Lessons from a Massacre Committed 450 Years Ago

Lessons from a Massacre Committed 450 Years Ago 

by James Bovard   August 25, 2022

On this day in 1572, French Catholics slaughtered thirty thousand Protestants (known as Huguenots) in the streets of Paris. The French king and the pope helped organize the the biggest religious massacre in Europe in the 1500s. Roughly half the Bovards living in Paris were killed in the bloodbath. Three surviving Bovards fled past drunken guards at Paris’s city gates, raced to the coast, hijacked a rowboat, and made it across the English Channel and took refuge in London. Or at least that’s the Bovard family lore I’ve read. (I know not to bet the rent money on that lore’s accuracy.)

Some years ago at a DC reception, I met a cultural attaché from the French embassy. She saw my name tag and asked about my last name.

“Yes, it’s French. My ancestors were Huguenots,” I said.

“Oh—they were victims,” she replied remorsefully.

“Hell no! Getting kicked out of France was the best thing that ever happened to the Bovard family,” I replied with a big grin.

She just stared at me kind of wild-eyed. I fear I shattered her stereotypes of Huguenots.

After fleeing France, my forebearers resettled in northern Ireland. My ancestors were reportedly linen and lace manufacturers in France but became flax growers after resettling in County Donegal. I came by rusticity honestly.

In 1846, my Bovard ancestors exited for America. I explain my family history with this thumbnail: the Bovards were kicked out of France because the king was prejudiced against Protestants, and they were kicked out of Ireland because the Irish were prejudiced against horse thieves.

Actually, they left at the start of the great potato famine, but the fact checking police haven’t caught up with me yet. My kinfolk settled in western Pennsylvania. My great-great-grandfather dodged Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription, a step that I appreciate both philosophically and genetically.

The 1572 carnage at least had some positive philosophical results. Philippe de Mornay barely avoided being killed in the massacre, but seven years later, his pamphlet Vindiciae contra tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants) was published in Switzerland. This pamphlet laid the groundwork for subsequent authors (including British philosopher John Locke) to clearly establish the right to resist oppressive rulers. The book contained far more solid thinking on the nature of political institutions than one will encounter in political science classes, where progressive professors exalt the power of benevolent rulers, the Constitution be damned. De Mornay observed, “There is nothing which exempts the king from obedience which he owes to the law, which he ought to acknowledge as his lady and mistress.” Invoking Aristotle, he stressed, “Civilized people reduced kings to a lawful condition, by binding them to keep and observe the laws. Unruly absolute authority remained only amongst those who commanded over barbarous nations.” The vision of “government under the law” was one of the greatest lodestars of early modern political philosophy. De Mornay also derided “the minions of the court.” We have made great progress since his time—now we have think tank minions.

Sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne was horrified by the carnage in Paris as well as in Bordeaux, where he served periodically as mayor. Montaigne sought to deter religious genocide: “It is putting a very high price on our opinions to have a man roasted alive because of them.” He admitted that he could not say all that he believed: “I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more as I grow older.” But he never forthrightly condemned the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. He did give a few winks to skepticism: “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.” He also recognized how adulation spawned some of the most dangerous illusions: “The strange luster that surrounds a king conceals and shrouds him from us.”

Almost two centuries later, Voltaire was spurred by the 1762 judicial murder of a Huguenot to zealously champion toleration. “Toleration has never been the cause of civil war; while, on the contrary, persecution has covered the earth with blood and carnage,” he wrote. In his Philosophical Dictionary, he declared, “What is tolerance? It is a necessary consequence of humanity. We are all fallible, let us then pardon each other’s follies. This is the first principle of natural right.”

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre shows the perils of combining fanaticism with power. Unfortunately, this is a lesson which modern societies may soon need to learn again. A recent poll showed that more than half of Americans expect a civil war “in the next few years.” Hopefully that poll is as inaccurate as most of the polls preceding recent presidential elections. Historian Henry Adams observed a century ago that politics “has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” Nowadays, politics seems hell-bent on multiplying hatred. And few things spur hatred more effectively than tarring all political opponents as traitors. But that is increasingly the coin of the realm in political disputes.

Toleration requires fewer body bags than rage. There are few things that people need to agree on to live peacefully (if not happily) side by side. But the popularity of notions such as “Silence Is Violence” epitomizes the systematic intolerance permeating progressive movements. Demanding that people assent to the latest contrived definitions of virtue is a huge step toward using government force to compel obedience to any mania that sweeps the latest mob of “influencers.”

Montaigne aptly observed more than four hundred years ago, “There is nothing so grossly and widely faulty as the laws.” That hasn’t changed since his time. The incompetence of legislators and tinhorn dictators is a standing rebuke to seeking to save humanity by vastly increasing political power. But from 1500s France to contemporary societies around the world, politicians always find ways to profit from the bloodshed they unleash. A far wiser path was recommended by the victim of a brutal police beating that helped spark the 1992 Los Angeles riots that left sixty-three people dead. As Rodney King wisely asked, “Can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible?”

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13 Responses to Lessons from a Massacre Committed 450 Years Ago

  1. Joe Blow August 25, 2022 at 8:35 pm #

    Frankly, I don’t believe so.
    There are some that want X, others absolutely refuse to allow it. Some demand everyone, EVERYONE, accept Y! You don’t believe Y?!?! What is wrong with you!?
    Then there is the feral population, whatchagonnado with them?!

    • SemperFi, 0321 August 25, 2022 at 9:48 pm #

      Nothing like living among control freaks who have god on their side………..

      • Jim August 25, 2022 at 9:51 pm #

        Maybe it at least encourages people to learn how to run fast – or row across the English Channel

        • Ahab August 25, 2022 at 11:21 pm #

          There is no place to run, or row, to now. No channel or river or mountain range or state will separate the good men from the evil men. Best be about building your redoubt against the hord. Family and tribe, that’s all you have….

      • MntnMole August 26, 2022 at 1:12 am #

        Yeah. Living among control freaks who practice osculum infame was MUCH better for the townfolk of Sodom and Gomorrah. That worked out well.

  2. bogbeagle August 26, 2022 at 2:57 am #

    I used to call it ‘the English Disease’ … “I don’t like it, so YOU can’t do it.”

    Turns out that it’s a Global infection.

  3. Thomas Rosser August 26, 2022 at 6:43 am #

    The left wants a war – they attack Christians, they attack Whites, they burn cities, they blame White children and want to grossly sexualize them. They are openly calling for taking children away form people on the Right and sending the parents to camps.They open the border to any trash that can walk in – then we have to pay for it. It’s the left that wants it.
    All I – and many milliions like me – ever wanted was to be left alone.
    They have called me their enemy for many years – now I have become just that. I haven’t forgotten the training or experience I gained in several overseas adventures.
    Millions of angry White Nationalists haven’t left the porch yet – but we are down on the bottom step. When we step down the extirpation will be the word of the day.
    There’s going to be a fight – let’s win. You won’t like losing. Think Cambodia and piles of skulls
    Learn from the Romanian Revolution – that’s the way.
    It’s coming whether you want it or not – the left won’t stop until we make them.

  4. Steve August 26, 2022 at 10:32 am #

    I can’t seem to find the book “A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants”. Is there an English translation other than the link provided?

    • Jim August 26, 2022 at 10:37 am #

      A British publisher put out a print version in 1924 with a foreword by socialist Harold Laski. I had that volume and plucked it for this article. I am not aware of subsequent print editions.

    • Neil August 26, 2022 at 2:29 pm #

      Seems to be on Amazon
      https://www.amazon.com/Defence-Liberty-Against-Vindiciae-Tyrannos/dp/1532612737

      • Jim August 26, 2022 at 2:33 pm #

        Thanks for posting the link

        • Light August 26, 2022 at 5:57 pm #

          What! You didn’t check Amazon? You’re such a Hugue. ;-))
          My paternal family side left at same time due to a different Protestant affliction.
          Dirt farming in Ontario seemed to cure a few ills.
          My family tree as most looks like a pour trim job on a utility ROW project.

          • Jim August 26, 2022 at 6:41 pm #

            I haven’t diagrammed my family tree. But at least it isn’t like the one Mark Twain described – two planks of wood connected at a 90 degree angle. (He said it much better.)

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