Bastille Day: Baptism by Blood

Yesterday probably passed without much fanfare in your home, but July 14 is a day I usually try to commemorate. Not because I carry a single drop of French blood (more’s the pity — I’d be proud to be a cousin of Joan of Arc and François Mauriac). No, it’s because I think Bastille Day is a solemn occasion every Catholic should remember — like the feast of the Martyrs of Mexico, or the Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.
Bastille Day marks the beginning of the greatest organized persecution of the Church since the Emperor Diocletian, and the explosion onto the world of ideologies that would poison the next two centuries: socialism and radical nationalism. Between them, those two political movements racked up quite a body count: In his 1997 book Death By Government, scholar R. J. Rummel pointed out that
during the first 88 years of this century, almost 170,000,000 men, women, and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed, or worked to death; or buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens or foreigners.
And the first such modern genocide in the West took place in France, beginning in 1793. It was undertaken by modern, progressive apostles of Enlightenment and aimed at Catholic peasants, and by its end up to 300,000 civilians had been killed by the armies of the Republic.
It was ordinary peasants of the Vendée and Brittany regions who rose up in that year against the middle-class radicals in Paris who controlled the country. The ideologues of the Revolution had already
  • executed the king and queen, and left their young son to die of disease in prison;
  • declared a revolutionary “war of liberation” against most of the other countries in Europe;
  • seized all property of the Church, expelling thousands of monks, priests, and nuns to fend for themselves, then sold the property to their cronies to raise money for their wars;
  • ordered all clergy to swear allegiance to the French state instead of the pope; and
  • launched the first universal conscription in history, drafting ordinary people (most of them devout peasants bewildered by the slogans that held sway in Paris) to fight for the Revolution.
When the Parisians came to take away their sons for the army, the Vendeans finally fought back and launched a counter-revolution in the name of “God and King.” It quickly spread across the northwest of France, tying down the government’s professional armies — fighting untrained bands of devout guerillas, many of them armed only with muskets suited to hunting.
As Sophie Masson — herself a descendant of Catholics who fought in the Vendée resistance — has written:
The atrocities multiplied, the exterminations systematic and initiated from the very top, and carried out with glee at the bottom. At least 300,000 people were massacred during that time, and those of the intruders who refused to do the job were either shot or discredited utterly. But still the people resisted. Still there were those who hid in the forests and ambushed, who fought as bravely as lions but were butchered like pigs when they were caught. No quarter was given; all the leaders were shot, beheaded, or hanged. Many were not even allowed to rest in peace; the body of the last leader was cut up and distributed to scientists; his head was pickled in a jar, the brain examined to see where the seed of rebellion lay in the mind of a savage. . . .
“Not one is to be left alive.” “Women are reproductive furrows who must be ploughed under.” “Only wolves must be left to roam that land.” “Fire, blood, death are needed to preserve liberty.” “Their instruments of fanaticism and superstition must be smashed.” These were some of the words the Convention used in speaking of the Vendée. Their tame scientists dreamed up all kinds of new ideas — the poisoning of flour and alcohol and water supplies, the setting up of a tannery in Angers which would specialise in the treatment of human skins; the investigation of methods of burning large numbers of people in large ovens, so their fat could be rendered down efficiently. One of the Republican generals, Carrier, was scornful of such research: these “modern” methods would take too long. Better to use more time-honoured methods of massacre: the mass drownings of naked men, women, and children, often tied together in what he called “republican marriages,” off specially constructed boats towed out to the middle of the Loire and then sunk; the mass bayoneting of men, women and children; the smashing of babies’ heads against walls; the slaughter of prisoners using cannons; the most grisly and disgusting tortures; the burning and pillaging of villages, towns and churches.
The persecution only really ended when Napoleon came to power in 1799 — and needed peace at home so that he could launch his wars of conquest. He patched together a modus vivendi with the pope, and the Vendée quieted down.
This story is little discussed in France. Indeed, a Catholic historian who teaches at a French university once told me over dinner, “We are not to mention the Vendée. Anyone who brings up what was done there has no prospect of an academic career. So we keep silent.” It is mostly in the Vendée itself that memories linger, which may explain why that part of France to this day remains more Catholic and more conservative than any other region. The local government, to its credit, opened a museum marking these atrocities on their 200th anniversary in 1993 — with a visit by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who pointed out that the mass murders of Christians in Russia were directly inspired by those in the Vendée. The Bolsheviks, he said, modeled themselves on the French revolutionaries, and pointed to the Vendée massacres as the right way to deal with Christian resistance.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to work out this way. The Revolution had begun with a financial crisis, and promised to pare back an absolutist monarchy, perhaps along British lines. King Louis XVI — a kindly if not terribly competent king, who’d lifted legal penalties against Protestants and Jews — had bankrupted his kingdom bankrolling the American Revolution. (In gratitude, the U.S. Congress hung a portrait of the monarch in the Capitol, and named for his family the southern county which gave birth to bourbon.) The legislators who met in 1789 for the first time in over a century intended at first to reform their government, not replace it.
And some reforms were certainly needed: the ruthless centralization imposed by Louis XIV and XV had hollowed out French political life and concentrated power over the lives of citizens almost entirely in Paris, in the hands of technocrats. Predictably, they’d made a mess of things.
Unlike its sister kingdom across the channel, France had no sitting parliament, no common law protecting its subjects from arbitrary arrest, and an economy largely driven not by free citizens but the state. The French “Gallican” Church, while still in communion with Rome, was largely controlled by the kings — who appointed its bishops and set its policies. Indeed, the kings of France, Portugal, and Spain had arranged in 1767 for the suppression of the Jesuits — whose loyalty to Rome and rejection of the Divine Right of Kings made them suspect, and whose defense of the rights of Indians got in the way of “progress.”
The educational vacuum created by the destruction of this order was quickly (and ironically) filled by Enlightenment philosophes. The first generation to rise without the Jesuits would come of age in 1789. The abuses that would mark the Revolution — including mass executions of priests and nuns — were endorsed by intellectuals schooled on the slanderous pamphlets of Diderot, full of pornographic falsehoods about the “secret lives” of monks and nuns.
Indeed, there’s a chilling similarity between the anti-clerical literature that prepared the public for the looting of monasteries and the anti-Semitic canards that were spread by the Nazis. The euphemism that was used to describe stealing monastic property for the state — “secularization” — found its echo in the 1930s in the term the German government employed for robbing the Jews: “aryanization.” If the Jews are indeed a priestly people, it is not surprising that such diabolical parallels exist.
Just as fascists excused their atrocities by pointing to Jewish prominence in the financial sphere and the press, leftists still defend the persecution of the Church by pointing to her political influence. We shouldn’t let them get away with it. I wait in vain for the historian who will write a comprehensive comparison of anti-Semitism and anti-clericalism.
In the meantime, I’ll mark Bastille Day as best I can. In 1989, I helped organize a Requiem Mass for all the Revolution’s victims (we invited the French consul-general, but he pleaded a prior engagement). On several subsequent anniversaries, I’ve thrown a memorial party on the day, with foods and wines from the Vendée and counter-revolutionary songs. (Recipes and lyrics appear in each of my Bad Catholic’s guides.) In the Christian spirit of transforming suffering into joy, I think that the hearty folk who fought for God and king would appreciate the gesture. But in the Vendée itself, a French friend has told me, some people still wear black armbands on their country’s national holiday.

John Zmirak


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

  • Deal Hudson

    John, other than the books you mention, what are the best sources to read about the Vendee?

  • Miguel Miramon

    “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” – Joseph de Maistre

    Vive la Vendee!

  • John Zmirak

    One book which attracted a great deal of notice, because it tied the French radicals to modern totalitarianism, was
    Reynald Secher’s A French Genocide: The Vendee (Univ. of Notre Dame Press), June 2003. But Michael Davies’ book is an excellent popular history for lay readers. If you look at the Wikipedia article on “War in the Vendee,” the bibliographical discussion is quite sophisticated!

  • Adriana

    The problem with the FR is that much of what it destroyed had been rotting from the inside, starting with a State Church in which the King decided who would be Bishop – and rarely his choices were meant for the good of the Christian Church, they were meant to bolster his political power. Thus we see a Prince of the Church, Richelieu, ally himself with Protestant powers against then Catholic Austrian Empire. The Church was a tool of the State – and perhaps it was because of this that the revolutionaries found it so easy to go against it.

    It is instructive to go to Notre Dame of Paris. In the Cluny museum you can see the broken statues that were saved from the revolutionary vandalism. But before you pass judgement on the Revolution, go to Notre Dame and look at the vitraux. You’ll find plenty of clear glass windows, with a minimum of decorations. These clear glass windows were put in place by Louis XV after destroying the original windows, because clear glass windows were more fashionable, more “modern”, more “rational”. The Ancien Regime was in its way to destroy the Church bit by bit, and perhaps it was the FR that gave the chance for the Church to recover its old vision and power.

    In any case I have a reluctant sympathy for Robespierre, because by the time he got in power the damage was done. Starting from peaceful, prosperous country, the original revolutionaries managed in four years to bring about invasion, a civil war, economic collapse, and incipient famine. Then, and only then Robespierre came to power. Not that he was any better, of course, but he was the one who got stuck.

    The big problem with the FR is that while it had lots of theoric thinkers, they were very short on practical experience, as R.R. Palmer put it, they believed that membership in debating societies qualified them to run the country. Is it any surprise that they ended up in the equivalent of a Three Stooges short?

  • Steve Skojec

    I seem to recall Warren Carrol’s Guillotine and the Cross covering the Vendee in some detail:

  • Tom

    Warren Carroll in his book on the French Revolution, The Guillotine and the Cross (Christendom College Press, 1991), devite a section to the Vendee, It was completely incorporated into the latest volume (5, The Revolution against Christendom) of his History of Christendom (published by Christendom Books c/o ISI Press).

  • Deal W. Hudson

    I’m sure I know the answer to this question, but other than good old anti-Catholic prejudice are there any other reasons we haven’t heard much about this? The Vendee would be a great subject of a motion picture or TV film. Or has it already happened and I missed it? Any saints come out of the Vendee?

  • Deal W. Hudson

    There is a novel, I just discovered, by Anthony Trollope, “La Vendee.” Who would have thought Trollope wrote about it?

  • Rich Leonardi

    Read the following review of the Davies and Secher books that appeared in a 2004 issue of NOR:

  • Rich Leonardi

    Also, the Vendee atrocity is discussed in Diane Moczar’s Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know and Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers. Both are very good popular histories.

  • Tito Edwards


    Steve Skojec beat me to the punch. Warren Carroll has written a magnificent and concise history of the Catholic Church which he prominently attributes an entire chapter to the Vendee. Ironically I just finished the 5th volume which included said chapter and I was amazed and perplexed as much as you to the lack of any mention of the Vendee uprising in all my studies.

    I too will commemorate this event next year. The Vendee Catholic counter-revolutionaries sometimes fought with a patch of the Cross and the Sacred Heart of Jesus sown on their upper left vestments. They were humble and heroic figures that gave their lives to the protection of the Catholic Church.


    I have no sympathy whatsoever for Robispierre. He is the 18th century equivalent of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung rolled up into one.

    He does not get any such pass. He rabidly thirsted for the blood of any conspirator, real or imagined. His favorite target were Catholics who actually believed in their faith. Tens of thousands met their death at the guillotine because of this ‘intelectual’.

    The type of ‘intelectual’ babble that he was associated with were the Jacobin Club, whom he later prosecuted and execute most of their members. He instilled so much fear in his fellow collaboraters and coconspirators that they eventually turned on him because of said fear.

    Robispierre should not get any sympathy at all, period, final.

  • cathyf

    Another fascinating historical thread is how the American Catholic Church benefitted from the clerical refugees who fled The Terrors. As America was born, Catholics were a dispersed mostly poor minority, struggling though a century+ of legal restrictions on Catholic worship, and lately the supression of the Jesuits (America was traditionally a mission of the English Jesuits). The first priest ordained in the United States was French seminarian Stephen Badin. He was dispatched to the wilds of Kentucky, where 100 Catholic families descended from the original 17th-century immigrants to Maryland had migrated together in the hopes that this way the Church would send priests to minister to them. Badin spent 2-1/2 years of his early ministry as the only priest in Kentucky (1.5 years of that with no opportunity to see another priest and receive the sacrament of confession), keeping up a punishing schedule of thousands of miles on horseback to visit his scattered congregations.

    Then there was the culture clash. The arriving Frenchmen were more-or-less jansenists; American Catholics (especially in Kentucky) were (are) famous distillers of whiskey and avid dancers, who associated puritanism with their dour calvinist protestant neighbors. Since 1634 when Catholics arrived on the Ark and Dove to settle Maryland there had been two states of affairs in Maryland: either religious toleration for all or persecution for Catholics. Priests were few (a handful of Jesuit missionaries) and it was illegal to celebrate Mass in any public building from 1719 until after the Revolution. America had just fought a war over issues of liberty. So American Catholics had a rich intellectual tradition of religious liberty, and generations of practical experience of laypeople running the operational affairs of their parishes, not to mention giving over their living rooms for the celebration of the sacraments. The refugee priests knew “religious liberty” as a code-phrase for “genocidal mobs of atheist anarchists” and were quite hostile and suspicious of these Americans who kept trying to free them from concerns over the Church’s more mundane affairs. And there were the very practical difficulties — Catholics were very grateful for whatever they could get, but they weren’t particularly overjoyed with priests who couldn’t preach in English and could only barely follow what was said in confession.

  • Adriana


    I said “reluctant sympathy”, that is a sympathy that has nothing to do with his personal characteristics or actuation which was as horrible as you said.

    But… but what I object is making him the butt of the anger of that period – which is bound to a silly belief that the Revolution started well, with well meaning reforms, and later it was the Satanic Robespierre who ruined everything.

    The fact is that all the previous, nicer, revolutionaries which came before him were the equivalent of the Three Stooges who managed to thoroughly ruin the country. There is a mythology about how nice and idealistic those idiots were, and how unfair it was that Robespierre cut off their heads. Let me say that in their case, the guillotine was justified if a bit too gentle for what they deserved.

    (Reminds me of a Spanish wit when confronted with shouts asking that some political figure should be shot (“Al Paredon! Up against the wall!”) he said “I do not approve of blood shedding. The gallows should be enough”)

    As I pointed out, by the time Robespierre came into power, the situation could not have been worse. This after the Revolution had promised Heaven on Earth. Comparing the ugly reality with the early promises there were two explanations: that the promises were lies, or that they had been betrayed. Since it was heresy to say that those promises were lies, what was left? There is a logic to it, ugly as it is.

    Robespierre was what he was. In his discharge I can cite the fact that he was given an impossible job, and that he probably was freaking out due to it.

  • Deal Hudson

    Would CathyF please tell us some more about that fascinating history of Catholics in America? Very interesting!

  • JMC

    You state that what the FR destroyed was already largely rotting from the inside. It brings to mind a frightening parallel of what is happening in the Catholic Church in America. Scripture tells us to rejoice at chastisement, because it show’s God’s love; as the Revolution was the chastisement of the Church in France, so movements like the ACLU and other “secularizing” forces in this country form the chastisement of today’s Church in America. Food for thought.

  • cathyf

    …well, since you asked…

    Two excellent sources, available on the internet for free so you don’t have to get out of your pajamas to read them: [smiley=cool]

    The first is RESURRECTION: The Story of the Saint Inigoes Mission 1634-1994 by Francis Michael Walsh

    This is the entire 360-year history of America’s first parish. I had learned in school that the Maryland colony was founded by Catholics with the idea of religious toleration for all. What I had not realized was how fragile and short-lived the project turned out to be.

    The other book is Benedict Webb’s history A Centenary of Catholicity In Kentucky written in 1884.

    This is a fascinating story written by a character who spent his life at the center of the early Catholic church in KY. His parents’ home was the Church Station which became the cathedral of the Diocese of Bardstown. (Founded in 1808 — its bicentennial celebration being at the center of this year’s papal visit.) He founded and edited a Catholic newspaper, and his family boarded Fr. Badin and other early priests in the diocese in their old age. He clearly had access to all sorts of old folks telling stories, and while he avoids the really nasty stuff, the book has gobs of gossipy dish throughout it.

    Starting in about 1820 or so, large numbers of Irish and German Catholic immigrants flooded into America’s cities, followed by waves and waves of various other European Catholics. Their sheer tens of millions dwarfed the descendents of the Maryland & Kentucky Catholics, and the vast majority of American Catholics are descended from those later immigrants.

  • Adriana


    No, we are not so bad as under the Ancient Regime. We are talking about a Church subservient to the State, existing not for the sake of Christ, but to serve the State.

    It was a Church in which Bishops and Abbots were named by the King, and the King’s choices were rarely done for the sake of religion, but for political purposes. The King rewarded faithful courtiers by giving rich abbeys to their children, no matter how young the children were. Those children then named a poorly paid cleric to run the abbey and receive its revenue and they went to live it up at Paris. Bishops and cardinals shamelessly paraded their mistresses.

    It was the time of political cardinals, like Richelieu, who, for the sake of the State allied himself with German Protestantas against Catholic Austria. Like Alberoni, who started his careed by literally kissing the ass of an influential nobleman.

    We are not so bad as that. We have separation of Church and State still, which preseverves the Church. But it worries me the way too many identify the interests of the Republican Party with that of the Church. I keep feeling Ancien Regime echoes in that.

  • Brian

    Both JMC and Adrianna have left very thoughtful comments. I want to thank both of you.

  • Ray

    Were the secularists who took over the French government Masons?

  • Deal Hudson

    Ok, cathyf, time to ‘fess up, how did you come to know all this arcane and wonderful information about these early Catholic parishes?

  • Tina

    You should also look at Throes of Democracy. Another writer on this site recommended it. It covers American history from 1820-1875 (or thereabouts)

    I have never read a history book (unless it was about the Catholic Church) that mentioned Catholics so much and relatively positively.