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.