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Camisards were Huguenots (French Protestants) of the rugged and isolated Cévennes region of south-central France, who raised an insurrection against the persecutions which followed the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. The revolt by the Camisards broke out in 1702, with the worst of the fighting through 1704, then scattered fighting until 1710 and a final peace by 1715.
The name camisard in the Occitan language is variously attributed to a type of linen smock or shirt known as a camisa that peasants wear in lieu of any sort of uniform; camisada, in the sense of "night attack", is derived from a feature of their tactics.
Eventually the name Black Camisard came to refer to Protestants, while White Camisards (also known as "Cadets of the Cross") were Catholics organized to check the blacks. Both groups were known for committing atrocities.
The revolt of the Protestants followed about twenty years of persecutions. Protestant peasants of the region, led by a number of teachers known as "prophets", rebelled against the officially sanctioned dragonnades (conversions enforced by dragoons, labeled "missionaries in boots") that followed the Edict of Fontainebleau, in which soldiers were billeted in the homes of Protestants to make them convert or emigrate. Clandestine prophets and their armed followers were hidden in houses and caves in the mountains; Protestants were arrested, deported to America or turned into galley slaves; entire villages were massacred and burnt to the ground in a series of stunning atrocities. Several leading prophets were tortured and executed and many more were exiled, leaving the abandoned congregations to the leadership of less educated and more mystically-oriented preachers known as "prophets", such as the wool-comber Abraham Mazel.
Open hostilities began on 24 July 1702, with the assassination at le Pont-de-Montvert of a local embodiment of royal oppression, François Langlade, the Abbé of Chaila, who had recently arrested and tortured a group of Protestants accused of attempting to flee France. The abbé was quickly lionized in print as a martyr of his faith. Led by the young Jean Cavalier and Roland Laporte, the Camisards met the ravages of the royal army with irregular warfare methods and withstood superior forces in several pitched battles.
Other Protestants, like those of Fraissinet-de-Lozère, under the influence of village elites, chose a loyalist attitude and fought the Camisards. They were nevertheless equally victims of the destruction of their houses during the "Great Burning of the Cévennes" ordered in late 1703.
White Camisards, also known as "Cadets of the Cross" ("Cadets de la Croix", from a small white cross which they wore on their coats), were Catholics from neighboring communities such as St. Florent, Senechas and Rousson who, on seeing their old enemies on the run, organized into companies to hunt the rebels down. They committed atrocities, such as killing 52 people at the village of Brenoux, including pregnant women and children.
In 1704, Claude Louis Hector de Villars, the royal commander, offered Cavalier vague concessions to the Protestants and the promise of a command in the royal army. Cavalier's acceptance of the offer broke the revolt, although others, including Laporte, refused to submit unless the Edict of Nantes was restored. Scattered fighting went on until 1710, but the true end of the uprising was the arrival in the Cévennes of the Protestant minister Antoine Court and the reestablishment of a small Protestant community that was largely left in peace, especially after the death of Louis XIV in 1715.
Cavalier later went over to the British, who made him Governor of the island of Jersey.
A millenarian group of ex-Camisards under the guidance of Elie Marion emigrated to London in 1706, and were said to have links with the Alumbrados. They were generally treated with scorn and some official repression as the "French Prophets". Their example and their writings had some influence later, both on the spiritual outlook of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and on Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement.
Role in the survival of Protestantism in France
It is clearly established that, after the main active camisard groups had been subdued in various ways, the French authorities were keen not to re-ignite the revolt and took a much moderate approach to anti-protestant repression. Many former camisards came back to a more peaceful approach and from 1715 onwards helped reestablish a still illegal but now much better organised protestantism under the leadership of Antoine Court and of the numerous travelling pastors who could then reenter the country.
"The Camisards' legend"
In his book with this title history professor Philippe Joutard registered the very lively oral tradition about the camisards which has prevailed to this day in the Cévennes region. He also observed the "attraction power" of this very striking period of history as many unrelated episodes are now integrated in this oral tradition. Because this oral transmission is mainly done through the families it often highlights more of their own ancestors who were faithful to their convictions than the heroic leaders of the revolt. In so doing it valorizes beyond the original religious question a general attitude of resistance and non-conformity which determines a whole philosophical, political and human culture and way of life. Philippe Joutard also noted that even the arch-minority of catholics living in this protestant part of the country tend to reconstruct their history in the same way than their former religious opponents. The footprint of the camisards in Cévennes is thus particularly deep and lasting.
First guerilla war ever ?
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It can be argued that the Cévennes uprising of 1702-1704 constitutes one the very first example of guerilla warfare, of which there will be many more examples only at the end of the 18th century (like the Chouans revolt against the French Revolution) and beyond.
Notes and references
- Antoine Court de Gébelin (2009), Histoire des troubles des Cévennes ou de la guerre des camisards sous le règne de Louis le Grand, reprint of the original text printed in 1760. Editions Lacour-Ollé, Nîmes (in French).
- fr:Abraham Mazel#Le début de la guerre des Camisards
- Pierre-Jean Ruff, 2008. Le Temple du Rouve: lieu de mémoire des Camisards. Editions Lacour-Ollé, Nîmes.Website Le Temple du Rouve, the first Camisards and freedom of conscience
- Ana Eliza Bray (1870), The Revolt of the Protestants of the Cevennes, with some account of the Huguenots in the seventeenth century. John Murray, London.
- Ghislain Baury, La dynastie Rouvière de Fraissinet-de-Lozère. Les élites villageoises dans les Cévennes protestantes d'après un fonds d'archives inédit (1403-1908), t. 1: La chronique, t. 2: L'inventaire, Sète, Les Nouvelles Presses du Languedoc, 2011, http://sites.google.com/site/dynastierouviere/
- Philippe Joutard, Les Camisards, Gallimard 1976, rédité en coll. Folio Histoire en 1994, pp.217-219
- Philippe Joutard, La Légende des Camisards, NRF Gallimard, 1977
- Philippe Joutard, La Légende des Camisards, NRF Gallimard, 1977, p. 355
Although most of the sources are in French and remain untranslated there are a number of excellent sources available in English:
- Alexandre Dumas, Massacres of the South.
- H. M. Baird (1895), Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes ISBN 1-59244-636-1
- Napoléon Peyrat (1842). History of the Desert Fathers: from the revolution of the Edict of Nantes to the French Revolution, 1685-1789.
- Robert Louis Stevenson (1879), Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. Travel literature.
- Samuel Rutherford Crockett (1903), Flower-o'-the-Corn. Historical fiction.†
|Look up Camisard in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- A full history of the Camisards (in French with some sections also in English).
- The Story of the Gevaudan and the War of the Camisards in the Cevennes
- Regordane Info - The independent portal for The Regordane Way or St Gilles Trail (in English and French)
- A memorial devoted to the first Camisards at the temple of Le Rouve in the Cevennes