The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, 1572

A Historiographical Examination

More than 400 years have passed since the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. Yet still today, studies of the event remain both enlightening and recondite at the same time. The early modern period was one of political partisanship informed by deep religious conviction, and it is a difficult task to extricate the two from each other, let alone from the ideas presented in source documents. With this problem in mind, this paper will undertake a historiographical examination of both primary and secondary source documents that speak on the massacre, as compiled in the anthology The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre: A Brief History with Documents. Nine documents will be summarized and analyzed, and compared critically with other documents as relevant. The objective here is to develop a circumspect perspective of the massacre's causes, the mindset of its participants, and an understanding of the limitations inherent in historical interpretations of the event.

To facilitate individual document analyses, it is useful to begin with a survey of the factors that brought about the massacre. To provide this framework, we will begin with a summary and analysis of Barbara B. Diefendorf's introduction to the aforementioned anthology, and include references to source documents where appropriate. The massacre took place within the context of the French Wars of Religion that spanned the years 1562 to 1598. The title Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre itself refers to a heated spate of mob violence that targeted Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) living in Paris, France. The massacre began on the morning of August 24, 1572, and lasted the better part of a week. The spark that set the mob aflame was the royally sanctioned assassination of a Huguenot leader, the Admiral Lord Gaspard de Coligny. By some accounts, the assassination was organized by Catherine de Medici, who convinced her son, the Catholic king of France, to kill the Protestant Coligny. The king himself later claimed Coligny was conspiring against him, and rumour had it that Protestant armies sat outside Paris, awaiting a signal to attack. Hence, the king claimed, it was for political reasons and not religious ones that Coligny had to be stopped. Coligny was murdered by the gentry-man Henry the Duke of Guise, who publicly announced he was acting on the king's orders. The news that the routing of Protestants was a royal imperative traveled rapidly, and a wave of gruesome popular violence soon engulfed local Huguenots, whether noble or not. As the massacre was underway in Paris, violence spread into surrounding villages and beyond. Protestant deaths numbered in the thousands. Subsequently, Protestant church membership declined sharply, as many emigrated from France or converted to Catholicism. The massacre was viewed by Catholics as a sign of God's preference for Catholicism, and used by Huguenots as justification for later revolts. The Wars of Religion ended only two and a half decades later in 1598, following the Edict of Nantes.

Toward the end of prudent history, Diefendorf inspected a broad set of primary and secondary sources, and often presented more questions than answers. Diefendorf situated her analysis in the observation that regardless of social class, life in the sixteenth century was beset on all sides by the chaos of disease, famine, and war. At the time, religion was the dominant method for bringing order to such chaos, and religious practice offered nothing less than a psychological anchor in stormy socio-political seas. Correspondingly, in attempting to understand the massacre, we must examine the significance and role of religion.

Opposition to Catholic doctrine had been growing for centuries preceding the massacre. Many dissenters pronounced the primacy of scripture and attacked Catholic traditions as so many delusive embellishments. Spiteful factionalism came to the fore with the Protestant Revolution in the first half of the sixteenth century, and continued through the years leading up to the massacre.

In the year 1550, the Catholic polemicist Artus Desiré decried religious contention, and constructed a rhetorical image of Catholic doctrine as the City of God, protected by walls of chastity, and surrounded by a moat of humility. Beyond the City of God lay the armies of heathen religions, attacking Catholicism and God from all sides. A person had two choices: enter the city through the gate of baptism, or permit the soul to plummet by apathy of faith into the Satanic depths of carnality. As evidence, Desiré claimed that heathens were wanton, and surmised that all renegades and excommunicators of Catholicism "Only left the Church, So as to live in debauchery."

If we are to believe Desiré was a devout Catholic, then we may reasonably believe there existed devout proponents of other ideas. In such a case religious renegades were not necessarily heathens but may have been true believers, albeit of other belief systems. One such example is found in the story of the conversion of Jean de Pas who proclaimed he was drawn to Protestantism by his conscience after having witnessed the Pope accept bribes. Converts may also have had ulterior motives, such as King Henry VIII who broke with Rome to secure a divorce. In any case, Desiré's treatise contributes to the idea that tensions were high in the decades prior to the outbreak of war. Notable here is one tension in particular: sexual tension. In this respect Desiré's City of God was a paradoxical one. The author proclaimed that the wall of chastity surrounding his Catholic City of God would be made strong "out of full virginity." This language was highly metaphorical, but the words "full virginity" leave little room for interpretation. In the absence of natural procreation (and setting aside supernatural miracles), one is left to wonder how Desiré hoped to sustain his wall of defense into future generations.

Not long after Desiré constructed his City of God, the Protestant minister Simon Du Rosier fired his words above the city walls at its earthly leader, the Pope. In 1561, Du Rosier boldly denounced the Pope as the antithesis of Jesus Christ. Hardly a stronger accusation could have been made. From his own investigations of the tale of the Last Supper, Du Rosier reasoned that the doctrine of transubstantiation was false. Christ did not mean for his followers to regard bread and wine as literally being body and blood. Instead, bread and wine were devices of allegory; just as bread and wine nourished the body, so did the body and blood of Christ nourish his follower's souls. Only the sacrifice of Christ's body itself saved Christians, and to believe otherwise was to have rejected the Holy Spirit, and to have been in league with the Antichrist.

Du Rosier's evidence was the New Testament, and he argued that any Christian who went directly to the text itself would have seen the folly in Catholic doctrine. No mere Catholic rite could earn salvation, and for this reason transubstantiation was a most "putrid Mass." Here, as in the work of Desiré, we find clear denominational bias. The acrimonious language of both authors suggests they felt a great sense of violation in the existence of doctrines contrary to their own. As well, we see that Du Rosier included art with his prose, as did Desiré. Thus it would seem that sixteenth century controversialists appreciated the utility of conveying a message figuratively in verse for the literate few, and pictorially in sketches for the illiterate many.

While the art accompanying Du Rosier's words benignly depicted a disparity between the Last Supper and the Catholic Mass, it was the temper of the battle depicted in Desiré's City of God that often made its way into real life. So it was that on the 27th of December 1561, fighting erupted between Protestants and Catholics who had assembled in dangerously close proximity, to celebrate Saint John's Day. The skirmish took place in and around the church of Saint-Médard, and we are fortunate to have both Protestant and Catholic accounts of the encounter. Here we will first survey the accounts, and then analyze them jointly.

According to the Catholic priest Claude De Sainctes, the sacking of Saint-Médard began when his innocent flock rang their vespers, and this somehow provoked the Protestants into attacking the church. The Protestants broke down the doors of the church, and attacked unarmed Catholic parishioners, as well as the church itself. No person, statue, window, altar, or ornament was safe. The Parisian watch commander had been bribed by bourgeoisie Huguenots, and did nothing to stop the attack, but instead goaded the Protestants in their sacking.

In direct opposition to De Sainctes' account, an anonymous Protestant writer presented The True Story of the Insurrection. In this account, we are informed that a sermonizing Protestant minister was interrupted by the ringing of the bells of Saint-Médard. The Protestants sent two unarmed emissaries to beg the Catholics to halt the ringing of the bells. The Catholics responded by killing one of the Protestants, and henceforth rung the bells "with deliberate malice" as a rallying war call. The Catholic assault intensified, as stones and arrows were aimed from the windows of the church at the Protestant crowd. The Protestants became "greatly frightened and perplexed" at the sudden turn of events, and sent a magistrate to command the Catholics to cease and desist. The magistrate could not break the Catholic onslaught, and Protestants took the matter into their own hands. The rest, all parties agree, was violence.

Both accounts largely agree on the details of the fight inside the church, and both claim that the attack was premeditated. Differences arise however in descriptions of the premeditation. The Protestants charged that the Catholics must have planned the attack, as they possessed a reserve of munitions (that is, arrows and stones) inside their church. Conversely, De Sainctes claimed that prior to the attack, he observed an unusually large group of Protestants who brandished weapons and harassed passers-by. For De Sainctes, the number of Protestants combined with their insolence was clear evidence of their "evil intent." If this was true, then regardless of Protestant emissaries or city magistrates, it would seem curious that De Sainctes deigned to taunt the so-called Protestant beast at his gate by ringing the church bells at all. That "evil intent" might have swelled and transformed into evil deeds should hardly have been surprising. For their part, the Protestants explained the size of their gathering as larger than usual because it was a holiday, which seems a reasonable claim. Nonetheless, in both reports, unreasonable prejudice is clear. The Protestants portrayed themselves as entirely blameless and the Catholics as entirely at fault. Mutatis mutandis, for the Catholic account. An important difference is the Protestants' appeal to authority. Firstly, the murder of the kidnapped emissary was described as the result of "mortal wounds in the opinion of surgeons." Secondly, the Catholic refusal to respect the magistrate was portrayed as tantamount to having rejected the king's law, because the magistrate was an officer of the governor of Paris. Appeals to surgeons and governors would have been used to establish objective credibility, and thus convince the reader the Protestant story was in fact, as the title overtly proclaims, the true story of the insurrection.

Outbreaks of violence continued apace, and six years after the battle at Saint-Médard, we find a chronicle of the surprise of Meaux from 1567, as related by the Catholic monk François Grin. Grin's journal described a sequence of assaults on Catholic towns by Huguenots, who first took the town of Montereaux-sur-Yonne on September 26, 1567. The next day the same group attacked the city of Soissons at the unholy hour of four in the morning, where they partook of much murdering and looting. These attacks went on until October 2nd and overwhelmed the towns of Orléans and Saint-Denis. In addition to attacking towns the Protestants plotted to murder the king, and although the king was heavily guarded the Protestants nevertheless undertook many ambush attempts. It was only by the grace of God that the king made his way safely to Paris. Indignant at their inability to slay the king the Protestants set fire to windmills outside Paris, and hoped to starve those dependent on the mills for food.

For Grin, the primal interest of the Protestants seemed to have been to sate their bloodlust. Grin described his religious opponents as "frenzied madmen" that hungered for "royal and human" blood. Combining the merciless destruction of windmills with irrational attempts to assault the king, Grin painted a picture of Protestants as more animal than human. Somewhat contradictory in Grin's account is the idea that such "barbarous" creatures might have constituted a threat to a noble king who was not only militarily, but divinely protected. Alongside the writings of Desiré and Du Rosier, Grin's account supports the notion that early-modern Europeans ascribed great religious significance to the happenings of their lives.

With this fact in mind, we are presented with one of the great puzzles surrounding the massacre: reconciling the significance of religion to King Charles IX, based on his words and deeds. As described earlier, Charles claimed that the assassination of Coligny was necessary in order to secure Paris. In his Declaration on the Reasons for the Admiral's Death, released on August 28th 1572, the king declared that all happenings of August 24th were the result of his commands, and that all events and outcomes were entirely in line with his will. His motives were political, he claimed, and not religious. As a show of good faith towards the Protestant religion, Charles pronounced that Protestants could continue to practice Protestantism, but only in private of course, until he had restored peace. All Protestant prisoners were to be released, unless they were leaders or suspected of scheming. In addition, no person was to take action against any Protestant, unless so ordered by the king.

In his declaration, the king was attempting to create an image of himself as all-powerful and all-knowing. However the notion that he was in full control of the violence of August 24th is a peculiar one at best. If true, then once Coligny was dead and there was no threat of a Protestant invasion to Paris, why not instantly re-instantiate peace? Why tell Protestants they could continue to practice their religion even as the massacre continued? If the king was indeed so fair-minded, and was working to permit Protestantism, then why permit the massacre at all? Why permit the murder of thousands on the basis of their religion, beyond the political murder of Coligny?

Complicating the internal inconsistencies of Charles declaration, the Report by the Merchants' Provost of August 23 1572, showed Charles' motivations to be as much religious as they were political. The provost's report was found in municipal records, and contained an account of the commands sent to town officials and officers by President Le Charron, who effectively acted as the mayor of Paris. Le Charron reported that those of the "new religion" conspired to rise against the king, and that orders were given to ensure the safety and security of the royal family and the city. The provost was told to obtain the keys to all gates, seize and secure all boats, and see that anyone able to bear arms be would ready to strike, should the need arise.

As evidence of his orders, Le Charron claimed he was summoned to the castle, and spoke with the king in the presence of nobles. There are however few doubts about Le Charron's orders. The point of interest here is the arming of Parisian Catholics on the night of August 23rd, in preparation for battle against those of the "new religion." This point stands in contradiction to the fact that on August 24th the king dispatched letters claiming that the violence of the 24th was the result of discord between Coligny and the Guise family. Prior to Coligny's murder on the 24th there had been two failed assassination attempts on his life, and the Guises were the prime suspects. In his letters of the 24th, the king claimed the Guises undertook a pre-emptive strike against the Huguenots rather than waiting to be attacked, and that the massacre raged outside the castle walls only because royal troops were busy guarding the royal family. Thus, in light of the king's letters of the 24th, the provost's report directly contradicts its own notion that the king was arming defensively. Furthermore, many Protestant aristocrats were in Paris on the 24th, having recently attended a wedding. If the king lived in fear of Protestant nobles, would he have invited the Protestant lion into his den? Might he instead have lured them into a trap? We may never know the full truth of the matter.

Though we may not be able to expose the truth of the king's involvement in the massacre, the direct impacts of the massacre are less controversial, and the fact that many Huguenots converted to Catholicism is uncontested. In Hugues Sureau Du Rosier's own Confession of His Descent into Popery of 1574, we encounter a Protestant whose experience of the massacre led to a crisis of faith, and ultimately to his acceptance of Catholicism. As the massacre approached his town Du Rosier fled. He planned to pretend he was a Catholic, should the need arise. However, upon the first instance of being asked who he was, Du Rosier instantly professed Protestantism and was imprisoned. While in jail, Du Rosier debated religion with Catholics, and though he had every intention of remaining faithful to Protestantism he found the Catholic claim of apostolic succession not simply troubling but overpowering. Eventually, reflecting on what seemed to be God's preference for Catholicism, Du Rosier converted.

It is possible Du Rosier converted to make himself more valuable alive than dead, being that he was a minister and would have been in a prominent position to convert others. However, even with the knowledge that Protestants had been killed for their religious associations, and at a time when the safety of Huguenots was by no means certain, Du Rosier openly professed Protestantism. His words suggest he genuinely struggled with the apparent problem of "God's indignation" for Protestants, and was converted only by a severe trial of faith. Moreover, Du Rosier feared the loss of Christian faith writ large should Protestant Christians continue to battle Catholic Christians.

While men such as Hugues Sureau Du Rosier, Artus Desiré, and François Grin revered faith with their hearts and minds, it was unreasoned faith -- Christian or otherwise -- that became the target of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary on Fanaticism in 1764. Voltaire argued that disagreements should be solved by reason alone, and that violent fanaticism did not provide a justifiable defense of ideas. The virus of faith sowed the seed of fanaticism, and the only preventative and cure for the malady of fanaticism was the "philosophical spirit," which would bring men to enlightenment and reason. Voltaire attacked all those who condescended to take the life of another for nothing more than the crimes of thought and imagination, and observed that human laws could be of no help to a country that permitted fanatics to follow their own religious law.

For Voltaire, fanaticism was that which crossed the boundary of personal philosophy into interpersonal violence. A person should be free to consider and promote any idea they wished. However, to forcibly impose one's ideas onto others was nothing more than base insanity. Religious fanaticism and violent methods merely stained ideas with blood, rather than advancing them. As evidence for his thesis, Voltaire surveyed historical examples of violence done in the name of religion, and cited the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre as the "most detestable example of fanaticism." Voltaire was a child of the Enlightenment, and his commentary reflected the march of reason that proceeded in the centuries following the massacre. Consequently, Voltaire's reasoned perspectives stand in sharp contradistinction to the faith-based perspectives seen in all documents examined prior. For Voltaire, the sixteenth century was an era marked by the unreasoned fanatical clashes of one-sided religious ideas. In his own century, Voltaire promoted the reasoned, enthusiastic examination of all sides, and of all ideas. Rather than telling us what to think, Voltaire asked us to examine how to think.

When a reader applies Voltaire's critical reasoning to any single document from the era of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, they often find a biased and binary account of events; Christ and Antichrist; chastity and debauchery; holy and evil. As more documents are examined the reader moves beyond the limited sphere of individual perspectives, and discovers an ever-increasing number of interpretations, causes, and effects. Proportionately, as the number of sources examined increases, so does room for debate. Although religion and religious beliefs were profoundly important to early-Modern Europeans, the critical reader recognizes that sixteenth century life was never so simple as Catholicism versus Protestantism. The greater significance of religion then, as played out in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, is as a case study in human nature. As regards the combination of religion and violence, the documents surveyed here suggest that sixteenth century historians often asked "what happened?" primarily as a vehicle for advancing their own agenda. With the passing of time and the advance of reason, historians may now ask "what happened?" in the hope of resolving a far more important, and still unanswered question; "What can we say to a man who tells you that he would rather obey God than men, and that therefore he is sure to go to heaven for butchering you?"

Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: history, politics, violence ]

Last updated March 17, 2011