Grimm and the Correspondance Littéraire 1766

The Delabarre Affair

Source: Maurice Tourneux, editor, Correspondance littéraire, philosphique et critique, vol VII. Paris, Garnier Frères, 1879;
Translated: from the original for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

See Voltaire on The Delabarre Affair, 1766.

July 15, 1766

In Paris people are much concerned about the horrible adventure that just occurred in Abbeville, which we have heard only confusedly about and which would have filled Europe with indignation and pity if the cruel souls who were the authors of this tragedy hadn’t forced the advocates of innocence and humanity to silence through their threats. The excerpt of a letter from Abbeville attached to these pages will bring you up to date on these circumstances. It is claimed that what is said in them of Sieur Belleval is not completely true, but it is certain that personal animosity dictated the sentence in Abbeville, and we are assured that motives of the same stripe led to its being confirmed by a decree of parlement, which should be preserved as a monument to horrific cruelty in the middle of a century that boasts of its philosophy and enlightenment.

During the night of August 8-9, 1765 a wooden crucifix, placed on a bridge in Abbeville, was mutilated with blows from either a saber or a hunting knife. A superstitious and blind crowd made this the subject of a scandal. The bishop of Amiens, one of the most fanatical bishops of France, along with his clergy went to the town in procession in order to expiate the so-called crime by a number of superstitious ceremonies. Summonses to appear before ecclesiastical court under pain of excommunication were issued in order to discover the author. This usage, that of troubling consciences by the publishing of ecclesiastical summonses, of enflaming weak imaginations by enjoining them under threat of eternal damnation to reveal facts that don’t personally concern the witness, is one of the most harmful abuses of criminal jurisprudence in France. More than 120 fanatics and madmen deposed. None were able to denounce the author of the mutilation, who probably didn’t summon witnesses to his expedition, but all reported hearsay, vague rumors that charged the principal young people of the city of impious statements, of so-called profanations, of a few indecencies that at the very worst were worthy of paternal animadversions. The justice of Abbeville began the pre-trial investigation of these young fools. It was no longer simply a question of the mutilated crucifix; rather they judged the so-called crimes revealed by the ecclesiastical summonses. It is easy to imagine the consternation of a small city where five children of the principal families, all minors, find themselves implicated in a criminal proceeding. Their parents helped them escape, but the same animosity that gave rise to the cruel affair led to the denunciation of their flight. They were hunted down, and of the five two were seized, the young Chevalier de la Barre and a child of seventeen named Moisnel. The sentence rendered in Abbeville last February 28 condemned Gaillard d'Estalonade to make honorable amends, to have his tongue and fist cut and to be burned alive. This unfortunate had luckily fled to England with two of his accomplices. Jean-François Le Fèvre, Chevalier de la Barre, was condemned to the same sentence, to make honorable amends, to have his tongue cut out, then his head cut off and his body reduced to ashes. They postponed the judgment of the three others, one of whom, Charles-François Moisnel, was in prison with the Chevalier de la Barre. Criminal sentences need to be confirmed by a decree of the parlement of the region. The Abbeville affair was brought before the parlement of Paris. These young unfortunates, by defending themselves with printed memoirs, could hope to incite public commiseration there. But M. le Fèvre d'Ormesson, president, a good criminalist and who was related to the Chevalier de la Barre, having been shown the entire proceedings of Abbeville, judged that it wouldn’t be confirmed by the parlement and prevented the public defense of his relative and the other accused. He hoped that the children, the accusation against them dismissed without too much noise, would one day be grateful to him for having avoided publicity for this unfortunate affair. This magistrate’s confidence was fatal to them. In fact, one can say that the least memoir in their favor, distributed at the right moment, would have caused so general an outcry that the parlement would never have dared confirm the sentence of Abbeville. A decree of last June 4 confirmed it, and after many vain solicitations of royal pardon the Chevalier de la Barre was executed in Abbeville on July 1. He died with unequalled courage and tranquility. The decree declared him convicted of having passed twenty-five steps ahead of the procession of the Holy Sacrament without removing his hat or kneeling; of having uttered blasphemies against God, the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints mentioned at the trial; of having sung two impious songs; of having showed respect and adoration for impure and infamous books; of having profaned the sign of the cross and the benedictions in use in the Church. This is what caused the cutting off of the head of an imprudent and poorly-raised child in the middle of France and the eighteenth century. In the countries of the Inquisition these crimes would have been punished with a month in prison followed by a reprimand.

It is certain that M. Pellot, counselor of the Grand Chamber and rapporteur to the parlement of the trial, delivered an apology for the accused and concluded, given their age and other circumstances, the charges against them should be dismissed. But the parlement didn’t judge it appropriate to follow these conclusions. It was also remarked that the premier president, who presided over this terrible judgment, was personally involved in a dispute with president le Fèvre d'Ormesson, but it would be too chilling a thought if personal enmity could have an influence over decrees of blood.

What is certain is that this decree was cause for consternation among all sensitive souls and that humanity is awaiting a public avenger, a man eloquent and courageous who will submit this unequalled cruelty to the judgment of the public and the condemnation of posterity. This would be a task worthy of M. de Voltaire if he didn’t have personal reasons to handle this matter gingerly. His friends must have implored him to prefer his safety and repose to the interests of humanity and not to risk placing the mark of opprobrium on bloodthirsty men determined to prosecute him at the least movement on his part. Eight lawyers, among whom we read the names of Doutremont and Gerbier, signed too late a consultation in favor of young Moisnel and the other accused whose judgment the decree had suspended. This consultation, made with the greatest care and simplicity, would touch the most barbaric of hearts. The parlement, which was shocked by it, wanted to judicially suppress it. It summoned the lawyers who signed it and the president of the tribunal was charged with severely reprimanding them. But M. Gerbier took the floor, defended his rights and those of his confreres, and declared that if any judicial steps were taken against this consultation all the lawyers were determined to quit the bar. This declaration brought the proceedings of the parlemen to a halt.. But every copy of the consultation was confiscated and it is no longer possible to find any copies. By these measures they have succeeded in stifling this horrible affair and keeping it from the public. Paris has been little concerned with it; most Parisians never knew the details of it. People spoke of it for one or two days and then, as M. Voltaire says, they went to the Opéra-Comique and this atrocity, like so many others, was forgotten. Sensitive souls will never forget it, and will forever ardently hope that it be transmitted to posterity as a deplorable monument to men’s evil and that the names of the authors of this cruelty will remain known and more justly condemned than that of young Moisnel and his accomplices, about whom it was determined there were insufficient proofs to condemn after they were sentenced and declared infamous.

Here are the first fruits we harvest from the book “On Crimes and Punishments.” One could say that upon the first noteworthy demand for the rights of humanity cruelty is unleashed and, to make clear the uselessness of the demand, suggests new acts of cruelty to its henchmen. The historian of the county of Ponthieu reports that in 1706 a rich inhabitant of Abbeville left all his property to Louis XIV on condition that it be employed in a Crusade. If he ever writes a second version of his history I advise him to join to this act of individual fanaticism that of a case of public fanaticism: the judicial murder of the Chevalier de la Barre. He should not forget to note that the two songs mentioned during the trial, one of which is nothing but a dirty song, have been known for more than a hundred years and are sung in all garrison towns, where the strictest discipline cannot hold back soldierly license in objects of this kind. It was an apprentice wigmaker, incited by the ecclesiastical summons, who deposed that he heard the Chevalier de la Barre singing these songs during his morning toilet while he arranged the Chevalier’s hair.