The Daily

The Lost Badge Of Innocence

My family’s Appalachian experience is a composite of Catholic and Protestant steel foundry workers, circuit riders, train flagmen, coal miners and barons, lawyers, teachers, car salesmen, card sharks, and housewives. We are descendants of early American settlers, farmers, merchants, Revolutionary and Civil and Spanish-American War soldiers. We brokered steel, commanded Navy vessels, prosecuted rural crime, led communities and traveled the world seeking adventure. These American ancestors are, in turn, hodgepodge heirs of European descent: English tanners, Irish horse thieves, Flemish dyers and one or two “touched” uncles hiding in castle towers in the European tradition. Some, having been invited to leave their homeland, arrived among more respected travelers in America seeking freedoms and opportunities not available elsewhere in the world – at least in the violent and repressive world of their experience. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that Americans are cuckoos because they make their homes in the nests of other birds. American Character is not revealed in the feathering or call of the bird but, rather, in its nesting. Apart from its unusual nesting habit, the cuckoo is after all just another bird.

My American ancestors settled in Appalachia – western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Their decision to settle that raw terrain (against clear logic or winnable odds) is a testament to the character of all mountaineers. My Mother says that if her family stood anywhere other than in those mountains, he/she would fall down for lack of an incline. In typical hardscrabble fashion, my American ancestors pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Mountain folk – even those with several pair of fine shoes – tend to appreciate the thinness of sole and sock separating bare feet from the ground.

My paternal Grandmother, Eleanor Bortz Thompson, conspired with her sister (Dorothy Ballantine) to research the family tree and took possession (somehow) of a two-volume work from the Columbia University Library written by one of my ancestors, JW deForest, called DeForests of Avenes. Some of what follows is taken from that book.

Walloons, according to history, were stubborn and territorial … “the most rude and warlike of the broad-skulled people of Gaul”[1].

Which is saying quite a lot in a world filled with rude and warlike people.

But Walloon reputation must have exceeded Walloon experience. Beaten by the Cimbri, Romans, Franks and other Gallic tribes, they settled the plains of Belgium and France. Unprotected by any natural boundaries, they were exposed. And rude, warlike and defenseless is no way to live.

During The Reformation, Protestantism spread to France from Germany, French Protestants being nicknamed Huguenots (for reasons described below). Apparently, the neighborhood was not the best.

1477, Avenes, France

“This host of savage freebooters slipped into unlucky little Avesnes while it was arranging a capitulation. Then came unprovoked pillage, arson and massacre. The majority of citizens had their throats cut, and not a building escaped burning except a hospital, a monastery and eight dwellings. The town hall and the churches, with their records and monuments, perished”.[2] 

The following year, in neighboring Spain, Pope Sixtus IV granted a Papal Bull allowing Isabelle and Ferdinand to open the Spanish Inquisitions into heretical noncompliance with the Catholic Church. The first-in-line of the Grand Inquisitors was the cruel Tomas de Torquemada. And despite brief respites in the violent repression, Jews and non-Catholic Christians continued to be persecuted and expelled.

1523, Brussels: Two followers of Martin Luther from Antwerp are burned alive.

1534, Munster: John of Leyden and the Anabaptists introduce communism, polygamy, and orgies to the Reformation, resulting in the torture and execution of John and some followers. His caged corpse will swing in church rafters for three hundred years.

1553, Geneva: John Calvin, after establishing a Protestant theocracy, orders Michael Servetus burned alive at the stake for writing books questioning the Trinity and divinity of Christ.

1562, Vassay, France: The Duke of Guise and his followers come upon a Protestant worship service being held in a barn. The Catholic Duke’s armed entourage taunt the Huguenot worshippers and during the ensuing moments, the Duke’s face (inexplicably) strikes a rock (that may have been thrown from inside) near one of the barn’s windows. The Catholic soldiers rush the barn with swords drawn, killing sixty and wounding the rest. Word of the atrocity ignites the Thirty-Six Year War of Religion in France.

During a prominent Paris Wedding in 1572, Catholics instigated a weeks-long massacre by killing the French Calvinist Protestants and Huguenots present. This bloodletting became a turning point – known as the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre – in the French Religious Wars and resulted in mass movements of emigres seeking solace from religious warring and persecution.

In 1572, amid this environment, Jean Bodin (French Judge and Political Philosopher) is quoted about the Huguenot and Walloon populations of France and Belgium thusly:

“We are called Walloons by the Belgians because when the ancient people of Gallia were travelling the length and breadth of the earth, it happened that they asked each other: ‘Où allons-nous?’ [Where are we going? : the pronunciation of these French words is the same as the French word Wallons (plus ‘us’)], i.e. ‘To which goal are we walking?.’ It is probable they took from it the name Ouallons (Wallons), which the Latin speaking are not able to pronounce without changing the word by the use of the letter G.” One of the best translations of his (humorous) sayings used daily in Wallonia is “These are strange times we are living in.”

1568, Brussels: Leaders of the Flemish opposition to the Spanish Inquisition are beheaded as traitors, precipitating a Walloon exodus to the Dutch lowlands and a revolt in the Lowlands that will continue for eighty years.

1574, Leyden, Holland: Twenty Thousand Spanish soldiers laying siege to the city are drowned.

1576, Antwerp: ‘The Spanish Fury’ erupts, leading to the massacre of 6,000.

1587, Avesnes: Treaty ends religious hostilities between France and Spain.

America’s founders genuinely felt that their cause was the cause of all mankind. If tyranny was banished from these Western shores, our experience might provide hope elsewhere. Our character is revealed, for better or worse, trying to live up to that vision. Reminders abound every day that Democracy can be challenged and not always by invasions of armed marauders but, instead, like Caeser’s unguarded flanks, by surprise – with “fake news” and “alternative facts” leading the charge into a valley of death where ‘black is white’ and ‘up is down’. Where words cease to have meaning and only anger, passion and animosity rule the day. Strange times, indeed.

H/T Thomas Paine (Common Sense) for the title.

[1] J.W. DeForest, DeForests of Avesnes

[2] Id.