A tragedy in France, involving savage retaliation for mockery of religion, shocks public opinion and pits medieval barbarism against liberal Enlightenment values. Recent headlines? No, an eighteenth-century drama that unfolded in the Age of Enlightenment itself and culminated in the judicial murder of a young man named François-Jean de la Barre, who became the last person executed for blasphemy in Europe.
Of course, a terrorist attack is very different from a (nominally) lawful execution. Still, writes Cathy Young, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the de la Barre case seems startlingly relevant to present-day events. Then as now, the war on blasphemy was in some ways less about faith than about political and social conflict; then as now, the narrative of free thought versus religious tyranny was complicated by thorny issues of power and privilege. And, then and now, what happened was still, ultimately, a stark lesson in the evil of religious orthodoxy imposed by force.