The Huguenots
The Huguenots
Geoffrey Treasure
Yale University Press, 2013
488 pp., $40.00

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David J. Davis

The Huguenots

A deeper understanding of French Protestantism.

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Sadly, efforts at tolerance simultaneously fueled religious animosity. Shortly after the passing of the Edict of Saint-Germain, the civil wars were ignited by the Guise family—that notoriously militant Catholic clan—who massacred Huguenots in the town of Wassy. Elsewhere, when the state would not persecute Huguenots, the people often felt obliged to take matters into their own hands, with forced conversions, attacks on Protestant gatherings, and assaults on those who would not pay reverence to religious images. Also, the St. Bartholomew's Massacre was partly a response to the treaty between Catholics and Protestants ending the third civil war in 1570. Treasure reminds his readers that particularly in "Paris, the people saw Huguenots returning to the city … [and] were in no mood to tolerate them." Even the Edict of Nantes did not quench persecution entirely, as local institutions (universities, town councils, etc.) still remained largely prejudiced against Protestants.

And yet French society slowly, oftentimes begrudgingly, accepted the Huguenot presence. During much of the 17th century, Huguenots like Theodore de Mayerne (Henry IV's physician) began occupying key positions in France. Wealthy Huguenots hired leading architects to build Protestant temples for public worship. "Artists, engravers … printers, paper-makers … painters, glassmakers … merchants, bankers, and entrepreneurs"—all were vocations Huguenots gravitated toward. Treasure summarizes this period as one that "for the majority of Huguenots" was characterized by "normality." Even after Cardinal Richelieu conquered the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle, the French throne never attempted to revoke the Edict of Nantes.

Unfortunately, this normality did not last. Bringing his history to a close, Treasure marvels at Louis XIV's miscalculation in revoking the Edict of Nantes. Treasure's final chapters set out the various motivations behind the revocation. Drunk with the philosophy of absolutism, convinced it was his responsibility to reunite the French religion, blind to domestic and international realities (what Treasure calls "the Versailles effect"), and swayed by wishful reports "that the morale of the Huguenots had plummeted," Louis believed the revocation was a fait accompli.

In reality, the revocation chased hundreds of thousands of Huguenots into exile, many of whom represented a significant minority of French skilled workers and professionals. This labor force—like the master watchmakers who established a new trade in Geneva—would benefit the economies and cultures of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and North America for generations to come.

Some readers will accuse Treasure of a turgid and dry style, and this complaint wouldn't be entirely unjustified. Others may expect a greater amount of historical pontificating, speculating, and drawing of contemporary parallels with such a hot-button subject as religious violence. In an age when history is often twisted by partisan ideologies, Treasure thankfully writes with careful objectivity, delivering a rich distillation of French history.

In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot commented "that no culture can appear or develop except in relation to a religion." The Huguenots illustrates how the opposite is equally true, that no religion can appear except in relation to a culture. The Reformation in France and across Europe was about more than religious change. As the new French religion emerged, so too did new constructions of French culture and nationhood, which were defined by what it meant to be a Huguenot.

David J. Davis is director of the Master of Liberal Arts and assistant professor in history at Houston Baptist University.

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