The Camisards

Dragoon CartoonSome five months after his passing, Dr. Thomas Emes was to rise from the grave in Bunhill Cemetery in which he was interred.  The date was fixed for the 25th May 1708, but like a door-to-door delivery service, the exact hour could not be pinned down any more exactly than at some point between noon and 6pm.  He was to rise naked and in a state of grace so no sin would be committed by others witnessing his unclothed state.  Believers, mockers and the morbidly curious arrived to witness the event in such numbers that it was deemed necessary for the army to attend to ensure public order within the cemetery and around the grave.  The man presiding over events was John Lacy, speaker in tongues and noted French Prophet; a group that had been arriving in London for the past year and had been the centre of attention from the very moment of their arrival.

Louis XIVRobert Louis Stevenson toured their place of origin over 150 years later.  In “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes” he walked the mountains in the southern part of central France where the Camisards had made their stand against the King at the beginning of the 18th century.  Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes guaranteeing French Protestants amnesty and rights in the Catholic country.  With its revocation, the persecution began.  The Huguenots were expelled, many killed.  Military ‘dragoons’ were placed in the houses of Protestants to ensure their conversion to the Catholicism.  Protestant religious figures were among the first to be targeted, and their departure left Protestant religious communities in the hands of the sometimes poorly educated lay preachers.  Yet some remained and some resisted.  In Cévennes, the mountainous terrain and lack of roads helped the resistance.  The resident Protestants started calling themselves the Camisards after the Occitan word for a long shirt, their substitute for a uniform.  They utilised the terrain to wage guerrilla war on the forces of the King, while at the same time their beliefs began to veer from orthodoxy.

His donkey guided Stevenson to Le Pont-de-Montvert.  Here among the menhirs of an ancient people, François Langlade had been assassinated.  He was the Abbé of Chaila, and the leading tool of the King’s will.  In his early life during travels around Siam, he’d been set up by a Buddhist mob and left for dead.  Now, in turn, he ordered the hunting down of those Protestants who ran and hid in the mountains.  Those he caught alive were taken back to his house and taught the wrongness of their beliefs.  Stevenson described the tortures he inflicted on the local populace.  Taking the Roman Emperor Nero’s persecution of early Christians as his model, he wrapped the hands of his victims in oil-drenched wool, setting them alight so the flames consumed their fingers.  In turn again, a mob set upon his house, freed those kept locked up and then, as the Abbé barricaded himself inside, piled up kindling around the house.  The flames took the Abbé and his house.

Jean CavalierOver the next years, Louis XIV extended the road network around the Cévennes to make it easier to control the locals who were resisting the army successfully, despite heavy losses, under the command of their young leader Jean Cavalier.  However Cavalier was induced to turn his cloak with promises of commission and monies from the King, in the end fleeing to England to avoid both the King and his former commrades.  Without their commander, the rest of the Camisards were forced to flee.  In 1706 one group of millenarian Camisards fled to London under the leadership of Elie Marion and quickly gained a reputation.  The became known as the French Prophets and were ridiculed in the streets.  Their methods were outrageous.  They had public ecstatic fits en masse, spoke in tongues and strolled into French Catholic churches naked to proclaim their beliefs.  Their methods led to the public trial of three of their leaders.  When found guilty their sentence was to stand on the scaffold, though not to be hung but to endure the abuse and volleys of excrement of the London public.

French Prophets on the ScaffoldThere was much debate as to whether they were genuine in their beliefs or just a bunch of actors and charlatans.  How could one tell?  They seemed so earnest and they had surely suffered greatly, yet their behaviour was so affected that surely it must be the result of the worst sort of impostor.  A pamphlet war erupted between and their detractors over their honesty and beliefs, while their stunts regularly were reported on by the newspapers of London.  They made news across the continent.  Inevitably they attracted locals to their cause.  Local dissenters flocked to them and joined in with sinless channelling of God’s joy.  There was talk that they had links with the fabled Alumbrados of Spain who were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century and who had believed that while in a state of grace, there was no sin in expressing sexual desire or in nudity.  Both Dr. Thomas Emes and John Lacy joined the French Prophets finding fame and followers.  On the death of Thomas Emes on Christmas Eve in 1707, John Lacy made his prophecy of his resurrection.

However, at the prophesied hour of his rising, Emes stayed stubbornly in his grave.  The believers stayed faithful, but the clamour surrounding the Camisards diminished.  They faded into the background London hubbub over the next year.  On Louis XIV’s death in 1715, the persecution of the Protestants back in France was reduced, eventually leading to tolerance of the native Camisards in the Cévennes once again.  Jean Cavalier stayed in England and was eventually appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jersey.  Although the outrage diminished, the beliefs of the French Prophets lived on inspiring other charismatic Christian movements such as Ann Lee’s Shakers later in the century.  Perhaps this wasn’t quite the intention of Louis XIV when the enacted the Edict of Fontainbleau, yet the beliefs sparked in desperate circumstances temporarily outside the shaping of received teachings found a route to survive and thrive.


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