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Voltaire and the La Barre affair

Thursday, 30 June, 2016

250 years ago, on 1 July 1766, the young François-Jean Lefebvre de La Barre was executed in Abbeville, Picardy, having been charged with blasphemy in the summer of 1765. The first reference to La Barre in Voltaire’s correspondence is in a letter of 16 June 1766 to his great-nephew, Alexandre Marie François de Paule de Dompierre d’Hornoy. Voltaire then returned to La Barre’s execution in many letters and works: the Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre of 1766 and Le Cri du sang innocent of 1775 are entirely devoted to the La Barre affair. This year’s Journées Voltaire took place in Paris on 17-18 June. Entitled ‘Autour de l’affaire La Barre’, they were organised by Myrtille Méricam-Bourdet (Université Lyon 2), in collaboration with the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes, the Centre d’Etude de la Langue et des Littératures Françaises (CELLF), and the Association Le Chevalier de La Barre.


Over the two days of the conference, attendees followed the gradual process that transformed La Barre from the victim of a dubious trial into a symbol of anti-clericalism, and the affair that ensued from a mere historical event into a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense. The conference opened with a marvellously clear exposition of the trial’s proceedings by Eric Wenzel (Université d’Avignon). Eric Wenzel argued strongly that, if we except the fact that the question préalable was used in order to extort a confession, La Barre’s trial was actually conducted in accordance with the laws of Ancien Régime France. This begged the important question of what is right and what is – instead – legal. Subsequent presentations focused on the role that Voltaire played in transforming La Barre into a symbol of anti-clericalism. Russell Goulbourne (King’s College, London) observed that Voltaire pursued this aim by dramatising the La Barre affair and by insistently describing La Barre himself as the hero of a tragedy: ‘M. le chevalier de la Barre est mort en héros. Sa fermeté noble et simple dans une si grande jeunesse m’arrache encore des larmes’ (to Jacques Marie Bertrand Gaillard d’Etallonde, 26 May 1767), and on multiple occasions comparing him to the hero of Corneille’s Polyeucte. The term ‘catastrophe’, with its connotations of tragedy, also appears in Voltaire’s discussion of the events at Abbeville (e.g. to Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon, 6 February 1771). The tragic register, however, is not the only one Voltaire used when referring to La Barre’s execution. Two of the papers were concerned with how Voltaire’s response to the La Barre affair changed over time: Christiane Mervaud (Université de Rouen) demonstrated this evolution with reference to the article ‘Justice’ of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, whereas Alain Sager focused mainly on Voltaire’s correspondence. The correspondence was also at the core of Laetitia Saintes’s (Université Catholique de Louvain) paper, which showed, in the context of letters dealing with the La Barre affair, how Voltaire modulated his tone according to addressee. New documents recently discovered in St Petersburg by Jack Iverson (Whitman College) will certainly cast new light on the reasons behind Voltaire’s re-writings of the La Barre affair. Beyond the variations that Voltaire introduced into the retelling of events and his accusations of unfairness, the fact remains that his focus on the events at Abbeville succeeded impressively in magnifying their resonance. This is all the more important if one considers the utter indifference with which the Parisian public had originally received the news of La Barre’s execution. Voltaire himself complained about it in a letter to de Chabanon: ‘on va à l’opéra comique le jour qu’on brûle le chevalier de la Barre’ (7 August 1769). Two papers at the conference therefore focused on how Voltaire’s writings prompted other intellectuals to engage with La Barre’s execution. Stéphanie Gehanne-Gavoty (Université Paris-Sorbonne) drew the audience’s attention to Friedrich Melchior Grimm’s treatment of the La Barre affair in the Correspondance littéraire. Linda Gil (Université Paris-Sorbonne) focused on Condorcet’s treatment, in the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s works, of the texts concerning La Barre, which fell into a newly created section,‘Politique et législation’, as well as on Condorcet’s own preface to that section. As asserted by Charles Coutel (Université d’Artois; Association Le Chevalier de La Barre) in an enlightening paper, it was precisely by triggering such responses in the French intellectual elites that Voltaire succeeded in making a universal symbol out of the chevalier La Barre and a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense out of his execution. Thus, Coutel claimed, Voltaire’s reaction to La Barre’s death plainly testifies to the fact that humanity can progress even in the darkest times. As Voltaire put it in a letter of 26 September 1766 to the marquise d’Epinay, ‘le petit nombre de sages répandus dans Paris peut faire beaucoup de bien en s’élevant contre certaines atrocités, et en ramenant les hommes à la douceur et à la vertu’. – Ruggero Sciuto