courbé -- Éd. C. Abbot et H. Fournier, Genève, Droz, Textes littéraires français, 1995.
- Correspondance : essentiellement inédite; quelques lettres in P. de Vernon, L'Amazone chrétienne... (voir supra), reproduites in Micheline Cuénin, La dernière des amazones, Madame de Saint-Baslemont, préface de R. Taveneaux. Nancy, Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1992.

Selected bibliography

- Cuénin, Micheline. La dernière des amazones..., voir supra.
- P. Des Billons. Histoire de la vie chrétienne et des exploits militaires d'Alberte-Barbe d'Ernecourt connue sous le nom de Madame de Saint-Balmon, par le P. D.B. de la Compagnie de Jésus. Liège, 1773.
- Vernon, P. de. L'Amazone chrétienne..., voir supra.

Selected bibliography of images

- Deruet, Claude. Madame de Saint-Baslemont (huile sur toile, 0,77 sur 0,89 cm), 1643, Nancy, Musée des Beaux-Arts.
- Deruet, Claude. Madame de Saint-Baslemont (huile sur toile, 4m2). Nancy, Musée Lorrain -- M. Cuénin, La dernière des amazones..., voir supra, couverture.


- «C'est une femme qui vit en sainte, et [...] si nous avions de pareils commandants en toute cette frontière, nous n'y ouïrions point parler d'ennemis, je puis vous assurer que vous ne ferez pas donner d'hommes entretenus en aucun lieu que ceux qu'on lui pourrait donner.» (lettre de Manassès de Pas, marquis de Feuquières, à Sublet des Noyers, 6 janvier 1639 (Affaires Etrangères Lorraine, Corr. Pol., vol.31 f.2).
- «Femme qui savait bien le métier de la guerre, et qui en observait exactement les lois dans les occasions qui survenaient, comme les plus expérimentés des généraux d'armée dans de grandes batailles.» (P. de Vernon, L'Amazone chrétienne..., voir supra).
- «L'Antiquité ne peut se vanter toute seule d'avoir des Amazones, et la France n'a que faire d'aller les chercher loin de chez soi. La dame de Saint-Balmon lui en a fourni plusieurs fois d'exemples [...]. Elle ajoute à sa valeur une si grande charité que tous les soldats français qui passent sur ses terres y reçoivent le secours et l'assistance dont ils ont besoin, ce qui est d'autant plus à estimer que [...] son mari est avec les ennemis» (Gazette de France, dépêche de Bar du 29 novembre 1643).
- «La merveille de son temps, et pour sa valeur et pour sa belle conduite» (Mme de La Guette, Mémoires [1681], éd. M. Cuénin, Paris, Mercure de France, 1982, rééd. 2003 p.113).
- «Femme extraordinaire [qui] avait un grand mépris pour la beauté. [...] Il paraissait dans tout son visage je ne sais quoi de grand, de doux et de ferme mêlés ensemble qui valait mieux que la beauté» (Abbé A. Arnaud, Mémoires [fin XVIIe siècle?], éd. Michaud-Poujoulat, 1838, 2e série, vol. IX).

Alberte-Barbe d'Ernecourt
Title(s) Dame de Saint-Baslemont
Spouses Jean-Jacques de Haraucourt, seigneur de Saint-Baslemont
Birth date 1606
Death 1660
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Pierre-Joseph Boudier de Villemert
Dictionnaire Fortunée Briquet
Dictionnaire Charles de Mouhy
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