Tricentennial Thursday: Make that fleur de lys, not the common fleur de lis

By Gilles-Antoine Langlois, Clarion Herald Contributing writer
“River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community”

The question of the fleur de lys is a mix of fact and legend.

The spelling in French is “lys” and not “lis,” which means that the question concerns an old symbol (lys) rather than a flower (lis). In French, there is no difference in the pronunciation of lis or lys; the difference is only in the spelling.

There is a historical context why, from St. Louis, the ninth king of France, the French began to use the “fleur de lys” as the symbol of the kingdom and the royal authority.

For centuries, in the ancient regime before the French Revolution, people accused of committing a bloody crime against the king’s law were marked or tattooed on the shoulder with a fleur de lys.

Article 32 of the Code Noir of 1724 used in Louisiana stipulated that in the case of an escaped slave (maroon): “L’esclave fugitif qui aura été en fuite pendant un mois, à compter du jour que son maître l’aura dénoncé en justice, aura les oreilles coupées et sera marqué d’une fleur de lys une épaule; s’il récidive un autre mois pareillement du jour de la dénonciation, il aura le jarret coupé, et il sera marqué d’une fleur de lys sur l’autre épaule; et, la troisième fois, il sera puni de mort.”

“The fugitive slave who has been on the run for a month, counting from the day his master has denounced him in court, will have his ears cut off and will be marked with a fleur de lys on one shoulder; if he repeats another and, likewise, on the day of the denunciation, he shall have his shank (leg) cut off, and he shall be marked with a lily flower on the other shoulder; and the third time he shall be punished with death.”

Branding with the fleur de lys was the same rule in France, so we cannot link the fleur de lys exclusively to slavery. It refers to the old times in France when the same symbol could be placed on the flag of the royalty and on the shoulder of a criminal – representing the power of the king.

The fleur de lys was commonly used in decoration (wooden, iron, painting work, etc.) in Quebec and Louisiana during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in memory of the French presence. It was adopted on the flag of New Orleans for the Bicentennial of the City in 1918, then by Quebec in 1948 and by the Saints (NFL) of New Orleans in 1967, for example.

Let’s go back in history: Why did King Louis IX decide to use the fleur de lys as a symbol of royalty? The reason is probably that for a very long time, since the reign of Clovis (5th-6th centuries), the fleur de lys was given as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. 

In 496, Clovis won the battle of Tolbiac against the Germans by exchanging his shield, adorned with three toads, for another, adorned with three fleurs de lys. That became the symbol of the strength of faith in a Catholic country.

Gilles-Antoine Langlois, born in 1954, is a professor at the National School of Architecture and Landscape of Bordeaux. 

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

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