Lessons from a Massacre Committed 450 Years Ago
On this day in 1572, French Catholics slaughtered thirty thousand Protestants (known as Huguenots) in the streets of Paris. The French king and the pope helped organize the the biggest religious massacre in Europe in the 1500s. Roughly half the Bovards living in Paris were killed in the bloodbath. Three surviving Bovards fled past drunken guards at Paris’s city gates, raced to the coast, hijacked a rowboat, and made it across the English Channel and took refuge in London. Or at least that’s the Bovard family lore I’ve read. (I know not to bet the rent money on that lore’s accuracy.)
Some years ago at a DC reception, I met a cultural attaché from the French embassy. She saw my name tag and asked about my last name.
“Yes, it’s French. My ancestors were Huguenots,” I said.
“Oh—they were victims,” she replied remorsefully.
“Hell no! Getting kicked out of France was the best thing that ever happened to the Bovard family,” I replied with a big grin.
She just stared at me kind of wild-eyed. I fear I shattered her stereotypes of Huguenots.
After fleeing France, my forebearers resettled in northern Ireland. My ancestors were reportedly linen and lace manufacturers in France but became flax growers after resettling in County Donegal. I came by rusticity honestly.
In 1846, my Bovard ancestors exited for America. I explain my family history with this thumbnail: the Bovards were kicked out of France because the king was prejudiced against Protestants, and they were kicked out of Ireland because the Irish were prejudiced against horse thieves.
Actually, they left at the start of the great potato famine, but the fact checking police haven’t caught up with me yet. My kinfolk settled in western Pennsylvania. My great-great-grandfather dodged Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription, a step that I appreciate both philosophically and genetically.
The 1572 carnage at least had some positive philosophical results. Philippe de Mornay barely avoided being killed in the massacre, but seven years later, his pamphlet Vindiciae contra tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants) was published in Switzerland. This pamphlet laid the groundwork for subsequent authors (including British philosopher John Locke) to clearly establish the right to resist oppressive rulers. The book contained far more solid thinking on the nature of political institutions than one will encounter in political science classes, where progressive professors exalt the power of benevolent rulers, the Constitution be damned. De Mornay observed, “There is nothing which exempts the king from obedience which he owes to the law, which he ought to acknowledge as his lady and mistress.” Invoking Aristotle, he stressed, “Civilized people reduced kings to a lawful condition, by binding them to keep and observe the laws. Unruly absolute authority remained only amongst those who commanded over barbarous nations.” The vision of “government under the law” was one of the greatest lodestars of early modern political philosophy. De Mornay also derided “the minions of the court.” We have made great progress since his time—now we have think tank minions.
Sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne was horrified by the carnage in Paris as well as in Bordeaux, where he served periodically as mayor. Montaigne sought to deter religious genocide: “It is putting a very high price on our opinions to have a man roasted alive because of them.” He admitted that he could not say all that he believed: “I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more as I grow older.” But he never forthrightly condemned the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. He did give a few winks to skepticism: “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.” He also recognized how adulation spawned some of the most dangerous illusions: “The strange luster that surrounds a king conceals and shrouds him from us.”
Almost two centuries later, Voltaire was spurred by the 1762 judicial murder of a Huguenot to zealously champion toleration. “Toleration has never been the cause of civil war; while, on the contrary, persecution has covered the earth with blood and carnage,” he wrote. In his Philosophical Dictionary, he declared, “What is tolerance? It is a necessary consequence of humanity. We are all fallible, let us then pardon each other’s follies. This is the first principle of natural right.”
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre shows the perils of combining fanaticism with power. Unfortunately, this is a lesson which modern societies may soon need to learn again. A recent poll showed that more than half of Americans expect a civil war “in the next few years.” Hopefully that poll is as inaccurate as most of the polls preceding recent presidential elections. Historian Henry Adams observed a century ago that politics “has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” Nowadays, politics seems hellbent on multiplying hatred. And few things spur hatred more effectively than tarring all political opponents as traitors. But that is increasingly the coin of the realm in political disputes.
Toleration requires fewer body bags than rage. There are few things that people need to agree on to live peacefully (if not happily) side by side. But the popularity of notions such as “Silence is Violence” epitomizes the systematic intolerance permeating progressive movements. Demanding that people assent to the latest contrived definitions of virtue is a huge step toward using government force to compel obedience to any mania that sweeps the latest mob of “influencers.”
Montaigne aptly observed more than four hundred years ago, “There is nothing so grossly and widely faulty as the laws.” That hasn’t changed since his time. The incompetence of legislators and tinhorn dictators is a standing rebuke to seeking to save humanity by vastly increasing political power. But from 1500s France to contemporary societies around the world, politicians always found ways to profit from the bloodshed they unleashed. A far wiser path was recommended by the victim of a brutal police beating that helped spark the 1992 Los Angeles riots that left sixty-three people dead. As Rodney King wisely asked, “Can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible?”