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History, humility, and polemics: Lessons from the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Sloppy assessments of the past driven less by concern to understand what happened and more by a desire to instrumentalize history in order to win a particular argument simply make the problem worse.

Detail from “The Massacre of Saint-Barthélemy” (c. 1572-1584) by François Dubois (Image: Wikipedia)

Every day is the anniversary of some significant historical event. And August 24th, the second Wednesday of my French Wars of Religion class, was a gruesome anniversary – that of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This intrigued some of my students since it’s a topic that we’ll cover this semester. The date also seemed important to Methodist author Mark Tooley, whose Providence Magazine article “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre’s Lessons for Today”, published on August 24, I read with interest.

Tooley used the 450th anniversary of that event as the springboard for a discussion of historical developments in early modern France and England and their relation to constitutional orders and freedoms in these kingdoms. Given the author’s purposes, I was astonished by the basic errors of fact and interpretation in his account. One might not, of course, be conversant in recent scholarship on these issues if one does not work in the field, but in that case one might exercise more care in the formulation of one’s claims – especially if those claims have a polemical edge.

It is important to note that the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began not with a royal order to assassinate the Huguenot nobles in Paris (as Tooley states), but with the assassination of Gaspard de Coligny at the behest of the Guise family, in order to avenge the murder of Duke François de Guise nine years earlier at the hand of a hired assassin contracted by Coligny. In other words, what spurred the violence was a family vendetta. No one will ever know for certain what motivated subsequent royal actions, but (as Barbara Diefendorf and others have pointed out) it seems likely that the king and his council feared a backlash by the Huguenot nobles assembled in the capital (for the wedding between Henri de Bourbon and the king’s sister Marguerite) and decided to take pre-emptive action against them.

When that order for a targeted attack was issued, it somehow leaked to the general populace, who understood it as a royal directive to kill not just the Huguenot noble leaders in Paris, but any Huguenot found anywhere in the kingdom. It was a massacre fueled by miscommunication, misunderstanding, terror, and anger. Five years earlier the very Huguenot nobles gathered in Paris had destroyed windmills and farmland surrounding the capital, collected forced loans, pressed peasants into labor, and threatened to starve the city into submission. Parisians remained fearful and were willing to believe the worst about their unwelcome guests and any others in the city who might try to support them. Many Parisians (and other French Catholics in subsequent weeks) were thus prompted to engage in furious acts of horrendous violence.

Why are these details important? Because they show how Tooley misleads readers by reducing the complex events of August 1572 to a sinister plot cooked up by a power-hungry, fanatical king, a stand-in for ‘French absolutism’.

Tooley mentions the Edict of Nantes, which was issued by Henri IV in 1598 (not 1592). Henri IV, the first Bourbon king, was a former Huguenot who had converted to the Catholic faith (for the second time) en route to the royal succession. The Edict granted Huguenots significant liberties until it was revoked eighty-seven years later by Louis XIV. Thus, even if one takes uneven enforcement into account, for most of the seventeenth century, Huguenots in France enjoyed greater religious liberty than did Catholics in England, despite Tooley’s claims to the contrary.

While many Huguenots fled France immediately following the massacre of 1572 (as Tooley suggests) and others continued to depart in subsequent decades, emigration did not spike significantly until after Louis XIV revoked the Edict in 1685. Although Tooley suggests that this Huguenot emigration embedded “a deep fear of persecution by Catholic monarchs and a greater appreciation for religious toleration” into English society, anti-Catholicism in Britain predated the Revocation by over a century. Hundreds of Catholic martyrs were killed in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for reasons unrelated to the post-1685 Huguenot exodus.

Further, Catholics were not tolerated in England until the early eighteenth century (under certain conditions), and they were not granted full civil rights until the nineteenth century. Tooley would have us believe that an English tradition of religious liberty emerged in reaction to French religious oppression. But neither his facts nor his chronology support his story.

Tooley then suggests that Louis XIV’s absolutism terrified Calvinists and Nonconformists in England, driving them to oppose Charles I and his sons. But Charles I was executed in 1649, when Louis was eleven years old. The kingdom was co-governed by his mother and the cardinal of Mazarin, and France was in the midst of a civil war (the Fronde). The French government during these years could hardly be called ‘absolutist’. Any supposed religious intolerance of the eleven-year-old French king obviously had nothing to do with English Protestant opposition to Charles I. By the 1670s English Protestants had good reason to fear Louis XIV, but arguably more for geopolitical reasons than religious ones (though politicians then, as now, did not hesitate to couch political and strategic argument in ideological terms).

Tooley rightly notes that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 solidified Parliamentary supremacy in England. In France, on the other hand, “all power focused on the crown, with pseudo parliaments called only occasionally, with limited powers, subordinate to the crown.” Do “pseudo parliaments” refer to the various parlements in France? If so, these were judicial bodies, not legislative ones (and their magistrates often succeeded in challenging royal power). Or is this a reference to the Estates-General (summoned in 1614 by the regency government of Marie de Medici and then not again until 1789)? Or is he referring to the various provincial estates assemblies, which met regularly and played crucial fiscal, financial, and political roles over the course of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see the work of William Beik, Mark Potter, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal)?

The author’s goal in this piece is to concoct a story, beginning with the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, that recapitulates the old Whig interpretation of history. This account depicts the English path of historical development as one leading inexorably toward freedom and enlightenment; in contrast, the French path was marked by despotism and servitude. But no historian takes this seriously anymore. To cite but one example of how this narrative has been discredited, economic historians such as Philip Hoffman and Kathryn Norberg have shown that the burden of taxation faced by the English during the Old Regime far outweighed that born by the people of France and was just as regressive.

Why, then, is the Whig narrative important for the author? Because the French foil enables him to critique those with whom he disagrees. Liberty, freedom of speech, limited government, and the privileging of commerce over religious conformity led to peace and prosperity in England. In France, meanwhile, the absence of these virtues (absolutism, fanatical Catholicism, etc.) led to the French Revolution. Today, Tooley suggests, we see 21st-century parallels to early modern French politico-religious intolerance on both the right and the left. Those on the intolerant right he labels “post-liberals,” some of whom are Calvinists and others are “Catholic integralists who romanticize France’s old regime in which throne and altar were partners in silencing dissent.”

This characterization falls flat for two reasons. First, anyone who knows something about Old Regime France knows that “throne” and “altar” rarely saw eye-to-eye about anything. Over the course of his reign, Louis XIV was most interested in silencing dissenting Catholics (Jansenists). In fact, James Collins has explained how it was in order to secure a papal bull, Unigenitus (1713), against the Jansenists that Louis effectively traded away his claims to sacral kingship, thereby rendering speculation about alternate constitutional orders religiously licit. It was this—and not the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre—that paved the way for the Revolution.

Second, I don’t think that there exist “Catholic integralists” who want a church-state union that will effectively “silence dissent.” This strikes me as the least charitable way possible to describe the goals of the ‘common good conservatives’ (as far as I understand them). ‘Silencing dissent’ is quite different from placing limits on public displays of indecency, for example.

The article concludes by holding up the brave, freedom-loving English and Dutch (freedom-loving, that is, unless you happened to be on the wrong side of their ideas about legitimate enslavement and the expropriation of indigenous land that was not being ‘productively exploited’) as models for those of us today who wish to protect freedom of speech and religion. But by identifying particular national and religious traditions as models of virtue, Tooley distorts his historical narrative and falls into the same error that he decries. His reductions, mischaracterizations and inaccuracies obstruct the rational exchange of opinions rather than facilitate it.

The problem is neither ‘French absolutism’ nor ‘Anglo-Dutch possessive individualism’. Even taking differences in historical context into account, what led to massacres and the disrespect of human persons in 1572, in subsequent centuries, and today, is a refusal to acknowledge the truth about others and ourselves, about our pasts and our futures. That is, the problem was (and is) a fundamental lack of humility.

Sloppy assessments of the past that are driven less by concern to understand what happened and more by a desire to instrumentalize history in order to win a particular argument simply make the problem worse. They hinder our learning, reinforce unexamined prejudices, and by preventing us from appreciating ‘what was’ they make it more difficult to know ‘what is’, as Fr James Schall used to say. Whether or not we agree that classical liberalism is salvageable, we should be able to agree that history should be treated respectfully, both for the sake of the dead and for our own sakes.

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About Matthew Vester 1 Article
Matthew Vester is a Professor of History at West Virginia University whose research examines political life (broadly defined) in early modern Europe.


  1. An in depth historical corrective analysis, that many of us assumed was along the apparently biased lines of Tooley, by historian Vester. Although, apart from the intricacies of human affairs that drive history [the dynamics leading to the French Revolution] is the question, why do Christians murder each other with such savagery? I won’t pretend to answer all the dynamics that lead to massacres and wars, and I can appreciate the appeal by pontiffs including the present pope Francis to end wars, including war in Ukraine. We do know that bloodletting isn’t favored by God. King David, who wished to, was refused the construction of the Jerusalem Temple because as God told him his hands were too bloodied in wars. That would be left to his son Solomon, whose name means peace.
    A mysterious truth for the Christian is the call. We’re drawn to him who is love itself, love in its purest form infinite beyond human comprehension. Love by nature seeks exclusivity. With our love for God, the closer we approach greater our concern, our desire for the welfare of others increases. As Augustine describes in his Confessions when God taught him how to find him through prayer, that what was intimated to him was entirely different than any possible human conceptualization. God whose essence is love is distinct from any form of human construct. Love, in God identical with his existence, demands from us totality. Why then the desire in us to give ourselves, to suffer, to spend our lives for other persons, some who may despise us? What answer is there other than this is love, and this is God.

  2. An illuminating summary: “In other words, what spurred the violence was a family vendetta.”

    Might we say that worst of modernity consists in replacing family and dynastic vendettas with vendettas between decapitated national collectives, very much at the expense of families in any sense?

  3. “Although, apart from the intricacies of human affairs that drive history [the dynamics leading to the French Revolution] is the question, why do Christians murder each other with such savagery?”

    It is good to see a Catholic priest ask that. Catholics had been murdering Jews for over 1,000 years, and the burning or drowning heretics was normal Catholic procedure. So why would Catholics, who had already massacred or battled Protestants, have any qualms about doing so again ? There are always excellent reasons for committing atrocities – the Bible, Church history, & modern history all show this. And if God is thought to be pleased by such cruelties, then they are all but inevitable.

    This suggests that Catholicism had become diabolical – for “the father of lies” is “a murderer from the beginning”. The readiness of parts of Protestantism to resort to the same behaviour, is no surprise, & suggexts that it too was tainted by the demonic,

    • One line of historical research holds that the doctrinal individualism of Luther and his predecessors, e.g., Waldo, Wycliffe, Huss, (as contrasted with biblical interpretation by an institutional Church founded, Instead, by Christ?), then combined itself with “the Catholic element, generating a tendency toward absolutes and “making [in Germany] a parliamentary republic impossible, once the patriarchal and monarchical element had been removed.

      The result: a “plebiscitarian and populistic tyranny, based on a synthetic religion combining the most powerful identitarian and collectivist movements of the past hundred and fifty years: nationalism, racialism, socialism, democracy, militarism, egalitarianism” (von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “Liberty or Equality,” 1952).

      Actually, the clerics of yesteryear were generally more fastidious than you allow. When Church and State were closely aligned as in the Spain of the Inquisition (somewhat as under Islam), the heretics from doctrinal truth were handed over to the (also threatened, theoretically) State for actual execution.

      As for the much broader religious wars, horrendous for sure, but barely training wheels when compared to the past two centuries of post-Christian and anti-Christian ideologies…Casualties measured not in tens of thousands over the centuries, but in many tens of millions over only a few decades. Devolutionary trends still very much in play today, at all levels: nationally, but also internationally and locally ( some aspects of domestic “identity politics”).

      One forgotten and long-denied doctrine is that this is actually a very fallen world, through and through, in need of Redemption. The Christian thing. Wait, what?

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. History, humility, and polemics: Lessons from the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. History, humility, and polemics: Lessons from the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  3. History, humility, and polemics: Lessons from the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre – Via Nova Media

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