Adam Smith and Abbeville (redux)

Hello. I have been making significant revisions and additions to the last part of my most recent work-in-progress “Adam Smith in Love.” Here is an extended excerpt:

… Smith’s stay in Abbeville may have also been significant for another reason. It was in Abbeville that a young orphan, the Chevalier de La Barre, became the last man in Europe to be put to death for the crime of blasphemy.[1] At the time, “l’affaire du Chevalier de La Barre” attracted attention across France–even attracting the sustained notice of the celebrated atheist and free-thinker Voltaire, who wrote not one but two accounts of the young de La Barre’s prosecution and sentence.[2] Indeed, this case has become so central to the identity and history of modern France that many streets are named after the Chevalier de La Barre and many monuments were subsequently erected in his honor, including a statue (pictured below) standing at the gates of the famous Sacred Heart Cathedral in the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris.[3]

This celebrated case was set into motion in the summer of 1765, while Smith was still in the South of France, when a wooden crucifix was mutilated under mysterious circumstances on the night August of 8-9, 1865.[4] The crucifix was a cherished object, standing atop the main bridge of Abbeville, le Pont-Neuf over the Somme river, a bridge that Adam Smith himself must have crossed when he visited Abbeville in 1766.[5] To this day, the identity of the original vandal or vandals is unknown, but after a lengthy investigation the Chevalierde La Barre was one of several young noblemen–including one Saveuse de Belleval, the son of the lead judge/investigator in the case–who were accused of committing numerous acts of blasphemy and anti-Catholic vandalism.

Although the other suspects either received light sentences or avoided prosecution by fleeing,[6] the unlucky Chevalier de La Barre was apprehended, put on trial in February of 1766, and was adjudged guilty and sentenced to death on 20 February.[7] A few months later (4 June 1766), the Parlement of Paris–a judicial body similar to an appellate courtconfirmed de La Barre’s death sentence on appeal.[8] In the end, the unfortunate Chevalier de La Barre was burned at the stake, along with his collection of outlaw books in Abbeville’s town square on 1 July 1766.[9] Could this execution have taken place during Adam Smith’s sojourn in Abbeville? Nay, could the actual reason for Adam Smith’s visit to Abbeville have been to attend this judicial execution in person?

Whatever the timing and motives of Adam Smith’s visit to Abbeville, during the original judicial investigation of the August 1865 cross-mutilation incident, a search of the Chevalier de La Barre’s bedroom led to the discovery of incriminating evidence consisting of a collection of “loasthsome books” (livres abominables, Claverie, 1992, p. 275). In addition to Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, which had been banned in France, among the other outlaw books in de La Barre’s bedroom were the following erotic tomes[10]:

            1. Therese philosophe.[11]

            2. Le portier des Chartreux.[12]

            3. Histoire de la touriere des Carmelites by Meusnier de Querlon.[13]

What this collection of erotic novels all had in common is that they were all “forbidden bestsellers” (cf. Darnton, 1995), they contained lurid illustrations of friars, nuns, clergymen, and others, all naked and engaging in sordid sex acts.            

Although to my knowledge there is no mention of these forbidden books or of l’affair du Chevaleir de La Barre in any of Smith’s surviving papers and correspondence, how could the observant Adam Smith have not taken notice of this cause célèbre? After all, Smith had travelled to the scene of the crime, so to speak, that same year (1766) and was not only an admirer but also a friend of Voltaire. I therefore offer the following French conjecture: Adam Smith must have at some point in time heard about l’affaire du Chevalier de La Barre. Further, though more a matter of speculation, if Smith did fall “deeply in love with an English lady” in Abbeville, Smith view of individual liberty may have encompassed both intellectual liberty as well as the freedom to love.

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[1] For a detailed histories of this case, see Claverie, 1992; see also Chassaigne, 1920.

[2] See Voltaire, 2000 [1775]; Voltaire, 2000 [1766/1768?]. Voltaire’s first essay about this case is dated 15 July 1766, but some scholars believe this essay was written in 1768. [Insert cite here.] For a summary of Voltaire’s involvement in this notorious case, see Claverie, 1994; see also Braden, 1965, pp. 58-65.

[3] For a picture of this particular monument to de La Barre, see New York Public Library, n.d. Alas, this monument was taken down during the Second World War on orders of Marshal Philippe Pétain and melted down. See Caulcutt, 2020.

[4] See generally Braden, 1965, pp. 42-46. For sources in the French language, see Chassaigne, 1920, Ch. 1; Claverie, 1992, p. 273; Cruppi, 1895, p. 126.

[5] See Braden, 1965, p. 42.

[6] Claverie, 1992, p. 275.

[7] For a transcription of the trial court’s sentence, see Cruppi, 1895, pp. 138-139. See also Chassaigne, 1920, Ch. 8.

[8] Cruppi, 1895, pp. 140-141; Braden, 1965, pp. 44-46.

[9] Claverie, 1992, p. *.

[10] Cf. Chassaigne, 1920, p. iv, who identifies the following three forbidden books found in de La Barre’s bedroom: “le portier des Chartreux, Thérèse philosophe, [et] La tonsure des Carmélites …”

[11] The full title of this bestselling erotic novel is Therese Philosophe ou Memoires pour servir à l’histoire du P. Dirrag et de Mlle Eradice, avec l’histoire de Mme Boislaurier and its anonymous author subsequently identified as Jean-Baptiste de Boyer Argens. For a summary of Thérèse Philosophe, see Darnton, 1995, pp. 89–114, and for a set of illustrations from Therese Philosophe, see Largier & Brett, 2003. This book was first published in The Hague in 1748. See Yassine, 2019, p. 117. According to one scholar (Darnton, 1995, p. 10), Thérèse Philosophe was the number one forbidden best-seller of the eighteenth century. In addition, this libertine novel was so well-known among intellectual circles in Europe that it may have even informed Dostoevsky’s religious and spiritual views. See Brumfield, 1980.

[12] The full title of this erotic tome is Histoire de dom Bougre, portier des Chartreux, écrite par lui-même (i.e. “The Story of Master Bugger, Porter of the Charter House, Written by Himself”) and its anonymous author subsequently identified as Gervaise de La Touche. According to Vicente (2016, p. 187), Le Portier des Chartreux was an “erotic literary icon.” In fact, this forbidden book was so popular that three separate editions of this outlaw tome were published prior to the French Revolution. See Yassine, 2019, pp. 105-106. For some saucy illustrations from this erotic novel, see ibid., pp. 135-137. For additional background information, see Hunt, 1993.

[13] This forbidden book was published in The Hague in 1745. See Yassine, 2019, p. 118. Also, according to Cathy Young (2015), a fourth book, Jean Barrin’s erotic novel Vénus dans le Cloître, was also found on de La Barre’s bookshelf. The full title of Barrin’s work, which was first published in Cologne in 1683, is Vénus dans le Cloître: La Religieuse en chemise, entretiens curieux. See Yassine, 2019, p. 118. As an aside, this erotic novel was so popular that it was translated into English (“Venus in the Cloister, or The Nun in Her Smock”) as early as 1724. Manchester, 1991, p. 38; Saunders, 1990, p. 436.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Adam Smith and Abbeville (redux)

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith et l’affaire du Chevalier de la Barre | prior probability

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