Today on Project Gutenberg we have…
Massacres of the South—1551-1815 by Alexandre Dumas
If you don’t know Alexandre Dumas by name, then you know the names of the stories he wrote. Dumas is best known for The Three Musketeers and its sequels and The Count of Monte Cristo, but his body of work stretches far beyond just that. He wrote many other adventure novels, a bit of fantasy (including the version of The Nutcracker that inspired Tchaikovsky’s ballet), historical dramas, stage plays and nonfiction. The nonfiction is what we’re most interested in today.
Around 1840, Dumas published Celebrated Crimes, an 8-volume collection of true crime stories from French history. While based in fact, the tales aren’t completely free of embellishments or sensationalism. It’s kind of like the 19th-century equivalent of a true crime podcast, or Dateline.
Massacres of the South is one of the volumes from this larger collection. Where is the “South” referred to in the title? Well, the south of France, of course. Mainly the city of Nimes, which in the 16th and 17th centuries was a stronghold for the Huguenots, i.e. French Protestants. This period of French history was filled with violent struggles between the Catholic and Protestant populations, especially during the French Wars of Religion from 1562 to 1598. Dumas starts with recounting notable incidents from this period, such as the Michelade of 1567, and works his way up to then-recent events that he had firsthand knowledge of—or claimed to, at least.
How much of this is historically accurate? I can’t say for sure. But to be honest, I don’t think total historical accuracy was the main intention here. For Dumas, it’s more about creating a striking, memorable image and packing in as many lurid details as possible. Like in this section from the first chapter, describing the Huguenot takeover of a cathedral:
The assault was over in a few moments; the priests and their flock fled by one door, while the Reformers entered by another. The building was in the twinkling of an eye adapted to the new form of worship: the great crucifix from above the altar was dragged about the streets at the end of a rope and scourged at every cross-roads. In the evening a large fire was lighted in the place before the cathedral, and the archives of the ecclesiastical and religious houses, the sacred images, the relics of the saints, the decorations of the altar, the sacerdotal vestments, even the Host itself, were thrown on it without any remonstrance from the consuls; the very wind which blew upon Nimes breathed heresy.
Or this section describing the Michelade itself:
The unfortunate Catholics, led thither in groups, were either stabbed with daggers or mutilated with axes, and the bodies thrown down the well. Guy-Rochette was one of the first to be dragged up. For himself he asked neither mercy nor favour, but he begged that the life of his young brother might be spared, whose only crime was the bond of blood which united them; but the assassins, paying no heed to his prayers, struck down both man and boy and flung them into the well. The corpse of the vicar-general, who had been killed the day before, was in its turn dragged thither by a rope and added to the others. All night the massacre went on, the crimsoned water rising in the well as corpse after corpse was thrown in, till, at break of day, it overflowed, one hundred and twenty bodies being then hidden in its depths.
Just looking at the first chapter, what jumped out at me even more than paragraphs like these were some of the witty, insightful asides that Dumas gives during his narration:
There is a moment when nations can always draw a long breath, it is while their kings are awaiting burial…
The mountains are the refuge of all rising or decaying sects; God has given to the powerful on earth city, plain, and sea, but the mountains are the heritage of the oppressed.
Would I recommend trying to read this whole thing? Probably not to most people. Besides the obscure subject matter, it’s a very dense book with lots of long paragraphs and details. You could perhaps try it if you’ve read some Dumas already and want to dig into his more obscure work, because there is some genuinely interesting stuff here. I’m the kind of person who might try reading this in full, but then I’m again, I’m one of the small percentage of people that this subject appeals to. I’m weird like that.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!