The brand on the shoulder of Milady, Countess de Winter in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is a fleur-de-lis. It was burned into her shoulder by the executioner of Lille when she (a nun) and a priest (the executioner’s brother) were caught stealing sacramental objects to finance their flight from their lives in the church. According to Dumas, the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the monarchy in France, was burned into the flesh of felons to mark them for life. In Justine the Marquis de Sade also mentioned the practice of branding criminals . Apparently the crown was making the analogy to the branding of cattle; the criminal was symbolically “owned” by the monarchy as punishment for their infraction.
Dumas’s use of the fleur-de-lis was the first time the symbol was impressed on my consciousness. I was probably in my early teens when I first read The Three Musketeers and although I had probably seen the three-pronged stylized flower before, but perhaps did not know its name.
The fleur-de-lis is ubiquitous in all places French and is widely used in other cultures as well. The literal translation is “flower of the lily,” but when it is represented in color it is yellow and there are no wild yellow lilies in Europe, and the fleur-de-lis has been associated with the French monarch since the 12th century.
The three-part structure more closely resembles an iris and Iris pseudacorus, the “yellow flag,” is native to Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, where the fleur-de-lis first appeared in iconography. The oldest known representations of the fleur-de-lis are known from Assyrian bas-reliefs of the third millennium B.C. It was found on Greek and Roman coins and is first associated with the area that would one day be called France when it was imprinted on Gaulish coins in the first century A.D.
According to legend (not borne out by documentation) Clovis (c. 466 – 511), the first Christian king of the Franks, had three fleur-de-lis on his standard. There are varying versions of the legend, but in most Clovis originally had three frogs on his standard, but was trapped by the Goths and desperately looking for a ford when he spotted yellow iris growing the river, a sign that the water was shallow. In gratitude he traded his frogs for flowers.
The first documented French monarch to deploy the symbol was Louis VII (AD 1137 – 1180). Louis’s standard was a blue field covered by fleur de lis, formally referred to as “seme de fleur de lys.” In 1376 Charles V codified the royal number of fleur-de-lis to three, reportedly to associate the monarchy with the Holy Trinity.
In post-revolutionary France, however, the association with the monarchy remained and the fleur-de-lis was expunged as a symbol of French government. The republicans went so far as to chip the monarchic symbol out of public building facades and clip it out of draperies.
Many French colonies, especially those in North America, such as Louisiana, Quebec and maritime Canada (“Acadia”) retained an allegiance to this ancient symbol of the motherland. It persists on the flags of Quebec, the cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette, La., the province of Nova Scotia, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina New Orleans residents revived the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of identity, spray painting it all over the city and having themselves tattooed with the French emblem “Tulane University’s assistant professor of modern European history Marline Otte, who conducted a series of post-Katrina oral history interviews, discovered that tattoos were a “phenomenon of mourning” that cuts across race, gender and economic lines.”
Because of the English occupation of much of France during the Middle Ages, the fleur-de-lis was incorporated into the royal standards to make clear the English claims on the France. The symbol persisted in aristocratic families and in the British army. Lieutenant-General Robert Baden-Powell, recalling the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of the army reconnaissance specialists, made the symbol of the Boy Scouts.