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The Collation

The Meaning/s of Massacre

Content Note: Massacres, Assassination, Graphic Images

In August 1572 thousands of French Protestants—known as Huguenots—were slaughtered in a surprise attack by their Catholic compatriots in Paris. The Huguenots had descended on the French capital to celebrate the wedding of the Catholic Princess Marguerite of the royal house of Valois to the Protestant Prince Henri of Navarre. Their union, outwardly designed to ratify a peace between Catholics and Huguenots, who had been warring intermittently for decades, proved fatal for many.

Evoking the feast day on which the violence began, the atrocity became known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This title is a misnomer. The massacre did not take place on a day, but over months. And it was not one massacre, but several, a combination of coordinated, targeted, killings along with more impulsive, popular violence that spread from Paris into the provinces; a series of slaughters that continued until October.

Scholars often identify the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as a foundational event. But massacres were not exceptional: they scarred the early modern period. Massacres incited, accompanied, or characterised civil, colonial, interstate, and religious conflicts. And massacres intersected with some of the gravest political questions of the age. What is—who counts as—a human during this period? Who gets to define and police the boundaries of humanity, how, and why? What makes (and unmakes) a King? What makes (and breaks) a state? Do wars have rules, and to whom do they (or do not) apply?

Drawing principally on the interdisciplinary fields of Genocide and Massacre Studies, my book project—Massacres in Early Modern Drama—grapples with these concepts and challenges a commonplace: that massacres are senseless in feeling and reason. Journalistic and political discourses often denounce acts of massacre as ‘senseless violence’. The bloodiness of atrocity, and the turmoil it leaves, render it unintelligible: a cruel assault by callous killers.

But the desire to see massacres in these terms—as unfeeling or futile—distances the act from the realm of human relations. The desire is understandable, but the emotional instinct to set massacres apart—to make them less, or more, than human—obscures that which is already hard to understand. While it is common to imagine cold-blooded, cold-hearted killers, the perpetration of atrocities is often grimly affective, powered by hate, or vicious pleasure.1 So too, victimhood and survival are often characterised by emotion: pain, grief, rage. A tract written shortly after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, for instance, described the event as no less than a ‘furious outrage’.2 In these articulations, massacres are sense-ful, not sense-less acts, even while—even as—they resist clear meaning/s.

As the massacre scholar, Jacques Sémelin, urges, acts of massacre ought not to be dismissed as aberrations, but rather viewed as abhorrent acts subject to internal and external logics, from the destruction of ethnic, national, religious, racial, or political groups, to strategies for constituting states and communicating its power, or performative spectacles aimed at suppressing opposition.3 Massacres, moreover, stress the contingency of humanity: dehumanising systems and structures set the stage for atrocity.4 My own work strives to engage with these ideas, exploring the ways in which early modern drama forms part of a continual cultural process of trying to piece together the contentious and traumatic phenomenon of massacre.

Beyond Mass Killing

We can turn to a variety of print and visual culture to help give a sense of the meanings of massacre in the early modern period. Materials housed at the Folger relating to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, for example, offer some striking paradigms for massacre. The Flemish engraver and cartographer, Frans Hogenberg, produced an etching shortly after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, depicting some of its most infamous scenes:

Frans Hogenberg, ‘The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre’, 1573, Folger ART 266905 (size M)

The image time-travels. The left-hand corner depicts the attempted killing of the Huguenot military leader, the Lord Admiral Coligny, an event that took place a couple of days before the Massacre began when a would-be assassin shot at the Admiral through an upper-story window. The top-right shows, in stages, his eventual assassination on the night of St Bartholomew’s eve: first the murder of the Admiral in his bed, and second his defenestration, grimly echoed in the background by murder of the Huguenot diplomat, Charles de Téligny and other named, and anonymous victims.

The scenes depicted in Hogenberg’s image, and its wider context of the French Wars of Religion, provided trenchant material for early modern English drama. George Chapman, for example, wrote several plays for the Jacobean stage based on this near-contemporary French history. It’s highly probable that parts of Thomas Dekker and Michael Drayton’s lost trilogy—The Civil Wars of France (1598-99)—dramatized not just the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, but the slaughters that preceded and post-dated this event.5 And two plays—John Webster’s lost play, ‘Guise’ (1615?), along with John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s Restoration tragedy, The Duke of Guise (1683)—took one of the St Bartholomew’s Day’s chief architects as their central focus.6 The most (in)famous massacre play in the extant corpus of early modern drama, though, is Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris.

First performed some twenty years after the historical massacre, the play conjures key motifs of Hogenberg’s image. For Marlowe as with Hogenberg, the Admiral is the start and centrepiece of the slaughter. The tragedy’s chief antagonist, the Duke of Guise, commands that:

The Admiral,
Chief standard-bearer to the Lutherans,
Shall in the entrance to this massacre
Be murdered in his bed.

Guise’s command is striking. While the Dukes of Guise and Anjou lie in wait on the street outside, a group of murderers enter the Admiral’s house, bursting into his bed chamber:

GONZAGUE. Where is the Admiral?
ADMIRAL. O, let me pray before I die!
GONZAGUE. Then pray unto our lady. Kiss this cross!
[He] stab[s] him [.]
ADMIRAL. O God, forgive my sins.
GUISE. Gonzago, what, is he dead?
GONZAGUE. Ay, my lord.
GUISE. Then throw him down.
[the body of the Admiral is thrown down.]

Marlowe deviates from his principal sources by killing the Admiral in his bed. François Hotman’s True and Plain Report (1573), for instance, states that after hearing the killers enter his house, the Admiral ‘caused those that were about him to lift him out of his bed, […] for he sayd that he was readie with most willing hearte to render into the hands of God’.8 Hotman’s Admiral is a martyr for his faith. But like Hogenberg, Marlowe insists upon the bed as the site of the Admiral’s murder, converting a place of peace to a place of death. This depiction says something about massacre: it’s a surprise to the unwary, and it’s humiliating. The killers taunt Marlowe’s Admiral, who, spiritually unprepared for death, begs leave to pray; Gonzague mocks him with devotional practices—supplications to the Virgin Mary—rejected by the Huguenot. It’s not enough to murder the Admiral; he must be mocked, his martyrdom corrupted.

The Admiral’s murder is cursory in the play-text, but much like the rest of The Massacre at Paris’ violence, the scene is dilated by action rather than dialogue.9 This protraction is particularly evident after the Admiral’s murder when the Guise gives the order to ‘throw’ Coligny ‘down’ (5.32) the better to view and assault his corpse. Scholars have debated whether early performances of The Massacre at Paris at Southwark’s Rose Playhouse might have used the theatre’s upper gallery to perform this stage action, flinging an Admiral-esque dummy down the stage below, or whether more representational blocking on the main stage evoked the hurling of the Admiral to the Guise who inspects and assails the corpse.

However it was realised (I tend to favour an upper gallery!), this stage action echoes Hogenberg’s etching. The treatment of the Admiral’s corpse provides a precedent for other victims of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, argues that ‘violence inflicted upon the human body’ is ‘never entirely random or lacking in cultural form’.10 In Marlowe’s play, the Duke of Guise describes the Admiral as ‘standard bearer’ to the Huguenots, of flying the flag for French Protestantism. His defenestration warps this metaphor. Like a great many of the massacre’s victims, the Admiral’s body becomes a fleeting pennant, emblematising the assault on his faith, the slaughter started by his murder. Together, the defenestrated bodies become, even if only momentarily, part of the archaeology of the buildings from which they are hurled, and part of the cityscape on which they later lie. Where Marlowe’s physical or representational split-level staging gives a brief sense of this brutal phenomenon, Hogenberg’s image relays it at length. The Admiral’s defenestrated body joins a shocking cast of the many, nameless corpses thus debased, and of a city fused with the bodies of the dead.

Hogenberg’s image thus enmeshes the Admiral’s murder with scenes of ‘general massacre’—the starkly impersonal early modern term for wholesale slaughter. Corpses of men, women, and children lie motionless on the streets; elsewhere, soldiers hoist the dead, dying, or condemned as if to drag them to their site of execution or mass burial. Torches flame, guns fire. Notable, too, is the apparent nakedness of the victims, signalling, at once, their babe-like-innocence and their degradation. Massacre in these scenes is more than murder, more than mass killing. Massacre signals the destruction of bodies by and after death. To massacre is to convert bodies into objects, places of safety into spaces of terror, and cities of the living into realms of the dead.


Such was its impact that the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is often credited with introducing the word ‘massacre’ into English. It didn’t. There are a few, puzzlingly obscure references to ‘massacre’ in printed texts dating from the early sixteenth-century. But the 1572 atrocity undoubtedly helped cement the term into common English parlance when news pamphlet after news pamphlet was printed in its wake. These writings reinforced a powerful understanding of massacre: one that emphasises perpetrator treachery and cruelty, victim innocence—even martyrdom—and the bloody audacity of the attack.

Part of trying to make sense of massacre is trying to make sense of what the word ‘massacre’ might mean. Hogenberg’s etching suggests that massacre is a capacious atrocity, encompassing but not limited to mass killing. In the early modern period, the term had a wide range of primary denotations ranging from butchery and dismemberment to connotations with pillage and sexual violence. Another of the Folger’s rich holdings hints at the plasticity of ‘massacre’: the octavo of The Massacre at Paris.

Christopher Marlowe, The Massacre at Paris (London: 1594?) Folger STC 17423

The octavo’s titlepage calls the play The Massacre at Paris with the Death of the Duke of Guise, placing the play’s titular massacre in apposition with the violence that dominates the second half of the play: the assassination of the Duke of Guise. Calling the Duke to his residence at Blois, the King disingenuously swears his love before departing; a suborned assassin takes his place. Informing Guise of two further assassins lying in wait in the next room, the murderer urges him not to enter: ‘good my Lord, go not forth’ (21.63). But the Guise will not be counselled: ‘Yet Caesar shall go forth’ (21.64). After the assassins stab him, the Duke begs leave to speak. His final lines again recall Julius Caesar’s implacable resolve in the face of death: ‘Thus Caesar did go forth, and thus he died’ (21.83).

When the real Duke of Guise was killed in 1588, Catholic polemic frequently described his murder as a ‘massacre’. This locution was surprisingly common. Herod accuses Mariam of plotting his ‘massacre’ (4.4.49) in The Tragedy of Mariam (1605).11 The King in Dekker’s tragicomic The Noble Spanish Soldier (1622) fears that he ‘shall be massacre[d] in this’ the ‘spleen’ of his enemies (sig. E3v).12 A reluctant assassin in the anonymous King Leir (1589) informs the elderly monarch that ‘Goneril and Regan / Appointed [him] to massacre’ (sig. F3r) him.13

printed text of a play with one line highlighted

Enlarged section from King Leir (London: 1605), sig. F34. Folger STC 15343

Most pertinent to Marlowe’s Guise, however, is Philemon Holland’s landmark translation of Livy’s The Roman History (1600), which describes how Julius Caesar was ‘massacred in the court of Pompeius’, receiving ‘three and twenty wounds: and by these murderers was the Capitol seized and held’.14 Though Marlowe does not use the word ‘massacre’ to describe the Duke’s killing, his murder is nonetheless suffused with its rhetoric. Guise dies with the double image of the Eucharist and massacre upon his lips: ‘Vive la masse! Perish Huguenots!’ (21.82); when he hears of this brother’s death, the Duke of Dumaine imagines a kind of massacre-witchcraft when he reaches for ‘words of power to kill a thousand men!’ (23.22). And when Marlowe killed Guise, his great over-reacher, he had him analogise his death with a figure with whom ‘massacre’ would become closely connected: Julius Caesar.

For particularly violent or ruthless deaths, the idea of massacre adds a string of connotations that do not inevitably inhere to the idea of assassination. Mass casualties are exchanged for lone victims, who are themselves frequently outnumbered: it is the perpetrators who put the ‘mass’ in this kind of massacre. Still, such killings often retain a sense of collective suffering. It is the impression of scale, combined with an acute sense of massive bodily injury—of butchery and dismemberment—that constitute the act. The harshness, the audacity, of the deed make the massacre.

As Brandi K. Adams’s forthcoming work on Shakespeare and violence reminds us, atrocities are multiplicative.15 Massacres, too, are elastic, porous phenomena: mass killings bleed into, and combine with, other cruelties. Numbers do not necessarily make the massacre. You can be massacred after you are dead. Massacres can offer some of the most arresting, immersive kinds of dramatic action. But massacres are rhetorical as well as physical phenomena: enacted and said.

  1. For more on the affective dimensions of atrocity, see Thomas Brudholm and Johannes Lang, eds. Emotions and Mass Atrocity: Philosophical and Theoretical Explorations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  2. Francois Hotman, A True and Plain Report of the Furious Outrages of France (London: 1573).
  3. Jacques Sémelin, ‘In Consideration of Massacres’, Journal of Genocide Research, 3 (2010), 377-398 (378). For more work in Genocide and Massacre Studies and related fields, see, for example, Michael Humphrey, The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation: From Terror to Trauma (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 78; Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007); A. Dirk Moses, ed. Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008); Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Martin Shaw, What is Genocide? (Cambridge: Polity, 2007); Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, 8.4 (2006), 387–409.
  4. For more on these ideas, see, for example, Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, (Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2019); Alexander G. Weheylie, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, (Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2014); Jacques Sémelin, Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide (New York: University of Colombia Press, 2009).
  5. For more information, about these plays see,_Parts_1,_2_and_3. Martin Wiggins in association with Catherine Richardson, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), #1152, #1160, #1167.
  6. For more information on the lost Guise play, see; Martin Wiggins, vol. 6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), #1784.
  7. Christopher Marlowe, The Massacre at Paris, ed. Mathew R. Martin (Manchester: Manchester University Press,2021). All references are to this edition.
  8. Hotman, sig G3v.
  9. For more on the idea of the play’s narrative and theatrical compression, see Evelyn Tribble, ‘“Then Breath a While”: Compression, Kinesis, and Temporality in The Massacre at Paris’, in Christopher Marlowe, Theatrical Commerce, and the Book Trade, eds. Kirk Melnikoff and Roslyn L. Knutson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 56–67 (pp. 57-8).
  10. Arjun Appadurai, ‘Uncertainties and ethnic violence: the era of globalization’, Public Culture, 10.2 (1998), 225-247 (229).
  11. Elizabeth Cary, The Tragedy of Mariam, ed. Ramona Wray.
  12. Thomas Dekker, The Noble Spanish Soldier (London: 1634).
  13. Anon., The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters (London: 1605).
  14. Livy, The Roman History, trans. by Philemon Holland (London: 1600), p. 1259.
  15. Brandi K. Adams, ‘“‘[S]poyling, slaughter, and sondry torments’: Atrocities in Shakespeare’s Henriad and David Michȏd’s and Joel Edgerton’s The King”’ in Atrocity and Early Modern Drama, eds. Sarah E. Johnson and Georgina Lucas (London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming).