The Development of Protestantism in 16th Century France: Graham Noble Investigates the Causes of the Rise and Fall of French Protestantism. (the Unpredictable Past)

Article excerpt

Within 20 years of Martin Luther pinning his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a Protestant Reformation had begun td take shape in northern Europe. His ideas were never to find a natural home in France, but a different form of the religion, stemming from Calvin's Geneva, won supporters and gained coherence from the middle of the century. Churches burgeoned and congregations swelled as the Calvinist movement grew in spectacular style, attracting followers from every social class. By the 1560s, perhaps 1,250 churches were serving an adult population of 2 million so-called `Huguenots', about 10 per cent of the total population of the State, including amongst them a third of the French aristocracy. Consequently, on the eve of the Wars of Religion, the triumph of French Protestantism seemed not just possible but, to many, inexorable. According to one's faith, either a divine revelation of religious truth was at hand or the punishment of God was being loosed upon a sinful world.

Yet the Protestant miracle never took place. Around 30,000 Calvinists were slaughtered in the massacres of 1572 and, as fighting fragmented and foreign powers became increasingly involved, the cause was lost to political and military necessity. The Civil Wars, which might have led to the triumph of Protestantism, ended by sanctioning it under royal licence, constricting its development and tying its future to the goodwill of Catholic Kings of France as yet unborn. So, how are we to explain the progress that French Protestantism made in this period?

Protestantism and Church Reform

Two connected, but distinct, Protestant movements were to develop in the second half of the sixteenth century: the first, popular, largely urban, sometimes seditious, and linked more or less closely with Geneva; the second, aristocratic, often committed to its Faith but also intensely independent and political in motivation. They shared, though, a common ancestry, in the Christian Humanist and later Lutheran critics of the contemporary Church, men whose precarious existence relied upon sympathetic patronage and an ambiguity in royal policy, which could be exploited to their advantage.

Though the traditional Protestant interpretation of a decadent Gallican Church mired in abuse, attracting widespread anti-clericalism from its flock, is undoubtedly a caricature, there may well have been cause for the reformers' complaints. But evidence from the beginning of the century is difficult and contradictory: reports of incompetent or acquisitive clergymen, particularly in rural areas, and of monks whose lives were anything but monkish; of internal squabbles setting back the process of reform; of exploitative manipulation of relics and indulgences must be set beside clear indications that the Church conveyed a powerful liturgical message to a large body of pious believers and was well aware of its own shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church manifestly failed to reform itself from within in these crucial years and was left ill-equipped to meet the challenges of radical Protestantism. Those who sought to move forward, whether working independently or as agents of the Crown, found themselves blocked, vilified and, in some cases, persecuted. `Georges d'Amboise, Cardinal Archbishop of Rouen and chief minister of Louis XII, set out to impose a new discipline on religious houses but met opposition at every turn. The Parlement de Paris treated him with great suspicion because of his papal and royal connections and clergymen obstructed his agents and repeatedly appealed against his judgements. He was forced to back away from reform for fear of stirring up an unacceptable level of discontent within the Church.

A decade later, Bishop Guillaume Briconnet set out to reform his own diocese of Meaux and in doing so offended local Franciscan friars. His invitation in 1521 to the noted evangelical humanist, Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, to join him in the quest, alongside a group of like-minded scholars who became known as the Cercle de Meaux, brought matters to the attention of the Sorbonne and the Parlement. …