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Les Femmes et la Ville : histoire des femmes à Marseille des origines à nos jours

Les Femmes et Marseille

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La Belle de Mai

The Belle de Mai is both a mythical figure and a Marseilles neighbourhood. On the first day of May and the next two or three days, young girls all around Marseilles would play a role in the festivities of Maio or Belle Maio. They would choose the prettiest girl to be « Queen of the May ».

Wearing a white dress and a crown of flowers and with a bouquet of flowers in each hand, she was placed on a street corner. While she sat, absolutely still like a Madonna, on a chair decorated with flowers next a small table covered with white linen, her attendants stood around her singing and asking passersby to give money: « Dounas quaucarèn à la belle maio, qu'à tant bono gràci coume vous ! » (« Give something to the Belle de Mai, who is so good, like you! ») Nostradamus, who described the custom as « very ancient », noted that the contribution of a few coins « was repaid by a kiss ». The Maio and her friends used the money to buy cakes and sweets for themselves. Some would take out their doll's tea cups and played at having tea parties.

Before it disappeared in the 1930s, this tradition - possibly emanating from May festivals held by the Greeks, Romans and even the Ligurian Celts to celebrate the spring - was found not only in Marseilles and Provence, but also in Languedoc and Dauphiné (where the child was sometimes a small boy disguised as a girl), the Vosges, and the Jura. It is still celebrated today in Spain, and in particular in the small town of Colmenar, north of Madrid, where girls become mayas for a day: they stand like statues from morning to night without moving, speaking or laughing.

This pleasant custom was popular in the neighbourhood of Belle-de-Mai, as in other districts of Marseilles. Was the area named after the traditional festival? Many believe that it was, but Alfred Saurel challenged this theory: he believed that the name came from a nearby vineyard, mentioned in a 1369 document, a vinea bello de mai. « It is an etymology that we accept, » he declared, « until someone comes up with something better ».

Jacques Bonnadier

Refs.: Bonnadier J., La Belle-de-Mai au temps des cigarières et des petits bals, Paul Tacussel, 1997. Saurel Alfred, Dictionnaire des villes, villages et hameaux des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marius Olive, 1877.