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Camisards were French Protestants (Huguenots) of the rugged and isolated Cevennes region of south-central France, who raised an insurrection against the persecutions which followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The revolt by the Camisards broke out in 1702, with the worst of the fighting through 1704, then scattered fighting until 1710 and a final peace by 1715.
The name camisard in the Occitan language is variously attributed to a type of linen smock or shirt, known as camisa, peasant wear in lieu of any sort of uniform; camisada, in the sense of "night attack", is derived from a feature of their tactics. Eventually the name Black Camisard came to refer to Protestants, while White Camisards (also known as "Cadets of the Cross") were Catholics organized to check the blacks. Both groups were known for committing atrocities.
The revolt of the Protestants followed about twenty years of persecutions. Protestant peasants of the region, led by a number of teachers known as "prophets", rebelled against the officially sanctioned 'Dragonnades' (conversions enforced by Dragoons, 'missionaries in boots') that followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in which soldiers were dragooned in the homes of Protestants, to make them convert or emigrate. Clandestine prophets and their armed followers were hidden in houses and caves in the mountains; Protestants were arrested, deported to America, sentenced to the galleys; entire villages were massacred and burnt to the ground in a series of stunning atrocities. Several leading prophets were tortured and executed and many more were exiled, leaving the abandoned congregations to the leadership of less educated and more mystically-oriented preachers known as "prophets".
Open hostilities began with the assassination, on 24 July 1702, of a local embodiment of royal oppression, François Langlade, the Abbé of Chaila, at Pont-de-Montvert, who had recently arrested a group accused of attempting to flee France. The abbé was quickly lionized in print as a martyr of his faith. Led by the young Jean Cavalier and Roland Laporte, the Camisards met the ravages of the royal army with irregular warfare methods and withstood superior forces in several pitched battles.
Other Protestants, like those of Fraissinet-de-Lozère, under the influence of the villagers elites, chose a loyalist attitude and fought the Camisards. They were nevertheless equally victims of the destruction of their houses during the "Great Burning of the Cévennes" ordered in late 1703.
White Camisards, also known as "Cadets of the Cross" ("Cadets de la Croix", from a small white cross which they wore on their coats), were Catholics from neighboring communities such as St. Florent, Senechas and Rousson who, on seeing their old enemies on the run, organized into companies to hunt the rebels down. They committed atrocities, such as killing 52 people at the village of Brenoux, including pregnant women and children.
In 1704, Marshal Villars, the royal commander, offered Cavalier vague concessions to the Protestants and the promise of a command in the royal army. Cavalier's acceptance of the offer broke the revolt, although others, including Laporte, refused to submit unless the Edict of Nantes was restored. Scattered fighting went on until 1710, but the true end of the uprising was the arrival in the Cévennes of the Protestant minister Antoine Court and the reestablishment of a small Protestant community that was largely left in peace, especially after the death of Louis XIV in 1715.
Cavalier later went over to the British, who made him Governor of the island of Jersey.
A millenarian group of ex-Camisards under the guidance of Elie Marion emigrated to London in 1706, and were said to have links with the Alumbrados. They were generally treated with scorn and some official repression as the 'French Prophets.' Their example and their writings had some influence later, both on the spiritual outlook of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and on Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement.
Although most of the sources are in French and remain untranslated there are a number of excellent sources available in English:
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