Chevalier de la Barre Day

by | July 1, 2015

Today most Canadians will be observing Canada Day. But July 1st is the anniversary of a tragic story in freethought history. Chevalier de la Barre Day is mostly observed by French freethinkers, but I think it’s a day we all need to remember, especially in a country that still has a blasphemy law on the books.

I’m sorry, but this is not going to be a happy story.

Abbeville, 18th century France

To understand how that tragedy in our story unfolded, it is necessary to get some local and historical context.

The story begins in the small town of Abbeville, in the north of France, in the summer of 1765. The French Revolution was still 20 years away, and in any case it would have only minor impact on the town. In fact, despite its highly strategic location, very little of major historical impact happened within Abbeville itself. The region played host to some of the biggest names in French history – Napoleon, Louis XII (who actually married his final wife, the 18 year-old daughter of Henry VII of England, Mary Tudor, in Abbeville), Louis XIV, Peter the Great (of Russia), Charles de Gaulle (in fact, de Gaulle was first promoted to Brigadier General during the pyrrhic “Battle of Abbeville” in 1940), and Victor Hugo – and certainly saw a lot of major history moving around it; the surrounding area is still full of unexploded ordinance from World War I and II. But somehow, despite its privileged location, history always seemed to move around and through Abbeville, never really taking place within it. In fact, the historical event that Abbeville is best known for may be the La Barre case. But let’s not get ahead of the story.

The struggle between secularism and theocracy was perhaps hotter in late 18th century France than it had ever been in history, and it would not be this hot again until the final years of the 20th century, with the rise of “New Atheism”. On one side were the philosophers: thinkers heavily influenced by the Enlightenment (which had only acquired its name around 30 years prior), who were advocating such earth-shattering ideas as secular governance, democratic republics, science in defiance of religious doctrine, and general irreverence toward established power structures if they didn’t stand up to reason. They weren’t quite irreligious – they believed that faith and reason could be reconciled – but their idea of religion did not put much stock in ritual for the sake of ritual, or in the supernatural (they did believe in God, but a deist, hands-off “clockmaker” God, and they did not believe in demons or miracles or that kind of thing), and they were agitating for “modernizing” France. On the other side were the established power structures: the Roman Catholic Church – which was the official state religion – and the King, and their supporters.

The La Barre affair would become one of the hot-button issues of the day, with regards to that struggle between pro-Enlightenment philosophies and traditional, conservative thinking. The French Revolution was only 20 years away, and at the same time this story was unfolding the American Revolution was in its earliest stages.

In 1765, the population of Abbeville was roughly 17,000–18,000, and devoutly religious. It was utterly untouched by the growing rumblings of secularism and freethought that would soon explode into the French Revolution, and while it would take part nominally – destroying feudal titles and church furniture – it was never a hearty supporter. (Years later, when Louis XVII retook the throne after Napoleon’s exile to Elba, the citizens of Abbeville were thrilled, and greeted him with fanfare. A year after that, Louis XVII would visit again… this time passing through while on the run from Napoleon’s return.)

Historically, Abbeville’s main business was textiles. It was home to the Manufacture Royale des Rames, a textile manufacturing company founded in 1665, which at the time was one of the most important manufacturing corporations in all of France. The political and economic power in Abbeville was basically divided in two, with Manufacture Royale des Rames on one side, and all other textile manufacturers on the other. The current mayor in 1765 was Pierre-Nicolas Duval Soicourt, a member of the Rames faction.

The previous mayor was Jean-Nicolas Douville, of the opposing faction. Notably, Douville was providing patronage to pro-Enlightenment philosophers, probably largely because their work in classical liberalism tended to support his economic and political goals. Manufacture Royale des Rames‘s monopoly was possible almost entirely due to its royal support. Taking down Rames meant taking down the established power structures. This made him an enemy to the conservative elite of Abbeville, including mayor Soicourt.

The political struggle between Soicourt’s Rames faction, and Douville’s “every other textile company” faction, will be of enormous importance to the story.

The Chevalier

[Closeup on the face of the statue of the Chevalier de la Barre in Paris.]

Chevalier de la Barre

François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre was born 12 September 1745 in Férolles-en-Brie, to a noble family with a distinguished history. One of his ancestors had been Governor of what was then called “New France”: the French territory in Canada.

La Barre’s mother, Claude Charlotte La Niepce, had died when he was nine. His father squandered the family fortune (inherited from his father, who had been a lieutenant-general in the army). He died in 1762, leaving the family relatively poor.

Shortly after his father’s death, François-Jean Lefebvre’s brother – Jean-Baptiste – sent the then 17 year-old to Abbeville, at the invitation of his cousin.

That cousin was Anne-Marguerite Feydeau. Feydeau was abbess of a convent in Abbeville. After his father’s death, she let La Barre stay on the convent grounds (outside of the cloister, of course).

It is hard to get a clear picture of La Barre’s personality, because most accounts come to us via the court records, and the testimony differed wildly whether it was being given in his defence or not. All other reports are understandably tinged with bias, given the celebrity of the case.

Young Abbeville nobles tended to be split into two groups: those who were planning political or economic careers, and those who were planning military careers. De la Barre was of the latter group (Chevalier is roughly French for knight). Though they mixed all the time, the military youth had a reputation for being rowdy. Among the group of friends La Barre usually rolled with, the “ringleader” – and primary motivator of their antics – was allegedly a boy named Gaillard d’Etallonde, son of the second président of the cour des aides and another former mayor. Even though Etallonde was three years his junior, La Barre apparently went along with the boy’s antics. With no real responsibilities or obligations, La Barre apparently spent his days training at the armoury, his evenings socializing amongst the elite, and his nights engaged in teenage debauchery.

La Barre seems to have been fairly typical of the aristocratic youth of Abbeville, though perhaps a little on the wild side. I could find no hint that La Barre had ever been violent… just drunk and mouthy. He was probably arrogant, and looked down on “commoners” – the kind of thing one would expect from an 18th century French aristocrat. I found hints that he wasn’t much of a deep thinker, and was probably a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated lad, but that may have just been how he was viewed due to his youth. It seems he truly believed in the ideals of chivalry and honour; when his aunt was in danger of being financially ruined, he came to her aid. He was intelligent – he read poetry and philosophy, and could quote both at length (which didn’t work out well for him). He was also apparently quite popular with the ladies.

But he was also a freethinker, though that may have been more an act of rebellion than of calm philosophic consideration. He read banned literature and apparently commented on the trappings of religion being the products of human minds, not the divine. Of course, he was also a teenager, and a boy of some privilege, so much of his freethought was exercised in the form of mockery. He mocked religious belief, and engaged in various sacrilegious horseplay and blasphemous commentary – probably usually egged on by Gaillard d’Etallonde. If he had been born 250 years later, La Barre would probably be one of the many Internet atheists, blogging about the stupidity of religion, and trading in mocking memes.

In other words, he was one of us. He was a New Atheist, who just had the misfortune of being two-and-a-half centuries ahead of his time.

The incident

The tragedy started simply, as most do.

The morning 9 August 1765, a wooden crucifix on the main bridge was found vandalized. Someone had slashed it with a large knife or sword repeatedly. (Voltaire later suggested that the damage may have been caused by a passing cart. Someone also dumped trash on a statue of Jesus in the cemetery, but that was quickly and easily cleaned up. The slashes on the cross on the main bridge were harder to ignore.)

The devout Roman Catholic population of Abbeville was outraged. Crowds flocked to the site because… I dunno, I guess they couldn’t quite get outraged enough without actually seeing the damage.

The town was in an uproar over the vandalism, but it might have fizzled out after a day or two, if it weren’t for the arrival of the Bishop of Amiens.

Louis-François-Gabriel d’Orléans de La Mothe was the Bishop of Amiens. (Amiens is the nearby major city.) According to contemporary accounts, he was un des plus fanatiques d’entre les évêques de France (“one of the most fanatical of the bishops of France”). You may be surprised to hear that he is not going to be a villain in this story. I will leave it to the reader to judge the extent of his guilt, but I will say that I do not believe he intended for what followed. He was not evil. Just really fucking stupid.

The Bishop arrived at the scene of the crime on the morning of 10 August 1765. But he did not arrive in a carriage, like a normal person would. No, he showed up walking barefoot, with a rope tied around his neck as a symbol of the egregious suffering that had been thrust upon him by the perpetrators, leading a sombre procession of clergy. The crowds from the day before returned to the scene, drawn by the Bishop’s performance. By one account, the crowd he preached to numbered over a hundred and twenty persons.

The Bishop delivered a fiery sermon, where he declared that the culprits deserved [l]es derniers supplices en ce monde et des peines éternelles de l’autre (“the worst tortures in this world and eternal torment in the next”). He demanded that the authorities publish monitories, demanding that people report anything they knew under threat of eternal damnation of their souls. He riled up the townsfolk so much, that no one in Abbeville talked about anything else for the next few days.

The civil authorities were obligated to publish the monitories, and responses flooded in. Whether that was because people were terrified for their immortal souls, or because it was a perfect opportunity to be a little vindictive toward someone they had a grudge with, it’s impossible to say. Most of it was on the level of scurrilous gossip – just tales of little foibles and trivial moral failings. The vast majority of it was either uncorroborated or hearsay.

Unfortunately, no evidence of the vandals was forthcoming. No one had witnessed it, and no one was talking about it to anyone else. The investigation was going nowhere. Under normal circumstances it is likely that the whole thing would have eventually been quietly dropped, the Bishop’s agitation notwithstanding.

But someone took advantage of the situation.

The investigation

There is no shortage of speculation about the motivations of a local judge named Du Maisniel de Belleval. In the aftermath of the affair, Abbeville, Amiens, and even Paris were buzzing with rumours. One of the more popular rumours was that de Belleval had tried to court Anne-Marguerite Feydeau, but he was rebuffed. He retaliated by trying to ruin her financially, but La Barre came to her aid. That made the young knight his enemy. (Another rumour has it that Belleval or another local politician hoped their son would marry a rich heiress, but she had her eye on La Barre.) Still others insist that everything Belleval did was by-the-book, and there was no skullduggery.

Whatever his motivation may have been, Belleval took it upon himself to gather evidence specifically targeting the group of youths that included La Barre (and his own son, it would turn out, though he probably didn’t realize it at the time). He gathered several witnesses with tales – much of it hearsay – of the various impieties, blasphemies, and sacrileges that La Barre and his friends had engaged in. These included such scurrilous tales as:

(It says a lot about how the times have changed that today I look at that list of “crimes” for which La Barre was tried and punished, and think “that’s just a regular Tuesday afternoon”. (Well, except for reciting Ode à Priape, though in honour of La Barre, I think I’m going to have to add that one to my repertoire: Foutre des neuf Grâces du Pinde…)

But the most egregious charge against La Barre – and the reason he was identified and arrested in the first place – was the following:

He didn’t take off his hat.

No, seriously. That’s literally it. That’s what he was identified, arrested, and charged for. He passed within 25 paces of a religious procession. And he didn’t take off his hat, or kneel.

I am not exaggerating, as you will soon see. Such simple and silly charges, yet look at the horror they wrought.

The arrest

With such absurdly silly accusations, and no evidence at all connecting them to the vandalism, it would seem impossible that any possible legal action could have come out of it. And that would probably have been the case, if there hadn’t been political motivations.

Belleval ended up building a case against three youths: François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre, Gaillard d’Etallond, and a boy named Charles-François Moisnel. Even if Belleval’s motivations in building the case against them were pure, the motivations in taking the case to court were certainly not. The chief of police was also the mayor: Duval Soicourt.

Soicourt knew these boys were associated with his rival, Douville, and the rival anti-Rames faction in general. This was an opportunity to bring scandal and shame down on his enemies. He orchestrated an arrest, charges, and ultimately a court case against the boys, using his own position, and his connections.

All of the accused had plenty of opportunity to flee. Only Gaillard d’Etallond did. La Barre, being an orphan and having little money, either could not manage to escape or chose not to. He had every reason to believe he was in no real danger. Moisnel, also an orphan and relatively new to Abbeville, also lacked the resources to flee.

La Barre and Moisnel were arrested on 1 October 1765. At the time of the arrest, La Barre was the oldest of the group at 20 (he was 19 at the time of the “crime”). D’Etallonde would have been 16, 17, or 18 (I have conflicting data). Moisnel was only 15.

Both boys were questioned after their arrest, but La Barre refused to admit guilt, or name any “accomplices”. Moisnel, on the other hand, named two. Ironically, one of them was Saveuse de Belleval – son of the judge who had set up the case against the boys. Saveuse de Belleval fled before he could be arrested.

The other was Douville de Maillefeu, son of former mayor Douville, top name in the anti-Rames faction. Douville de Maillefeu also fled before being arrested, but now the former mayor was involved. Even though his son was safe from arrest, Douville took it upon himself to organize the defence for all five boys. He hoped to get the charges dropped, so his son could return.

Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet was a bit of a gadly in late 18th century France. Undeniably clever, he was also quite argumentative, picking fights with the learned societies that welcomed him, usually resulting with him being expelled. Although he was a fiery opponent of anything that even had the whiff of enlightenment, he was a proponent of a now-defunct economic theory of classical liberalism that introduced the concept of laissez faire (Adam Smith’s work a few years later would render his theories obsolete). His economic theory vigorously opposed government-supported companies like Rames. This earned him the ire of Duval Soicourt, and thus the patronage of Douville. Even though he had only passed the bar a year before, Douville asked Linguet to mount the defence.

The trial

The trial of La Barre, Moisnel, and d’Etallond (in absentia) was set for February 1766. Even with the “evidence” gathered by Belleval, and the machinations of Soicourt, it shouldn’t have been much of a trial. There was no connection to the vandalism, and no evidence of bad behaviour that couldn’t be explained away by either calling the witnesses – who were all commoners – liars or mistaken.

But then something happened that changed everything.

[A scan of the title page of a 1725 edition of 'Venus in the cloister'.]

Venus in the cloister

Investigators searching La Barre’s room found four banned books. Three of them were pornographic books; one of them was the infamous Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise (“Venus in the cloister, or the Nun in her chemise”).

But it was the fourth that would bring the most trouble to La Barre: a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.

The Dictionary had only been published the year before, in 1764. It had been published anonymously, but everybody knew it was Voltaire (though he publicly denied it). It had been Voltaire’s pet project – his masterwork: the complete corpus of his views on morality, religion, and other topics. It had already been banned or heavily censored in France and other countries. In 1765, this book was toxic. More than anything else, this may be what doomed La Barre.

Upon the discovery of the Dictionary, shit got real.

Soicourt, who had been quietly pulling strings among his local connections to influence the trial, suddenly found a very powerful ally. Joseph Omer Joly de Fleury, General Public Prosecutor at the Paris Parlement*, was waging a personal war against pro-Enlightenment philosophers and philosophies. In fact, in March of 1765 he had delivered a fiery indictment of the Dictionary before the Parlement.

(* A Parlement in 18th century France was not a legislative body like our Westminster-style Parliament. It was a judicial body. They were more like a high court. They were primarily a means for the nobility to maintain their own power and privilege, though because they were independent of the King, they were seen as being an ally of the people. The Paris Parlement was basically the French Supreme Court before the Revolution.)

While Soicourt was probably mainly interested in sticking it to his political rivals, to de Fleury this case was about the very soul of France. La Barre – a rowdy and rambunctious youth with no respect for religion – was emblematic of the kind of rot infecting the country, due to the ideas being spread by the freethinking Enlightenment philosophers. Now it was not only local political pressure pushing for a conviction, it was about sending a message. The three boys would serve as an example.

The trial was a joke. There was no evidence connecting the boys to the vandalism, and virtually all evidence of other blasphemies and impieties was either hearsay or uncorroborated. But it didn’t matter.

On 28 February 1766, a panel of three city magistrates in Amiens – one of whom was Soicourt – found François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre guilty of impiété, blasphèmes, sacrilèges exécrables et abominables (“impiety, blasphemies, and execrable and abominable sacrileges”). The three specific crimes, as enumerated in the ruling, that he was convicted of were:

  • d’avoir passé à vingt-cinq pas d’une procession sans ôter son chapeau qu’il avait sur sa tête, sans se mettre à genoux (“of having passed within 25 paces of a procession without doffing his hat which he had on his head, without kneeling”);
  • d’avoir chanté une chanson impie (“of having sung an impious song”); and
  • d’avoir rendu le respect à des livres infâmes au nombre desquels se trouvait le dictionnaire philosophique du sieur Voltaire (“of having shown reverence to some inflammatory books among which can be found the philosophical dictionary of Mr. Voltaire”).

Did you notice anything missing? That’s right. There was absolutely no mention of the vandalism that started the whole affair. In fact, not only was there no evidence connected La Barre to the incident, he had provided evidence that he was elsewhere. (The culprit may have been Gaillard d’Etallond – Moisnel testified that he saw him hit the crucifix several times in the past with his cane.) No problem for the judges, though; they simply manufactured new charges.

The charges may have been a joke, but the sentences were not.

Gaillard d’Etallond was condemned in absentia. He was to perform amende honorable, then have his tongue cut out to the root (and if M. Etallond was not forthcoming in offering his tongue, it was to be pulled out with hot pincers) and his right hand cut off at the church door, then to be burned alive.

[A scan of the cover page of the 1764 edition of Voltaire's 'Dictionnaire philosophique'.]

Dictionnaire philosophique

François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre was given a softer sentence, since he had been honourable and not fled. He would not be burned alive. He would have the “mercy” of being beheaded first. Specifically, he was sentenced to perform amende honorable in front of Abbeville’s main cathedral, then to have his tongue cut out, to be decapitated, burned, and to have his ashes scattered. They also ordered that his copy of the Dictionnaire philosophique be thrown into the fire with his body.

I am not sure what Moisnel was sentenced to. They may have postponed sentencing for him. (They still had to try the two other boys – Saveuse de Belleval and Douville de Maillefeu – though both had fled, so it would be a trial in absentia. It may be that Moisnel would have been sentenced along with them.)

Before his sentence was carried out, the court ordered that La Barre had to be put to la question ordinaire (“ordinary questioning”) and la question extraordinaire (“extraordinary questioning”), so that he could confess his crimes, and name accomplices.

“Ordinary questioning” was just asking for a confession.

“Extraordinary questioning” was torture.

The fallout from the verdict, and the Paris Parlement

It’s hard to describe just how spectacularly the shit hit the fan at this point.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking “sentence of death for blasphemy? meh, happened all the time in the olden days”. No, no it really didn’t.

It can sometimes be hard to put dates into context, but 1766 was not the Dark Ages – at the same time this was going on, across the Atlantic, the first protests of what would shortly erupt into the American war of independence (which would break out only ten years later) were underway. The Enlightenment was over; the Spinning Jenny had just been invented in 1764, which was kicking off the Industrial Revolution. Within the next 30 years, the French Revolution would break out – bringing with it Napoleon, and eventually the modern, secular, republican nation-state – the New York Stock Exchange would open, and Upper Canada would ban slavery.

This kind of persecution for blasphemy is the kind of thing associated with the Inquisition, but the Inquisition is a product of the 15th century… not the 18th. Even Galileo’s case was almost a century-and-a-half old at the time. It’s true that the Inquisition technically still existed in Portugal, but Portugal was notably backward compared to the rest of Europe. (And, in fact, at the time the Inquisition was being ironically (ab)used by reformers to drive the Jesuits out of Portugal, and set up secular schools.) The Inquisition would be entirely abolished only 50 years later. And you know the Church ain’t exactly famous for keeping up with the times, which means that 50 years from then the Inquisition would have already have been a century or two past the date it would have been shut down by normal thinking and moral human beings.

Maybe this might help put it in perspective. A hundred years prior, in 1666, Louis XIV had put a moratorium on executions for blasphemy. This kind of thing hadn’t been seen in France for over a hundred years.

And even then, as writers at the time pointed out, had this been the 15th century, and had France been under the thumb of Inquisition, the sentence for the kinds of “crimes” La Barre was accused of would have been a month in prison, followed by a reprimand. Actually, on hearing of the sentence, the representative of the Vatican to France commented exactly that. Did you catch that? Even the Vatican was saying this was over-the-top!

There is another indication of just how shocking this sentence was. Remember the Bishop of Amiens? The guy who stirred up the religious fury that caused all the problems to begin with? The most fanatical bishop in France? Perhaps feeling the pangs of guilt for his part in the affair, he became one of the most vocal advocates for leniency for La Barre. Even de Fleury, the prosecutor who carried out the investigation and led the case against La Barre, was calling for the sentence to be commuted.

This verdict was startling for the people at the time. And nobody really believed it would actually be carried out. That’s because the verdict was not legal until it was confirmed by the Paris Parlement. And nobody believed that would actually happen. Not in 18th century Paris.

And from the perspective of the local political scuffle going on behind the scenes, there was no need for the execution to actually happen – Duval Soicourt’s faction had made its point, and “won” this battle against the Douville faction, bringing disgrace on their families. They had no motivation to press the issue.

Even the people who wanted to make an example out of La Barre to send a message to pro-Enlightenment philosophers had “won”. Message sent. Actually beheading and burning the boys wasn’t really necessary.

With the growing outcry at the absurdity of the sentence, and even General Public Prosecutor de Fleury calling for leniency, there seemed good reason to believe the Parlement would commute it. In fact, La Barre appealed to his relative, Le Fèvre d‘Ormesson, président à‘mortier of the Parlement, to speak on his behalf, but Le Fèvre d‘Ormesson declined, because he believed there was no need. With even the adviser to the Grand’Chambre – a man named Pellot – offering apologies to the accused for their time being wasted, d‘Ormesson believed that there was no chance the sentence would be upheld, and he didn’t want his name attached to the scandal. In retrospect, that was a terrible mistake that cost La Barre his life.

You see, it turned out that a relatively unknown councillor in the Grand’Chambre named Pasquier had an axe to grind.

His beef, much like de Fleury’s, was with the freethinking philosophies of the Enlightenment. He stood up and orated with – to quote a contemporary – beaucoup de violence against them. He raged and fumed that La Barre’s behaviour was a symptom of the boy’s seduction by these ideas, and that he was just one example of the kind of catastrophic results they were causing among France’s youth. He named Voltaire specifically, and pointed to La Barre’s copy of the Dictionnaire philosophique as evidence of the corruption of the boy’s mind. At one point he apparently commented that there was no point in trifling around with book-burning when the immolation of the authors would please God much more.

There was nobody speaking in the boys’ defence. There was also nobody speaking in defence of Enlightenment philosophies, of course, but they never should have been an issue in the discussion. While it was true La Barre did have a copy of the Dictionary, it was the only philosophical book he had. All his other books were porn. And there is no indication that La Barre was particularly “seduced” by Voltaire’s ideals. Certainly he mocked religion, but it could just as easily have been because he was a teenaged smart-ass, rather than because he actually bought into any kind of atheist philosophy.

In the end Pasquier’s furious raving was the only real case made to the Parlement, and it was enough to move them.

Moisnel was spared, due to his age. He was, instead, given the usual fine.

But as for La Barre, Parlement voted 15–10, on 4 Jun 1766, to uphold the sentence.

The last desperate attempts, and the intervention of Voltaire

If the shit hit the fan after the judgement in Amiens, it smashed into the turbine intake after the ruling of the Paris Parlement.

Nobody had believed that the sentence passed in Amiens would have been upheld by the Parlement. The shock rang not only through Abbeville and Amiens, but now also through Paris.

There was only one last chance for La Barre: a royal pardon. Anne-Marguerite Feydeau and the Bishop of Amiens – yes, really, that guy – started furiously lobbying the King for a reprieve. Even de Fleury wrote on La Barre’s behalf.

And then Voltaire became involved.

[A painting of Voltaire.]


Voltaire had left France in 1755, after Louis XV banned him from Paris… which is really pretty fucking awesome. Voltaire went to Geneva, in Switzerland, but he returned to France in 1758 and was staying at Ferney, near the border (at this point in his life, he always lived near borders). This was actually the period where Voltaire produced some of his most famous literary works, including Candide, ou l’Optimisme, and the Dictionnaire philosophique. But since 1762, his other hobby was acting as a vigorous defender for the wrongly accused and persecuted.

It had started with the case of Jean Calas. Calas was accused of murdering his son, Marc-Antoine. Marc-Antoine had committed suicide by hanging, due to a gambling loss. But the family had taken the body down to made it look like murder – suicide was frowned upon, and if his death had been ruled as such, they would have dragged his body naked through the streets. Ultimately there was no real doubt that Marc-Antoine had committed suicide – he’d even discussed his plans with a friend – but there was another factor in play: Jean Calas and his family were Protestants.

Another of Jean Calas’s sons had converted to Catholicism, and Marc-Antoine had made enquiries about it (because he sucked at business, but needed a certificate proving he was Catholic to get into law school), so the rumour started to spread that Jean Calas had murdered his son to prevent his conversion. No amount of facts could quell the rumour, or convince the judges to see reason. On 10 March 1762, Jean Calas was tortured – including water-boarding – and then broken on the wheel, strangled, and his body burnt.

Someone brought the case to Voltaire’s attention, and he started to investigate. And he investigated. He dug up all the sordid details of the case, and then championed Calas’s posthumous exoneration. In the course of his investigations, he wrote several books slamming Catholicism and religious intolerance in general. In 1764 Louis ⅩⅤ actually met with the family and ruled the sentence void. A new trial in 1765 exonerated Calas on all charges. The family was even paid 36,000 franks by the King in compensation.

The La Barre case was right up Voltaire’s alley.

It may seem a bit late for Voltaire to step in at this point, but there were good reasons for him to stay out of it. First of all, he was quite ill. He was 72 years-old at the time. He had been devoting his energies for the last couple of years to the Calas case, in addition to writing feverishly (the Dictionnaire philosophique had only been published a year or two before).

And he was currently dedicating his efforts to help a man named Pierre-Paul Sirven. Sirven was another Protestant accused of killing his child, this time a mentally challenged daughter who apparently fell down a well. A year-and-a-half earlier, Elizabeth had been kidnapped by the convent of the Dames Noires (“Black Ladies”), a convent that could legally kidnap and hold daughters of Protestants to “protect” (ie, convert) them. Elizabeth was so badly abused at the convent she had a mental breakdown, so they released her. Sirven publicly denounced the convent for what they had done to his daughter, but they retaliated in the courts, and persecuted him legally so badly he had to leave the city. At first, Elizabeth’s death was ruled an accident, but the prosecutor pressured the examiners to claim foul play. Sirven’s family barely escaped arrest, and they were tried in absentia on 29 March 1764. Sirven was sentenced to be broken on the wheel, his wife to be hanged, and their two surviving daughters to be banished. Their effigies were burned 11 September 1764.

But most importantly, Voltaire was risking his life. Unlike the Calas case, he was personally involved here, due to La Barre having a copy of the Dictionnaire philosophique. Remember what the councillor Pasquier said about throwing the author of the Dictionnaire philosophique on the fire, rather than just the book? He was not joking.

Understandably, Voltaire was very upset over the case. It was his book that La Barre was going to die for (and there wasn’t even any evidence that La Barre was a fan, other than that he had a copy of the book, which was quite hot at the time).

All of these people, and La Barre himself, pleaded with the King to grant a pardon. Louis XV declined. The reason why is quite interesting.

[A portrait of Louis XV of France.]

Louis ⅩⅤ of France

On 5 January 1757, a man named Robert-François Damiens, who may have been mentally unstable, tried to assassinate Louis XV with a penknife. Protected by his thick winter clothes, Louis XV barely suffered a scratch, but he had the shit scared out of him. In a scene that might have come out of a comedy, he started to make his final confession on the spot, telling the Queen about all his affairs.

Damiens was arrested, of course, and tortured to reveal his accomplices. But there weren’t any – Damiens seemed to have been just a wacko Catholic fanatic – so he was tried and sentenced for regicide. (They had no notion of “attempted” for that crime, I suppose.)

But here’s where things get really interesting. It turns out there hadn’t been a regicide in France since 1610 – the murder of Henry IV – and no one had bothered to update the law since then. The sentence for regicide was therefore the same one that had existed 150 years prior: Damiens was to be drawn and quartered.

The people of mid- to late-18th century France were somewhat used to hangings and beheadings, but this was something right out of the Middle Ages. The spectacle of Damiens’s execution, which went on for hours, horrified France. Decades later, the impact was still reverberating. Damiens’s execution became a symbol of the medieval brutality of public executions, and was first used to argue for the guillotine as a “humane” form execution, and later for the abolition of capitol punishment altogether. It also became the symbol of the kind of brutal tyrannical excesses associated with monarchies.

In June of 1766, nine years later, the memory of the spectacle still haunted France.

Louis XV could have pardoned La Barre. The problem was: he hadn’t pardoned Damiens nine years earlier. Or made any attempt whatsoever to make Damiens’s death somewhat more humane. If the horrible torture and death that Damiens had suffered for attacking the King was just… then how could similar torture and death for “attacking” God not be just?

In other words, Louis XV had dug himself into a hole, and rather than admit his error and start climbing out, he opted to dig an even deeper hole. And toss La Barre into it.

It is also possible that Louis XV was trying to protect his reputation. There were rumours spreading of godlessness amongst the elite, and he may have wanted to send the message that he was not on the same side as the Enlightenment philosophers and their ideals. He may not have wanted to appear “weak on blasphemy”, to use a modern turn of phrase.

A royal pardon had been La Barre’s last chance to escape his fate.

I warned you this was not going to be a happy story.

The execution

La Barre was taken back to Abbeville from Paris. It was a spectacle of a journey. La Barre was escorted by the usual cadre of guards, but there were also a bunch of “plainclothes” archers who travelled nearby. La Barre had become something of a celebrity, due to the insanity of his case. They were afraid that “militant freethinkers” would roust them, and free the young knight. And there were many who wished that such “militant freethinkers” existed. But they did not. La Barre’s return to Abbeville, despite some scares, was without incident.

And so, on 1 July 1766, the sentence of François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre was carried out in full.

First he was questioned “ordinarily”. He refused to name any accomplices, or to confess. And so, it was on to the “extraordinary” questioning.

La Barre’s legs were clamped between boards, and the bones smashed.

He fainted, but he was soon revived with spirituous liquors. He still refused to name accomplices.

Detail of the plaque of the Abbeville obelisk dedicated to the Chevalier de la Barre, showing him being tortured prior to his execution.

The questioning – “ordinary” and “extraordinary” – having been completed, without success, La Barre was then left to prepare for his execution.

He was handed over to a friend of his aunt’s, named Bosquier, with whom he had often had dinners with at the convent. Bosquier was to serve as his final confessor. He wept as he tried to console the knight. When they were served La Barre’s final meal, he could not eat. La Barre said to him: Prenons un peu de nourriture. Vous aurez besoin de force autant que moi pour soutenir le spectacle que je vais donner. (“Take a bit of nourishment. You will need strength as much as I, to keep up with the spectacle I am going to give.”)

And what a spectacle it was hoped to be. There were four local headsmen on hand, and the royal executioner (whose grandfather was from Abbeville) had come all the from Paris.

But in the end, there was not much to see. The young man was brought by cart to the scaffold, and took his place avec un courage tranquille, sans plainte, sans colère, et sans ostentation (“with a tranquil courage, without complaint, without anger, and without ostentation”). The cutting of his tongue was reduced to a simple symbolic cutting motion.

And then he was beheaded.

As per the court’s orders, his copy of the Dictionnaire philosophique was nailed to his chest on the pyre, and the fire was lit.

François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre was destroyed, as those who sentenced him had desired. But what they had really wanted to destroy was the Dictionnaire philosophique, and the ideals that it represented. In that, they ultimately failed. But that victory feels hollow.

I don’t know exactly what La Barre’s last words were, but they may have been this famous comment that was probably made to Bosquier:

« Je ne croyais pas qu’on pût faire mourir un gentilhomme pour si peu de chose. »

“I did not believe that one could kill a gentleman for so small a thing.”

The aftermath

News of La Barre’s death did not reach Voltaire until 7 June. The old man’s heart broke. Not only was what happened tragic enough in its own right, the fact that one of his books may have doomed a man made him feel somewhat responsible.

Still, he was in imminent danger. They had burned his book in Abbeville, and they had made it more than clear that they wanted to burn him too. He fled immediately to Switzerland.

But not to hide. Qui plume a, guerre a. It was 1766, and Voltaire was pissed.

It took him less than two weeks of investigation – via letters, from Switzerland – to uncover the whole of the farce.

But Voltaire was not the only one pissed about what had happened.

Eight of the top lawyers in Paris, including a man named Gerbier, put together a consultation about the case. It was described by contemporaries in a most intriguing way: Cette consultation, faite avec le plus grand ménagement et la plus grande simplicité, attendrirait le cœur le plus barbare. (“This consultation, made with the greatest care and straightforwardness, would soften the most barbaric heart.”) What makes that description most intriguing is viewing it in light of how the Parlement reacted.

They fucking freaked.

First they tried to suppress it by legal means. They summoned the lawyers who had signed it, and “sharply rebuked” them.

But Monsieur Gerbier was having none of that shit.

He stood up to the Parlement, defended the conduct – and the rights – of his colleagues and himself, and declared that if any legal action was taken against the consultation or to repress it, all the signed lawyers were resolved to quit the bar.

Holy shit, right?

The Parlement had no choice but to back down. However, they quietly went about seizing every copy they could find, until it was no longer possible to find copies. There was an active effort to cover up the incident, perhaps largely to avoid shining a public light on Parlement’s role in it.

Perhaps due to these efforts, the scandal had only the most moderate impact in Paris. The majority never had any idea of what had really happened. It was talked about for a day or two, then it was old news.

And that would have been the end of it… if it weren’t for Voltaire and his righteous fury.

Voltaire published his first account of the affair – anonymously, of course – with the title Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre, mere weeks after the death of La Barre. In all honesty, it was not the most honest account. Almost immediately after its publication, people in Abbeville were testily pointing out its inaccuracies. Clearly Voltaire – still horribly upset about what happened – was writing primarily from emotion, rather than calm reason. In fact, here are the closing sentences:

Les juges disent que la politique les a forcés à en user ainsi. Quelle politique imbécile et barbare ! Ah ! monsieur, quel crime horrible contre la justice de prononcer un jugement par politique, surtout un jugement de mort ! et encore de quelle mort !

L’attendrissement et l’horreur qui me saisissent ne me permettent pas d’en dire davantage.

“The judges say that policy forced them to act thus. What stupid and barbaric policy! Ah! sir, what a horrible crime against justice to pronounce judgement by policy, especially a judgement of death! and furthermore of such a death!

The pity and horror that seize me do not allow me to say more.”

[A scan of the 1768 edition of the cover of Voltaire's 'Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre'.]

Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre

But perhaps that was just what was needed. Despite its inaccuracies, it blew the lid off the conniving and the conspiracies that had gone on behind the scenes of the arrest, investigation, and trial. Voltaire pointed the finger at Belleval primarily, but he named names with abandon. Not only that, he criticized the legality of the affair at every stage. And of course, he railed against the fact that blasphemy was even a matter of law to begin with.

It may not have been the most academically rigorous thing Voltaire wrote, but on the other hand it may have had the most profound immediate impact. It was too late to save La Barre, of course. However, within weeks Moisnel was released from prison, and the charges against Saveuse de Belleval and Douville de Maillefeu were dropped.

Not only that, Duval Soicourt was dismissed from his posts.

The only loose end was Gaillard d’Etallond. Unfortunately, while Voltaire campaigned for him for the rest of his life, he never managed to secure a pardon. Etallond actually visited Voltaire in Ferney for a while. In 1775 a book titled Le Cri du sang innocent (“The cry of innocent blood”) was published – it told a very different version of the story than the one told in Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre, blaming Soicourt rather than Belleval. It was signed by Etallond, but presumably written by Voltaire. It failed to earn Etallond a pardon from the new king Louis XVI.

As for the other case that Voltaire was dealing with at the same time – that of Pierre-Paul Sirven – it ended happily, though it took a long time for that to happen. It took until 1771 to get Sirven exonerated, but he, his wife, and his daughters were finally cleared of all charges, and the city was ordered to pay them compensation. Voltaire was 77 at the time.

François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre, Jean Calas, and Pierre-Paul Sirven were the three headline cases Voltaire used to champion his fight against religious intolerance and the entanglement. He “won” all three, though only posthumously in the first two cases. He only heard of Calas after the man’s death, and heard too late – and could do too little – to help La Barre (though he did save Saveuse de Belleval, Douville de Maillefeu, and Charles-François Moisnel). But he did save Sirven and his family, and in the end earned posthumous pardons for Calas and La Barre. That’s not a bad record.

La Barre was not officially exonerated until 15 November 1793, by the National Convention during the Revolution. He and the other two cases championed by Voltaire had becomes symbols of the evils of mixing religion and law. They were rallying cries for the creation of a secular state – both in France and across the Atlantic, in America.

Sadly, there were still some indignities in store for La Barre. Remember his lawyer, Linguet? In 1775 he was dismissed from the bar, likely due to animosity he created for himself by bitterly attacking his colleagues – most notably Gerbier (the guy who told Parlement to go fuck themselves). Three years after the execution he wrote a nasty attack on La Barre, calling him a “dirty wretch” and “not entirely innocent”. He blamed Enlightenment philosophy for “setting La Barre’s mind on fire”. He actually became quite huge – almost as popular as Voltaire. Marie Antoinette was apparently a fan. Unfortunately, Linguet was on the wrong side of history – his last work was a defence of Louis XVI … published smack dab in the middle of the Revolution. When the Terror rolled around, he found himself under the guillotine. On 27 June 1794, he met the same fate as that “dirty wretch” client he had failed to defend almost exactly 28 years before.

But while Linguet’s name has more or less faded into history (aside from some minor fetishization by some modern libertarians), La Barre’s became a lasting symbol of the absurdity of blasphemy laws, and of the horrors of religious intolerance. His legacy is largely due to the efforts of Voltaire, and later the architects of the Revolution, who exonerated him, then made a hero out of him.

Believe it or not, the drama of La Barre’s case extends even into the 20th century.

The Sacré-Cœur in Paris has always been controversial. It was originally commissioned to stick it to the godless communists who’d lost the scuffle for Paris in in the 1870s (though the both sides were guilty of just as many atrocities), and it was built on private land seized for the purpose. In 1897, a group of freethinker organizations found a brilliant way to stick it right back to the Catholic Church: they got permission to create a statue of La Barre right in front of the Sacré-Cœur, which was specifically referred to as… and I fucking love this… “the antidote in front of poison”.

[An old photograph of the original Chevalier de la Barre statue in Paris.]

That statue was finally placed in 1906 – the year after France became officially secular. It became an iconic monument in France. It depicted La Barre tied to the stake, burning, with Voltaire’s Dictionary at his feet. (Not exactly historically accurate, but it’s art.) And of course, it was right in the front of the goddamn Sacré-Cœur, so everyone who went in walked past it.

In 1907, an obelisk was erected in Abbeville, at the execution site, with a bronze plaque. The plaque depicts the torture of La Barre (it’s the scene in the relief pictured a bit above, of La Barre having his legs smashed), and the obelisk is engraved with the text: En commémoration du Martyre du Chevalier de la Barre supplicié à Abbeville le 1er Julliet 1766, à l’âge de 19 ans, pour avoir omis de saluer une procession. (“In commemoration of the Martyrdom of the Chevalier de la Barre tortured in Abbeville on the 1st of July 1766, at the age of 19 years, for failing to salute a procession.”)

[A photo of the Chevalier de la Barre obelisk in Abbeville.]

This is all wonderful, but alas, not quite yet the end of the story.

If you go to Sacré-Cœur today, you will sadly not find the glorious statue I described. In 1926, Paris authorities caved to religious pressure, and moved the statue away from the basilica entrance to a nearby – but less visible – location.

But that’s not the worst of it.

During the Nazi occupation, the Nazis demanded bronze for the war effort. Philippe Pétain, Marshal and Chief of State of Vichy France, toppled the statue of La Barre on 11 October 1941… and melted it down. To add insult to injury, Pétain specifically chose to melt down only statues that were not religious, and that did not honour ancient kings. In other words, La Barre’s statue was destroyed, while the statues of the faith that killed him, and of the royalty that let it happen, survived.

The bronze plaque of the Abbeville monument was saved by hiding it in a creek. It was restored after the war.

But the Paris monument was not. For the remainder of the 20th century, all that remained was the plinth, with its plaque (which has basically the same message as the Abbeville one).

It wasn’t until 2002 that a new statue was erected… but sadly, it’s not the same. The powerful image of a man burning at the stake with a philosophy book at his feet has been replaced by a rather bland statue of a “relaxed man whistling a tune”. At the base of the statue (the top of the plinth) there is a quote from Voltaire. (But I’m not sure what it is, because I can’t read it in pictures.)

[A photo of the Chevalier de la Barre statue in Paris.]

The most recent indignation heaped on La Barre’s legacy is perhaps the most ironic. In 2012 the monument in Abbeville was vandalized by Catholic fanatics – supporters of the right-wing hate organization, the Civitas Institute.

[A photo showing the vandalism of the Chevalier de la Barre obelisk in Abbeville. The inscription is crossed out, and crosses are painted onto the obelisk.]

I don’t know if anyone was ever charged for that particular act of vandalism.

But no one was beheaded for it.

Honouring the day

In researching this post, I read several articles and different accounts of La Barre’s story, and I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing trend.

Accounts written around the time of the incident are uniformly clear and unwavering in their condemnation of La Barre’s treatment, and in pointing the finger at the entanglement of religion and law as the ultimate culprit. Though they often do note that corruption (either on the part of Soicourt or Belleval) or a general campaign against Enlightenment philosophies could have been factors, they nevertheless have no problems recognizing that the tragedy never could have happened without religion’s influence.

But when it comes to accounts written by contemporary writers, the tone is vastly different. Unsurprisingly there is no shortage of Catholic and Christian apologetic on the case, but what surprised me is that even modern secular progressivists seem hesitant to blame religion without extensive qualification. Look around, and you’ll found accounts that try to offload some of the blame onto local politics, social intrigue, political backlash against Enlightenment philosophies, and even class. You can even find accounts that try to pin some of the blame on La Barre himself. In fact, the current revision of the English Wikipedia page (at the time of writing) contains a rather pointless, lengthy quote attempting to exonerate the judges who sentenced La Barre as merely products of their time.

I am struck by the parallels to the commentary on similar, modern cases, and I’m not the only person who noticed it. Cathy Young, the author of that piece, made the connection to the response to the then-recent Charlie Hebdo murders. You could just as easily make the connection to any of a dozen other cases of persecution or violence in the name of religion – anyone from Rafiq Tagi to Avijit Roy. Whenever an outspoken nonbeliever is attacked or harassed by religiously motivated people – whether or not it’s officially sanctioned harassment – we hear the same song, with the same notes: it wasn’t about religion, it was about class; or, it wasn’t about religion, it was about race; or the odious “if you kick a hornet’s nest, it’s only natural that you get stung”… as if any of these excuses actually justify what was done to the nonbeliever. True, it sometimes is about class, or racism, or bigotry of some other stripe. But even when it is, that is completely irrelevant to the injustice done to the nonbeliever. Even a child knows that two wrongs don’t make a right.

But the modern cases that I think most warrant comparison to the La Barre case are those cases where the harassment is done legally, fully sanctioned by the law and/or the judicial system. That’s what happened to La Barre – he wasn’t murdered in some dark alley by masked, machete-wielding thugs. At every turn of his tragic journey, from the initial investigation, to the charging, to the sentencing, right through to the denial of his appeals, the entanglement of religion with secular law was the cause of the injustice. First it was the monitories – threatening people with damnation if they didn’t report everything they knew. Then it was the charges themselves – for ludicrous frivolities that would never be criminal offences under a sane system that did not have the stink of religion corrupting it. The sentence was to do religious penance, and even if it was only handed due to corruption and political intrigue – which is probably what happened – the reasons it was not overturned by saner minds removed from the intrigues were all ultimately religious; either to send a threatening message to Enlightenment-inspired proponents of secularization and freethought, to avoid undermining the religious justification for royal power.

That’s what doomed François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre 250 years ago. He was not murdered by political intrigue, class warfare, or the fucking zeitgeist. While those things may have contributed, they were merely catalysts in the chemical sense. He was murdered by people trying to protect religious power, for crimes that are meaningless except in the context of religion.

François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre was murdered by, in essence, a blasphemy law.

And that, sadly, is what connects his 250 year-old story to the world of 2015. We still live in a world where people are being are being victimized by blasphemy laws or laws of similar scope or intent. And not just a handful. Hundreds of them, across the world. I could fill several pages with names – the A to Z of blasphemy law victimization from Alexander Aan to Zakaria Zine Al-Abidine.

And horrifyingly, while most of the modern blasphemy law victims won’t have to face a fate as cruel as La Barre’s… some of them do. The most public case right now is, of course, Raif Badawi. But his is not the only case. In fact, his case is not even the only case of someone being sentenced to lashes for blasphemy in Saudi Arabia this decade. Without even trying I can come up with plenty of other cases:

But perhaps the case with the closest parallels to the La Barre case is the case of Lee Kuan Yew. Lee Kuan Yew is also a teenager and a shit disturber who enjoys taking the piss out of religion and people in power, and he also ended up before a judge for it. Luckily his fate was better than La Barre’s – he only faced a fine, three years in prison, and counselling. (It seems he will ultimately end up spending 18-30 months at a “rehabilitation camp”.)

La Barre was murdered 250 years ago today, but the injustice that killed him is still alive and well in the world today.

Including – and this is what is most tragic of all for me – in Canada.

Canada has a blasphemy lawand it has been used. Successfully.

The last time the law was used successfully was in 1936… but it may shock you to learn that there was an attempt to use it in 1980. An Anglican cleric attempted to initiate a case based on Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A charge was actually laid. The only reason it didn’t make it to court is because Ontario’s Attorney General smacked down any idea of actually prosecuting the case, and it was quietly buried.

This July 1st, I cannot celebrate the birth of a nation that – after 148 years – still can’t manage to pull its head out of its own ass on such a simple matter. The last serious attempt to repeal the blasphemy law was 1927… and that failed due to a technicality, and partisan political grandstanding. Shameful.

I am not impressed by the argument that no prosecution under Canada’s blasphemy law would survive a Charter challenge. Even if ineffective, the law remains a symbol. And it’s not entirely clear that the law is completely ineffective – the mere fear of its existence and an expensive court fight to defend against it, even if that fight is guaranteed to be victorious, could lead to censorship.

The only reason to keep a law on the books is if you intend to use it someday. And to the craven parliamentarians who can’t get their act together and repeal it because they fear political consequences: Even if you don’t personally intend to use it, the people who want it to remain on the books do… and by catering to them to keep your ass in your seat, you are an accessory to whatever injustices they manage to provoke due to your pathetic lack of integrity. There is an election coming up. Dare to see how popular blasphemy laws are among contemporary Canadians?

This year is the 250th anniversary of the tragic injustice done to François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre by blasphemy laws. This July 1st, I feel more solidarity with an 18th century aristocratic shit-disturber than I do with the country of my birth.

But I haven’t given up on Canada. Not yet. On this day 2 years from now, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding. I believe we can rid ourselves of the shameful relic that is section 296 – Canada’s blasphemy law – before then. We have 2 years. And this is such a simple matter.

So while this year I’ll be raising a toast to François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre, and raising a finger to our elected officials, I hold out hope that by 2017, Canada will show me that – while it may take 150 years to get its act together – it really is a country I can be proud of.

4 thoughts on “Chevalier de la Barre Day

  1. Tim Underwood

    Stephen Harper will have a monuments to the torture victims of Catholicism erected in front of all Christian Alliance Churches as soon as possible.


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