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In Huguenot history, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was one of the most important and tragic nationwide events between Catholics and Protestants.

It drew Europe’s attention. Even Catholic heads of state, including the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, were horrified at the number of Protestant deaths in France. Protestants in Europe were now convinced, if they weren’t already, that Catholicism was a faith based on blood and treachery.

As with so many massacres, battles and wars, this began on August 23, 1572 in what many of us would consider to be near-anodyne circumstances. August 24 is St Bartholomew’s feast day, hence the name. The French king Charles IX’s sister married the Hugenot Prince Henry III of Navarre four days previously. He would later convert to Catholicism when he became King Henry IV. He allegedly said, ‘Paris is worth a Mass.’

Paris was predominantly Catholic. The royal wedding attracted the nation’s most prominent Huguenots. Although there were clear divisions in some quarters of the nobility, e.g. the Guise family who headed France’s Catholic League, other friendships and alliances took place between Catholic and Protestant noblemen. Hence this mixed marriage. Yet, even Catherine de Medici had problems convincing the Cardinal de Bourbon to perform the ceremony. Her mother had to intervene.

I’d mentioned in ‘A Huguenot timeline’ (item 12) that it was at this time that the Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny was assassinated in his lodgings, his body dumped from a window into a Paris street. From there, a mob seized upon it, desecrated it and eventually burned it.

The mob was worked up by the presence of so many Protestants in their city. Parisians at that time were fiercely Catholic. They were also upset over matters temporal. The harvest had been bad (less food at higher prices) and they were also paying more in tax. Therefore, to see or know about a luxurious royal wedding taking place when they were scraping to get by offended them.

Whilst some Parisians were occupied by following Coligny’s corpse around the city, others sought out Protestant households. Heavy chains blocked their public right of way, forcing them to stay in their houses, targets of the mobs. Bodies of the men, women and children killed were thrown in the Seine. Meanwhile, the future Henry IV and his cousin the Prince of Condé converted temporarily to Catholicism just to be able to exit the city.

News of the massacre spread quickly. Those towns and cities who found out early started their own massacres. Elsewhere, the reaction came as late as October. Historian Mack P Holt adds this observation:

All twelve cities where provincial massacres occurred had one striking feature in common; they were all cities with Catholic majorities where there had once been significant Protestant minorities…. All of them had also experienced serious religious division… during the first three civil wars… Moreover seven of them shared a previous experience … [they] had actually been taken over by Protestant minorities during the first civil war…”[19]

Estimates of the death tolls vary widely. Catholic records have low tolls in the three figures. Protestant estimates go up to 30,000. I cited a death toll of 10,000. Whatever the reality — records are hard to certify — the scene shocked European leaders, causing ‘a major international crisis’. Whilst Pope Gregory XIII rejoiced and the King of Spain Philip II laughed, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II was ‘sickened’, Tsar Ivan the Terrible was horrified and Protestant rulers took some convincing in order to keep the peace with France.

Since then, a number of theories have been proposed as to who held ultimate responsibility for the massacre. Yet, it is unclear to this day whether one person or one faction could be held to account. Diplomatic correspondence and court memoirs indicate that the spontaneity, violence and chaos of the massacre surprised everyone, Catholic and Protestant.

The massacre became the subject of contemporary authors, playwrights and composers for at least the next two centuries. Christopher Marlowe’s last play, The Massacre at Paris (1593), addressed the events as well as their aftermath.  Later, in 1836, composer Giacomo Meyerbeer‘s Les Huguenots opened at the Paris Opéra.  Meyerbeer (for whom a street is named in Nice’s Musicians’ Quarter) was Jewish and, feeling isolated because of it, empathised with those living on the margins of society (emphases mine):

In his mature operas Meyerbeer selected stories which almost invariably featured as a major element of storyline a hero living within a hostile environment. Robert, Valentin the Huguenot, Jean the prophet, and the defiant Vasco da Gama in L’Africaine are all ‘oustsiders’. It has been suggested that ‘Meyerbeer’s choice of these topics is not accidental; they reflect his own sense of living in a potentially inimical society.’[71]

The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is a milestone in the seemingly endless French Wars of Religion for both Catholics and Protestants. Catholics also died brutally in the conflicts.

In closing, this is what historians and anthropologists have to say about it:

Some, like Leonie Frieda, emphasise the element within the mob violence of the “haves” being “killed by the ‘have-nots'”. Many Protestants were nobles or bourgeois and Frieda adds that “a number of bourgeois Catholic Parisians had suffered the same fate as the Protestants; many financial debts were wiped clean with the death of creditors and moneylenders that night”.[77] At least one Huguenot was able to buy off his would-be murderers.[78]

The historian H.G. Koenigsberger (who until his retirement in 1984 was Professor of History at King’s College, University of London) wrote that the Massacre was deeply disturbing because “it was Christians massacring other Christians who were not foreign enemies but their neighbours with which they and their forebears had lived in a Christian community, and under the same ruler, for a thousand years”.[79] He concludes that the historical importance of the Massacre “lies not so much in the appalling tragedies involved as their demonstration of the power of sectarian passion to break down the barriers of civilisation, community and accepted morality”.[80]

An explanation of this may lie in the analysis of the massacre in terms of social anthropology by the religious historian Bruce Lincoln, who describes how the religious divide, which gave the Huguenots different patterns of dress, eating and pastimes, as well as the obvious differences of religion and (very often) class, had become a social schism or cleavage. The rituals around the royal marriage had only intensified this cleavage, contrary to its intentions, and the “sentiments of estrangement – radical otherness – [had come] to prevail over sentiments of affinity between Catholics and Protestants.[81]

Tomorrow: La Rochelle

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