Yale University Press, 2013
488 pp., $35.00
David J. Davis
Francois Dubois' gruesome painting of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 forever memorialized the brutality of the day. The painting depicts Catholic Parisians hunting in packs for their Protestant countrymen, hanging them from posts, bludgeoning them with clubs, and decapitating them in the city streets. At the center of this macabre scene are two political figures: Catherine de Medici, the Catholic mother of King Henri III, who casually inspects the slaughter of Protestants; and the dead body of Admiral Coligny, the Huguenot military leader whose assassination ignited the massacre.
In much of the English-speaking world, the Reformation in France is relatively unknown. The Affair of the Placards, Saint Bartholomew's Day, the Edict of Nantes, and Cardinal Richelieu's wars against the Huguenots are typical highlights. However, the history behind these highlights is overshadowed by events in England and Germany, and even recent, large-scale histories of the Huguenots, though worthwhile works of scholarship, tend to focus on refugee experiences or Huguenot culture after the revocation of Nantes in 1685 (see for example Anne Dunan-Page's The Religious Culture of the Huguenots: 1660—1750). The unintended effect has been an oversimplified view of the French Reformation, portraying French Protestantism being oppressed and martyred by a merciless and bloodthirsty urban mob and royal court.
Geoffrey Treasure's The Huguenots is a welcome challenge to such oversimplifications. Written as a political history about religion, rather than a church history, the book seeks a middle ground between the affairs of the church and those of the state, treating them on equal terms. For Treasure, the Huguenots were not merely another manifestation of Protestantism; rather, they were unique to early modern France, which both kept Huguenotism alive in France for over a century and led to its demise.
16th-century France, as Treasure describes it, was a country of contradictions. It was the seat of absolutist theories of government, but it was also a "distinctively mediaeval" society, with powerful nobility that could and did threaten the monarchy. The University of Paris was a bulwark of Catholic orthodoxy, but France was also the soul of the humanist movement in northern Europe. After Spain, France was considered to be the most Catholic nation in Europe; however, the distinctly Gallican nature of French Catholicism could clash with the wishes of the pope in Rome when French political interests were at odds with theological conformity.
These contradictions created an unstable political milieu that nourished the Huguenot heresy and sparked the civil wars (or wars of religion) in the second half of the 16th century. For Treasure, these years of bloodshed and violence solidified the Huguenots' claim to a rebellious "separate state," which was "linked overtly to other Protestant powers." This alternative Huguenot state received its theology from John Calvin in Geneva, "the first port of call" for French pastors. Their local governments in cities like Montpellier and La Rochelle were characterized by a system of synods and colloquies. They even had a ring of "warrior nobles," like Henri de Rohan and Admiral Coligny, to mobilize a military force. In other words, the Huguenots felt and "looked like outsiders" to the rest of Catholic France.
The Huguenots shines as a work of scholarship when it is teasing out the complex tension between religious tolerance and persecution generated by the creation of this distinctive subculture. Ultimately, this tension is the main undercurrent of the book. Although, as Treasure acknowledges, "French Protestants were persecuted from the start," he demonstrates that there was a continued emphasis on toleration, in order to either end or stave off civil war. Henry IV's Edict of Nantes in 1598, which granted freedom of worship and has been celebrated as a remarkable statement of religious liberties, actually marked the culmination of a long line of official efforts.
Interestingly, along with Catholic leaders like the humanist Bishop Briçonnet and the chancellor Michel de l'Hôpital, Treasure identifies Catherine d'Medici as one of the leading advocates of tolerance. Far from the murderous queen-mother that Dubois and other Protestant historians have depicted, Treasure's Catherine is a sympathetic character, "sitting uncomfortably between the Guise and Coligny." She was bent on keeping France united under the reign of her sons and avoiding the radicalism of either religious party. To do this, she championed several pieces of tolerance legislation, including the Edict of Saint-Germain in 1562, granting freedom of conscience to Protestants. It was only when Catherine thought Coligny and the Huguenots threatened the monarchy's stability that she turned to assassination, which Treasure labels "an aberration" for her character "and a calamitous misjudgment."