Jul 15, 2006

Book Review: The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629

The French Wars of ReligionHolt, Mack P.

New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 239 pages

Holt is a professor of European history at George Mason University, specializing in early modern France. He targeted The French Wars of Religion for an audience of undergraduates and general readers, and the text lives up to its promises that a prior background in Reformation history is not necessary for readers to enjoy this clear and concise examination of the turmoil that enveloped post-Reformation France. At the same time, Holt’s work maintains a high level of scholarship that makes the book recommended reading for graduate students. While acknowledging the political and economic factors that underpinned the Wars of Religion, Holt maintained that a socio-religious collective identity respectively held by French Catholics and French Protestants should be considered to be the main component of sixteenth-century strife in France.

The author followed a chronological approach in presenting the material, and began the discussion of religious strife with an examination of the simultaneous rise of Protestantism and Gallicanism in sixteenth-century France. Unlike many works on the topic Holt did not end his text with the 1598 Edict of Nantes, and he convincingly argued that the siege of Huguenot stronghold La Rochelle (1627-8) marked a more appropriate end to the Wars of Religion. The author provided biographical sketches of notable figures, lineage charts of the Valois, Bourbon, Montmorency, and Guise families, as well as an extensive bibliographical section for further reading.

Holt argued that France, unlike any other European nation, was uniquely positioned for the eruption of sectarian violence in the sixteenth century. More so than any other kingdom, French kings were symbolically wedded to the Church through coronation ceremonies, or what Holt described as the “enfolding together of the French monarchy and the Catholic church” :
French kings had earned a much older and more redoubtable title: 'Rex christianissimus,' the ‘most Christian king.’ Thus, the sacres [coronation rituals] of the kings of France were more culturally replete symbols of the sacred nature of French kingship denoting a special relationship with God.
Catherine de MediciLeft: Catherine de Medici

Holt also argued that the last of the Valois kings – sons of Catherine de Medici – were a collection of successive monarchs who lacked the ability to lead France at a time when strong leadership was a necessary component of a viable state. Francis II reigned only one year, and the fact that he was only 15 when he ascended to the throne meant that his mother acted as regent for that time. Likewise, his brother Charles IX took the throne as a boy, reigned under the regency of Catherine, and was largely under the domination of the Guise family. Charles also acceded to the murder of Protestant leaders - including Gaspard de Coligny - an event that sparked the series of violent encounters known as the St. Bartholemew’s Massacre in August 1572. The inept, vain, and sterile Henry III rounded out the last of the Valois dynasty, and his murder in 1589 left Henry of Bourbon as the next in line for the throne.

Other conditions contributed to the decades of warfare in sixteenth-century France, and Holt argued that the kingdom’s geographic and cultural proximity to Calvinist Geneva was among the most important factors. France was a natural destination for Calvinist missionaries, and their messages resonated among people of all social strata of French life. Holt also maintained that pre-absolutist French monarchs lacked the bureaucratic machinery necessary to maximize tax revenues, and the inability of the monarchy to put down Protestant rebellions was directly related to its failure to raise the revenues necessary to field sufficient military forces.

Holt’s chapter on the St. Bartholemew’s massacre is especially useful in explaining the complex causes of the widespread violence against Protestants in 1572. He separated the events into four distinct segments: a) the attempted assassination of Coligny; b) the coordinated murder of Protestant leaders at the wedding of Henry of Navarre and Marguerite de Valois; c) the wave of murder committed by paranoid Catholic mobs in Paris immediately following the Huguenot nobles; and d) the similar massacres that occurred in towns across the kingdom. Holt, however, argued that all of the perpetrators of anti-Protestant violence shared two common beliefs: they believed that they were carrying out the will of the king, and the believed that “the extermination of the Huguenot’s was God’s will.”

The French Wars of Religion communicates the complicated history of six decades of warfare in a way that makes the material comprehensible to general readers, while not oversimplifying the narrative to the point where the book no longer has research value for scholars. Holt made a convincing case that the slogan “une foi, un roi, un loi” (“One faith, one law, one king) was more than a catchy political saying – it was the very embodiment of the philosophies that upon which the ancien régime operated.


Anonymous said...

I'll check it out of the library - sound interesting!

jmnlman said...

Excellent Review To bad I only have enough free time to do some male sketches on my own blog.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

Aldous Huxely published a biography, 'Grey Eminence; the life of Father Joseph,' in ~1944 about this supporter of the French monarchy above all. Father Joseph at Richelieu's behest prolonged the thirty Years War to degrade the strength of the King of Catholic Austria and Spain, in the process leading to the miserable death of a third of the population in Germany. Huxley published it then perhaps out of a view that those actions were the pebble falling downhill that led to the twentieth century catastrophe of nationalism and German inclination to militarism.

Hooda Thunkit said...


Although factually based, "The French Wars of Religion" seem to have an aire of "soap opera" about them, based on the post.

I'm not trying to belittle the author's work, or your review, just trying to equate it to 21st century readers ;-)

Kate said...

hooda - soap opera. Perfect description. That's much what this era was like. Catherine - described as interested in power and married to a weak minded brother to the king...at the age of 14. Who later became the king when his older brother died.

Three dead children and three (?) had to be three Francis, Charles and Henry all became king...

She was orphaned as a child, came to France in high heels and the people hated her.

:-) Fascinating woman...it would be difficult to write a commentary on this woman without converying drama - her life was tremendously dramatic.