Thanks to my newfound love of the hip hop musical history Hamilton, I’ve been reading some of the Founding Father’s correspondence on founders.archives.gov. I’d recommend the hobby to anyone. Few pleasures compare to going through someone else’s mail – all the more so if they happened to have started your country.
There’s a lot worth writing about in those archives, but one thing that jumped out of me in particular was a letter Jefferson wrote to John Jay on September 19th, 1789 while America’s Minister to France. Shortly before his departure, Jefferson began writing regular updates on the state of internal politics in Revolutionary France to John Jay, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the nascent United States.
“Civil war is much talked of and expected: and this talk and expectation has a tendency to beget it. What are the events which may produce it? The want of bread… A public bankruptcy…[and] the absconding of the king from Versailles.
This [last] has for some time been apprehended as possible. In consequence of this apprehension, a person whose information would have weight, wrote to the Count de Montmorin adjuring him to prevent it by every possible means, and assuring him that the flight of the king would be the signal of a St. Barthelemi against the aristocrats in Paris and perhaps thro the kingdom. M. de Montmorin shewed the letter to the queen, who assured him solemnly that no such thing was in contemplation. His shewing it to the queen proves he entertained the same distrust with the public. It may be asked what is the queen disposed to do in the present situation of things? Whatever rage, pride and fear can dictate in a breast which never knew the presence of one moral restraint.”
There is much of interest in this correspondence – the casual contempt Jefferson possesses for the morals of the 33-year old Marie Antoinette and the perilous political situation in France are both crystal clear. But neither of these things are new for any reasonably educated student of history. No, what I find fascinating is the particular reference Jefferson uses to warn of a potential massacre of the French aristocracy.
“The flight of the king would be the signal of a St. Barthelemi against the aristocrats in Paris and perhaps thro the kingdom”
What is this St. Barthelemi that Jefferson and the French aristocracy feared? How well known must it have been that he felt he could drop it casually into an official diplomatic communication to his superiors in the new American government?
As it happens, I had heard the term previously – in Hillel Halkin’s excellent recent biography of Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. In 1898, over a hundred years after Jefferson’s letter, Jabotinsky attended a lecture by Nachum Syrkin, an early proponent of socialist Zionism. Jabotinsky, then an 18-year old law student at the University of Berne with little prior knowledge of Zionism, commented that he had insufficient knowledge of socialism to commit to that ideology, but he felt that Europe’s Jews must make plans to flee to Palestine as “the only hope of avoiding a Bartholomew’s Night”.
What was this St. Bartholomew’s Massacre? More importantly, how was it so well known that a world renowned statesman like Jefferson and a Jewish teenager like Jabotinsky could each casually drop it into conversation a century apart from each other, both with a perfect expectation of being understood by those around them?
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place in 1572 during a brief interlude in the French Wars of Religion between the Catholic establishment and the Protestant Huguenots. Huguenot leaders had gathered in Paris, a rabidly Catholic city, to celebrate the upcoming wedding of the King’s sister Margaret, a Catholic, to the Protestant prince Henry of Navarre. The marriage was designed to cement a fragile peace between the warring factions.
Unfortunately, several days after the wedding, the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was shot by an assassin working for parties still unknown. The bullet failed to inflict life-threatening injuries, but Catholic leaders feared retaliation from the Huguenots and decided to preemptively kill their leadership. Acting on instructions from the King and his mother, Catherine de’Medici, the King’s Guard engaged in a coordinated assassination of several dozen Huguenot leaders in the early hours of the morning.
Seeing that the King was ready to sanction violence against Protestants, Parisian mobs quickly formed to hunt them down throughout the city. For the next three days, mass slaughters ensued throughout Paris, with men, women and children murdered in their homes and in the streets, their bodies then dumped into the river Seine. Elsewhere in France, similar events took place over the next several weeks. Modern historians place the death toll somewhere between 5,000 to 30,000 people. After the Paris massacre, the city had to pay workmen to bury and pull from the banks of the Seine over a thousand bodies.
These grisly details certainly justify the use of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre as a natural allusion for mass violence against a specific group. But how to explain the persistence of this reference, centuries after the event?
This is what I find truly striking, and indicative of the degree to which 1898 and 1789 (and perhaps even 1572) belonged to the same era in a way that 2015 does not. The St. Bartholomew’s Massacre remained a common reference as late as 1916, when the famous (and incredibly racist) filmmaker D.W. Griffith incorporated it as a major part of the narrative in one his films. But as World War One raged on, it would soon become irrelevant as a symbol for mass slaughter.
In the end, the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre could persist for three hundred years as an easy reference for horrifying violence because it was relatively rare in European history that such violence took place against a group that was accepted as part of the European polity. While Jews were regularly subject to such massacres, most European nations legally prohibited Jews from citizenship till the 19th century, with horrifying anti-semitism continuing (and in some places, intensifying) well beyond that. Europe’s pervasive and institutionalized anti-semitism prevented such events from being seen with horror in the historical record.
Ditto colonial massacres or the many and varied forms of violence that accompanied the slave trade. Europeans did not see violence against Jews or Africans as truly capable of motivating any form of visceral horror. St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, taking place as it did against a European Christian population (albeit a minority one rabidly hated by the French populace), carried more resonance. After all, it was very unusual to see violence on that scale against people who “mattered”.
The 20th century brought a succession of sectarian massacres that made insignificant the mere tens of thousands of victims of St. Bartholomew’s. After Gallipoli or the trench warfare of France in World War One, let alone the industrialized murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, the St Bartholomew’s massacre no longer stood out. Even Jabotinsky, who foresaw the danger and spent his entire adult life attempting to open the gates of Palestine to allow Europe’s Jews to escape before it was too late, would have had a hard time imagining the depths of horror that the 20th century would bring. No modern commentator would reference St. Barthelemi as the archetype of eliminationist violence. Terrible as it is to realize, the 20th century made small potatoes of the most horrifying event that 18th and 19th century thinkers could think of.