Belmont University Research Symposium (BURS)

The Philosopher and the Martyr: The Restructuring of the French Judicial System through Voltaire and the Calas Affair

Publication Date

Fall 12-2021


Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, College of


History, Department of

BURS Faculty Advisor

Peter Kuryla

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation


The social-political climate of France following the Wars of Religion of the last half of the 16th century was one of great instability and intolerance. Despite the attempts of legal rectification through pronouncements like the Edict of Nantes passed under Henry IV, the pre-existing divisions were only worsened through the ascension of Louis XIV and ultimately culminated in one of the most infamous intolerance cases in the nation’s history: The Calas Affair. The events of the torture and death of Jean Calas; wrongfully convicted of murdering his son on the grounds of religious-fueled suspicion had immense ramifications outside of tainting the family legacy. The involvement of Francois-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, in the Calas Affair forever changed the course of France’s legal system through his influential writings on human and civil rights, and his beliefs on religious intolerance that simultaneously posthumously absolved Calas of any conviction and aided in the restructuring of civil proceedings in France. These conclusions were drawn through the examination of official court transcripts of the Calas Affair, biographies of the Calas family, and Voltaire’s personal letters and published treatises. This essay argues that without Voltaire’s involvement in the Calas Affair, the legal system would not have undergone the necessary restructuring that delayed the public’s political dissatisfaction with the French legal system overall, consequently creating a temporary alleviation of the factors that would inevitably lead to the Revolution of 1789.

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