Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why was France
the only state in 16th c. Europe
to experience such a violent and protracted series
of religious civil wars? /

Γιατί ήταν η Γαλλία
το μόνο κράτος στην Ευρώπη του 16ου αιώνα
που είχε μια τόσο βίαιη και παρατεταμένη σειρά
από θρησκευτικούς εμφύλιους πολέμους;

Πρωινό στις πύλες του Λούβρου,
πίνακας του Édouard Debat-Ponsan του 19ου αιώνα.
Διακρίνεται στα μαύρα η Αικατερίνη των Μεδίκων,
μετά τη σφαγή της νύχτας του Αγίου Βαρθολομαίου.

One morning at the gates of the Louvre,
19th century painting by Édouard Debat-Ponsan.
Catherine de' Medici is in black
after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.

But why was France the only state in sixteenth-century Europe to experience such a violent and protracted series of civil wars? The French were neither more religious nor necessarily more violent than other Europeans, so why were there not such extended civil wars elsewhere? Religious settlements were imposed from above by the state without much significant violence or bloodshed in states such as England, Sweden, and countless cities, duchies, and territories in the German empire. Moreover, other large Catholic states such as Spain managed to maintain Catholic preponderance without any kind of civil war. The closest parallel to the French experience was in Germany, where Charles V waged a protracted war against the Lutheran princes from 1530 to 1555. These were not truly civil wars, however, as the fighting was waged primarily by soldiers. Despite some singular exceptions like the Peasant Revolt of 1525, the  German Reformation experienced nothing like the protracted civilian involvement and popular violence that was so characteristic of the French Wars of Religion. So, why was the experience of France so unique in Reformation Europe?

Two factors above all others seem most crucial. First of all, the proximity of Calvin’s Geneva, both geographically and linguistically, resulted in a far more significant and concentrated infusion of Protestantism in France, particularly in the south, than in other Catholic territories such as Spain and Italy. While there was certainly as vibrant a strain of Christian humanist reformism in Spain and Italy as in France in the early sixteenth century, neither of those two territories experienced a wave of missionary evangelism emanating from Geneva. In the less than twenty-five years between Calvin’s arrival in Geneva and the outbreak of the civil wars in France, more than a million French men and women had been converted to Protestantism, with pastors sent from Geneva playing a significant role in the process. In short, France had a much larger and more concentrated community of Protestants in its midst than either Spain or Italy.

Second, unlike the smaller Protestant states of England and Sweden, where a state religion from above was imposed on the population with relatively little bloodshed or violence, royal religious policy in France vacillated and changed throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. No reformation was imposed from above because no French king embraced Protestantism. Yet, after 1559 no prolonged policy of repression worked any better because of the large numbers of Protestants in the kingdom. It did not help, either, that at the height of Protestant growth in France – around 1560 – the accident of death left the kingdom of France in the hands of boy-kings, first Francis II (1559–1560) and then Charles IX (1560–1574). From the time of the accidental death of Henry II in 1559 to the majority of Charles IX in 1563, there was never really an established authority at court strong enough to prevent the noble factions from using the confessional divide to their advantage. And finally, the vacillating policies of the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, during this regency government to pursue a policy of religious co-existence and toleration of the Huguenots resulted in the reverse of her intentions, as the toleration edict of January 1562 actually made civil war more likely. While the aims of those like the Queen Mother and Michel de l’Hopital to pursue peace through religious toleration rather than persecution are commendable, they were unrealistic in the 1560s (though by that time a renewal of the repression of Henry II would not have been any more effective). Any policy of religious settlement that was going to pass muster with the overwhelming majority of the Catholic French population was going to have to accommodate itself to the Gallican principle of ‘one faith, one king, one law’. This was the lesson that the ‘politiques’ of the 1590s – such as Henry IV – learned from the ‘politiques’ of the 1560s. Thus, vacillating royal policy from 1559 to 1598 implemented by largely ineffective monarchs contributed greatly to the civil wars in France.

* Mack P. Holt,
The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629
(New Approaches to European History

[Οι Γαλλικοί Πόλεμοι της Θρησκείας, 1562-1629
(Νέες Προσεγγίσεις της Ευρωπαϊκής Ιστορίας)
Cambridge University Press, 2005,
pp./σσ. 197, 198.

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