3 November, 2007
El Kenz David

Conceived during the Middle Ages (around 1100) the word “massacre” refers to the slaughterhouse and by extension to the killing of a great number of individuals. During the sixteenth century, the term appears in the vocabulary of venery to designate the horns of a stag kept as a trophy.

However, the growing of the massacre’s issue is part of a Western awareness vis-à-vis exactions committed against civilians, not least to condemn fratricidal wars between Christians. In 1556, the word appears in a famous lampoon Histoire mémorable de la persécution et saccagement du peuple de Mérindol et Cabrières et autres circonvoisins appelez Vaudois which reports the killings perpetrated in 1545 against the Vaudois of Provence, the latter being the Christian heirs of a medieval heresy eventually rallied to Calvinism.

Henceforth, the word “massacre” defines the killing of a great number of defenceless people, mostly civilians. So far, sheer violence could be condemned and so were the exactions committed by the Conquistadores against the Native peoples of America and the ransacking of towns during the Wars In Italy (1494-1530). Sheer violence was also condemned by the Ancients in their historical accounts. But no word clearly pointed out the asymmetrical nature of violence resulting from the opposition between army rabble and civilians. Thus in the Italian accounts of the Wars in Italy, the authors used the words strage (carnage), macetto (butchery), eccidio (extermination) and more frequently the expressions grandissime uccisioni or crudely uccisioni (“very big and cruel murders”) (Benzoni 2005, 157). Likewise, in the Greek written historical accounts, the common “phonos” (murder) is sometimes clarified by an adjective such as polus (big) in order to suggest the carnage or verbs like phoneuein or apokteinein and are often wrongly translated by the verb “massacrer” (Eck 2005, 199). For Latin historians, the verb caedes which refers to large-scale murders has no particular connotation. On the other hand, Sulla’s proscriptions dating from 82 BC and 43 BC, which were reported with many horrible details by Don Cassius and Appien, became a reference on the scale of sheer violence. The word “proscriptions” strictly indicates the massacre of a great number of people whose names have previously been listed as so-called public enemies (Bérenger 2005, 121). During the mid sixteenth century, about twenty pictures showed the massacre of the triumvirs. One of these picture became the famous “Massacres du Triumvirat”, painted around 1566 by Antoine Caron. These pictures revealed a decrease of the level of tolerance towards massacres which were then tearing Europe apart, while plagued by political and religious dissensions.

After the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the Huguenot lampoons written against the Queen Catherine de Médicis - condemned as a new Jezabel responsible for the murder of her subjects - popularized the word “massacre”. Following the increasing use of this term, new words such as “massacreur” and “massacrement” were used. The consequences of the Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre were so widespread that the term “massacre” appeared in the English political lexicon to condemn the papist and Spanish tyranny which, according to the Protestant propaganda, were planning for the destruction of the Protestant heresy (Greengrass 1999, 69-87). During the seventeenth century, in the context of the rivalry between the contending Habsburg and Turkish empires, the German word “Massaker”, also derived from the French vocabulary, appeared in 1664. However, it was barely used. The archives reporting the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) - a heritage site of the total war in the German historiography - mainly used the words Verwüstung (devastation), Einöde (desert), Drangsal (calamity), Leid (suffering), Elend (misery), Not (impoverishment), Verwilderung (regression or savagery) (Gantet 2005, 198).

The build up of the concept of “massacre” had to be seen in the context of the sixteenth century’s inter-confessional propaganda, not least when the exposure of defenceless victims became a political stake since they were reminding to a certain extent the Innocent Saints. A soon as the eighteenth century, in order to describe a large scale massacre occurring during the conquest of a State by another, Montesquieu evokes the extermination of the citizens (De l’Esprit des Lois, 1758). Reporting the massacres against the Vendéens in 1794, Gracchus Babeuf, a revolutionary polemist, uses a new word “populicide”.

In 1944, a Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin uses the word “genocide” to define the destruction of the Jews by the Nazis and to prevent such crimes from happening again. In 1948, “genocide” became a crime falling under international law and the United Nations and consequently became a weapon of propaganda. Facing such an ambiguity and following the UN definition, scholars decided to consider every massacre as a genocide (Charny, 1994: 64-94), but often after anachronistic interpretations when it came to past crimes. On the contrary, other specialists reckoned that only the Holocaust is a genocide (Katz, 1994). Some researchers set up new concepts in order to define their studies such as “ethnocide” (Jaulin, 1970), “democide” (Rummel, 1994), “politicide” (Gurr and Harff, 2001), “classicide” (Mann, 2005: 17), et cetera.

The definition of genocide is blur. Its excessive uses have a detrimental effect on the concept of massacre which is consequently devaluated. Some researchers are now referring back to the massacre as “a lexical unit of reference” in order to compare in space and time the different types of killings. Thus, they take themselves out of the judicial legacy of genocide. (Levene, 1999: 1-37 ; Sémelin, 2005: 19 ; El Kenz, 2005: 7-23). The massacre appears as “the type of - most of the time - collective destructive action against non combatants” often followed by atrocities which at first sight seem completely useless (Semelin, 2005: 386-389). Some differences can be pointed out: the “massacre of proximity” opposite to the “massacre at bay” (bombing, fire weapons), the bilateral massacre (Civil War type) opposite to the “unilateral massacre” (implemented by a State against its own people), the “large scale massacre” opposite to the “small massacre” and the “exhibited massacre” opposite to the “hidden massacre” (Sémelin, 2002: 483-491). This last opposition is central to understand the western transformation of the massacre in a taboo during the contemporary period.

Using the concept of massacre as a starting point to understand the history of the killings doesn’t cancel the specificity of genocide. Such a view underlines the socio-historical processes of destruction which sometimes lead to genocide. Mark Levene links genocide to the modernization of the Nation-State, starting at the end of the eighteenth century. Therefore, he considers the massacres against the Vendéens and the Natives in North America as “prototypical genocides” (Levene, 2001: 152-153). Jacques Sémelin insists “on the total eradication of a group, the latter being defined by those who are engaged in its destruction”. Thus, he makes a difference between the massacre which targets the mere submission of a group and a genocide which targets its full extermination.

Likewise, he distinguishes ethnic cleansing, which is locally defined and “gives a chance” to those who escape from it. However, as he stresses the dynamics of violence, he observes the possibility of connections between the concepts of submission and eradication and between ethnic cleansing and total destruction (Sémelin, 2005: 365-414).


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Cite this item

El Kenz David, Massacre, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 3 November, 2007, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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