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Massacres during the Wars of Religion

Last modified: 24 July 2008
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 29 May 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Massacres-during-the-Wars-of-Religion, ISSN 1961-9898

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).

Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence® - ISSN 1961-9898