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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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Les Poissonnières

The city's fisherwomen are often seen as the symbol of Marseilles: setting up their stalls on the banks of the Lacydon, they sell their husbands' almost miraculous catches from the night before. The tasks are usually shared equally between them: he places the nets and lines and goes out fishing in all weathers; she makes sure the fish is sold as quickly as possible.

But not all Marseilles fisherwomen sell fish directly to the customer. Some are wholesalers, once known as the cacanes*, which allows them to make substantial profits, while others barely made a decent living. Fish is sold in the covered markets, where the shops are run by the fisherwomen, depending on the volume of their catch. The most famous were the Puget (1672-1887), Vivaux (destroyed in 1936), and Delacroix (1803-1981) markets, though some fisherwomen would set their stalls on the quayside, in Marseilles' neighbourhood markets, or go out in the hillside suburbs surrounding the city. In 1878, Horatio Bertin described the young fisherwomen coming down from the old town or from Saint-Jean and Saint-Laurent, where the fishing folk lived, ready to start work at 4 o'clock in the morning. Some would go to the Vivaux market to help unload the fish carts from Martigues, others down to the quay to meet the night fishing boats. They would set up braziers filled with embers from the bakery and drink a quick cup of coffee offered by itinerant sellers. They carried the fish in huge baskets to the markets and worked until midday. Others went out into the city's outer suburbs, calling out their wares in their strong Provencal voices, praising the freshness of their sardines and rock fish. « Doors and windows would open. They stop, hang up their scales and, arms akimbo, wait the cooks to come out. »

Within the city of Marseilles, there are many fishing “villages” from Mazargues to the south to L'Estaque to the north, supplying the city for centuries. And it is always the women who manage the business. In the 1980s, there were still women from L'Estaque who could remember going down to the city centre on the first tram with their fragrant load.

Not all were wives of fishermen. Born near San Remo in 1886, Marie-Louise Bonfiglio arrived in Marseille in 1889 and died six months short of her hundred and tenth birthday on 8 February 1996. Married at sixteen to a farmer, she left every day at 4 a.m. to sell fish on the quay and return with a supply of fish for the hills of Saint-Antoine.

There are many references in literature to the fisherwomen. They are described as having the strongest voices of all the open-air sellers and the most impressive advocates of the freshness of their merchandise. Until the display of prices became mandatory, they used all manner of verbal techniques to persuade their customers to pay more for their wares and did not hesitate to sneer at anyone who did not accept their prices. But they also knew how to charm their customers, like the partisan*, and were famous for their generosity.

Catherine Marand-Fouquet

Refs.: Bertin H. Les Heures marseillaises, 1868. Colombière R. de la, Les cris populaires de Marseille, Laffitte Reprints, 1980.