“The massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day was an affair between neighbors”

For Le Monde, Youness Bousenna interviews Jérémie Foa, current Member in the School of Historical Studies, about his book on the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre:

Historian Jérémie Foa offers a very unique view of the 1572 massacres in his work entitled Tous ceux qui tombent: visages du massacre de la Saint–Barthélemy [All that fall: faces of the St. Bartholomew's day massacre]. He exhumes the “small lives” that were taken by reconstituting history in minute detail and honoring the names of the anonymous victims.

St. Bartholomew is a name that often haunts discussions, as it stands for the folly of mass murder. But who really knows what happened that fateful day in August of 1572 that has come to symbolize the Wars of Religion?

Thanks to his thorough research in the archives, Jérémie Foa, lecturer of Modern History at the University of Aix–Marseille, offers a new perspective of this event which has, up to now, been presented from the perspective of French royalty. In Tous ceux qui tombent, Foa, currently in residence at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, United States, attempts to tell this story from the bottom, by giving identities to the anonymous victims of the massacre.

In twenty-five detailed studies, Foa reveals the victims and the murderers, simple citizens and ardent assassins, in their human triviality, exhuming the “small lives” taken in this dreadful massacre.

“This sequence of events would continue until mid-October, resulting in a total of approximately ten thousand deaths.”

In what context did the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day take place?

During the nights of August 23 and 24, 1572, when the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day broke out, France had already been engaged in the Wars of Religion for ten years. These conflicts pitted the Catholics against the Protestant minority which represented approximately two out of twenty million citizens in the kingdom. The Protestant faith had been legal in France since 1562, thanks to a decree by the Queen, Catherine de Medici.

Despite a few violent episodes, St. Bartholomew's Day occurred in a context of peace, which had lasted since the Edict of St. Germain in August 1570. In order to consolidate it, Catherine de Medici had the idea to marry her own daughter and future Queen Margaret of France, Marguerite de Valois, to an illustrious Protestant aristocrat, Henry of Navarre, the future King Henry IV. This marriage was supposed to reinforce the peace. The wedding took place in Paris on August 18, 1572. A large part of the Protestant nobility came to the wedding which would cause tension with the locals at a time when the Protestant faith was still forbidden in the city.

In this explosive atmosphere something else happened: Admiral de Coligny, a Protestant aristocrat and confidant of the King, was ambushed by a shooter firing a musket. He was injured but not killed. The killer was sent by the Guise clan, a prominent Catholic family who had always been opposed to a reconciliation with the Protestants. The Huguenot aristocrats were furious and threatened to take up arms.

What exactly triggered the massacre?

During the night between August 23 to 24, King Charles IX called a meeting at the Louvre during which the Catholic representatives decided to draw up a list of about twenty Protestants to be killed. Although the details of this meeting remain unclear, we know that a little after midnight the soldiers left the Louvre on a mission to kill: in fact, they pushed Coligny out of the window.

This initiative incited the citizens of Paris, in particular the militia that was in charge of security, to follow this royal act and interpret it as an authorization to kill their Protestant neighbors. Around 3,000 of them were massacred from that night through to August 28.

Despite several letters from the King asking them to stop these acts of violence, the wave spread to other parts of the kingdom, especially Orléans, Lyon, and Toulouse. This sequence of events did not stop until mid-October and resulted in a total of approximately ten thousand deaths.

Why did you choose to tell this story through the lens of “small lives?”

The stakes of the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day and, more generally, the sixteenth century fascinated me; my Ph.D. thesis was based on the peace treaties under Charles IX (1560-74). I wanted to understand how someone could suddenly kill their own neighbor, and I wanted to reveal the logic that leads people to kill in the name of God.

This aligns with other genocides, like the ones in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. The sixteenth century thus allowed me to look at other time periods. St. Bartholomew is very important to me, although I am not Protestant, nor even religious in any way: I just cannot stop feeling a certain empathy for the victims, and––a contrario––an aversion for the killers.

This interest in small lives comes in particular from my readings in the context of “micro-history” as well as the work of Arlette Farge, a specialist in eighteenth century history. The massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day has been studied many times, but always from the perspective of the palace, of royalty. I wanted to treat this event through the lens of normal humble citizens.

“Archives document that thousands of Parisians were involved in ordinary occupations, continuing their routines during this massacre.”

What new perspective does this approach from the bottom of society allow us to have with regard to St. Bartholomew?

The most striking element is that it was neighbors killing their own neighbors! The image of the State’s absolutism does not correspond to reality at all; it was not very present in people’s lives, and its administration had no means to identify who was Protestant and who was not. Catherine de Medici has often been blamed for the massacre, but she did not really know who to target.

Studies often focused on those who gave the orders, but not on those who carried out the massacre. Yet, only the citizens could know who did not go to Mass on Sunday or who fought on the other side during the last religious war. This study of the lower echelons of society shows that the massacre took place in the neighborhoods, because it could only be carried out by the locals, in particular the militia.

Did all Parisians take part in it?

No, and that is another surprise: the archives show that most of the Parisians were involved in a number of other activities other than that of killing others. That is what I called “the bloodless archives.” The latter are particularly troubling for the historian, because they document that thousands of Parisians were involved in ordinary occupations, continuing their routines during this massacre––registering their children for apprenticeships, doing business, buying goods, etc.

This is how you realize, in a striking fashion, that the ordinary continues within the context of the extraordinary. So, the question is do we interpret this as an act of selfishness or as a way to remain ordinary in order not to give in to violence?

Finally, my study also highlights the existence of the “righteous,” who, for example, helped Protestants by issuing Certificates of Catholicism or by giving them shelter. This means, that even during a period of huge crisis you still have a certain margin of freedom: you can decide to save your neighbors, to be indifferent to their fate or to kill them.

What was the modus operandi of the massacre?

Since these were neighbors who knew their victims, most of the time, they simply knocked on the door. They rung the bell; the victim came down and was either killed with a blow from a sword right there in their own house or in the middle of the street. But I think that most of the killings took place in the prisons, because these secluded places lent themselves best to killing people without leaving a trace.

Many Protestants went to prison without knowing what could happen to them; they were used to it, since they had been sent there in the past because of their religion. These prisons were located along the Seine river which made it easy to get rid of the bodies by throwing them in the water. These prison massacres also took place in Lyon and Toulouse.

“Killing heretics is thus a way to guarantee oneself a place in heaven.”

What triggered this climate of hatred?

The most convincing explanation is that offered by historian Denis Crouzet who highlights the powerful eschatological fear experienced by the Catholics at that time. Cholera was around the corner and things were starting to happen: wars, disease, but also the “discovery” of the Americas and Protestant reformation.

This feeling of being faced with the end of the world triggered a fear of the Last Judgment. Catholics asked themselves, can we tolerate the presence of heretics, such as the Protestants, without suffering consequences to our own health? Killing heretics was thus a way to guarantee oneself a place in heaven.

You are leaning on Sigmund Freud’s notion of “narcissism of minor differences.”

That is true, and that is the second explanation, in my opinion: for these Catholic citizens who lived next to Protestants, there was in the end nothing more intolerable than these “heretics” who were so much like them. The absence of a clear difference in the enemy also generated fear, as if the devil looked like them. The massacre became an occasion to erase that resemblance, which explains the massive disfigurements of the victims––eyes scratched out, noses cut off––to differentiate the heretics and to make them look diabolical.

“By focusing on what became of the killers, I became aware that most of them were very well off and honorable citizens”

What stories extracted from the archives made the biggest impression on you?

I was very touched by Marye Robert whose story constitutes the first chapter. Until then, she was only known by her husband’s name, expressed in a simple horrible statement at the moment of her murder: “Inspector Aubert thanked his wife’s murderers.” This was horrifying for me, because it reflected a dramatic event in my own life. So, for scientific as well as personal reasons, I was proud to find her post-mortem inventory and to be able to give her her name back.

It appears that Marye Robert’s Protestant faith got her husband incarcerated in 1569, all of this over some eggs found at their home during Lent. This man, who had a very prestigious job, perhaps thought that the elimination of his wife would be a convenient means to avoid professional problems at a time when divorce was almost impossible.

The death of Louis Chesneau also affected me. This Protestant was a Hebrew scholar. He lived a hellish existence during the last years of his life: due to his faith, he lost his job and was exiled from Paris for three years. He was destitute, became a beggar, and was forced to sell his books. On St. Bartholomew’s Day, he found shelter at his friend Ramus’ house, which was a fatal error because the latter was a known Protestant. Chesneau was thrown out of the window and killed.

“This freedom that distinguished the executioners from the righteous––no event in our history can make it go away”

And the killers?

The third face that I remember is that of Thomas Croizier who was one of the most prominent killers on St. Bartholomew’s Day. This goldsmith lived at Quai de la Mégisserie which was then called “the valley of poverty,” and his house had a trap door opening to the Seine; this allowed him to get rid of several bodies, since he killed many Protestants at his own house. After the massacre, his reign in the streets continued for thirty years. Then, all of a sudden at the end of his life, after having participated in a punitive expedition, he went into exile––it is not clear if this last stage of life as a hermit was due to his desire to escape justice or driven by feelings of guilt.

More generally, by focusing on the destiny of the killers, I realized that most of them were prosperous and honorable citizens. For many of them crime paid––like for Thomas Croizier who, six months after the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, bought the residence of one of his victims for a paltry sum with the help of Catherine de Medici…. The moral of the story leads us to realize that there isn’t any: the worst criminals die comfortably in their beds.

Was there no antidote to this outbreak of violence?

First, there are those whom I named the “righteous,” for example Jean de Tambonneau. This Catholic Parliament representative lived in a large house on the Île de la Cité where he hid about forty Protestants: he is a great example of moral greatness, as is often the case in tragic circumstances.

Then, the family logic in mixed families allowed many Protestants to find shelter in order to escape the massacre. Finally, in many cities, such as Saint–Affrique in the Aveyron region, friendship pacts between Catholics and Protestants were signed, which means that the idea of common citizenship was more important than religious differences, and they found a way to live together.

What does the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day teach us today?

The first lesson is that proximity can spawn hatred when differences are not accepted and assimilated. It is therefore very important to find strategies to understand these differences and know how to appreciate them rather than to subject them to hate through silence.

This event also shows that, even during the worst crises in our history, there remains enough freedom to make choices. And this freedom which distinguishes the executioners from the righteous—no event in our history can make it go away. We always have an opportunity to make choices.

This interview was reprinted in English by the Institute for Advanced Study. Read the original, published October 24, 2021, at Le Monde