In October of 1789, at the start of the French Revolution, hunger drove thousands of angry market women to march on Versailles. Their march resulted in their demand for bread being met. They also forced King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their family to move to the Palace of Tuileries in Paris. Because of the market women’s success, their status was elevated. They became heroines in the people’s eyes, and “formed … societies after the fashion of the Jacobin Club, presided over by Renée Audu, Agnès Lefevre, Marie Louise Bouju, and Rose Lacombe, and went about the streets of Paris insulting respectably dressed people, and hounding on the sans-culottes to deeds of atrocity.”
The revolutionary government worried about the market women’s power. They saw the women’s rowdy and unpredictable behavior as a liability to the increasingly authoritarian revolutionary government. Thus, on 26 May 1793, “they were forbidden to form part of any political assembly; and when they appealed from the Convention to the Commune of Paris … [they were] abruptly told … ‘the Republic had no need of Joans of Arc.'” The women’s power was further undermined during the Reign of Terror (6 September 1793 – 28 July 1794). This occurred when the government abruptly refused to allow the women to take their traditional seats in the gallery. Many of the market women then gathered together and seated themselves near the guillotine at the square called Place de la Révolution, formerly known as Place Louis XV.
At the Place de la Révolution, the women began to amuse themselves by sitting in the sun and watching the daily executions. To make the most of the event, they placed chairs placed around the guillotine. Women who could afford to pay for the seats, stationed themselves in them. There have also been reports that some women were paid to attend these executions so as to create a worthwhile spectacle and encourage large crowds.
When executions were underway, it was these zealous market women who bellowed and jeered. They were also reputedly among the first to express their disapproval of the accused. Between executions, the women entertained themselves by knitting and chatting with one another. Hence, they became known as “les tricoteuses de la Guillotine” from the word tricoter, to knit.
The word “tricoteuse” appeared in French literature about 1788. In English literature it appeared 50 years later in 1838. Twenty years after that Dickens wrote his famous novel Tale of Two Cities. In his novel he talked about the tricoteuses and embellished the truth. He claimed the tricoteuses counted the guillotined heads without pausing and knitted the names of those guillotined into their stitches.
Another fiction writer also mentioned the tricoteuses. She was a Hungarian-born British writer named Baroness Emma “Emmuska” Orczy. She wrote the fictional novel The Scarlet Pimpernel (later made into a movie). In her 1908 novel, Orczy provided grisly images of the tricoteuses when she stated, “[the tricoteuses] sat there and knitted, while head after head fell beneath the knife, and they got quite bespattered with the blood.”
While it’s highly unlikely the women were bespattered with blood or that they secretly knitted the names of those guillotined into their stitches, these industrious and patriotic knitters were known to faithfully knit at executions. They produced many small items, such as stockings or mittens. But more importantly, as they purled one and knitted two, they created hundreds of red Phrygian caps or “Liberty Caps.” These caps were the famous soft, conical, brimless caps from antiquity. The caps came to symbolize the French Revolution and the new order. In fact, even today the national symbol of France, Marianne (an allegory of liberty, egality and fraternity), is shown wearing the red Phrygian cap.
Theories as to why the women knitted in public have varied. Some people believe they knitted because knitting alleviated stress and depression, which in turn helped them relax. Dickens wrote that their knitting was a “mechanical substitute for eating and drinking.” Still others claim they knitted to add to their meager incomes or to clothe their families. What Dickens and others may have missed is that in the eighteenth-century women were expected to use their free time in productive pursuits. Thus, it was a fad to be busy, and the tricoteuses may have been in the habit of knitting because of social expectation.
Whatever reason the tricoteuses found for watching the executions and knitting, their legacy remained alive and well years later. During the Victorian Era, a reporter from the Tam Herald referred to the tricoteuses when reporting on a black woman, who daily attended Criminal Court in Tamworth to watch trial proceedings. He wrote:
“[A]t times … when an interesting case is pending, she pays great attention, seeming to take in the situation and points with something near akin to legal acumen, and if the occasion is an exciting one, she arises to an erect posture and sways her body slowly backward and forward, yet never for a moment ceasing her incessant knitting.”
However, he also noted, “[unlike a tricoteuse she is] not fierce nor bloodthirsty, nor does she sit and calmly watch the chopping off heads.”
NOTE: Some historians maintain that the tricoteuse were a counter-revolutionary myth. Click here for more information. Others maintain they were lower-class women who deviated from the norm and helped to shape the political reality of the French Revolution by knitting in assembly debates and crossing “the threshold between home and politics.”
-  Stephens, Henry Morse, A History of the French Revolution, Volume 2, 1905, p. 358.
-  The Athenaeum, 1900, p. 611.
-  Orczy, Baroness Emmuska, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1910, p. 8.
-  Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities, 2005, p. 214.
-  “French Knitting Women,” in Tamworth Herald, 3 February 1883, p. 8.
-  Ibid.