Some notes on the history of tolerance

Tolerance and intolerance are themes at the center of many contemporary debates, and their prominence has become stronger after the tragic events in France on January 7 and 8, 2015. On Internet these events have sparkled many reactions. Whatever my views and opinions, for me one of the questions arising is also how these events should influence the stream of postings on this blog. Can one use historical situations to shed light on our times, or Is it sensible to stay somewhat aloof? Perhaps it is wiser to remember that to step aside is taking a side, too.

When somehow among all remarks and exchanges about the situation in France the name of Voltaire came into view it provided me with at least one element of a contribution about the origins of tolerance. Eighteenth-century France is the setting of this post. The history of tolerance is complicated, and the number of themes, persons and subjects here does reflect it. Philosophy, criminal law, legal advice, legislation, the world of literature and debate, and also images, should all appear here for good reasons, but for the sake of length legal matters will be at the center of this post, and other themes appear more at the margin. In fact it turns out to be really interesting to choose for this focus. To some extent you can read this post also as part of a guide to digital resources for the history of France during the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.

Although I do not want to make you suffer by reading a rather too long post I bring here on purpose several themes together which in my opinion are best seen in connection to each other. In my view the interplay between a multitude of subjects, themes and resources concerning the French Ancien Régime and the French Revolution is fairly typical when you want to study these subjects. You can read this post also as a sequel to my post ‘Laws and the French Revolution’ (January 2015).

Circles and layers around law and tolerance

Title page Traité sur la tolérance, 1763 - source: Wikimedia CommonsThe first focal point for tolerance in France during the Ancien Régime in the current discussion seems to be Voltaire’s Traité de la tolérance (1763). One can read this treatise as a plea for tolerance, both on a philosophical and a practical level, and the background of this text can seem a mere pretext or occasion for expressing these views. John Locke had put tolerance center stage to thoughts about the best possible way of government in his treatise A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689 – online for example at Early Modern Texts and the Constitution Society), but Voltaire is not just reacting in a philosophical debate without any connection to contemporary developments. Locke wrote his treatise one year after the Glorious Revolution (1688), and this, too, should make you hesitate to see the history of political thought as a history of ideas which can be studied in separation from contemporary surroundings.

Voltaire might not have qualified professionally as a philosopher, but he certainly belonged to the circle of French philosophes. It is important to note Locke expressed his views in a letter, and Voltaire in a book-length treatise, an interesting fact for a prolific letter writer and playwright. The literary dimensions of Voltaire’s work are really important in gauging the impact and importance of his views and thoughts. Of course it is wise to look beyond just one text of a writer, and exactly how you can realize this nowadays will be one of the issues in this post. Voltaire wrote texts in a number of literary genres, and he had wide contacts all over Europe, a fact returning later in this post. A characteristic of his work is the use of irony, and even more, the possibility to read his texts in several ways, both at face value or with a potential for irony immediately below the surface. This ambiguity makes it harder but also more interesting to gain a perspective on his views and coded messages.

The machinery of law

The initial impulse for Voltaire’s treatise on tolerance came from his reaction to the case of Jean Calas, a merchant from Toulouse who had been sentenced to death in 1762 by the Parlement de Toulouse for allegedly killing his son Marc-Antoine, presumably because his son wanted to convert to the Catholic church. Calas was subjected to torture and broken upon the wheel. If we remember this case today as a cause célèbre it is to a large extent thanks to Voltaire’s efforts. In an article from 1994, ‘Procès, affaire, cause: Voltaire et l ‘innovation critique’,1 Élisabeth Claverie analyzes the way Voltaire set out to make an affair out of this case, and indeed created the model for fueling public indignation about cases which seem to run contrary to the public good.

Assembling materials to expose alleged and real abuses of the Catholic Church and its influence on French society might seem an obvious thing for Voltaire, but he did look seriously enough at the exact dealings of the judiciary in the Calas case. His treatise was only a final phase in a series of letters and preparatory texts, some of them meant for public use, some definitely not. Voltaire used his connections to bring the case to the attention of the French king, including getting Calas’ widow to Paris to plead in person her case before the king. Whatever Voltaire’s views of harmful Catholic influence, he aimed foremost at an official rehabilitation of Calas. An online dossier by Anne Thouzet gives you detailed information about the trial at Toulouse, the infringements to the ordinance of the Parlement de Toulouse and royal ordinances about criminal procedure – in particular the Ordonnance criminelle of 1670 – and to various other documents and images. Thouzet also points to a number of relevant web links. The Archives départementales de la Haute-Garonne in Toulouse have created a PDF with transcriptions of some documents, ‘Calas, du procès à l’affaire’.


By chance I remembered that you can find several digitized documents about the Calas case at Tolosana, a digital library of the Université de Toulouse. On closer inspection Tolosana does bring us not only documents touching this case, but a very interesting selection of materials concerning law at Toulouse during the Ancien Régime, with customary law, arrêts (verdicts) of the Parlement de Toulouse, documents about municipal institutions and other jurisdictions, documents about lawyers and law teaching at the university of Toulouse, and a separate section on trials (procès toulousains). Let’s not forget to mention here also the Bibliotheca Tholosana, a collaborative project, and Rosalis, the digital library of the Bibliothèque de Toulouse. In Rosalis you can find one of the most famous manuscripts for the history of the medieval inquisition in Languedoc, discussed here in earlier postings.

The section of Tolosana for trials at Toulouse contains a distinctive number of mémoires judiciaires, also known as factums. In a factum cases were discussed for the general public and with a view also to the judges dealing with a particular case. A blog post by Léo Mabmacien about these factums leads you in particular to a selection of documents in a virtual exhibition created at Clermont-Ferrand, Les factums, justice des villes et des champs : le mémoire judiciaire du 17e au 19e siècle [The factums, justice in cities and fields. Judicial “memoires” from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century]. At the Bibliothèque nationale de France is the largest collection of existing factums, and in his very interesting post Mabmacien discusses these resources at Paris, too. The collection at Tolosana is at present the largest online collection of factums. Among the digitized documents for the Calas case is a number of mémoires judiciaires. Voltaire’s book-length treatise on tolerance is also included (PDF). In particular the mémoires published after 1762 are very valuable as sources for public and learned opinions about the case and efforts to annul the trial. At Bienvenue chez Monsieur de Voltaire you can find digital versions of the texts of a number of Voltaire’s letters (in the sections En direct par Voltaire), in particular those concerning the Calas case.

Logo Criminocorpus

For the history of French criminal law you can learn much at the fine Criminicorpus portal – with both a French and English interface – and at the website Le droit criminel created by Jean-Paul Doucet. At both websites you can find the text of relevant royal ordinances dealing with criminal procedure. Remembering Tolosana was not just a case of having a good memory. In fact I wrote here about Tolosana and the Calas case in June 2010. Five years later I still feel astonished that these digitized documents have scarcely been used in contributions about Voltaire. Their value is seriously diminished by this omission. The French online research portal Isidore has entries for seventeen relevant documents digitized at Tolosana, but the tags attached to them do not function. No wonder that the online presence of the various documents has remained somewhat in the shadow. Internet is definitely an ocean where you have to know the entrances to particular information.

Logo Isidore

Isidore, a portal focusing on the humanities and social sciences, has a search interface in French, English and Spanish. It did bring to my attention a recent Ph.D thesis about Adhémar Esmein (1848-1913), a famous French law professor and legal historian who did look at the Calas affair in his main textbooks on constitutional law [Antoine Chopplet, Adhémar Esmein et le droit constitutionnel de la liberté (thesis Université de Reims, 2012)]. Chopplet does not use these online documents for his study of Esmein’s view, but he does for example highlight the fact that Esmein did not comment on the fact that Voltaire himself had been a victim of the infamous lettres de cachet, one of the most glaring abuses of the French judicial system during the Ancien Régime. Esmein admired Voltaire for his detailed criticism of criminal procedure in his writings about the Calas affair. Montesquieu was perhaps much better equipped to do this, but on this subject he remained silent. In an even more recent Ph.D thesis available online at the Theses platform, La pensée politique d’Adhémar Esmein : l’historien du droit by Alexandre Fiorentini (thesis Aix-en-Provence, 2014), the interplay between Esmein’s political position and his views as a legal historian is further discussed.

Using online journals

By now it should be obvious that bringing together all these materials is only possible and feasible thanks to the use of linked computers. However, how can one safely digest these masses of information, and analyze them in a controlled and sensible way? Having the information at your disposal is one thing, using the right tools for analysis is another, and presenting a meaningful analysis should be the real challenge. Dealing with the Calas case can show you the use of some digital tools and projects. Perhaps it is good to stress here that I only show some of their highlights, not their entire scope.

However you think about my plea for a consistent use of the contemporary ocean of online materials, but it is wise not to neglect good bibliographical research. French research in the field of legal history can be tracked down online using the services of the Bibliographie d’histoire de droit en langue française (CLHD, Nancy) which can be consulted both in French and English. A simple search for Calas brings you to eleven titles published since 1964. Using the thesaurus (“Procès-Affaire Calas”) you will find ten titles. Earlier this year I already wrote here about this bibliography.

A number of French research portals help you to find quickly online versions of articles. The oldest portal Persée gives access to digitized issues of a number or well-known learned journals. For the Calas case you can find for example an article on the concept of proof by Jean-Louis Halpérin.2 A second interesting article is by Frank Kafker who discusses the role of Diderot who did not speak out about the Calas case in public, but behind the screens he used his influence and did write people about it.3 Another scholar discusses the general attitude of Diderot towards political actualities.4 The OpenEdition initiatives is not only home to the Hypotheses network of scientific blogs in French, German, and Spanish, but also the provider of a number of online journals at Revues, many of them completely or partially available in open access. Among the most relevant journals for my theme here ise the Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française.

Revues points for instance to the book by Janine Garrisson, L’Affaire Calas, miroir des passions françaises (Paris 2004) in an alert by Jacques Bernet [AHRF 354 (2008) 202-203]. At one of the blogs at Hypotheses, Criminocorpus, you can find a notice by Jean-Claude Facry about the recent study by Benoît Garnot, Voltaire et l’affaire Calas. Les faits, les interprétations, les enjeux (Paris 2013). Facry provides an overview of its contents. At the Criminocorpus portal itself is the History of Justice Online Museum, a very useful section with virtual exhibitions. It is certainly worth looking at the exhibit on Les exécutions publiques dans la France de l’Ancien Régime (only in French). OpenEdition publishes also online books, one of them a volume of articles about L’exécution capitale : Une mort donnée en spectacle, Régis Bertrand and Anne Carol (eds.) (Aix-en-Provence 2003), unfortunately not in open access, where you should look at the contribution of Robert A. Schneider, ‘Rites de mort à Toulouse : les exécutions publiques (1738-1780)’.

At Cairn you can look at some 400 scholarly journals. A search for the affaire Calas yields nearly 200 results. For the book by Janine Garrisson you can find a review by Laurence Kaufmann in Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 61/4 (2006), who mentions in particular a study by David Bien, L’affaire Calas. Hérésie, persécution, intolérance au XVIIIe siècle (Toulouse 1987). The search results at Cairn help you to find recent French literature on themes such as major trials, for example Les grands procès, Daniel Amson et alii (eds.) (Paris 2007) or a brochure by Jacques Vergès, Les erreurs judiciaires (Paris 2002) that appeared in the famous Que sais-je? series. Closer to the Calas affair is the volume of essays La plume et le prétoire. Quand les écrivains racontent la justice, Denis Salas (ed.) (Paris 2013 ), a special of the journal Histoire de la justice 23/1 (2013) with a pertinent article by Sylvie Humbert, ‘L’autre justice de la Dictionnaire philosophique‘ (p. 81-87), one of the publications of Voltaire during the 1760´s.

An article by Lynn Hunt, ´Le corps au xviiie siècle´, Diogène 203/3 (2003) 49-67, helps us to remember that the first major treatise against torture, by Cesare Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene, only appeared in 1764, and to notice also it was not the abuse of torture that prompted Voltaire into action in 1762. In 1766 Voltaire wrote a Commentaire sur le livre des délits et des peines. In view of the sheer length of this post I would rather not adduce here more examples of the results made available through the services of Persée, OpenEdition, and Cairn. If you want to look beyond recent French publications you can enlist the services of JournalsTOCs to get quick access to the tables of contents of many scholarly journals. A nice array of legal history journals in open access is available in the right sight bar of my blog.

With the Dictionnaire philosophique of Voltaire we touch the Republic of Letters. The world of European networks in the period of French hegemony deserves separate treatment here. I would have preferred to include a substantial section on it here, but wisdom tells me it is better to leave you here, albeit somewhat in suspense.

The digital turn

French historians have not been content with creating just one view of the Calas affair. They came back to it again and again, and it can even serve as a kind of thermometer of someone’s position. In this post I have tried to show some of the materials now available that have only seldom been used in connection with this case. In fact you can use the digital resources mentioned here also for the study of other subjects. Jean-Paul Doucet gives a nice list of famous trials on his website, and it my view it has become much easier to gain a head start using online resources than earlier on. This tournant numérique, this digital turn of doing history, is not only a matter of easy access to primary sources. Bringing into view resources scarcely considered before or almost forgotten, can broaden and deepen the way we look at all kinds of history, including legal history. In my opinion connecting legal history with history at large is one of the urgent needs of legal historians. It is up to me and you, to my and your creativity to make the digital turn fruitful and important.

I published a new post in this series in March 2016, ‘Images and the road to the French Revolution’.


1. Élisabeth Claverie, ‘Procès, affaire, cause: Voltaire et l’innovation critique’, in: Parler en public, a special issue of Politix. Travaux de science politique 7/26 (1994) 76-85; online at Persée.
2. Jean-Louis Halpérin, ‘La preuve judiciaire et la liberté du juge´, Communications 84 (2009) 21-32, online at Persée; special on Figures de la preuve.
3. Frank A. Kafker, ‘Le rôle de Diderot dans l’affaire Calas’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 21/1 (1998) 7-14, online at Persée.
4. Hédia Ouertani-Khadhar, ´Diderot et l’actualité politique´, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 18-19 (1995) 93-103, online at Persée.

A postscript

Lately I discovered two digital collections with digitized factums. Legal materials from the Auvergne, a region where customary law hold sway, have been digitized at Clermont-Ferrand for the Overnia portal, with among them a few hundred factums. At the Internet Archive the Bilbiothèque Sainte Geneviève in Paris has published nearly 900 digitized factums and mémoires judiciaires.

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