On a recent trip to Provence, in the south of France, I started noticing bees etched and embossed on everyday items like drinking glasses, tablecloths, cutlery, stationery and even buildings. Once I started paying attention to them, I found them everywhere, sort of like the "hidden Mickeys" at Walt Disney World. This got me wondering about the meaning behind this bee symbol as well as other symbols commonly found throughout France.
The History of the Bee Symbol
The ubiquitous Provencal bee has its origins in the old 1st century Merovingian dynasty. Childeric I, the father of the French hero, Clovis I, was the first French king to use the bee as a symbol. The bee is believed to be one of the oldest symbols of French royalty.
Despite its ancient origins, It was during Napoleon's reign that the bee symbol became widely used in France and in Provence. Napoleon, who was something of an upstart, sought to give the impression of legitimacy by tying his government to that of the ancient kings with symbolism. The bee was part of that effort. Since Napoleon was from Corsica, his symbolism was used more in the provinces along the Mediterranean Sea, such as Provence.
More recently, the bee has become a symbol not only of France, but of the region of Provence. This area is a major honey producer as well as a grower of flowers, such as lavender, that find their way into perfumes, soaps and other bath products. The bee personifies this agricultural strength.
The original bee was actually shaped more like a cicada than a bee, but the symbol has evolved to be more of a honeybee shape.
Beyond the bee: other French symbols
Of course, the Bee of Provence is not the only symbol you'll encounter when you visit France. The French have used symbolism in their art, architecture and design since the earliest recorded history. Below are just a couple of the most common French symbols:
- Fleur de Lys -- Perhaps the most visible symbol of France is the fleur de lys.This stylized version of the Iris flower has been the symbol of French royalty since the days of the Franks. Although you will see the fleur de lys on other European flags and coats of arms, you'll usually find those regions to have an historic tie with France, either by marriage or treaty. The fleur de lys symbol is found throughout France and historic French colonies, such as the Canadian province of Quebec, New Orleans and Louisiana, the former French colonies in Africa, and the islands of the French Caribbean. Since the 13th century, the fleur de lys has also been used in Christian religions to symbolize the Trinity ("Father, Son and Holy Spirit.")
- The tricolor -- The so-called "tricolor," the red, white and blue of the French flag is another common symbol in France. These colors symbolize, "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood," the three core beliefs of the French revolution. You'll see these colors used throughout France, especially on patriotic holidays like Bastille Day (July 14th.)
- Marianne -- Marianne, a common 18th century French name, has been the embodiment of France since the revolution. The first use of Marianne to symbolize liberty was in the painting, "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix. Today, a bust of Marianne can be found in every City Hall around France as well as on postage stamps and coins. Several notable French women have been used as a model for Marianne over the years, including Catherine Deneuve, Sophie Marceau and Brigette Bardot. The "Statue of Liberty" in New York City, a gift from France, carries the face of Marrianne. Marianne often wears the Phrygian cap, another symbol of liberty from the days of the French revolution.
- The Gallic rooster -- The Gallic rooster has been a symbol of France (Gaul) since Roman times. The symbol, which has become a hallmark of French country design, plays on the similarity between the Latin word for rooster ("gallus") and the historic name for people from the region that became France ("Gallicus.") The rooster has been included on the French national seal since the mid 19th century. It is also occasionally features on French stamps and coins.
Visiting Provence on a barge cruise
A barge cruise is an excellent way to visit the lavender fields and off-the-beaten-path areas of Provence and other regions of France. Such cruises take a leisurely pace across some of the most pristine countryside in the south of France, where you can see Roman ruins, historic cities, wineries, perfume factories and, of course, bees. On a barge cruise, you're never very far from the shore, so you can relax and enjoy the changing scenery without having to even venture off of the vessel. One price includes your accommodations, meals, wine with dinner and sightseeing.
This blog was brought to you by The Barge Connection, specializing in barge vacations since 1998. We offer a diverse selection of barge cruises throughout the rivers and canals of France and other parts of Europe.