The Atheist Martyr: Rebellious ‘Knight’ Inspired the French Revolution
During the first half of the 18th century, the Catholic Church’s authority and religious intolerance had reached new heights in France, which in many cases led to irrationally harsh punishment for those who dared not obey the commandments and adhere to religious dogma. One such case was the heartbreaking story of Jean-François de la Barre, also known as Chevalier (“knight”) de la Barre.
De la Barre and Voltaire
De la Barre was a young French nobleman and descendant of Joseph-Antoine de la Barre, a governor of the French Antilles and New France. Well-known for his good looks and intractable and rebellious character, Chevalier de la Barre often got in trouble with the local religious authorities of Abbeville, which ended up costing him his life.
A statue of Chevalier de la Barre ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
It was the philosopher Voltaire, famous for his radical views against the religious authorities of his time and one of the most famous atheists ever, who popularized the story of de la Barre and made of him a symbol for those who fight against religious persecution. Voltaire also affixed to him the status of rebel in his works the Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre, par M. Cassen, avocat au conseil du roi, à M. le marquis de Beccaria, and Le Cri du sang innocent , which, however, appear to have many factual inaccuracies, contradict each other in many points, and can’t be considered historical sources by any means. Instead, they appear to be polemics against the social, political, and religious authorities of his time.
Depicted person: François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), known as Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher. ( Public Domain )
However, young de la Barre was indeed one of the many victims of religious intolerance and was tortured to death for silly reasons, at least by modern standards. It is said and believed that he was executed for not removing his hat when a Corpus Christi procession passed by him and his friends, but the truth seems to be that the young nobleman was annoying the powers that be in Abbeville for quite some time before this incident triggered his demise.
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The Cause of De la Barre’s Execution
On August 9, 1765, the wooden crucifix on a bridge in Abbeville was vandalized. De la Barre, along with his friends Gaillard d’Etallonde and Moisnel, were the obvious suspects according to the local authorities since a serious of other blasphemies had preceded it, such as defecation on another crucifix, singing dirty songs in public, spitting on religious images, and, of course, refusing to remove their hats in front of the religious procession. This final act, according to Voltaire and other historians of the time, was considered the main reason de la Barre was sentenced to death.
Color-tinted French postcard circa 1906. Monument to Chevalier De la Barre – Paris. ( Public Domain )
Soon after the three friends were prosecuted for the criminal act, two more young men were implicated as suspects: Douville de Maillefeu, the son of a former mayor, and Belleval, the son of a local judge who had argued and clashed a few times with de la Barre. The same judge ran the whole investigation with a blind, passion-filled hate for the young nobleman, without realizing that his son was one of the men who was also accused of the vandalism. However, as usually happens in such cases, these two young men, along with Gaillard d’Etallonde, son of another former Abbeville mayor, managed to flee, even though d’Etallonde, according to much of the testimony, appeared to be the leader of the group and instigator of the crimes.
De la Barre - the Perfect Scapegoat
Thus, only two of the men ended up in custody - Moisnel and de la Barre, who were both orphans and not natives of Abbeville, something that angered the masses and the adversaries of the arbitrary rulings of the political and religious authorities. For this reason, the local authorities used anything they could to silence their critics.
During an investigation that followed, they found pornographic images (pretty normal for a 20-year-old man) in de la Barre’s bedroom and a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, which gave the Church a good chance to accuse the philosopher of manipulating and corrupting French youth – the same accusation as the Athenian government claimed Socrates had done as well.
Voltaire; A Philosophical Dictionary. 2nd ed., London: Printed for J. and H.L. Hunt, 1824. ( Public Domain )
On February 20, 1766, the Abbeville judges presented one of the harshest and most inhumane sentences in modern Western history, which by the way didn’t mention anything about vandalizing a cross (something de la Barre never did after all) - the action that set the investigation in motion and was the primary crime he was accused of, a fact that makes the injustice of this case even more scandalous:
“Regarding Jean-Francois Lefebvre, chevalier de La Barre, we declare him convicted of having taught to sing and sung impious, execrable and blasphemous songs against God; of having profaned the sign of the cross in making blessings accompanied by foul words which modesty does not permit repeating; of having knowingly refused the signs of respect to the Holy Sacrament carried in procession by the priory of Saint-Pierre; of having shown these signs of adoration to foul and abominable books that he had in his room; of having profaned the mystery of the consecration of wine, having mocked it, in pronouncing the impure terms mentioned in the trial record over a glass of wine which he held in his hand and then drunken the wine; of having finally proposed to Petignat, who was serving mass with him, to bless the cruets while pronouncing the impure words mentioned in the trial record.
In reparation of which, we condemn him to make honorable amend, in smock, head bare and a rope around his neck, holding in his hands a burning candle of two pounds before the principal door of the royal church... of Saint-Wulfram, where he will be taken in a tumbrel by the executioner who will attach before and behind him a sign on which will be written, in large letters impious one; and there, being on his knees, will confess his crimes...; this done, will have the tongue cut out and will then be taken in the said tumbrel to the public marketplace of this city to have his head cut off on a scaffold; his body and his head will then be thrown on a pyre to be destroyed, burnt, reduced to ashes and these thrown to the wind. We order that before the execution of the said Lefebvre de La Barre the ordinary and the extraordinary question [that is, torture] will be applied to have from his mouth the truth of several facts of the trial and revelation about his accomplices... We order that the Philosophical Dictionary... be thrown by the executioner on the same pyre as the body of the said Lefebvre de La Barre.”
Monument for La Barre in Abbeville. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
On July 1, Chevalier de la Barre added his name to the long list of great martyrs around the world who were tortured and murdered for their beliefs and radical ideology and lifestyle. Despite the fact that he committed some of the lesser acts named in his sentence, he refused to name those men who vandalized the cross, even under torture. After he was tortured for hours, he was beheaded and his body was burned along with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. He was only 20 years old and his only crime was being a young orphan boy with an untamed nature.
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The original sentence was reversed by the National Convention during the French Revolution in 1794 - Chevalier de la Barre was found not guilty.
Surprisingly, one of the later references to de la Barre’s torture and execution can be found in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities , which was published in 1859, almost a century after his death.
In 1897, Chevalier de la Barre’s statue was erected in Montmartre, in Paris, by the Freemasons of the Grand Orient of France and other organized groups of Freethinkers. In 1941, it was melted down with other nonreligious statues by the Vichy France regime.
Monument to the Chevalier de la Barre – Paris. ( Public Domain )
In 2001, the Paris City Council decided to design and elevate a new statue of the chevalier at the Square Nadar. It still stands to date.
According to the French Ministry of Culture, there are over sixty streets in many different French cities named in memory of Chevalier de la Barre.
On June 22, 2013, the Abbeville monument to the chevalier was vandalized, by supporters of the Civitas Institute, which clearly shows that religious fanaticism can still result in violent, criminal acts.
Top image: ‘The Battle for the Town Hall, 28 July 1830’ by Jean-Victor Schnetz ( public domain )
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