Monday, July 2, 2007

Blog Against Theocracy: Remember Chevalier de La Barre

A blogswarm entitled "Blog Against Theocracy" is running over the net from July 1 through July 4 this year. For my contribution, I'd like to bring up a very old, but once famous case. It provides the reductio ad absurdum of church-state theocratic criminality. This 18th century case was so infamous, it drew the attention of the famous French writer Francois Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire, by then 75 years old.

In July 1766, Jean Francois Le Febvre, chevalier de La Barre, was tried and executed in Abbeville, in the French province of Normandy. His crimes? La Barre was accused of singing anti-religious songs, being disrespectful to a religious procession, and harming a crucifix.

Wikipeda has a short entry on Monsieur La Barre:

On August 9, 1765, the wooden crucifix on a bridge in Abbeville was vandalized. Catholicism was then the state religion of France and the religion of the vast majority of the French public. The bishop of Amiens roused the furor of the faithful and asked churchgoers to reveal all they could about the case to the civilian judges, under pain of excommunication. Nobody actually revealed anything about the vandalizing itself, but some accused three young men... of not having removed their hats when a procession had passed. La Barre's bedroom was searched and three prohibited books, including Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, were found.

La Barre was tortured into confessing his alleged crimes. He was then sentenced by the Paris parlement (high court) to be tortured again, beheaded and then have his body thrown into the flames along with his copy of [Voltaire's] Philosophical Dictionary. Voltaire attempted to have his conviction reversed to no avail. It was reversed by the National Convention during the French Revolution in 1794.

Ian Davidson's book, Voltaire in Exile, fleshes out much more of the story. For instance, the other men accused with La Barre came from prominent families, including the mayor and chief investigating magistrate. These well-connected families were able to whisk their sons away to safety, leaving La Barre, an orphan, to stand trial. La Barre had been brought up by his aunt, Anne-Marguerite Feydeau, the abbess of the Villancourt convent. Some have said that the prosecuting magistrate had been spurned by Mlle. Feydeau, and that he therefore held a grudge against the young (probably around 20 years old) La Barre.

As Davidson describes it, like other notable cases of the same period, e.g. the Calas case, the campaign against La Barre

...had been based on a highly charged alliance between the bigoted Church-State machine and the superstitious local Catholic population. The evidence against La Barre was fragmentary, rumor-based, unreliable, and wholly insufficient. The legal basis for the charges of blasphemy and sacrilege was questionable... the charges of themselves were manifestly out of proportion to the offenses alleged.... Worst of all, the case against the accused had been deliberately whipped on by a local magistrate for reasons of personal grudge.... (pg. 171)

La Barre's Torture and Execution

Davidson also is less queasy in reporting the torture done to La Barre to get him to "confess". The sentence of the Abbeville court had to be confirmed by the Parlement in Paris. On June 4, 1766, by a vote of 15-10, La Barre's conviction was upheld. Before his execution, he was tortured to obtain confession. The young man's legs were enclosed between wooden planks, and wooden wedges hammered between the planks and legs. No confession was forthcoming. He was dragged to his beheading wearing a sign: "Impious, sacrilegious and hateful blasphemer."

Voltaire reported that in the shadow of the executioner's ax, La Barre's last words were:

"I did not believe that they could make a gentleman die for such a small thing." (Davidson, pg. 168)

As a final last mercy, the authorities did not tear out La Barre's tongue, as had been the sentence of the Abbeville court. Voltaire took up a campaign for La Barre's rehabilitation, which would not come until the French Revolutionary government reversed the decision posthumously in 1794, or 28 years later. In any case, and in part because of the publicity campaign of Voltaire, who wrote a pamphlet entitled Relation de la Mort du Chevalier de La Barre, Jean Francois Le Febvre would be the last person executed in France for "blasphemy". For a time, though, Voltaire was frightened by his being implicated by the religious authorities, who burned his famous dictionary with the body of La Barre at the stake, he thought seriously of emigrating from France.

A few weeks after the execution, Voltaire wrote to his friend, Jean le Rond d'Alembert:

I cannot understand how thinking beings can remain in a country of monkeys, which so often become tigers. As for me, I am ashamed even to be on the frontier. In truth, now is the time to break the connection.... Even the Inquisition would not have dared do what these Jansenist judges have carried out." (Davidson, pg. 173)

Bong Hits 4 Jesus

Just the other day, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the suppression of free speech in the case of Joseph Frederick, a high school student whose banner "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" was confiscated by the school, even though it was held aloft away from school property. While all Frederick may have lost was his banner, the country lost a battle in the fight against religious intolerance, and the inroads the latter is making in the courts and legislatures of this country.

Too bad, Juneau, Alaska school principal Deborah Morse doesn't have the powers the Catholic hierarchy and church-infested courts of La Barre's day had over "disrespectful" speech. But she has the hateful 5-4 decision of the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, we have the first amendment and a number of organizations trying to protect us against the trend to turn this country into a Christian theocracy.

Go to the website of First Freedom First, and sign their petition to safeguard separation of church and state and protect religious liberty in this country.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, thanks.

The North Coast said...

Thank you for posting this infamous bit of history.

Don't think it can't happen here. This country has more Fundamentalist fanatics than any other developed country in the world, and these are the people who will have the most grievances as we head down the slope of resource depletion. They'll be looking for scapegoats and when they do, we'll see religious history re-enacted on every lamp post and tree in the Fundamentalist backwoods of America.

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