Civil Liberties

Charlie Hebdo and the Horrible History of Suppressing 'Blasphemy'

An unwelcome blast from France's oppressive past.


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. 

As it happens, this year marks the 250th anniversary of l'affaire de la Barre. For a long time, this tragic tale was a distant chapter in the story of Western civilization's road to a secular, pluralistic society; the issues it raised had long been settled in favor of freedom of speech. In a 1998 essay on the de la Barre case, French historian Elisabeth Claverie wrote that these questions had ben infused with "a renewed vigor" by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel, The Satanic Verses. Claverie could hardly have guessed that in less than two decades, twelve people—artists and journalists from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—would be killed in the heart of Paris for perceived blasphemy against Islam.

Of course, a terrorist attack is very different from a (nominally) lawful execution. Still, 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.

The de la Barre affair was set in motion in August 1765, when the wooden crucifix on the main bridge in the city of Abbeville was vandalized during the night; someone repeatedly slashed it with a saber or a large knife, leaving several scratches. News of the sacrilege spread quickly, and pious townsfolk flocked to the site to express their horror. The next day, the bishop of Amiens arrived at the Abbeville bridge, a procession of clergy in tow; he came barefoot, with a rope around his neck in sign of penance, and delivered a fiery sermon declaring the culprits worthy of "the worst punishments in this world and eternal torment in the next." Simon Linguet, the advocate for de la Barre and his codefendants, later wrote in a brief that the bishop's dramatic appearance had such an inflammatory effect that for days, "the town talked of nothing" but the attack on the cross.

As the authorities opened an investigation—overseen personally by the procurator general of the parliament of Paris, Joly de Fleury—they were under tremendous pressure to find the perpetrators. While no one seemed to have any information on the actual crime, people did come forward with reports of various unrelated impieties—which were treated as possible leads, on the assumption that the suspect would be found among those who had shown disrespect for religion.

Several such reports concerned the Chevalier de la Barre, a 19-year-old destitute nobleman who had moved to Abbeville two years earlier after his father's death; a cousin, the abbess of the town's Willancourt convent, had given him lodgings on convent property outside the cloisters. A weapons instructor to whose school de la Barre came regularly for shooting practice claimed that the chevalier and two of his friends had bragged and laughed about watching a procession carrying the Eucharist go by without kneeling or removing their hats. Other witnesses—a wigmaker, the convent doorkeeper, a servant—told more damaging stories. De La Barre, they said, had sung filthy blasphemous songs, openly flaunted his godlessness and declared that God and the saints were fairy-tales for fools, uttered obscene mock blessings over food and wine, and even expressed a desire to buy a plaster crucifix just so he could smash it.

A search of de la Barre's rooms uncovered a trove of forbidden literature, mostly erotic novels with illustrations—including a book titled Venus in the Cloister, or The Nun in Her Shift that mixed pornography with dialogue questioning church doctrine on sex—but also a copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, banned the previous year. On October 1, de la Barre was arrested. Charges were brought against two of his friends as well; but one managed to flee abroad and the other was a minor, leaving de la Barre as the main defendant. (Two more young men were arrested later as his accomplices, including, ironically, the son of a city magistrate who had been aggressively pursuing the investigation.)

No evidence ever linked de la Barre to the cross defacement. Even some of his other transgressions were in doubt; thus, several witnesses backed his claim that he had never bragged about disrespecting the religious procession but had simply responded to being chided for his lack of piety, offering the excuse of running late for a dinner. De la Barre's cousin the abbess, Anne-Marguerite Feydeau, pleaded on his behalf, claiming that he was a victim of malicious slanders, guilty at most of some youthful follies. Nonetheless, on February 28, 1766, a panel of three city magistrates found the chevalier guilty of "monstrous, execrable blasphemies against God, the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Virgin, religion and the commandments of God and the Church" and pronounced a sentence of shocking severity. After making public penance in front of Abbeville's main cathedral, de la Barre was to have his tongue cut out and then to be decapitated, with his body to be burned and his ashes to be scattered.

The case was appealed to the Parliament of Paris; the procurator general, de Fleury, recommended a commutation. But on June 4, the parliament voted 15-10 to uphold the sentence, apparently swayed by advocate general Denis-Louis Pasquier's diatribe against the menace of irreligion. According to a contemporary journalist, Pasquier explicitly targeted the Enlightenment philosophers—singling out Voltaire—and "presented the Abbeville profanations as a disastrous effect of the philosophical spirit which has been spreading through France." He also reportedly remarked that there was no point in trifling around with book-burning when the immolation of the authors would please God much more. Still, the Parliament contented itself with ordering that de la Barre's copy of The Philosophical Dictionary be thrown into the fire with his body.

The chevalier's supporters hoped for a royal pardon. But Louis XV demurred, apparently concerned that, after the spectacular execution of would-be regicide Robert Damiens nine years earlier, pardoning a blasphemer might be seen as implying that an offense to divine majesty was less grave than an offense to royal majesty. And so, on July 1, de la Barre went to his death.

It was a grand enough occasion that the high executioner of Paris, Henri Sanson, arrived in Abbeville with his eldest son and assistant (joining a crew of four local headsmen). On the morning of his final day, the chevalier was tortured on orders of the court—or, in the parlance of the era, subjected  to "extraordinary questioning"—to make him confess to his offenses and betray his accomplices. In a speech over a hundred years later, Victor Hugo painted a grisly picture of de la Barre having his legs shattered by torture and his tongue ripped out with red-hot pincers. But this was a dramatic exaggeration; in fact, the chevalier mounted the steps of the scaffold with no difficulty, and the removal of his tongue was reduced to a symbolic cutting motion. Resigned to his fate, de la Barre had enough sangfroid to chat with the executioners and even quip about being "turned into a choir boy" when his hair was cut to expose his neck for the axe. It is unclear whether he ever made the court-ordered public penance.

The de la Barre affair grew into an international cause célèbre thanks partly to Voltaire. The aging philosopher, who had been living in the relative calm of his Ferney estate near Switzerland, was all the more horrified by the injustice and cruelty done to de la Barre because his own book was cited as proof of the young man's guilt. He championed the late chevalier's case in two pseudonymous pamphlets, "An Account of the Case of the Chevalier de la Barre" (1766) and "The Cry of Innocent Blood" (1775).

The dominant and enduring narrative, promoted by Voltaire and others, painted de la Barre as a freethinker victimized by religious obscurantism and priestly zealotry. A petition for his posthumous exoneration submitted from the Paris nobility in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution, asserted that "a fanatical bishop"—i.e. the bishop of Amiens—"sent the unfortunate de la Barre to die on the scaffold for embracing this shining era of reason ahead of his time." More than a century later, when France under the Third Republic embarked on an aggressive campaign for the secularization of public life (laïcité), de la Barre—honored with a statue in Paris and dozens of streets named after him across the country—was elevated to martyrdom as a victim of the church.

The reality was more complicated. The Bishop of Amiens had actually added his own voice to the vain pleas for de la Barre's pardon. The chevalier's prosecution and execution was entirely the work of secular authorities; it was also highly atypical for its time. In her essay, Claverie notes that the number of executions for religious offenses in 18th-century Europe was "infinitesimal." The papal envoy to France at the time of the de la Barre affair, Pietro Colonna Pamphili, openly remarked that in Rome under the Inquisition such offenses would have been punished with no more than a year in jail.

Why, then, this cruel and unusual punishment? To some extent, poor de la Barre was the victim of local politics and perhaps social intrigue. (Rumors blamed a vendetta by a magistrate whose romantic overtures had been allegedly rebuffed by the Abbess Feydeau, or by another Abbeville politician whose plans to wed his son to a rich heiress may have been derailed by the young lady's attraction to de la Barre.) Yet it is also clear that the case was part of a political backlash against the rise of secularism, and of other liberal ideas seen as a threat to the established order. For all the vastly different histories of Christianity and Islam, this brings to mind the role of religious insecurity and fear of modernization in forming radical Islamism.

There are other surprising parallels. Modern-day leftists who have mixed feelings about France's cherished tradition of religious irreverence, at least as applied to Islam today, see this as an issue of the privileged mocking the beliefs of the marginalized and the powerless—France's Muslim immigrants. But earlier controversies about blasphemy, too, raised issues of class privilege. A 1920 book by historian Marc Chassaigne, The Case of the Chevalier de la Barre—brought out by a religious publishing house and written as a corrective to the secularist myth—paints de la Barre as an arrogant, thoughtless aristocrat who enjoyed mocking lower-class superstitions and flaunting his superiority over the little people by denigrating their faith. Voltaire's pamphlets in defense of the chevalier have an undercurrent of class prejudice, stressing the executed man's noble birth and taking swipes at one of the judges' lowly status as a former "pork merchant."

None of this, however, changes the appalling fact that de la Barre, like the Charlie Hebdo staffers two and a half centuries later, was murdered for the crime of irreverence—or that outrage at an offense against religion could incite large numbers of people to support such murder. The de la Barre case powerfully illustrates why modern French tradition cherishes the right to blasphemy as a hard-won freedom, and why it is right to do so.

And yet this story also has an odd little-known postscript which reminds us that religious faith is not the only belief system that breeds homicidal fanaticism. By the time de la Barre's conviction was reversed by France's National Convention in 1794, the "shining era of reason" had turned to terror driven by revolutionary zeal. Among its victims was Linguet, the lawyer who had tried to save de la Barre's life; he was sentenced to death for writing in overly flattering terms about the Austrian and English monarchs. He was executed by the same Sanson who, almost exactly twenty-eight years earlier, had beheaded his most famous client.