Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

A poor gentleman of the province of Hagenau, cultivated his small estate, and St. Ragonda, or Radegonda, was the patron of his parish.

Now it happened, on the feast of St. Ragonda, that it was necessary to do something to this poor gentleman’s field, without which great loss would be incurred. The master, with all his family, after having devoutly assisted at mass, went to cultivate his land, on which depended the subsistence of his family, while the rector and the other parishioners went to tipple as usual.

The rector, while enjoying his glass, was informed of the enormous offence committed in his parish by this profane laborer, and went, burning with wine and anger, to seek the cultivator. “Sir, you are very insolent and very impious to dare to cultivate your field, instead of going to the tavern like other people.” “I agree, sir,” replied the gentleman, “that it is necessary to drink to the honor of the saint; but it is also necessary to eat, and my family would die of hunger if I did not labor.” “Drink and die, then,” said the vicar. “In what law, in what book is it so written?” said the laborer. “In Ovid,” replied the vicar. “I think you are mistaken,” said the gentleman; “in what part of Ovid have you read that I should go to the tavern rather than cultivate my field on St. Ragonda’s day?”

It should be remarked that both the gentleman and the pastor were well educated men. “Read the metamorphoses of the daughters of Minyas,” said the vicar. “I have read it,” replied the other, “and I maintain that they have no relation to my plough.” “How, impious man! do you not remember that the daughters of Minyas were changed into bats for having spun on a feast day?” “The case is very different,” replied the gentleman, “these ladies had not rendered any homage to Bacchus. I have been at the mass of St. Ragonda, you can have nothing to say to me; you cannot change me into a bat.” “I will do worse,” said the priest, “I will fine you.” He did so. The poor gentleman was ruined: he quitted the country with his family — went into a strange one — became a Lutheran — and his ground remained uncultivated for several years.

This affair was related to a magistrate of good sense and much piety. These are the reflections which he made upon it:

“They were no doubt innkeepers,” said he, “that invented this prodigious number of feasts; the religion of peasants and artisans consists in getting tipsy on the day of a saint, whom they only know by this kind of worship. It is on these days of idleness and debauchery that all crimes are committed; it is these feasts which fill the prisons, and which support the police officers, registers, lieutenants of police, and hangmen; the only excuse for feast-days among us. From this cause Catholic countries are scarcely cultivated at all; whilst heretics, by daily cultivating their lands, produce abundant crops.”

It is all very well that the shoemakers should go in the morning to mass on St. Crispin’s day, because crepido signifies the upper leather of a shoe; that the brush-makers should honor St. Barbara their patron; that those who have weak eyes should hear the mass of St. Clara: that St. — should be celebrated in many provinces; but after having paid their devoirs to the saints they should become serviceable to men, they should go from the altar to the plough; it is the excess of barbarity, and insupportable slavery, to consecrate our days to idleness and vice. Priests, command, if it be necessary that the saints Roche, Eustace, and Fiacre, be prayed to in the morning; but, magistrates, order your fields to be cultivated as usual. It is labor that is necessary; the greater the industry the more the day is sanctified.

§ II.

Letter from a Weaver of Lyons to the Gentlemen of the Commission established at Paris, for the Reformation of Religious Orders, printed in the public papers in 1768.


“I am a silk-weaver, and have worked at Lyons for nineteen years. My wages have increased insensibly; at present I get thirty-five sous per day. My wife, who makes lace, would get fifteen more, if it were possible for her to devote her time to it; but as the cares of the house, illness, or other things, continually hinder her, I reduce her profit to ten sous, which makes forty-five sous daily. If from the year we deduct eighty-two Sundays, or holidays, we shall have two hundred and eighty-four profitable days, which at forty-five sous make six hundred and thirty-nine livres. That is my revenue; the following are my expenses:

“I have eight living children, and my wife is on the point of being confined with the eleventh; for I have lost two. I have been married fifteen years: so that I annually reckon twenty-four livres for the expenses of her confinements and baptisms, one hundred and eight livres for two nurses, having generally two children out at nurse, and sometimes even three. I pay fifty-seven livres rent and fourteen taxes.

“My income is then reduced to four hundred and thirty-six livres, or twenty-five sous three deniers a day, with which I have to clothe and furnish my family, buy wood and candles, and support my wife and six children.

“I look forward to holidays with dismay. I confess that I often almost curse their institution. They could only have been instituted by usurers and innkeepers.

“My father made me study hard in my youth, and wished me to become a monk, showing me in that state a sure asylum against want; but I always thought that every man owes his tribute to society, and that monks are useless drones who live upon the labor of the bees. Notwithstanding, I acknowledge that when I see John C — with whom I studied, and who was the most idle boy in the college, possessing the first place among the prémontrés, I cannot help regretting that I did not listen to my father’s advice.

“This is the third holiday in Christmas, I have pawned the little furniture I had, I am in a week’s debt with my tradesman, and I want bread — how are we to get over the fourth? This is not all; I have the prospect of four more next week. Great God! Eight holidays in ten days; you cannot have commanded it!

“One year I hoped that rents would diminish by the suppression of one of the monasteries of the Capuchins and Cordeliers. What useless houses in the centre of Lyons are those of the Jacobins, nuns of St. Peter, etc. Why not establish them in the suburbs if they are thought necessary? How many more useful inhabitants would supply their places!

“All these reflections, gentlemen, have induced me to address myself to you who have been chosen by the king for the task of rectifying abuses. I am not the only one who thinks thus. How many laborers in Lyons and other places, how many laborers in the kingdom are reduced to the same extremities as myself? It is evident that every holiday costs the state several millions (livres). These considerations will lead you to take more to heart the interests of the people, which are rather too little attended to.

“I have the honor to be, etc.,


This request, which was really presented, will not be misplaced in a work like the present.

§ III.

The feast given to the Roman people by Julius Cæsar and the emperors who succeeded him are well known. The feast of twenty-two thousand tables served by twenty-two thousand purveyors; the naval fights on artificial lakes, etc., have not, however, been imitated by the Herulian, Lombard, and Frankish chieftains, who would have their festivity equally celebrated.

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