Though over four centuries have passed, the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre of 1572 remains a very controversial and bitterly divisive event. In this singular act of brutality, the Catholic partisans of Queen Catherine de Medici attacked and slaughtered their Huguenot opponents affiliated with the Admiral de Coligny in Paris and throughout the provinces. This event has been held up by Protestants as an example of the repressive tendencies of Catholics in power, while atheists and liberals tout the massacre as an example of the intolerance religion can bring about in general.
There are many things we could dispute about the event: Was it premeditated or spontaneous? Was it defensive or a ruthless act of oppression? Did the pope ever approve of it? These issues we shall address in the future if God grants us time, but in this article we will examine one of the most fundamental disagreements surrounding this event: How many people died in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre?
The Death Toll According to Protestant and Catholic Sources
Some estimates of the death toll from the St. Bartholomew Massacre are patently absurd in their magnitude. Various anti-Catholic evangelical websites that claim up to 4 million Huguenots killed in 1572 (1). This death toll is laughable in its inaccuracy, especially since most historians estimate there was only 1.5 to 2 million Huguenots in all of France at the time of the massacre; even Protestant sources do not estimate the total Protestant population of France—including all sects—to be any greater than 2 million. (2) Other Protestant sources, recognizing the irresponsibility in asserting 4 million, have proposed 1.1 million as the true number; this would mean at least 50% of the Huguenots in the country were wiped out, a figure that still seems recklessly high.
On the other hand, some Catholic apologists of the time proposed a very low death toll, closer to 2,000 killed, which is also untenable given subsequent research that has conclusively proven the death toll to be at least 3,000 in the city if Paris alone. Obviously, a death toll of 2,000 is too low.
So, we are left with a yawning chasm of somewhere between 2,000 and 1 million, which is quite a chasm to close! Though the task is daunting, let us look at the evidence and see if we can’t narrow this gap.
First, let us look at what some contemporary sources state about the death toll from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
The Duke of Sully, a Huguenot leader who barely escaped death himself, estimated around 70,000 dead. (3) The Huguenots maintained a semi-official death toll which they published in the 1581 “Martyrology of the Huguenots,” a sort of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for the French Protestants. In that work, published nine years after the massacre, the death toll is placed at 15,138 (although only 786 persons are mentioned by name). This book was received enthusiastically by the French Huguenots; no Huguenot at the time contradicted the numbers put forward in the book. (4)
Later writers would drastically revise this number, upping it considerably. Rev. Reuben Parsons, who wrote an extensive history of the event in his 1893 book Some Lies and Errors of History, notes that, “The number of the victims of the massacre has been greatly exaggerated. It is remarkable that in proportion to their distance in time from this event, authors increase the number of the slaughtered. Thus, Masson gives it as 10,000; the Calvinist martyrologist as about 15,000; the Calvinist, La Popelinière, as more than 20,000; De Thou, the apologist of the Huguenots, as 30,000 “or a little less;” the Huguenot Sully as 70,000; Péréfixe, a Catholic bishop, as 100,000.”(5) Modern Huguenot apologists claim the number of dead at 300,000. (6)
Yet, testimonies from survivors and contemporaries are only of so much value. In all historical periods, the testimony from massacre survivors has been put forward in an absolute way, granting it a universal authority Survivor testimonies, however, are not always the best criteria for determining the truth of what happened. Scholars must distance themselves sufficiently from the subject at hand so as to determine the facts objectively. The fact that one participated in, say, the Battle of Gettysburg, does not grant one automatic knowledge about everything that went on at Gettysburg, much less elements of the battle far removed from one’s immediate field of experience. Eye-witness testimony is helpful for establishing what occurred in a very specific place and time, but not for drawing conclusions about the totality of the event, especially if it occurred throughout an entire country, as happened in the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre. Because of the sporadic nature of the massacres, the different degrees of record keeping in various places, and the challenges to communication in 16th century France, it is not possible that a single participant could have a sufficiently accurate view of the entire event. Contemporary accounts are helpful, but not absolutely authoritative.
Evidence Based on Parisian and Provincial Records
What kinds of objective evidence can we look at to get a better of view of the number of people killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre? There is scant evidence available, but perhaps enough to formulate some rough estimates.
Paris is the only city about which any hard evidence is known to exist. It is admitted by almost all parties that nearly 3,000 Huguenots were slain in Paris in five days, from the night of of August 23-24 to August 29, 1572. How do we arrive at this number? According to royal records, thirty-five livres were paid to the grave-diggers of the Cemetery of the Innocents for the interment of 1,100 corpses after the massacre (7), but it is also known that many more were thrown into the Seine River. Presuming that the amount of corpses thrown into the river would be either roughly equal or perhaps slightly greater than the amount buried, we could presume between 2,000 and 3,000 dead in the city of Paris. Most historians opt for 3,000. If the difference between those buried and those thrown into the river were too much larger (say, 1,100 buried and 15,000 thrown in the river), it is difficult to see why the authorities would have taken the pains to bury anyone at all. The fact that 1,100 were buried and then more were thrown into the river suggests that the amount of corpses deposited in the Seine was either equal to or less than those buried. This is agreed upon my most scholars, including David El Kenz, foremost modern historian of the French Wars of Religion and noted Lecturer in Modern History Université de Bourgogne in France. Others have suggested that the number thrown into the river was trivial and that 1,100 for Paris constituted a fair number for the total slain in that city. (8)
There is virtually no records for the provinces. But, there are a few facts we can glean to estimate how many may have perished around the kingdom. First, as the Huguenot leaders that were the object of the attack were assembled in the city of Paris, we can safely assume the killing was fiercest in the city of Paris itself. This is also evidenced by the fact that, the very day of the slaughter, King Charles IX issued a decree calling an end to the violence for the purpose of preventing what had happened in Paris from spreading to the provinces. (9) Of course his decree was not heeded in its entirety as the killings continued, but the royal decree must have mitigated some of its vehemence.
This would explain why in many cases, Catholics in the provinces went out of their way to shield Huguenots from the impending violence. At Lyons, as even the Calvinist Martyrology informs us, many of the Huguenots were sent for safety to the archiepiscopal prison and to the Celestine and Franciscan convents. And if we are told that some of those who were consigned to the archiepiscopal prison fell victims to their enemies, we reply, with the same Calvinist author, that this outrage was committed during the absence and without the knowledge of the governor; that on his return he put a stop to it, and offered a reward of a hundred scudi for the names of the criminals. This author also tells us that “the Calvinists of Toulouse found safety in the convents.” At Lisieux the bishop saved many, as the martyrologist admits (10) and he also says that “the more peaceable Catholics saved forty out of sixty who had been seized at the town of Romans; of the twenty others, thirteen were afterward freed, and only seven perished, they having many enemies, and having borne arms.” Even at Nîmes, where the Huguenots had twice massacred the Catholics in cold blood (in 1567 and 1569), the latter abstained from revenge. (11) Paris also furnished many examples of compassion. The Calvinist historian, La Popelinière, a contemporary author, records that “among the French nobles who distinguished themselves in saving the lives of many of the confederates, the greatest good was effected by the dukes of Guise, Aumale, Biron, Bellièvre. . . .” (12)
Thus, it seems highly improbable that the massacres at Lyon, Toulouse, etc. were worse than the massacres at Paris, which we have already established to be in the 2,000 to 3,000 range. David El Kenz estimates the number of dead throughout all of the provinces to be around 7,000 (13). This is also affirmed by Cambridge historian Phillip Benedict, who in his methodical study of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre at is played out in the city of Rouen, extrapolated a number of around 7,000 dead for all of the provinces. (14)
If this were true, then a reasonable estimate of the total slain in the massacre would be around 9,000 to 10,000, with 2,000-3,000 in the city of Paris alone. Even the Huguenots’ original estimate of 15,138 would not be unreasonably high, but clearly numbers as high as 100,000 or 300,000 are rendered very improbable by this evidence.
Problems With High Death Tolls for the Bartholomew Day Massacre
Suppose, however, that someone were to deny the evidence and the consensus of historians and insist on a higher death toll, such as 300,000. Even apart from the historical evidence, this number has its own problems. Let us suppose, for the sake of example, that 300,000 people did in fact die in the six days of violence. At that rate, you’d have to have the following:
• 50,000people killed every day
• 2083 people killed every hour of the day and night
• 35 people killed every single minute continuously
•1 person killed every two seconds (approximately)
Can we really assert that the French Catholics in 1572 were killing 50,000 people per day at a rate of 2083 per hour in a spontaneous, unplanned orgy of violence? To put this in perspective: The Auschwitz concentration camp, when operating at its peak, was only able to kill 19,200 people per day. (15) The Auschwitz facility was designed for the sole purpose of intentionally exterminating human beings with all the technological conveniences modernity could offer. Yet, at its peak, this camp could only kill 38% of the number of humans we are supposed to believe the French in 1572 managed to kill in a day.
This is highly unlikely, especially since we know 50,000 people were not killed on the night of August 23rd in Paris; Paris, the center of the violence and the only locale with a semi-reliable record of the death toll, had between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths. Since this is the case, this means that, using our 300,000 number, the provinces would have to account for 297,000 deaths over only five days. This brings the total number of dead over the remaining five days at the even more improbable number of 59,400 per day.
This is highly improbable. Remember, that number presupposes that the French Catholics were massacring 59,400 per day at a rate of one killed ever other second. Clearly, the massacres were not happening twenty-four hours a day without interruption. If we make the relatively modest concession that the wicked Catholic murderers had to at least sleep for five hours a night during the six days of the massacre, this raises the amount killed every day to from 2083 per hour to 3,126 per hour, or 52 people every single minute, or a person and a half every single second for nineteen hours straight every day for six consecutive days without respite.
Since it is absurd to think that the killing went on like this without respite—especially since we know Charles IX made considerable efforts in the later days of the massacre to halt the violence—we would be forced to say that most of the 300,000 were killed in the first two or three days, which would in turn compel us to raise these per day/per hour rates even higher to the point of utter foolishness.
The example we have used was a proposed death toll of 300,000. If this death toll is not substantiated by the facts and does not stand up to mathematical scrutiny, the even higher death tolls put forward by some anti-Catholics. Estimates such as 500,000, 1.1 million (which would mean 1/20th of the whole population of France was killed) or 4 million can certainly not stand up. Such high estimates are neither reasonable in light of the mathematics, nor are they supported by the majority of historians in the field.
The most likely scenario given the evidence is that around 3,000 Parisian Huguenots were killed in the initial orgy of violence on the night of August 23-24th, 1572. Probably half of these bodies were buried in the Cemetery of the Innocents, but when the cemetery became full, the remaining bodies were dumped in the Seine. The Huguenots’ own calculations in the 1581 “Martyrology of the Huguenots” support these numbers.
Other massacres broke out in the provinces, but none as brutal as the one in Paris; conflicting messages were circulating, some purporting to act on the king’s behalf in attacking Huguenots, others heeding his later call to end the violence. These conflicted messages rendered the subsequent killings in the provinces more sporadic and less intense than those in Paris. Around 7,000 additional Huguenots were slain throughout the entire countryside over the next five days. By the time the killings ended on August 29th, around 10,000 people had been killed throughout the kingdom. This death toll for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre lines up with the research the Huguenots themselves conducted and goes along with the research of some of the most well-respected historians in the field. It is also free from the mathematical absurdities of the larger estimates.
The massacre was a spontaneous event that quickly spiraled out of control. Records of it were muddled, and even those who participated in it were not certain what was going on and where. Debates about the number of people killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre will undoubtedly continue; even so, we need have no worry from anti-Catholic antagonists who propose absurdly high death tolls from the massacre in an attempt to paint Catholics as bloody fanatics. The massacre was tragic, and even one person wrongly killed is still a terrible crime, but numbers do mean something, and there is a big difference between asserting 10,000 dead and 1.1 million dead.
(3) Saint Bartholomew’s Day, Massacre of (2008) Encyclopaedia Britannia Deluxe Edition, Chicago
(4) Monatgu, Robert. On Some Popular Errors Concerning Politics and Religion. London: Burns and Oates, 1874. p. 170
(5) Parsons, Reuben. Some Lies and Errors of History. Notre Dame, Indiana: The Ave Maria; 7th edition; 1893, pg. 287
(6) Crouzet, D. La Nuit de la Saint-Barthélemy. Un rêve perdu de la Renaissance, Paris: Fayard, 1994. pp.34-35
(9) Goyau, Georges. “Saint Bartholomew’s Day.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 5 Dec. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13333b.htm>.
(10) M. de Falloux, in the Correspondent of 1843, pp. 166-168.
(11) Menard: “Histoire Civile, Eccl., et Lit., de Nîmes;” vol. v, p. 9.
(12) “Histoire de France de 1550 jusqu’à 1557” edit. 1581; b. xxix, p. 67.
(13) David El Kenz, Massacres during the Wars of Religion, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 3 November 2007, accessed 5 December 2012, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Massacres-during-the-Wars-of-Religion, ISSN 1961-9898
(14) Benedict, Phillip. Rouen during the Wars of Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981
(15) Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture, New York: Doubleday, 2000, pp. 194-195
Phillip Campbell, “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre Death Toll,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, December 5, 2012. Available online at http://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/09/st-bartholomews-day-massacre-death-toll