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The Memory of St. Bartholomew

By August 30, 2012 No Comments

Just back from Paris, where I conferenced for a couple days and walked around for a couple more. Two sights struck me most: how very few overweight, much less obese, people you see walking around, and how relatively many women you see wearing the hijab. Ok, the latter set is pretty small in raw numbers, but compared to the count in typical Midwestern City USA, it still stands out. I particularly noticed the good number of Muslim mothers out on the Champs Elysee at night with their kids, taking in the sights and sounds much like the flocks of locals and tourists around them. The kids in question were dressed in standard issue jeans and shoes; the moms have grown cell-phones out of their ears in like proportion to everybody else.

The impact these images made clearly says more about my perceptual grid than the reality perceived. I take it to be a register of how subtly, yet profoundly, standard American media images have pervaded my subconscious. ‘Look Ma,’ I’m crying with relief, ‘these folks with the scary insignia act just like everybody else.’ Looking in the shop windows. Buying their kids ice cream. Trying to keep them in line. Stopping to take in the buskers doing their thing; the Irish string band seemed especially popular that night.

The impression really sank home last Sunday, when I found myself in the American Church in Paris, worshipping in fairly traditional format amid a congregation of Parisians, African diaspora types, and assorted North American Anglos. A fairly ordinary mix for a big metropolis, pervaded by a happy,  confident air. Only the special occasion being marked that day seemed out of place—actually, totally discordant. It was the 440th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of thousands of Huguenots by their Catholic neighbors, centered in Paris. A bloodletting commissioned at the top, over jealousies of the Huguenot minority’s supposedly growing political power, but then exploding through the rank and file of Parisian society. In the next couple of days the killing spread to the countryside where thousands more fell to the mob. In the city proper, the American Church guide told us during the tour after service, over 1000 bodies washed up on a spit of sand that ran down the Seine right in front of the Church property. The bodies were buried on the closest shore, a good number of them possibly on the very site where the Church now stands.

The sordid affair was mentioned only in passing in the very good sermon for the day. That is to say, a religious disparity that had once led thousands of people to fall upon their neighbors and kill them in the name of God, earning applause from church and state leaders alike and special medals from the papacy, has long since given way to repentance and mutual acceptance. If so with Protestant and Catholic, why not also with Christian and Muslim, fear-mongered to death—sometimes literally—in Norway and the USA, but showing quite another face, a face of peaceable pleasure, along the street of the Elysian Fields.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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