"Cut off This Rotten Member": The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League

By Leonardo, Dalia M. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002 | Go to article overview

"Cut off This Rotten Member": The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League


Leonardo, Dalia M., The Catholic Historical Review


"If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith, kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God."1 So proclaimed a League polemicist, Louis D'Orleans, whose fierce devotion to the Church and condemnation of heresy epitomized the spirit of radical Catholicism.2 The mass murder and ritual degradation committed by Catholics against Huguenots during the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (August 24, 1572) was supplanted by an oratory of violence and intolerance advocated by the League's most zealous supporters. By combating Protestantism Leaguers were not simply purging the kingdom of a dangerous social and political element; they were fighting for the salvation of the entire Catholic community and the restoration of God's favor.

The ongoing conflict between Catholics and Protestants set the stage for the emergence of the Catholic League,3 a loose coalition of individuals representing all orders of society whose prime objective was the preservation of the Catholic Church and the elimination of heresy from the realm. Leaguers envisioned their campaign against Calvinism as a holy war similar to the great biblical contests against unbelievers and enemies of the Lord. League supporters argued that complacency on the part of Catholics, including the monarch, had led to the manifestation of God's anger at human society. League publications outlined the appearance of signs, such as natural disasters and apparitions, as evidence of divine wrath and the Lord's condemnation of heresy and sin. It was not enough to enumerate Protestantism's onslaught on centuries of tradition and ritual; polemicists maintained that any deviation from accepted religious norms would lead to the destruction of society's most basic foundations.

League apologists relied on a variety of ancient sources for inspiration and guidance, especially the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. They wove together passages beseeching the wrathful God of the Old Testament to give credence to their campaign to violently and mercilessly eliminate God's enemies. They also relied on Christ's message of love and redemption, and with it, the hope of attaining eternal salvation for the faithful of France. One of the League's greatest strengths was its ability to use well-known religious and political symbols to influence its audiences. League polemics focused on biblical stories, such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, that were already well known to French Catholics and had been reinforced by post-Reformation preachers.4 League propaganda as a whole relied on beliefs and myths shared by a vast majority of the population.5 Since the League was interested in reaching a wide audience, most of its works were written in the vernacular. League printers became active in 1584, reaching their apex between 1588 and 1589, when over five hundred works were produced.6 Placards, pamphlets, broadsheets, and woodcuts began to circulate everywhere in Paris, especially in places where crowds regularly congregated to exchange gossip and news such as near the Palais de Justice and the Pont Neuf.7 Furthermore, written forms of League propaganda were normally read aloud, making its message widely accessible.

This study focuses on the radical faction of the League which represented a vocal and significant component particularly in Paris, the center of French Catholicism. According to its critics, the League's crusading zeal and religious fervor was a dangerous attribute, something to be feared rather than admired. Using the term "zealous" became a favorite way for royal supporters and religious moderates to condemn what they discerned to be unbridled religious fanaticism. They downplayed their enemies' assaults by using the same terminology to differentiate themselves from heretics and lukewarm Catholics who threatened the Church's wholeness, and to emphasize the importance of maintaining a united kingdom:

It is an admirable thing to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects. …

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