Duple Scruple

Today is August 24th, St. Bartholomew’s Day. Ernest Renan said it: there are some things that every French person needs to forget, such as the crusade against the Albigensians or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Renan meant that these old grievances, if opened anew, would set French people to fighting amongst themselves rather than building a common Republic or warding off outer enemies.

Not being French, I can afford to remember the massacre of 1572, when the Catholic League, encouraged by the queen, went from house to house slaughtering Protestants and suspected Protestants. The body count for that night is estimated at about 3000: a mere trickle of blood by the standards of Verdun or Hiroshima, but considerable for a European capital in the high Renaissance. Nor did the repression put an end to the question of religious conflict and accommodation in France. Future episodes would include Henri IV’s accession, the Edict of Nantes, Henri’s assassination, the Revocation. Not to remember these old griefs means not actually to expunge them from memory, but to put them aside as no longer bearing on the present, as the parallel member of Renan’s sentence indicates: “No French citizen knows any more if he is a Burgundian, a member of the Alani, a Tayfal, a Visigoth.” One might “be” such a thing but have no proof of it and no current reason for needing to know.

In the case of a moderately visible minority, urbanized, well-educated, represented in the professions and business, to claim an identity involves a bit of a gamble, for when one is already well-accepted (despite…), one may not like to sacrifice privilege for identity– until the privilege is solid enough that it can resist attacks on the identity. Being discreet was a good option for the members of this group; it became, in time, part of the identity ascribed to them by the majority. Hence some degree of willingness to forget, at least while in public, the wrongs done to their group in the past.

Are there commemorations of the 1572 massacre? I should put on my ethnographer’s hat and go walking out by the Oratoire, the epicenter of the killing, now bearing a statue of one of the principal victims, the admiral de Coligny. Will there be brass bands and wreaths? Probably not; this isn’t Northern Ireland (and a good thing too, I’d say, considering what sectarianism has done to daily life over there). There might be a sermon. It occurs to me that I might be a few hours too late, in case the commemoration occurs on St. Bartholomew’s eve, that is, the 23rd; in which case my ethnographer’s hat can go back into its box for another year.

Something else complicates this not quite admissible public memory. According to a thoughtful article by David El Kenz¬†reviewing many years of sermons on this date, the St.-Bartholomew’s¬†massacre is an uneasy “locus of memory” not just for reasons of French national solidarity, but because of an internal scruple. French Protestants affirm as one of their differences from Catholics their non-practice of the cult of saints. To return every year to the memory of Coligny or Henri IV, to commemorate the victims of August 24, would be, in this view, to make holy martyrs of them, and martyrs do not leave anyone in peace. Their sacrifice, so goes to logic of martyrdom, sainthood and hero-cult, calls for a symmetrical engagement on our part. It is like a round of gift-giving in a potlatch: it demands that you give something back, if only a verbal assent to the vow that they “did not die in vain.” And I applaud the reluctance to wind up the in-group (however small, fragile, discreet) in the feeling that the dead of 1572 still cry from the ground, that the wrong done to them must be forever revisited, that the “we” of St.-Bartholomew memory remain in a state of existential emergency. It’s not indifference but a sacrifice of the logic of sacrifice, as I see it, though I am ill-placed to speak for a group to which I have historical but few current ties. Maybe I should try out this argument on some of the conscious non-commemorators. If, indeed, I have the right day.