The Idea of Reformation: Voltaire

THE IDEA OF THE REFORMATION

VOLTAIRE

When enlightenment spread, with the renaissance of letters in the fifteenth century, there was a very general complaint of abuses, and everybody agrees that the complaint was just.

Pope Alexander VI. had openly bought the papal tiara, and his five bastards shared its advantages. His son, the cardinal-duke of Borgia, made an end, in concert with his father, of Vitelli, Urbino, Gravina, Oliveretto, and a hundred other nobles, in order to seize their lands. Julius II., animated by the same spirit, excommunicated Louis XII. and gave his kingdom to the first occupant; while he himself, helmet on head and cuirass on back, spread blood and fire over part of Italy. Leo X., to pay for his pleasures, sold indulgences, as the taxes are sold in the open market. They who revolted against this brigandage were, at least, not wrong from the moral point of view. Let us see if they were wrong in politics.

They said that, since Jesus Christ had never exacted fees, nor sold dispensations for this world or indulgences for the next, one might refuse to pay a foreign prince the price of these things. Supposing that our fees to Rome and the dispensations which we still buy did not cost us more than five hundred thousand francs a year, it is clear that, since the time of Francis I., we should have paid, in two hundred and fifty years, a hundred and twenty million francs; allowing for the change of value in money, we may say about two hundred and fifty millions [£10,000,000]. One may, therefore, without blasphemy, admit that the heretics, in proposing to abolish these singular taxes, which will astonish a later age, did not do a very grave wrong to the kingdom, and that they were rather good financiers than bad subjects. Let us add that they alone knew Greek, and were acquainted with antiquity. Let us grant that, in spite of their errors, we owe to them the development of the human mind, so long buried in the densest barbarism.

But, as they denied the existence of Purgatory, which it is not permitted to doubt, and which brought a considerable income to the monks; and as they did not venerate relics, which ought to be venerated, and which are a source of even greater profit—in fine, as they assailed much-respected dogmas, the only answer to them at first was to burn them. The king, who protected and subsidised them in Germany, walked at the head of a procession in Paris, and at the close a number of the wretches were executed. This was the manner of execution. They were hung at the end of a long beam, which was balanced, like a see-saw, across a tree. A big fire was lit underneath, and they were alternately sunk into it and raised out. Their torments were thus protracted, until death relieved them from a more hideous punishment than any barbarian had ever invented.

Shortly before the death of Francis I. certain members of the Parlement de Provence, instigated by their clergy against the inhabitants of Merindol and Cabrières, asked the king for troops to support the execution of nineteen persons of the district whom they had condemned. They had six thousand slain, without regard to sex or age or infancy, and they reduced thirty towns to ashes. These people, who had not hitherto been heard of, were, no doubt, in the wrong to have been born Waldensians; but that was their only crime. They had been settled for three hundred years in the deserts and on the mountains, which they had, with incredible labour, made fertile. Their quiet, pastoral life represented the supposed innocence of the first ages of men. They knew the neighbouring towns only by selling fruit to them. They had no lawcourts and never warred; they did not defend themselves. They were slain as one slays animals in an enclosure.

After the death of Francis I.—a prince who is better known for his amours and misfortunes than his cruelty—the execution of a thousand heretics, especially of the Councillor of the Parlement, Dubourg, and the massacre of Vassy, caused the persecuted sect to take to arms. They had increased in the light of the flames and under the sword of the executioner, and substituted fury for patience. They imitated the cruelties of their enemies. Nine civil wars filled France with carnage; and a peace more fatal than war led to the massacre of St. Bartholomew, which is without precedent in the annals of crime.

The Catholic League assassinated Henry III. and Henry IV. by the hands of a Dominican monk, and of a monster who had belonged to the order of St. Bernard. There are those who say that humanity, indulgence, and liberty of conscience are horrible things. Candidly, could they have brought about calamities such as these?


SOURCE: Voltaire, Toleration and Other Essays [1755]