Thursday, August 30, 2012

August 30, 2012

The Massacre of Vassy, 1562

Vassy (or Wassy) is a small town in Haute-Marne, France, the kind of place that probably would have remained unknown over the centuries if not for one incident. Its day of infamy came on March 01, 1562. It was just an average day, I imagine, a cold morning occupied with the beloved duty of attending church. Huguenot worshippers were on edge in France. Burnings at the stake were still the preferred means of destroying Protestants, and civil unrest was reaching the boiling point. There had been no warfare . . . yet. But there soon would be.

In 1562 there was an old barn in Vassy that had somehow come into use as a Huguenot temple. Made of light-colored brick, with a reddish tile roof and interior wooden beams (if Hogenberg’s later drawing is to be believed), this handsome barn served the needs of the local Protestant congregation quite well. Also according to Hogenberg, there was a simple wooden pulpit with a series of flat wooden steps, and a second-story balcony with simple wooden railings. There was enough room for a comfortable number of believers to mingle and worship.

March 01st would be their last chance to worship on this earth.

The massacre of Vassy began in quite a strange way. Francis, the Duke of Guise, born of a family hated by the Huguenots for their heavy-handed treatment of Protestantism, came to Vassy with the intent of attending one of the Catholic churches in the region. Somehow it caught his attention that this unobtrusive barn before him was filled with Protestant believers. One wonders how . . . I cannot see them singing loudly or having ornamentation, for such things were forbidden at that time. I suspect it was the simplicity of the structure or perhaps snatches of the Psalms --- Huguenots were known for their beloved Psalm-singing --- that betrayed their beliefs.

A few of Francis’ bolder men were incensed that Protestants dared to worship anywhere in France let alone the town through which they were passing, and they tried to force entrance. Both sides had words. Those words are not known, and that is probably for the best. Eventually the Huguenots began flinging rocks at the Duke of Guise and his brazen soldiers. Whether or not anything else was thrown, I do not know. The exasperated Protestants of Vassy had no idea that their rock-throwing --- and their faith --- would condemn them to death.

The Duke of Guise was not a man known for respecting human lives. To him it was a mere trifle to condemn innocent men, women, and children, and in a short while he commanded his soldiers to “break up” the chaos however they saw fit. I have seen differing accounts concerning this event. Some say the church was burned, others that there was hand-to-hand combat, others that the Duke of Guise’s quick-tempered men were to blame, and still others that the Huguenots were disrespectful and “had it coming to them.” As with any historical event, it has turned into a “he said, she said.”

I try to look at the big picture. Perhaps the Huguenots were incensed that they were commanded to stop their services --- I would be too. Perhaps some of them threw rocks. Perhaps they started it. I do not see, though, why it really matters, for the end result was the same. As Huguenots were much hated in France, what began as a scuffle became a slaughter. About forty people (some say less, some say more) died, and many more were wounded. Then the Duke of Guise and his men went on their way, smug and satisfied that their ‘chastisement’ was successful.

The callousness of this era never ceases to amaze me. The idea that a mere man, a man like Francis of Guise, could so nonchalantly play God over others’ lives and take them without a second thought is appalling. There are, of course, similar situations in the world today, and I feel the same about all violence, yet having always been interested in the 16th century, these instances speak most strongly to me. The massacre of Vassy became a powerful propaganda tool in the years to come and is considered by most to have contributed to the first War of Religion.

All because of a barn full of believers. May they rest in peace.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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