French free-thinking knight still a controversial figure
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In France, there was a time when bad manners and refusing to take off one’s hat was a heinous crime that could be punishable by death. In 1766, the Chevalier de la Barre was burnt at the stake for refusing to doff his hat in front of a religious procession. Long after his death, French Catholics and secularists still squabble over the fate of the hapless knight.
When the Marshal Philippe Pétain decided to melt statues in Paris to satisfy the German generals’ demands for bronze, he chose them carefully. The statue of the Chevalier de la Barre which had long stood as an insult to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, was certainly not his favourite. It went.
For decades, its plinth remained empty, still bearing the inscription "To the Chevalier de la Barre, tortured to death at the age of 19-years-old, for not saluting a religious procession". The fate of the statue was just another twist in the knight’s story, which began in the 18th century.
In August 1765, the French town of Abbeville was reeling from shock. Cuts had been found in a crucifix that overlooked the city.
“When they found that the crucifix had been damaged, it was as if God himself had been attacked,” says lecturer Christian Petr, author of François-Jean Lefèvre , Chevalier de la barre, Voyou de qualité.
At the time, the Chevalier de la Barre was just 19-years-old and, according to his own father, an enfant terrible. He was a penniless nobleman who spent his time roaming the countryside indulging in his love of cabarets, women, and the pursuit of pleasure.
“He was a free spirit, he didn’t have any ideas,” says Petr, “he didn’t believe in anything.”
His freedom however was short-lived. After the discovery of the damaged crucifix, a local judge opened an investigation to find out who had defiled the sacred object. The investigation led nowhere, nobody had seen or heard anything. However, residents were able to vent their disapproval of certain young persons around town.
The Chevalier de la Barre was accused of chanting blasphemous songs, of spitting on pious images, and not removing his hat when walking near a religious procession. He also possessed illicit literature in his home, including erotic books and Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique. La Barre was arrested, along with two other young men, on charges of blasphemy and impiety.
According to Petr, La Barre was not an antireligious thinker but a local troublemaker.
“People said he spat on hosts, people said he flirted with young ladies, there was a lot of ‘people said’ ... the truth is he did not fit in with a society which was starting to come apart.”
In 1765, the French monarchy was already showing the signs of weakness, that would lead to its demise in 1789 during the French revolution. King Louis XV was more interested in hunting and in chasing his mistresses, Mme de Mailly, de Vintimille, de Chateauroux, than in ruling the country, according to the French historian Max Gallo.
At the time, "the monarchy was like one of those old wild animals, always napping but
capable of terrible awakenings. And then he can kill like a rabid dog,” Gallo writes. Blasphemy was not only an insult to the Church but also to the monarchy which ruled by divine right.
The cruel irony of La Barre’s fate is that he was a member of the aristocracy of the ancien régime. He was a nobleman who enjoyed privileges and breaking conventions. Like the king himself, he belonged to a dying race, the indebted nobility which has been marginalised by the ascending bourgeoisie.
Despite his friends in high places, neither the monarchy, nor the prosecution in Paris spared La Barre. On 1 July 1766 he was tortured to death, his legs crushed and his tongue cut out. He was decapitated and burnt at the stake with a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique.
Voltaire led a campaign to have him rehabilitated and used his case to criticise the Church and the French judges. In July 1766 he wrote the Rélation de la mort du Chevalier de la Barre.
It’s then that the Chevalier de la Barre became “a symbol of religious and clerical oppression”, says Christian Eschen, secretary-general of the Federation of French Free Thought, a group that campaigns for the separation of Church and state.
But the controversy did not end with the French Revolution, it survived right into the 20th century and even in some ways until today. At the beginning of the 20th century the anticlerical movement was gaining ground and the Free Thinkers,a category which includes agnostics, atheists and rationalists, obtained permission to build a statue of the Chevalier de la Barre in front of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.
The Sacré-Coeur still angers Free Thinkers who maintain it was built to punish Parisians after the uprising of the Paris Commune. In 1906 one year after the separation of Church and state was set in French law, a statue representing le Chevalier de la Barre burning at the stake with Voltaire’s book at his feet was inaugurated in front of the basilica as constant reminder of religious intolerance.
However, in 1926, the Paris town hall caved into pressure from the Church and its followers and moved the statue to square Nadar just below the basilica.
“At that point, the authorities capitulated to the clergy,”says Eschen.
It was during World War II, that the statue of the Chevalier de la Barre finally disappeared, whisked off under Pétain. It’s only in 2002, that France’s Free Thinkers obtained a new statue to replace the old one.
The new piece has however disappointed France’s Federation of Free Thinkers.
“It’s not a replica of the previous statue which showed the Chevalier de la Barre burning at the stake,” laments Eschen.
“The new statue shows a relaxed young man whistling a tune,” he adds, “it’s hardly striking.”
So what’s the moral of the story? That wearing a hat, cap, kerchief, veil or burka, is a daring feat in France? Possibly. That political compromise breeds bad art? Certainly.