Self-confidence or cockiness in France’s religious wars?

Ambiguous legacy

A history of the Huguenots offers sobering parallels with our own time, writes Hywel Williams in The Spectator.

The Huguenots by Geoffrey Treasure (Yale)

France’s early 21st-century Protestants are eco-friendly, gender-sensitised and respectful of the Fifth Republic’s laïcité. But their ancestors were a less accommodating lot.

La réforme in the France of the 16th century was well-educated, predominantly urban and organised as part of a pan-European Protestant movement which set out to subvert the territorial sovereignty of Catholic princes.

Its leaders included some of the French aristocracy’s boldest spirits, whose dynastic ambitions to exercise an earthly dominion blended easily with the dogmatic confidence of Protestantism at its most driven and alluring.

Lutheranism made an initial impact through the circles of humanist opinion in Paris and other centres of enlightenment — such as the courts of the nobility, where women such as Marguerite d’Angoulême, the sister of King François I, found in justification by faith an excitement and an intellectuality that liberated them from the banality of aristocratic ritual.

And in the generation that followed, French rebels could look to Jean Calvin, who was born in Noyon and established himself in Geneva’s safety, where, with a confidence that marks him out as the first of France’s public intellectuals, he penned the works that justified rebellion against the French crown.

Predestination was the belief that coursed through the blood stream of the Calvinist body politic. Its psychological impact was heady. God had already decided who was going to be saved and who was going to be damned. Nothing could change that divine audit. But on the other hand no one — including ‘the elect’ — knew who had been chosen. Calvin’s God kept his agents on their toes, and the mental impact of uncertainty about what had been decided in the salvationist stakes meant that there could be no backsliding while preparing for the next plot, murder or battle.

The guerres de réligion lasted two generations, partly because they were driven by loyalties that were ancient as well as by recently acquired certitudes.

Protestantism enjoyed a strong appeal in the region of the Midi that extended from parts of western Provence and across to Languedoc. Rebellion here was a recrudescence.

The region’s towns had ancient, often Roman, origins and local bishops had taken over the functions of local government after the departure of the legions. A pattern of local liberties and immunities had developed, and these had helped to establish and protect Catharism as a popular 12th-century heresy until its extinction by a French crown, which saw the movement as the religious expression of political and cultural independence. For the Valois monarchy in the 16th century, Protestantism’s geographical spread in towns such as Montpellier, Nîmes and Toulouse showed that it was an old opposition in new garb.

By the 1550s French protestants were being called Huguenots — a label whose derivation remains obscure — and Geoffrey Treasure’s spaciously constructed account of their impact covers over a century and a half of faith-filled scheming that ended in defeat and acquiescence.

Henri IV, the first Bourbon monarch, abjured his Protestantism but issued in 1598 the Edict of Nantes, whose extension of toleration to his former co-religionists brought France’s civil war to a close. Treasure offers a sympathetic account of the Huguenot experience and his narrative closes with the partial diaspora that followed Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict in 1685.

This is as thorough a history of a once distinctive community as anyone can wish for, with the author showing his familiar and easy command of early modern Europe’s mentalité in questions of culture and religion. His subjects’ system of belief is explored to empathetic effect, but Treasure also takes his readers on an exploration of what it felt like to be a dissident in the daily conduct of life — in the adoption of distinctive argot, dress and customs. Yale University Press has done its author proud with the production of this handsome and elegantly illustrated volume, though closer editing would have done much to highlight some of its significant conclusions.

English historiography has given the Huguenots a consistently good press. For Lord Acton and his pupil J.N.Figgis they were an enlightened anticipation of the late Victorian belief in the rights of minorities and the virtues of representative government.

And in the mid-20th century, excitable scholarship sometimes pressed the analogy between international Calvinism and the Marxist Internationale, since both were bands of confrères that owed allegiance to a transnational ideology.

Nonetheless, the story of the Huguenots is one of failure. Reformation politics right across Europe showed just how important it was to have a sovereign prince on your side.

For as long as the French monarchy remained Catholic, the odds were heavily against a Huguenot breakthrough. Even at the height of their influence in the 1590s there were probably no more than 900,000 of them and that would equate to a little under 5 per cent of the total French population. Their leaders certainly had an elite self-confidence, but that cockiness also undid them…

Hywel Williams’s books include The Age of Chivalry and Sun Kings: A History of Kingship.

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