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May/June 2007

Discover more articles from this issue.

A State of Exception

The Guantánamo Bay detention centre, set up in January of 2002 at the U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba, has recently seen its fifth anniversary.

Freedom Wings

Benjamin Franklin knew a lot about kites and electricity. And he wrote enough pithy sayings to forever confuse them in the mind of the Biblical speed...

Religious Rights for All

Sergeant Patrick Stewart, a 34-year-old decorated American soldier and follower of Wicca, was killed in Afghanistan on September 25, 2005, along with...

Tumults, Riots, and Seditions

The European wars of religion, which followed the Reformation and raged roughly from the early mid-sixteenth century to the later mid-seventeenth century,...

The American Government vs. Religion?

A professor of religion at Texas Christian University, Ronald Flowers wrote in his book That Godless Court (Westminster/John Knox) how "In 1962 and...

Avoiding Misguided Metaphors

Even when the U.S. Supreme Court reaches the right result in a matter involving church-state relations, the justices too often do so for the wrong...

The Scripturally Informed Conscience

The road from the Protestant Reformation to the religious freedom of the American republic was full of unexpected turns, switchbacks, and delays. The...

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Published in the May/June 2007 Magazine
by David J. B. Trim

The European wars of religion, which followed the Reformation and raged roughly from the early mid-sixteenth century to the later mid-seventeenth century, were marked by a range of atrocities, all carried out in the name of Christianity. Later generations realized the incongruity and attempted to shift the culpability for the violence to one side or the other of the confessional divide. That attitude, of attempting to fix the blame on Protestant or Catholic, is still influential, but it is misguided.

This article considers sixteenth-century France, which suffered more than most European countries from conflict in the name of religion. Divided between the majority Roman Catholic population and the minority Calvinist Huguenots, France was racked by civil wars (the French Wars of Religion) and by persecution and communal violence for most of the last 40 years of the sixteenth century. Peace came in 1598, with a remarkable (albeit temporary) experiment in religious toleration, effected by the Edict of Nantes. France in this period is, as one historian recently observed, "one of the most salient points in the history of persecution and pluralism."

While modern historical scholarship is less confessionally partisan than it once was, the preconceptions of historians brought up in a Catholic or Protestant milieu still present challenges to writing the history of the Reformation era. Furthermore, prejudices engendered by past generations are often more influential than the views of today's academics.

The books on my parents' bookshelves as I was growing up seemed to make it clear that Protestants were the good guys and Catholics the bad guys. When as a boy I first read that the Huguenot cavalry at the Battle of Dreux (1562) were clad in white cassocks, over their armor, it seemed only appropriate. Researching the period as a professional historian has given me a more balanced perspective, but jaundiced views are still widespread. Patrice Chereau's spectacular motion picture La Reine Margot (1994), which was both an artistic and a commercial success, including in English-speaking countries, reinforced the view that violence in France's guerres de religion was the fault of Roman Catholics. A counterpoint to this is the recent claim by Pope Benedict XVI that the Protestant reformers were responsible for a breakdown in a traditional Catholic consensus against compulsion or violence in the name of religion.

What, then, does history really reveal about religious violence during the French Wars of Religion?

Catholic Repression and Persecution
When considering the record of religious violence in late sixteenth-century France, at first guilt seems to lie overwhelmingly with those on the Roman Catholic side.

The 1540s saw mass executions of Protestants in many French towns. These were quasi-judicial proceedings against people convicted of heresy, but are striking because of the numbers put to death. And they were to be succeeded by less formal and more massive acts of brutality. In 1561, for example, when convicted heretics were released by royal decree, as part of a short-lived attempt to achieve compromise, in the town of Marsillargues a Catholic crowd rounded them up "and executed and burned them in the streets." Then in 1562, the First Civil War/War of Religion was triggered by the slaughter of a whole congregation of Huguenots, worshipping in a barn outside the small town of Vassy. It was the first of many massacres, of which the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris (August 24, 1572) is only the best-known and most horrific. In less than 24 hours, some 3,000 Huguenots, including women and children and the elderly, were murdered by the king's troops, Catholic nobles and their retainers, and by the ordinary people of Paris.

In the weeks that followed the massacre in Paris, between 2 and 5,000 more Huguenots were killed across France as the news of the massacre arrived in the country's cities, setting off copycat massacres of the local Protestant populations. At Bordeaux the massacre occurred after a Jesuit preached a sermon "on how the Angel of the Lord had already executed God's judgment in Paris, Orl

Author: David J. B. Trim

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