Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

On Natural Liberty.

In several countries, and particularly in France, collections have been made of the juridical murders which tyranny, fanaticism, or even error and weakness, have committed with the sword of justice.

There are sentences of death which whole years of vengeance could scarcely expiate, and which will make all future ages tremble. Such are the sentences given against the natural king of Naples and Sicily, by the tribunal of Charles of Anjou; against John Huss and Jerome of Prague, by priests and monks; and against the king of England, Charles I., by fanatical citizens.

After these enormous crimes, formally committed, come the legal murders committed by indolence, stupidity, and superstition, and these are innumerable. We shall relate some of them in other articles.

In this class we must principally place the trials for witchcraft, and never forget that even in our days, in 1750, the sacerdotal justice of the bishop of Würzburg has condemned as a witch a nun, a girl of quality, to the punishment of fire. I here repeat this circumstance, which I have elsewhere mentioned, that it should not be forgotten. We forget too much and too soon.

Every day of the year I would have a public crier, instead of crying as in Germany and Holland what time it is — which is known very well without their crying — cry: It was on this day that, in the religious wars Magdeburg and all its inhabitants were reduced to ashes. It was on May 14th that Henry IV. was assassinated, only because he was not submissive to the pope; it was on such a day that such an abominable cruelty was perpetrated in your town, under the name of justice.

These continual advertisements would be very useful; but the judgments given in favor of innocence against persecutors should be cried with a much louder voice. For example, I propose, that every year, the two strongest throats which can be found in Paris and Toulouse shall cry these words in all the streets: It was on such a day that fifty magistrates of the council re-established the memory of John Calas, with a unanimous voice, and obtained for his family the favors of the king himself, in whose name John Calas had been condemned to the most horrible execution.

It would not be amiss to have another crier at the door of all the ministers, to say to all who came to demand lettres de cachet, in order to possess themselves of the property of their relations, friends, or dependents: Gentlemen, fear to seduce the minister by false statements, and to abuse the name of the king. It is dangerous to take it in vain. There was in the world one Gerbier, who defended the cause of the widow and orphan oppressed under the weight of a sacred name. It was he who, at the bar of the Parliament of Paris, obtained the abolishment of the Society of Jesus. Listen attentively to the lesson which he gave to the society of St. Bernard, conjointly with Master Loiseau, another protector of widows.

You must first know, that the reverend Bernardine fathers of Clairvaux possess seventeen thousand acres of wood, seven large forges, fourteen large farms, a quantity of fiefs, benefices, and even rights in foreign countries. The yearly revenue of the convent amounts to two hundred thousand livres. The treasure is immense; the abbot’s palace is that of a prince. Nothing is more just; it is a poor recompense for the services which the Bernardines continually render to the State.

It happened, that a youth of seventeen years of age, named Castille, whose baptismal name was Bernard, believed, for that reason, that he should become a Bernardine. It is thus that we reason at seventeen, and sometimes at thirty. He went to pass his novitiate at Lorraine, in the abbey of Orval. When he was required to pronounce his vows, grace was wanting in him: he did not sign them; he departed and became a man again. He established himself at Paris, and at the end of thirty years, having made a little fortune, he married, and had children.

The reverend father, attorney of Clairvaux, named Mayeur, a worthy solicitor, brother of the abbot, having learned from a woman of pleasure at Paris, that this Castille was formerly a Bernardine, plotted to challenge him as a deserter — though he was not really engaged — to make his wife pass for his concubine, and to place his children in the hospital as bastards. He associated himself with another rogue to divide the spoils. Both went to the court for lettres de cachet, exposed their grievances in the name of St. Bernard, obtained the letter, seized Bernard Castille, his wife, and their children, possessed themselves of all the property, and are now devouring it, you know where.

Bernard Castille was shut up at Orval in a dungeon, where he was executed after six months, for fear that he should demand justice. His wife was conducted to another dungeon, at St. Pelagie, a house for prostitutes. Of three children, one died in the hospital.

Things remained in this state for three years. At the end of this time, the wife of Castille obtained her enlargement. God is just: He gave a second husband to the widow. The husband, named Lannai, was a man of head, who discovered all the frauds, horrors, and crimes employed against his wife. They both entered into a suit against the monks. It is true, that brother Mayeur, who is called Dom Mayeur, was not hanged, but the convent of Clairvaux was condemned to pay forty thousand livres. There is no convent which would not rather see its attorney hanged than lose its money.

This history should teach you, gentlemen, to use much moderation in the fact of lettres de cachet. Know, that Master Elias de Beaumont, that celebrated defender of the memory of Calas, and Master Target that other protector of oppressed innocence, caused the man to pay a fine of twenty thousand francs, who by his intrigues had gained a lettre de cachet to seize upon the dying countess of Lancize, to drag her from the bosom of her family and divest her of all her titles.

When tribunals give such sentences as these, we hear clapping of hands from the extent of the grand chamber to the gates of Paris. Take care of yourselves, gentlemen; do not lightly demand lettres de cachet.

An Englishman, on reading this article, exclaimed, “What is a lettre de cachet?” We could never make him comprehend it.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01