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Voltaire and the Massacre of St Bartholomew

J.H.M. Salmon describes how Voltaire was haunted by the massacre of Huguenots in August 1572, and used his version of the complicated event in his lifelong campaign against prejudice and superstition.

Painting of the massacre by François Dubois.The massacre of Saint Bartholomew haunted Voltaire’s imagination. Nearly every year, when the fateful day of August 24th approached, the letters he despatched from his refuge at Ferney alluded to the fever that invariably attacked him upon the anniversary. In the spring of 1772 the fever developed earlier than usual, and Voltaire wrote of his conviction that he would die during the second centenary of that atrocious event. His fears were groundless and he survived to mark the occasion with an ode, in which the opening and concluding lines reflected his life-long sentiments in the matter:

‘Two hundred years - and now you come again,

Oh dreadful day that set the world afright;

In time’s eternal gulf let darkness reign

To hide your shape with shadow of the night...

To man the memory of evils past,

And thought of further terror yet forecast,

Comprise a threat he could not stand and face,

Had God, in pity for all human kind,

Not wrought him vain and frivolous of mind,

And made him, thus, less wretched as a race.’ 1

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