Pierre-Paul Sirven, the Sirven Affair, and Voltaire

Jean Calas. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Protestants were unpopular in France. Because of their unpopularity, they were frequently persecuted by Catholics for their beliefs, and French authorities often ignored the basic principles of law to prosecute them unfairly. One case of a Protestant being persecuted and prosecuted unfairly involves a merchant named Jean Calas. He was tried for torturing and murdering his son, and his execution occurred despite his protestations of innocence and overwhelming evidence that his son committed suicide.

The Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire took up Calas’s cause, but he was still executed. He was broken on the wheel on 10 March 1762. Voltaire was eventually able to get King Louis XV to annul the sentence, and, in 1765, Calas was posthumously exonerated. However, another case of a Protestant being unfairly persecuted that Voltaire became involved with was that of Pierre-Paul Sirven.

Voltaire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sirven was a well-to-do archivist and notary in Castres, France. He had three daughters, Anne, Elisabeth and Jeanne. Elizabeth was the middle daughter, and she had neurological problems, but at the time, she was considered mentally handicapped. At the age of 21 she suddenly disappeared. Sirven conducted a search and eventually discovered that the Bishop of Castres had ordered she be taken to the convent of the Dames Noires (the black ladies) under the pretense that she wanted to convert to Catholicism. While there, Elizabeth suffered a mental breakdown supposedly because of the treatment she received from the nuns, and, so, Bishop Jean-Sebastian de Barral had her returned to her parents.

Sirven was extremely angry. He denounced the Dames Noires claiming that they had driven his daughter mad. They retaliated accusing him of mistreating his daughter and claiming that he was preventing her from converting to Catholicism. The nuns also obtained an order against Sirven that made it mandatory for him to accompany his daughter to services and allow her free access to the convent.

Bishop Jean-Sebastian de Barral. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The following year in August, hoping to avoid further persecution, Sirven and his family moved to Saint Alby, near Mazamet. On 16 December 1761, Elizabeth once again disappeared. Searches were conducted with no result. Then, about three weeks later, on 4 January 1762, three children found Elizabeth dead in a dry well having apparently committed suicide.

Medical examinations showed she had suffered no violence and it was initially ruled a suicide. However, the public prosecutor was pressured to change the findings, and her death was eventually ruled to have been caused by drowning. It was believed that Sirven had murdered his daughter and that the entire family had mistreated Elizabeth to prevent her from converting to Catholicism. Thus, a warrant was issued for the Sirven family on 20 January 1762.

Sirven escaped with his wife and two daughters over the mountains to Switzerland, but “on the heights of the Cevennes the broken-hearted mother perished in the snows.”[1] When Sirven and his daughters arrived in Switzerland, he threw himself upon Voltaire’s mercy. On 30 March 1765, Voltaire wrote to his close friend Étienne Noël Damilaville, who was also instrumental in helping Voltaire in the Sirven case:

I am expecting to receive from Toulouse any day now an authentic copy of the decree condemning the entire Sirven family; a decree confirming the sentence pronounced by a village judge; a decree issued without knowledge of the case; a decree against which the whole public would rise in indignation if the Calas family had not already seized all its pity.“[2]

Voltaire ultimately agreed to take up the Sirven family’s case, took them in, and gave them shelter at Ferney. Voltaire’s involvement in Sirven’s case also resulted in Voltaire using his pen to popularize the case and to point out the bigotry that existed in the remote Languedoc province. Voltaire’s actions also resulted in support and donations pouring in for the Sirvens throughout Europe. In addition, the Genevan Pastor Moulton who had been involved with Voltaire in the Calas case became involved in the Sirven affair. Voltaire wrote to Moulton:

“I am sick, but I should die content with the hope of seeing toleration established; intolerance dishonors human nature; we have too long been below the Jews and Hottentots. I embrace you tenderly; come and sleep at my house; let us converse more.”[3]

Pastel of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the meantime, authorities in Mazamet determined that the family was guilty, and, in absentia, the family was condemned on 29 March 1764. Sirven was condemned to be broken on the wheel, his wife was to be hanged, and his two daughters were perpetually banished. Despite the condemned being absent, authorities decided to conduct an elaborate ceremony in Mazamet on 11 September 1764 where they burned the effigies of each one of the Sirvens.

Voltaire continued to serve as the family’s advocate, and, on 23 January 1768, actions were taken in the Toulouse parlement to stop the condemnation of the Sirvens, but it failed. Sirven was now required to take a serious risk and give himself up, which he did by returning to Mazamet in 1769. During this time, Voltaire never wavered and continued to press for justice, until success was achieved and “after … years of uninterrupted labour [Voltaire] effected the rehabilitation of the Sirvens,”[4] just as he had in the case of Calas.

Sirven was released in December 1769, and, on 25 November 1771, the Toulouse parlement overturned the original sentence. In addition, Sirven’s property was returned to him and Mazamet was ordered to pay compensation to Sirven. With the conclusion of the Sirven case, Voltaire remarked:

“It required but two hours to condemn this virtuous family to death, but it has cost us nine years to obtain justice for them.”[5]


  • [1] Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 57, 1878, p 270.
  • [2] Fondation Voltaire, édition complète, lettre D12511.
  • [3] Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p. 270.
  • [4] Read, John Meredith, Historic Studies in Vaud, Berne, and Savoy, Volume 2, p. 258.
  • [5] Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p. 270.

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