Friday, August 24, 2007

St. Bartholomew's Day (La Saint-Barthélémy)

As a child in the French public schools, I learned early about le massacre de la Saint-Barthélémy. This massacre took place during the French Wars of Religion (1559-1598) on the night of the 23d to the 24th of August (hence the name), 1572. The massacre began in Paris but spread to the provinces, where it lasted several days. At the end of it, thousands of Protestants (a.k.a. Huguenots) had been killed. The massacre took place under the reign of King Charles IX, perhaps at the instigation of his mother, Catherine de' Medici, and just a few days after the Paris wedding of his cousin, Henri of Navarre, a Protestant (later to become king of France as Henri IV and convert to Catholicism -- after having already once gone over to Catholicism and back to Protestantism again) which had gathered a good number of the Protestant aristrocracy (still a minority compared to Catholic aristocracy, but substantial) in Paris. Henri's marriage to Marguerite de Valois, a Catholic (and sister of three kings of France including the one on the throne at the time), did not sit well with some. Due to the need for an heir, Henri later got the marriage annulled and married Marie de' Medici. Marguerite de Valois, known as la Reine Margot, found ways to console herself. She was politically strong-willed and sexually active. Henri, meanwhile, had mistresses during both his marriages, including (very long-term) the famous Gabrielle d'Estrées and the lesser-known Henriette d'Entragues, whom he took as a mistress after Gabrielle's death. I'm skipping the parts about the attempted murders of all the above-mentioned kings and their eventual assassinations (except for Charles IX, who died of tuberculosis), the expulsion of the Jesuits from Paris, and a few other juicy details.

Hey, who needs soap operas? I had all these stories growing up. As I once wrote in the opening sentence of an essay which the New Yorker rejected many moons ago, while my cousins in New York and Cleveland were memorizing the Gettysburg address, I was learning about Louis the Fourteenth's mistresses. Yes, of course in the public schools. We had to learn French history.
It was years before I connected the massacre, whose name in French is almost one word to me, with Bartholomew the apostle and his day -- even though the names for the apostle are close in French and English. I wasn't a practicing Christian when I was growing up, so this may account for part of this compartmentalization. Later I celebrated St. Bartholomew's Day because one of my closest Catholic friends is named Bartholomew (Bart for short) but somehow kept this completely separate from my knowledge of the massacre.

The Daily Office people at Mission St. Clare have a little something on Bartholomew here. As they note, we know he was one of the Twelve, but we don't know much about him.

Two portrayals of the massacre: the one above, figurative and very well known, from sometime in the late 16th century (with a detail view) by one François Dubois, painted on wood, and the one below, which I just discovered today, in oils by the contemporary French painter Georges Mathieu (from the 1950s) which in its own way is figurative and portrays really well what we learned and retained as children about that horrible night.


johnieb said...

"Paris is worth a mass"

Jane R said...

Yep, that one.

Kenneth Wolman said...

Surely you are at least passingly familiar with the Meyerbeer opera, Les Huguenots. It's not entirely silly though it's a lot more about singing for its own sake than about the St. Bart's day massacre, which I recall is the culmination. Lots of florid vocalism, swash and buckle, love stories, and the usual operatic distortions of history. And I'm sure the fact Meyerbeer was a Jew made lots of people real happy:-). It was a star vehicle for Franco Corelli forty+ years ago.

Jane R said...

I think La Reine Margot is a character in that opera, if a small role. Read that somewhere. I've actually never heard that opera. I like Meyerbeer though.