Tag Archives: voltaire

1509: Four Dominicans for the Jetzer affair

(Thanks for today’s guest post to anti-clerical Enlightenment polemicist Voltaire, whose intervention in (and caustic commentary upon) death penalty cases in his own day we have several times featured. The events described arise from the Dominican order‘s Aquinas-derived dissent from the view, predominant theologically as well as popularly, of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception would later become settled doctrine in the Church. -ed.)

It is well known that the Cordeliers or Franciscans and the Jacobins or Dominicans have detested each other ever since they were founded. They were divided on several points of theology as well as being financial rivals. Their chief quarrel turned on the state of Mary before her birth. The Franciscans argued that Mary had not sinned in her mother’s womb, while the Dominicans were of the opposite opinion. There never was, perhaps, a more ridiculous question, and yet it was this very matter which made these two religious orders quite irreconcilable.

A Franciscan, preaching at Frankfurt in 1503 on the immaculate conception of Mary, happened to see a Dominican called Vigan come into his church. “I thank the Holy Virgin,” he exclaimed “for not having permitted me to belong to a sect which dishonours her and her son.” Vigan eplied that this was a falsehood. The Franciscan then came down from the pulpit, carrying an iron crucifix, and struck the Dominican such a violent blow that he almost killed him, after which he went on to finish his sermon on the Virgin.*

The Dominicans held a meeting to plan their revenge, and, in the hope of heaping greater humiliation on the Franciscans, they resolved to perform miracles. After several fruitless attempts they finally found a favourable opportunity in Berne.

One of their monks was confessor to a simple-minded young tailor named Jetzer, who was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Barbara. This imbecile seemed to them to be an excellent subject for miracles. His confessor convinced him that the Virgin and Saint Barbara expressly commanded him to become a Dominican and to give all his money to the order. Jetzer obeyed and too the habit. When his vocation had been well tested, four Dominicans, whose names appear in the subsequent trial, disguised themselves on several occasions as best they could, one as an angel, another as a soul in purgatory, a third as the Virgin Mary and the fourth as Saint Barbara. At the end of these apparitions, which it would be too tedious to describe in detail, the Virgin finally revealed to Jetzer that she was born in original sin; that she would have been damned if her son, who was not yet on this earth, had not taken care to regenerate her immediately after she was born; that the Franciscans were impious and had grievously offended her son by claiming that his mother had been conceived without mortal sin, and that she charged him to announce this to all the servants of God and Mary in Berne.

Jetzer did not fail to do this. Mary appeared again, accompanied by two robust and vigorous angels. She thanked him and said that she had come to imprint upon him the holy stigmata of her son as proof of his mission and as a reward. The two angels tied Jetzer up and the Virgin drove nails into his hands and feet. The next day Brother Jetzer was exhibited on the altar for all to see, freshly bleeding from the heavenly favours he had received. The devout flocked to kiss his wounds. He performed as many miracles as he wanted, but the apparitions still continued. Finally Jetzer recognised the voice of the sub-prior beneath the mask he wore. He cried out and threatened to reveal everything. He followed the sub-prior into his cell, where he found his confessor and the two angels, who were entertaining some girls.

The monks, now that they were unmasked, had only one course open to them, which was to poison Jetzer. They sprinkled a communion wafer with some corrosive which had such a foul taste that Jetzer could not swallow it. He fled from the church crying out against the sacrilegious poisoners. The trial lasted for two years and came before the bishop of Lausanne because at that time laymen were not allowed to judge monks. The bishop sided with the Dominicans. He decided that the apparitions were real and that Jetzer was an imposter; he was even so cruel as to sentence the poor man to torture. But later the Dominicans imprudently degraded Jetzer, stripping him of his monk’s habit. This meant that Jetzer was now a layman again and his case could therefore be heard by the Council of Berne. As a consequence of his testimony the long catalogue of crimes was confirmed. When the ecclesiastical judges were called in from Rome, they were compelled to deliver up the criminals to the secular authorities. The guilty were burnt at the Marsilly gate on 31 May 1509. Records of the trial are now in the archives of Berne and have been printed on several occasions.


The fourteenth panel (click for the full glorious graphic novel) of a woodcut series illustrating the progress of the hoax. (Via).

* The Dominican Wigand Wirt, who denounced the Immaculate Conception so vociferously that he was summoned to Rome in 1507 to answer for it.

1762: Jean Calas, intolerably

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

In the 1760s, Toulouse was no place for a Huguenot, not even for an affable, prosperous paterfamilias like Jean Calas. The whole southwestern region of France barely tolerated Protestants.

The Calas household included two adult sons, Louis, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, and Marc-Antoine, their sisters, as well as their parents, Jean Calas and his wife, and a longtime maid who was Catholic. Monsieur and Madame Calas and their daughters were Protestant, as was Marc-Antoine. Friends and associates described the ménage as placid, except for occasional outbursts of misbehavior by elder son Marc-Antoine.

Jean Calas was a textile dealer. On October 13, 1761, young Marc-Antoine Calas was found hanged in his father’s shop. Wishing to spare the family’s reputation from the stigma of suicide as well as his son’s corpse from the mutilation which was customary for suicides, Jean Calas at first claimed to the authorities that an intruder killed his son.

An ugly rumor swept Toulouse: Marc-Antoine was murdered by his own parents, because he planned to convert to Catholicism. (Never mind that Jean Calas kept his Catholic son Louis in the bosom of his family and employed a Catholic servant.) Jean Calas was arrested and subjected to a trial that was anything but fair; by this time, he had admitted, too late, that his son had hanged himself, probably over gambling debts.

No dice. The appellate court of Toulouse condemned Jean Calas to death on March 9, 1762. The execution was set for the following day.

Murder of a family member was held to be a particularly hideous crime, and hideous was the penalty: breaking on the wheel. Jean Calas was tied to a cartwheel in the main square of Toulouse. His limbs were broken with iron rods. He proclaimed his innocence until the executioner finally strangled him to death.

L’affaire Calas inspired Voltaire to new vigor in his fight for religious toleration. In 1763 he published A Treatise on Tolerance, a landmark document which remains well-read today.

O different worshippers of a peaceful God! if you have a cruel heart, if, while you adore he whose whole law consists of these few words, “Love God and your neighbor,” you have burdened that pure and holy law with false and unintelligible disputes, if you have lighted the flames of discord sometimes for a new word, and sometimes for a single letter of the alphabet; if you have attached eternal punishment to the omission of a few words, or of certain ceremonies which other people cannot comprehend, I must say to you with tears of compassion for mankind: “Transport yourselves with me to the day on which all men will be judged and on which God will do unto each according to his works.

“I see all the dead of past ages and of our own appearing in his presence. Are you very sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the legislator Solon, to Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, the divine Antonins, the good Trajan, to Titus, the delights of mankind, to Epictetus, and to many others, models of men: Go, monsters, go and suffer torments that are infinite in intensity and duration. Let your punishment be eternal as I am. But you, my beloved ones, Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc. who have died according to the prescribed rules, sit forever at my right hand and share my empire and my felicity.”

May all men remember that they are brothers! May they hold in horror tyranny exerted over souls, just as they do the violence which forcibly seizes the products of peaceful industry! And if the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate one another, let us not destroy one another in the midst of peace, and let us use the moment of our existence to bless, in a thousand different languages, from Siam to California, [God’s] goodness which has given us this moment.

-Voltaire, A Treatise on Tolerance

As a result of Voltaire’s efforts, 50 French judges were appointed to a panel to review Jean Calas’s case. Their charge was to decide whether anti-Huguenot prejudice had cost Jean Calas his life. They reversed Calas’s conviction on March 9, 1765, the third anniversary of the poor man’s condemnation.

A few French books about Jean Calas