1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Camisards

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CAMISARDS (from camisade, obsolete Fr. for “a night attack,” from the Ital. camiciata, formed from camicia—Fr. chemise—a shirt, from the fact of a shirt being worn over the armour in order to distinguish friends from foes), the name given to the peasantry of the Cévennes who, from 1702 to 1705 and for some years afterwards, carried on an organized military resistance to the dragonnades, or conversion by torture, death and confiscation of property, by which, in the Huguenot districts of France, the revocation of the edict of Nantes was attempted to be enforced. The Camisards were also called Barbets (“water-dogs,” a term also applied to the Waldenses), Vagabonds, Assemblers (assemblée was the name given to the meeting or conventicle of Huguenots), Fanatics and the Children of God. They belonged to that romance-speaking people of Gothic descent whose mystic imagination and independent character made the south of France the most fertile nursing-ground of medieval heresy (see Cathars and Albigenses). At the time of the Reformation the same causes produced like results. Calvin was warmly welcomed when he preached at Nîmes; Montpellier became the chief centre for the instruction of the Huguenot youth. It was, however, in the great triangular plateau of mountain called the Cévennes that, among the small farmers, the cloth and silk weavers and vine dressers, Protestantism was most intense and universal. These people were (and still are) very poor, but intelligent and pious, and of a character at once grave and fervent. From the lists of Huguenots sent from Languedoc to the galleys (1684 to 1762), we gather that the common type of physique is “belle taille, cheveux bruns, visage ovale.” The chief theatre of the revolt comprised that region of the Cévennes bounded by the towns of Florac, Pont-de-Montvert, Alais and Lasalle, thus embracing the southern portion of the department of Lozère (the Bas-Gévaudan) and the neighbouring district in the east of the department of Gard.

In order to understand the War of the Cévennes it is necessary to recall the persecutions which preceded and followed the revocation of the edict of Nantes. It is also necessary to remember the extraordinary religious movement which had for a great number of years agitated the Protestants of France. Faced by the violation of that most solemn of treaties, a treaty which had been declared perpetual and irrevocable by Henry IV., Louis XIII. and even Louis XIV. himself, they could not, in the enthusiasm of their faith, believe that such a crime would be left unpunished. But being convinced that no human power could give them liberty of conscience, they went to the Bible to find when their deliverance would come. As far back as 1686 Pierre Jurieu published his work L’Accomplissement des prophéties, in which, speaking of the Apocalypse, he predicted the end of the persecution and the fall of Babylon—that is to say of Roman Catholicism—for 1689. The Revolution in England seemed to provide a striking corroboration of his prophecies, and the apocalyptic enthusiasm took so strong a hold on people’s minds that Bossuet felt compelled to refute Jurieu’s arguments in his Apocalypse expliquée, published in 1689. The Lettres pastorales of Jurieu (Rotterdam, 1686–1687), a series of brief tracts which were secretly circulated in France, continued to narrate events and prodigies in which the author saw the intervention of God, and thus strengthened the courage of his adherents. This religious enthusiasm, under the influence of Du Serre, was manifested for the first time in the Dauphiné. Du Serre, who was a pupil of Jurieu, communicated his mystic faith to young children who were called the “petits prophètes,” the most famous of whom was a girl named “La belle Isabeau.” Brought up on the study of the prophets and the Apocalypse, these children went from village to village quoting and requoting the most obscure and terrible passages from these ancient prophecies (see Antichrist). It is necessary to remember that at this time the Protestants were without ministers, all being in exile, and were thus deprived of all real religious instruction. They listened with enthusiasm to this strange preaching, and thousands of those who were called New Catholics were seen to be giving up attendance at Mass. The movement advanced in Languedoc with such rapidity that at one time there were more than three hundred children shut up in the prisons of Uzès on the charge of prophesying, and the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier, which was entrusted with their examination, went so far in their ignorance as to pronounce these irresponsible infants guilty of fanaticism. After the peace of Ryswick, 1697, the fierceness of the persecution was redoubled in the South. “I will show no mercy to the preachers,” wrote the terrible Baville, the so-called “king of Languedoc,” and he kept his word. The people of the Cévennes were in despair, for their loyalty to the king had been remarkable. In 1683 on the 6th of September an assembly composed of fifty pastors, sixty-four noblemen and thirty-four notables, held at Colognac, had drawn up a statement of its unalterable loyalty to Louis XIV. It is important to notice that the revolt of the Cévennes was essentially a popular movement. Among its leaders there was not a single nobleman, but only men of the people, a baker, a blacksmith, some ex-soldiers; but by far the most extraordinary characterisic is the presence, no longer of children, but of men and women who declared themselves inspired, who fell into religious ecstasies and roused in their comrades the most heroic bravery in battle and at the stake.

The assassination of the abbé du Chayla marks the beginning of the war of the Cévennes. The abbé, a veteran Catholic missionary from Siam, had been appointed inspector of missions in the Cévennes. There he introduced the “squeezers” (which resembled the Scottish “boot”), and his systematic and refined cruelty at last broke the patience of his victims. His murder, on the 23rd of July 1702, at Pont de Monvert, was the first blow in the war. It was planned by Esprit Séguier, who at once began to carry out his idea of a general massacre of the Catholic priests. He soon fell, and was succeeded by Laporte, an old soldier, who, as his troop increased, assumed the title of “the Colonel of the Children of God,” and named his camp the “Camp of the Eternal.” He used to lead his followers to the fight, singing Clement Marot’s grand version of the 68th Psalm, “Que Dieu se montre seulement,” to the music of Goudimel. Besides Laporte, the forest-ranger Castanet, the wool-carders Conderc and Mazel, the soldiers Catinat, Joany and Ravenel were selected as captains—all men whom the théomanie or prophetic malady had visited. But the most important figures are those of Roland, who afterwards issued the following extraordinary despatch to the inhabitants of St André:—“Nous, comte et seigneur Roland, généralissime des Protestants de France, nous ordonnons que vous ayez à congédier dans trois jours tous les prêtres et missionnaires qui sont chez vous, sous peine d’être brûlés tout vifs, vous et eux” (Court, i.p. 219); and Jean Cavalier, the baker’s boy, who, at the age of seventeen, commanded the southern army of the Camisards, and who, after defeating successively the comte de Broglie and three French marshals, Montrevel, Berwick and Villars, made an honourable peace. (See Cavalier, Jean.)

Cavalier for nearly two years continued to direct the war. Regular taxes were raised, arsenals were formed in the great limestone caves of the district, the Catholic churches and their decorations were burned and the clergy driven away. Occasionally routed in regular engagements, the Camisards, through their desperate valour and the rapidity of their movements, were constantly successful in skirmishes, night attacks and ambuscades. A force of 60,000 was now in the field against them; among others, the Irish Brigade which had just returned from the persecutions of the Waldenses. The rising was far from being general, and never extended to more than three or four thousand men, but it was rendered dangerous by the secret and even in many places the open support of the people in general. On the other hand their knowledge of a mountainous country clothed in forests and without roads, gave the insurgents an enormous advantage over the royal troops. The rebellion was not finally suppressed until Baville had constructed roads throughout this almost savage country.

Montrevel adopted a policy of extermination, and 466 villages were burned in the Upper Cévennes alone, the population being for the most part put to the sword. Pope Clement XI. assisted in this work by issuing a bull against the “execrable race of the ancient Albigenses,” and promising remission of sins to the holy militia which was now formed among the Catholic population, and was called the Florentines, Cadets of the Cross or White Camisards. Villars, the victor of Hochstädt and Friedlingen, saw that conciliation was necessary; he took advantage of the feeling of horror with which the quiet Protestants of Nimes and other towns now regarded the war, and published an amnesty. In May 1704 a formal meeting between Cavalier and Villars took place at Nimes. The result of the interview was that a document entitled Trés humble requête des réformés du Languedoc au Roi was despatched to the court. The three leading requests for liberty of conscience and the right of assembly outside walled towns, for the liberation of those sentenced to prison or the galleys under the revocation, and for the restitution to the emigrants of their property and civil rights, were all granted,—the first on condition of no churches being built, and the third on condition of an oath of allegiance being taken. The greater part of the Camisard army under Roland, Ravenel and Joany would not accept the terms which Cavalier had arranged. They insisted that the edict of Nantes must be restored,—“point de paix, que nous n’ayons nos temples.” They continued the war till January 1705, by which time all their leaders were either killed or dispersed.

In 1709 Mazel and Claris, with the aid of two preaching women, Marie Desubas and Elizabeth Catalon, made a serious effort to rekindle revolt in the Vivarais. In 1711 all opposition and all signs of the reformed religion had disappeared. On the 8th of March 1715, by medals and a proclamation, Louis XIV. announced the entire extinction of heresy.

What we know of the spiritual manifestations in the Cévennes (which much resembled those of the Swedish Raestars of Smaland in 1844) is chiefly derived from Le Théâtre sacré des Cévennes, London, 1707, reprinted at Paris in 1847; A Cry From the Desert, &c., by John Lacy, London, 1707; La Clef des prophéties de M. Marion, London, 1707; Avertissements prophétiques d’Élie Marion, &c., London, 1707. About the date of these publications the three prophets of the Cévennes, Marion, Durand-Fage and Cavalier (a cousin of the famous Jean Cavalier) were in London and were objects of lively curiosity. The consistory of the French church in the Savoy sent a protest to the lord mayor against “cette secte impie et extravagante” and the matter was tried at the Guildhall. Misson, author of the Théâtre sacré, declared in defence of the accused, that the same spirit which had caused Balaam’s ass to speak could speak through the mouths of these prophets from the Cévennes. Marion and his two friends Fatio, a member of the Royal Society of London, and Daudé, a leading savant, who acted as his secretaries, were condemned to the pillory and to the stocks. Voltaire relates (Siécle de Louis XIV. c. 36) that Marion wished to prove his inspiration by attempting to raise a dead body (Thomas Ernes) from St Paul’s churchyard. He was at last compelled to leave England.[1]

The inspiration (of which there were four degrees, avertissement, souffle, prophetie, dons) was sometimes communicated by a kiss at the assembly. The patient, who had gone through several fasts three days in length, became pale and fell insensible to the ground. Then came violent agitations of the limbs and head, as Voltaire remarks, “quite according to the ancient custom of all nations, and the rules of madness transmitted from age to age.” Finally the patient (who might be a little child, a woman, a half-witted person) began to speak in the good French of the Huguenot Bible words such as these: “Mes frères, amendez-vous, faites pénitence, la fin du monde approche; le jugement général sera dans trois mois; répentez-vous du grand péché que vous avez commis d’aller à la messe; c’est le Saint-Esprit qui parle par ma bouche” (Brueys, Histoire du fanatisme de notre temps, Utrecht, 1737, vol. i. p. 153). The discourse might go on for two hours; after which the patient could only express himself in his native patois,—a Romance idiom,—and had no recollection of his “ecstasy.” All kinds of miracles attended on the Camisards. Lights in the sky guided them to places of safety, voices sang encouragement to them, shots and wounds were often harmless. Those entranced fell from trees without hurting themselves; they shed tears of blood; and they subsisted without food or speech for nine days. The supernatural was part of their life. Much literature has been devoted to the discussion of these marvels. The Catholics Fléchier (in his Lettres choisies) and Brueys consider them the product of fasting and vanity, nourished on apocalyptic literature. The doctors Bertrand (Du magnétisme animal, Paris, 1826) and Calmeil (De la folie, Paris, 1845) speak of magnetism, hysteria and epilepsy, a prophetic monomania based on belief in divine possession. The Protestants especially emphasized the spirituality of the inspiration of the Camisards; Peyral, Histoire des pasteurs du désert, ii. 280, wrote: “Il fallait à cet effort gigantesque un ressort prodigieux, l’enthousiasme ordinaire n’y eût pas suffi.” Dubois, who has made a careful study of the problem, says: “L’inspiration cévenole nous apparait comme un phénomène purement spirituel.” Conservative Catholics, such as Hippolyte Blanc in his book on L’inspiration des Camisards (1859), regard the whole thing as the work of the devil. The publication of J. F. K. Hecker’s work, Die Volkskrankheiten des Mittelalters, made it possible to consider the subject in its true relation. This was translated into English in 1844 by B. G. Babington as The Epidemics of the Middle Ages.

Although the Camisards were guilty of great cruelties in the prosecution of the war, there does not seem to be sufficient ground for the charge made by Marshal de Villars: “Le plupart de leurs chefs ont leurs demoiselles” (letter of 9th August 1704, in the War Archives, vol. 1797). Court replied to these unjust charges: “Their enemies have accused them of leading a life of licence because there were women in their camps. These were their wives, their daughters, their mothers, who were there to prepare their food and to nurse the wounded” (Histoire, vol. i. p. 71).

Bibliography.—The works devoted to the history of the Camisards are very numerous. Nevertheless there exists no work specifically devoted to this extremely interesting period in French history, for in none of the published works has proper use been made of the valuable documents preserved in the archives of the ministry of war. Among the chief works are:—Père Louvreleuil (priest, former curé of St. Germain de Calberte), Histoire du fanatisme renouvelé où l’on raconte les sacrilèges, les maladies et les meurtres commis dans les Cévennes (Toulouse, 1704); M. de Brueys, Suite de l’histoire du fanatisme de notre temps où l’on voit les derniers troubles des Cévennes (Paris, 1709); Lettres choisies de M. Fléchier évêque de Nîmes avec une relation des fanatiques du Vivarez (Paris, 1715); Madame de Merez de l’Incarnation, Memoires et journal très fidèle de ce qui s’est passé le 11 de may 1703 jusqu’au 1 juin 1705 à Nîmes touchant les phanatiques, published by E. de Barthélemy (Montpellier, 1874). These works are written by Catholic writers immediately after the war of the Cévennes, and, despite their partiality, include some valuable documents. Mémoires du marquis de Guiscard (Delft, 1705); Maximilien Misson, Le Théâtre sacré des Cévennes ou Récit de diverses merveilles nouvellement opérées dans cette partie de la province de Languedoc (London, 1707); Misson, the author of the Voyages en Italie, which met with such a great success, gave prominence to the facts relating to the inspiration of the Camisards; the Théâtre also contains important extracts from the works of Benoit, Brueys, Guiscard and Boyer, and several original letters from Camisards; Histoire des Camisards, &c. (London, 1740), the anonymous work of a distinguished writer, which was eventually condemned by the parlement of Toulouse to be torn up and burnt in 1759; Antoine Court, Histoire des troubles des Cévennes (3 vols., 1760), the best work of this period, compiled from numerous manuscript references. The war of the Cévennes has been treated in several English works, e.g. A Compleat History of the Cevennes, giving a Particular Account of the Situation, &c., by a doctor of civil law (London, 1703). This work includes a dedication to the queen, an historical account of the people of the Cévennes, the bull of Pope Clement against the Camisards, and the bishop of Nîmes’s mandate publishing the bull, and a discourse on the obligations of the English to help the Camisards, and a form of prayer used in the Camisard assembly, printed in London in 1703 under the title Formulaire de prières des Cévennois dans leurs assemblées. The History of the Rise and Downfal of the Camisards, &c. (London, 1709), dealt with the prophets of the Cévennes in London, and is only an abridged translation of Père Louvreleuil’s work. Among modern works are, Ernest Moret, Quinze ans du règne de Louis XIV (3 vols., 1859), a work which gives a remarkable history of the war of the Cévennes; Les Insurgés protestants sous Louis XIV., studies and unedited documents published by G. Frosterus (1868); Mémoires de Bonbonnoux, chief Camisard and pastor of the desert, published by Vielles (1883); Bonnemère, Histoire de la guerre des Camisards (1859). Two popular works are—F. Puaux, Histoire populaire de la guerre des Camisards (1875); Anna E. Bray, The Revolt of the Protestants of the Cévennes with some Account of the Huguenots of the Seventeenth Century (London, 1870).

 (F. Px.) 

  1. This curious affair provoked a lengthy controversy, which is described in “La Relation historique de ce qui s’est passe a Londres au sujet des prophètes camisards” (Republique des Lettres, 1708), in the study of M. Vesson, Les Prophètes camisards à Londres (1893), and also in the book Les Prophètes cévenols, ch. iii. (1861) by Alfred Dubois.