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Massacres during the Wars of Religion

Last modified: 16 June 2015
David El Kenz

November 2007

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David El Kenz, Massacres during the Wars of Religion, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 3 November 2007, accessed 5 July 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Massacres-during-the-Wars-of-Religion, ISSN 1961-9898

The Western notion of massacre first appeared in France during the Wars of Religion. At the time, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre represented the ultimate model of an outburst of extreme violence against defenseless civilians. Just after the royal Princess Marguerite de Valois’ wedding to the Head of the Huguenot (Protestant) faction, Henri de Bourbon-Navarre, nearly 3,000 Protestants were slain in Paris in five days, from the night of of August 23-24 to August 29, 1572. The most recent historiographical studies consider the royal family responsible for the killing, as regards the decision to eliminate the “belligerent” or “warring Huguenots” (“Huguenots de guerre”), the leadership of the Protestant faction (Sutherland, 1973; Soman, 1974; Garrisson, 1987; Kingdon, 1988; Diefendorf, 1991; Crouzet, 1994; Bourgeon, 1995). The decision to mount the royal coup was motivated by fear of a Protestant plot following an attempt to assassinate their leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, as well as by the desire to save the political “concord” (agreement) achieved with difficulty in 1570, or to prevent a Catholic uprising driven by Spain. Besides, as unusual signals appeared in the city, Parisian Catholics, who considered themselves invested with a holy mission, followed this lead and indulged in mob violence, leading to a much deadlier massacre. Eventually, Charles IX took responsibility for the massacre as a whole, but immediately demanded that the mass killings be stopped, since they represented intolerable disorder, which ran counter to the goals pursued by the monarchy over the previous decade. Nevertheless, massacres occurred locally in the kingdom until autumn, ending up in the murder of 7,000 additional victims (Benedict, 1981).

Compared to contemporary massacres, the historical distance that separates us from the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre makes it easier to apprehend it retrospectively as an event, that is, as an absolute and irreparable break in historical continuity. However, historical methods of research entail putting facts into perspective, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre must be evaluated in the light of existing practices of religious violence at the time. Thus, the contextualization approach is necessary in order to preclude anachronistic interpretations of massacres; yet we must also consider its limitations, so as to avoid trivializing this massacre and in effect, disregarding its unique character as an event.

 The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre: a foundational event

The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre constitutes a historical event. A historical act becomes an event to the extent that it represents an extraordinary disjunction in space and time; it is defined by this break and the difference it creates, as well as by people’s awareness of it, and its impact. To its protagonists, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre turned out to be a miracle, or a tragedy that appeared to put an end to religious strife as it had developed since the First War of religion in 1562. The slaughter was followed by a press campaign from Rome to London which, incidentally, led to the appearance of a new terminology for massacres.

The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre did not fundamentally transform the policy of the kingdom, which still amounted to a series of compromises between the Crown and the various political-religious parties. Nevertheless, it triggered an alteration of people’s understanding and awareness. Following the massacre, Protestants became aware of the fragility of their community, which had been declining numerically since the 1560s. Huguenot pamphlets emphasized the historical and legal aspects of the monarchy in order to condemn Charles IX’s betrayal of his Protestant subjects. This led to a secularization of discourse, which ultimately set the stage for political coexistence with “heretical” monarchs. On the Catholic side, in spite of the “miracle” of St. Bartholomew’s Day, believers had to put up with the presence of their opponents, who had taken refuge in their strongholds of the West and South. The increase in expiatory processions revealed a change in spirituality, which focused on penance from then on; the kingdom was still corrupted by the devil, but the Catholic people themselves were to blame (Crouzet, 1990, vol. II, 186-361). In the end, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre expressed the end of the dream of a united Christendom, in the sense that a religious representation of the world was no longer admissible, since humanity had produced such horrors. This was the beginning of a civilization of blame, or of sin (“civilisation de la faute”) (Apostolidès, 2004: 109-132).

However, the event of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre cannot be reduced to a historical event in the same way as the abrupt shift of a wheat production curve, the death of a sovereign or a scientific breakthrough. A massacre is a “negative” foundational event, that is, an event that both breaks with what went before, and acts as a new beginning, as people react to it. “In this case, commemoration through mourning has the same foundational effect as positive foundational events [the Mayflower, or the fall of the Bastille, for example],” wrote Paul Ricœur, “in the sense that they legitimate behavior and institutional arrangements apt to prevent their reappearance.” (Ricœur, 1991: 52) One characteristic of foundational events is that they differ considerably from primary, infra-significant events (which occur in the physical world), but also from events as historians see them (which are part of a causal chain). In fact, massacres constitute such terrifying acts that they elicit ideological, scholarly and memorial narratives to try to make sense of them and, sometimes, a refusal to put forward any discourse, a sort of silent text. Furthermore, the slaughter mostly remained inexplicable, because its protagonists suppressed it. Thus, the decision that set off the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre left no trace in any archives, and was immediately covered up by official and informal versions. Yet this does not mean that the foundational event was invented. It was distinct, but it was also a part of the “infra-significant” event and the historical event that it was based on.

Both on the Protestant and on the Catholic sides, the fact that it was impossible to count the victims demonstrates how incommensurable the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre was. Some Huguenot polemicists put forward the figure of 300,000 killed – for all of France – while a Catholic versifier warned that listing the dead would mean interfering with God’s design to exterminate the heretics (Crouzet, 1994: 34-35). Catholic apologists justified the massacre as a righteous king’s act of self-defense against a plot from his treacherous subjects, while Protestant chroniclers responded with the hypothesis of “papist” barbarity and a crime premeditated by Catherine de Medici, the Machiavellian queen. Huguenot memory also considered the Parisian killing as a slaughter of God’s people, decimated by Charles IX, the new Pharaoh. Thus, they contributed to spirituality focused on sin and incurring divine wrath, but the martyrdom of believers is also reminiscent of the testimony of the Passion, and the suffering of the Jews in the Old Testament. Thus, it justifies the Protestants’ superiority over the Catholics, in reference to the Christian sacrifice (El Kenz, 1997: 232-233).

Soon, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre was asserted as a largely consensual place of memory, in which the bloodthirsty cruelty of the Valois was stigmatized, in opposition to the tolerance of Henry IV, the king who proclaimed the Edict of Nantes. Thus, it legitimized the advent of the Bourbon dynasty, succeeding the last, degenerate members of the house of Valois, and it justified inter-religious coexistence (Joutard et al., 1976). In turn, 19th century historiography reinforced this “happy medium” representation, through which bourgeois and supporters of the clergy made the royal family a scapegoat for a tragedy that had actually been contrived by their own distant ancestors, the militia captains and radical preachers that had opposed the royal policy of civil tolerance (Bourgeon, 1992:127). Therefore, community memories and that of the Protestant Church, as well as traditional historiography, fabricated a foundational event which belongs to the narrative constructions of French identity, concerned with protecting itself from religious passions.

 Revisiting the context

Historians are confronted to discursive constraints which obliterate analysis of massacres. In all historical periods, the testimony from massacre survivors has been put forward in an absolute way, making it both singular and universal. In The War of the Jews, before the historian Josephus described the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, he wrote that he was about to recount “an act with no equivalent, either in the tales of the Greeks or those of the Barbarians, as terrible to tell as it is incredible to hear.” (1977 French translation by Pierre Savinel, Editions de Minuit, as quoted by Brossat 1999:161-168) However, researchers must transcend the absoluteness of testimony, in order to construct a historical object. Many historians aspire to distance themselves sufficiently from the subject at hand so as to determine the facts scientifically. Thus, George L. Mosse, a pioneer of the history of totalitarianism who had to flee Nazi Germany because he was of Jewish descent, said that, “to do history, one must always stand aside and scrutinize a mechanism dispassionately, not adopt a victim’s standpoint, as difficult as it may be regarding movements that have been hostile to oneself, like national-socialism.” (from “Du Baroque au nazisme: une histoire religieuse de la politique,” a 1994 interview of the author, as quoted in the preface to Mosse, 1999:III)

Unlike memory, history is a relative discipline. Therefore, historians integrate the event of a massacre into a context, in order to convey the mental images and perceptions according to which the deadly transgression is committed. Though the scope of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre was unprecedented, in fact, it was not the first massacre of the French Wars of Religion. Murderous violence first reached a peak at the beginning of the first civil war; according to the Protestant writer Agrippa d’Aubigné, Huguenots were massacred in thirty towns at that time. François de La Noue claimed that during the interval of inter-religious coexistence, from 1563 to 1567, 3,000 of his fellow Protestants were massacred. However, the Huguenots also perpetrated acts of mass murder, such as in La Michelade, Nîmes, where 80 “papists” were killed on September 30, 1567. Yet as the Protestant Louis Micqueau stated in 1563, Catholics rather tended to sacrifice flesh-and-blood persons, whereas Protestants tended to settle for destroying stone images.

Between 1559 and 1571, according to a series of 58 massacres recorded in Jean Crespin’s 1614 Histoire des Martyrs (History of the Martyrs) and in L’Histoire ecclésiastique (Ecclesiastical History, published in 1580), the region of Provence experienced the highest number of killings (62.7%), with the Loire valley as a distant second (8.5%), followed by Languedoc (5.2%), Champagne (4.6%), and Guyenne and Poitou (4.6%). This geography of massacres corresponds to the areas that experienced the most intense fighting. One-third of the slaughter took place when a city was captured. In Tours for example, the Huguenots took the city on April 2, 1562 and looted its churches. During its re-conquest by the royal forces, on July 11, the city’s Catholic inhabitants took revenge by tying 200 Huguenots back to back, and drowning them in the Loire River. The concentration of massacres in the South was linked to the exceptional urban density of the region, to the size of its Protestant community and to the violence of the military conflict in the region. Conversely, Brittany experienced no killings at all: Protestants were a minority there and its Catholic governor, the duke of Etampes, kept a moderate stance and prevented fratricidal fighting from breaking out.

Hence, the military factor appears to be essential in explaining massacres. Repression of the religious rebels was bloody; it resulted from the State arsenal built up against insurgents, treated as criminals guilty of an earthly lèse-majesté offence, whether they had risen up on religious, social or political grounds. As early as the 15th century, the unruly cities of the Netherlands were subjected to ducal rigor, as in 1468, when 5,000 citizens of Liège were killed by the army of Charles le Téméraire (duke of Burgundy, from the house of Valois) for having dared to defy him and to become allies of Louis XI. In 1535, in Germany, the capture of the city of Münster was followed by the systematic execution of the last 200 Anabaptists, who had defended the city against the Bishop-sovereign. In Spain, during the revolt of the Moriscos (former Muslims who had theoretically converted to Catholicism), 4,000 of them were massacred at Galera, on February 10, 1570.

The repression of religious rebels followed the general customs of war, which tolerated the slaughter of civilian populations if they offered any resistance. In the 16th century, the German Landsknechts’ charter forbade only the execution of pregnant women, during the capture of a city. However, the component of religious dispute interfered with State policing operations. On the one hand, the authorities feared making martyrs of the rebels; in 1566, Marguerite of Parma, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, ordered her officers to have the Valenciennes insurgents hanged, not burned at the stake, which was reserved for heretics. On the other hand, religious disputes could stimulate hatred of others, which produced military massacres. In 1649, at the head of the New Model Army, Cromwell “pacified” Ireland without any qualms over massacring the garrison of Drogheda (3,500 were killed), near Dublin, then the civilian population of Wexford. Admittedly, in this case, the conflict between Puritans and Catholics seems to have been coupled with ethnic antagonism (Carlton, 1992; Claydon and McBride, 1998).

Thus, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre constituted a transgression because it occurred in peacetime. Furthermore, it took place in the royal capital, at the government’s initiative. In fact, at the time, the judicial repression of heretics rarely led to mass executions. Under the Ancien Régime, the judicial system rarely aimed to exterminate heterodoxy as a whole, but rather to carry out occasional, dissuasive punishment. In Spain, the auto da fe of Valladolid, in which thirty Christians were burned at the stake for their evangelical faith, on May 21, 1559, was an exception. In France, the judges of the Aix parliament, who were responsible for the massacre of 3,000 Waldensians (an early Protestant sect, also known as Waldenses or Vaudois) at Mérindol and Cabrières, in Provence (April 18-19, 1545), were tried in 1549, and the King’s general prosecutor, Guillaume Guérin, was executed for this abomination.

Actually, the novelty of massacres during the Wars of Religion resided in the fact that they were beyond the control of central governmental authorities. Two-thirds of the massacres committed by Catholics were carried out independently by city-dwellers. In 1573, in order to impose Henry of Anjou’s claim to the Polish throne upon the Sejm (the Polish parliament), which comprised a large Protestant minority, Jean de Monluc, Bishop of Valence, stigmatized the excessive behavior of the common people in France, which distorted the St. Bartholomew’s Day execution. This version of the facts established a link between the outbreak of violence and the fact that the people had intruded in the religious dispute. This topos can also be perceived in Huguenot accounts of the massacres. In 1562, Jacques du Creux, known as Brusquet, the head jailer of Auxerre, took advantage of the war to take control of some local ruffians, so as to rob and kill Protestants with impunity. Nevertheless, it seems that in fact, the main ringleaders of the massacres were notables. In 1562, in Toulouse, the Parliament judges participated in the “preventive” massacre of the heretics; in 1572, in Paris and Lyon, the urban militia and the échevins (magistrates, or city councilors) initiated the massacre carried out by the population.

During the massacres, the perpetrators meted out an informal version of “justice.” They carried out the traditional forms of torture reserved for heretics (Davis, 1979:263-265). In April 1562 at Marsillargues (Provence), the people refused the release of a Protestant who was to be freed in virtue of the Edict of Janvier (January 17, 1562), which allowed the Huguenots religious freedom. They seized and burned him, along with others. The people took it upon themselves to reinstate burning people at the stake, a punishment the monarch no longer wished to have applied. Similarly, in Marseille, the killer Jean Sabatier dragged the bodies of Antoine Vassé and his nephew outside the city to burn them at Portegale, the customary place for public executions. Thus, he legitimated his actions by integrating them in the traditional torture-execution sequence for Protestants.

At times, the killers also dispensed their own version of justice, but always in reference to official justice. In Tours, a cobbler named Chastillon submitted to being broken on the wheel whereas he could have been hanged, if he had been willing to renounce his faith. However, the way popular justice was carried out did not always follow the official ritual closely; it tended to depend on the murderers’ mood. In Paris, in 1562, killers burned Roch le Frère in the swine market. They performed a sort of combination of the official execution mode – burning at the stake – with a setting intended to animalize the heretic. At the same time, others snatched a servant, took him to the Place Maubert, and drowned him in the Seine River. The setting they selected was one of the traditional places for the public execution of heretics, yet they did not materialize its symbolic value by completing the traditional ritual.

Sacred rituals can also be detected behind the killings perpetrated by Catholics. Persistence in disfiguring corpses (mentioned in half the sources) displayed a sacred language, representing God’s power on Earth through attacks on the heretics’ bodies, seen as the embodiment of sin. Thus in Orange, in 1562, female corpses were exposed naked “with ox horns, stones or small wooden stakes inserted in unmentionable places of their bodies.” The corpses were clothed in filth to indicate their otherness, their distinctiveness from Divine creation. They were dragged like “dead beasts,” symbols of the Beast of the Apocalypse. The accumulation of acts of cruelty like tearing the eyes out and severing the nose, lips and ears was supposed to prefigure the torments of hell. Finally, dismembering the bodies – and sometimes exposing and auctioning pieces of them – drowning and burning people at the stake, represented the mouth, the bottomless pit and the fire of hell (Crouzet, 1990: vol. I, 236-317).

Protestants that carried out mass murder followed another logic, which should be compared to iconoclastic didacticism. First, they were responding to the Catholic massacres. Their favorite victims were priests, nicknamed “the shorn,” who embodied the “Papist” onslaught. On August 15, 1562, 94 clerics were killed in this way at Lauzerte, in southwestern France. Secondly, the Protestant fighters were desecrating the first estate (the clergy). In the Theater of the Cruelty of the Heretics of our Time (Théâtre des cruautés des hérétiques de notre temps) written by the Catholic Richard Verstegan in 1587, an illustration depicts Protestants inspecting the slashed-open stomach of a priest, so as to derisively observe where the sacred body of Christ was meant to go through (Lestringant, 1995: 104-105). Finally, the Huguenots wanted to make a clean sweep of the country in order to establish the “true” Church. After the first civil war, anticlerical terrorism seemed to be a success in the area of Agen, where people used to say, “no priest or cleric dares to live, for fear of being killed and massacred” (“aucun curé, ni prêtre n’ose habiter, craignant être tué et massacré”) (Crouzet, 1990: vol. I, 495-712).

The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre constituted a condensed version of the inter-religious violence that had been raging since the 1560s. However, it differed from the first massacres to the degree that the royal authorities started the slaughter and took responsibility for it, even though the collective violence had quickly evolved beyond their control. Nevertheless, the civilians organized into religious associations, integrated in a militarized urban network and led by local notables, were the most vindictive.

 The hazards of trivialization and anachronism

Contextualizing a massacre does not mean treating it as if it were banal; underestimating extreme violence would make the concept ethically and methodologically irrelevant, because this would mean writing off its transgressive nature. Causal explanations, which are still dominant in historical scholarship, can sometimes tend to globalize the perpetrators and play down their responsibility, by reducing them to social, cultural or political players driven by phenomena that are beyond them, and which lead them to commit extreme acts. This approach transforms the phenomenon of a massacre into a homogenous event, whereas the historian’s goal should be to identify heterogeneity, as Primo Levi observed in an essay on the “gray zone,” an expression that conveys the range of different types of behavior in Nazi camps (Levi, 1989: 36-68). In the same way, in his study of German battalions on the Eastern front during the Second World War, Christopher Browning demonstrates the variability of ways in which German commandos first act out violence, faced with the extermination of the Jews (Browning, 1994:228-245). To avoid excessively general explanations of massacres, studies on the subject should focus on acting out (“passage à l’acte” in French). This can only be analyzed based on the principle of an individual’s autonomy with regard to his/her singular intention to engage in a massacre (Zawadski, 2002: 571-579). According to the combination of psychological, socio-professional, political, religious and cultural motives at a given moment, an individual may be led to respond to the impulse to massacre, or not (Sémelin, 2005: 361-364).

This type of method, which follows particular trajectories, requires extraordinary historical documentation. Regarding the Wars of Religion, there is not much witness testimony from the perpetrators of massacres. In 1562, François de Beaumont, Baron des Adrets (1513-1587), the lieutenant of the prince of Condé (the leader of the Protestant faction), became notorious for his role in massacres in Provence (at Valence, Pierrelatte, Saint-Marcellin, etc.). Thereafter, this military man admitted to having committed “four thousand murders in cold blood,” for strategic purposes. In this way, his men were obliged to vanquish their enemies, so as to prevent them from being able to take their revenge. In addition, the massacre of the Catholics at Valence was committed in retaliation for that perpetrated against Protestants in Orange. Finally, the Catholic governor of Grenoble fled, terrified by Des Adrets’ reputation (Constant, 2002: 16-25). In the same way, Blaise de Montluc (1500-1577), the King’s lieutenant, forced the inhabitants of Guyenne into obedience by pitilessly executing the recalcitrant Huguenots. To this end, he had two executioners accompany his soldiers. Flouting the rules of chivalry, he executed a former comrade-in-arms – from the Italian wars – on the grounds that “if he escaped, he would resist us in every village” (“s’il en réchappait, il nous ferait tête dans chaque village”). These two characters did not show any feelings of guilt. They were doing their job as soldiers, and at the time, it entailed the right of life and death over both military and civilian opponents.

However, as the distinction between armed and unarmed individuals was no longer absent, the representation of massacres became the subject of propaganda to discredit one’s enemies. Appalled by the excesses of the civil war, some well-known figures renounced violence in spite of their political commitments. In his Essais, first published in 1580, the French writer Montaigne discussed the first three wars of religion (1562-63; 1567-68; 1568-70) quite specifically; he had personally participated in them, on the side of the royal army, in southwestern France. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre led him to retire to his lands in the Périgord region, and remain silent on all public affairs until the 1580s. Thus, it seems that he was traumatized by the massacre. To him, cruelty was a criterion that differentiated the Wars of Religion from previous conflicts, which he idealized. Montaigne considered that three factors accounted for the shift from regular war to the carnage of civil war: popular intervention, religious demagogy and the never-ending aspect of the conflict.

He chose to depict cruelty through the image of hunting, which fitted with the tradition of condemning hunting for its association with blood and death, but it was still quite surprising, to the extent that this practice was part of the aristocratic way of life. Montaigne reviled hunting by describing it as an urban massacre scene. In addition, the man-animal relationship allowed him to define virtue, which he presented as the opposite of cruelty. He contrasted the spectacle of an animal’s death with man’s love for his dog, a sort of natural benevolence based on his personal feelings. Thus, the writer lauded sensitive, tender and emotive personalities that cannot bear violence, including against animals. Far from adopting a sort of pantheism inspired from Antiquity, Montaigne associated the propensity to cruelty toward animals, with that exercised toward men. After all, following the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the invented image of Charles IX shooting Huguenots from the Louvre palace window did combine the established reputation of the king as a hunter, with a stigmatization of hunting, a cruel and perverted custom, did it not? (El Kenz, 2005: 186-195).

Further examples of this type can be suggested but overall, they were exceptional in terms of social representation. On the other hand, in the 1560s, ordinary men made pacts of friendship to avoid massacres in their city, in spite of mutual religious hostility. The danger that soldiers represented stimulated urban solidarity, which caused a revival of local political activity, encouraged by the commissioners of the religious peace treaties (Christin, 1997: 73-102). Furthermore, it seems that religious violence was less likely in towns with a population of under 10,000, to the extent that it was more difficult to gather a crowd large enough to wind up in a process of de-individuation and dehumanization, which was the source of massacres. In that case, solidarity between neighbors was stronger than inter-confessional hostility (Konnert, 2002: 97-113).

The second shortcoming of historical interpretations of massacres is anachronistic criminalization, in reference to genocide legislation. Thus, in the introduction to Inhuman History… (L’Histoire inhumaine…), the conquest of the New World is identified as “genocide”! (Richard, 1992: 7) Indeed, the conquest of America brought about a demographic catastrophe for indigenous peoples. At the end of the 15th century, 25 million Native Americans lived in Mexico; in 1568, only 2.65 million remained. Similarly, Peru had 9 million inhabitants in 1532, at the time of the Inca emperor Atahualpa, whereas there were only 1.3 million left in 1570 (Borah and Cook Sherburne, 1971-1979; Bernand and Gruzinski, 1991: 536-543). The obviously undeniable violence of the hostilities was not the main cause of such a population collapse. “Microbe shock” (exposure to diseases against which indigenous peoples had no immunity), local socio-economic disorganization and the imposition of an abusive form of the mit’a by the Spanish (which became a forced-labor system in which the autochthonous people were exploited, particularly in mining) were the sources of this demographic tragedy. Besides, the conquistadors did not have a project to eradicate the population. Driven by the desire to convert the indigenous peoples and by greed, they quickly established relationships with the local populations, which led to the emergence of a new multiethnic society, in spite of the victors’ undeniable contempt for the vanquished – which did not, however, include genocidal ideas (Zuniga, 1999: 425-452).

The massacres in Vendée (France) and the slave trade are also sensitive subjects, involving political and memory issues that have led to competition between victims striving to obtain the genocide “label”, a phenomenon diametrically opposed to historical research. To a lesser extent, the academic debate on the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre resulted in a number of slip-ups, in which the term revisionism came up, in the negationist sense.

In his essay “Des Cannibales,” Montaigne analyzed the notion of barbarity. He compared cannibalism among the Tupinamba people of Brazil, to the Stoics’ practice of eating decaying meat, and to the acts of violence committed during the Wars of Religion. In reference to Jean de Léry’s History of Brazil (Histoire du Brésil, 1578), the humanist Montaigne concluded that barbarity is always denounced as some other people’s custom. Moreover, all things considered, Native Americans were less cruel that the Europeans and the Ancients, he added, because their cannibal practices were highly ritualized, limited to defensive warfare and did not satisfy a taste for human flesh. Henceforth, massacres during the Wars of Religion are an inescapable reference in the understanding of human history; consequently, they justify historical comparisons that, in fact, demystify the superiority of both ancient and modern civilizations. In this work, Montaigne set out a hierarchy of different evils, opposing the Native Americans’ cannibalism, associated with revenge, and the cruel Portuguese custom of burying a prisoner up the waist, before shooting him full of arrows, and then hanging his body. Accordingly, he asserted that truthful discourse is based on putting massacres into perspective, in order to transcend the “voix commune” (“common voice” or voice of the people, of our passions), through the “voye de la raison,” the voice of reason.

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