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Tolerance

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Caroline Warman

35. Louis-Alexandre Devérité (1743-1818), Collected Documents of Interest on the Case of the Desecration of the Abbeville Crucifix, which Occurred on 9th August 1765, 17761

Texte intégral

  • 1 Louis-Alexandre Devérité, Recueil intéressant, sur l’affaire de la mutilation du Crucifix d’Abbevil (...)

1Louis-Alexandre Devérité published numerous political pamphlets during his life as a lawyer and printer in the town of Abbeville. His foreword to the Collected Documents of Interest on the Case of the Desecration of the Abbeville Crucifix, which occurred on 9th August 1765, and of the Death of the Chevalier de La Barre, addresses the question of sacrilege. As the title of Devérité’s pamphlet indicates, this was a case involving the vandalisation of a crucifix in Abbeville. A witchhunt ensued, and two young men, the Chevalier de la Barre and Gaillard d’Etallonde, were convicted – on scant evidence – of blasphemy, the latter in absentia as he had managed to escape. The Chevalier de la Barre was condemned to be tortured, beheaded, and burned along with a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, which had come out the year before (see p. 75) and which, it was alleged, La Barre had been stockpiling. His extreme youth (he was only twenty), the severity of his punishment, and also the dignity with which he underwent it caused European-wide revulsion. Devérité writes here in the guise of an English publisher so as to evade censorship.

2We believe we are able to say with some certainty that the horror and indignation, justified or not, which the vast majority of Europe continues to express today towards the verdict condemning the two youths responsible to the flames, are also widely felt in Abbeville itself, among all the right- minded, enlightened and honest folk of this large town.

  • 2 As Devérité goes on to explain, the herms were sculptures placed outside the entrances of houses fo (...)

3It would be wrong, then, to think that the town in which the Chevalier de la Barre perished was at this time bereft of knowledge and philosophy. Athens was lacking in neither when the herms2 were desecrated, and it may be that on close inspection there is no case more greatly resembling the Abbeville crucifix than that of the Athenian herms, not withstanding, of course, the truth which resides in the objects of Catholic worship. We will explain it here so that our readers can make the same comparison.

4One night, the herms, square figures made from stone which were commonly placed at the entrance to a house, were all either destroyed or defaced. The extent of the sacrilege sent Athens into turmoil. Vengeance was vigorously pursued, and statements were even taken from foreigners and slaves whose evidence was not ordinarily admissible, yet still it was not possible to penetrate the mystery which veiled those responsible for the attack. The enemies of Alcibiades, though, took advantage of the situation in order to destroy him. One of the agitators, a certain Androcles, persuaded some little-known craftsmen to claim that sometime previously a group of young libertines had, while inebriated, profaned the sacred mysteries, and that Alcibiades, who was amongst them, had harshly and sarcastically insulted the Gods and those who worshipped them. And so investigations were conducted into the dissolute life of the young Athenian; this was then taken as proof of his crime against the herms, and he was summoned before the magistrates. One of the accomplices, named Andocides, confessed to the crime and was pardoned. But as both the offended Gods and people alike must have a victim, all those whom Andocides had accused of impiety were sentenced to death, and Alcibiades himself – a disciple of Socrates and a general in the army – was forced into exile in Sparta, so as to escape his sentence.

5Thus, as in Athens, so in Abbeville: the same occurrence. The desecration of statues – the perpetrators of which have never been discovered – has given rise to other forms of inquiry and prosecution. In Abbeville as in Athens, endless depositions were received. In both towns, both regions, both centuries alike, these led to further allegations of impiety in other forms, also supposedly committed in a state of inebriation. They were punishable by torture. Lastly, in Abbeville as in Athens, personal grievance greatly influenced the verdict. Like Alcibiades, de la Barre was condemned out of hatred, for it would seem that even the most singular crimes recur at different points in history and are part of the same universal laws which move all Nature.

6While we Englishmen are rightly admonished for the massacres in Ireland, and for so many other barbarous acts – no lesser perhaps than those acts of fanatical barbarity committed by other nations – we can nonetheless take pride in having seen our island lit up by the daystar of philosophy since first it shone on us, unobscured by those dark clouds that have moved over France and Greece. Certainly, it was in France that the great Montesquieu once said: ‘The Deity must be honoured, never avenged’. But it is in England that this light shall endure, and where that other maxim, of Cicero: Deorum injuriae, Diis curae (insults to the gods must be dealt with by the gods) will remain engraved in the hearts of our magistrates and recorded in all our Law Books, under the heading LÈSE MAJESTÉ, which holds such an important place in the Judicial Code of our neighbouring countries.

7Translators’ note:

8It is interesting to note that two pairs of terms used in the first two paragraphs (‘horror and indignation’; ‘knowledge and philosophy’) also feature in a letter written by David Hume ten years earlier in the same city where Devérité’s work was supposedly published: London.

We have heard lately very strange stories from France, which excite horror in every one, and give me a sensible concern. You conjecture that I mean the atrocious punishment of the Chevalier De la Barre by the parliament of Paris, on account of some youthful levities. Some of my friends as are not over favourable to France, insult me on this occasion; and surely, if our accounts be true, nothing can do less honour to the country. It is strange, that such cruelty should be found among a people so celebrated for humanity, and so much bigotry amid so much knowledge and philosophy. I am pleased to hear, that the indignation was as general in Paris as it is in all foreign countries.
Hume to the Marquise de Barbentane, 29 August 1766, in
The Letters of David Hume

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1776 edition: http://gallica.bnf.fr/​ark:/12148/​bpt6k56848012/​f2.image

Notes

1 Louis-Alexandre Devérité, Recueil intéressant, sur l’affaire de la mutilation du Crucifix d’Abbeville, arrivée le 9 Août 1765, et sur la mort du chevalier de La Barre pour servir de supplément aux Causes celebres, London: 1776, pp. 3-15.

2 As Devérité goes on to explain, the herms were sculptures placed outside the entrances of houses for protection and good luck.