Jul 27, 2006

Book Review: Iron and Blood: Civil Wars in Sixteenth-Century France


Henry Heller's Iron and Blood Heller, Henry

Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991, 191 pages

Heller is a professor of European history specializing in Reformation and Renaissance France at the University of Manitoba. Iron and Blood examines the civil wars that wracked France in the decades after the death of Henry II. Heller challenged the assumptions of many traditional historians, who accepted the challenges posed by Calvinists as the primary basis for conflict, while dismissing the theory that religion was merely a “cloak” to disguise hidden political agendas by such members of such noble houses as the Guise, Bourbon, and Montmorency. Heller instead viewed the hostilities from a neo-Marxist perspective, arguing instead that the recurrent wars in sixteenth century France were primarily due to increasing levels of social conflict. The “fundamental conflict,” in Heller’s eyes, existed between “the excluded majority [rural peasants, small producers, and artisans] and the existing social orders” of the clergy, nobility, and the urban bourgeoisie. Moreover, the use of the term “civil wars” in the subtitle of the book underscores Heller’s conviction that religious beliefs played a much smaller role in the Wars of Religion than claimed by many early modern French historians.

Heller attacked the traditional idea of the “vertical” social order of the three estates, arguing instead that there existed a “horizontal” order composed of the monarchy, nobility, and wealthy merchants who were opposed by the rest of French society; the view of French society as being “ordered” in the form of the three estates, in Heller’s eyes, was merely a surface illusion. Conflict in the decades preceding the civil wars took a number of different forms:
The struggle over rent between peasant and lord…incipient conflict over profit and wages between agricultural entrepreneurs and labourers…division between town and countryside in which the peasants and small-town bourgeoisie would find themselves at loggerheads with the patricians and great merchants of a regional metropolis.
Heller analyzed the history of sixteenth century popular revolts in order to provide anecdotal evidence of the existence of class conflict in the period leading up to the Wars of Religion. In addition, the author assembled in tabular form a quantitative analysis of the “popular contestations” that occurred between 150 and 1560; grain shortages, economic oppression, and political exclusion were among the most common causes of civil disturbance. Heller also noted that conflicts between the urban bourgeoisie and the monarchy were almost non-existent prior to 1550, and only the “weight of growing economic difficulties and unrelenting royal fiscal pressure” caused a rift between these previously-aligned segments of French society.

Like Ladurie, Heller held that the model of “artisan as Calvinist and peasant as Catholic” remained valid, although the author cautioned against overemphasizing the religious spilt between urban and rural populations. Heller maintained that the areas in which urban Protestantism was most successful were those in which popular discontent was connected with Calvinist evangelism to produce a sort of hybrid religious-economic rebellion. Conversely, the Calvinist revolt was least successful when Protestant notables failed to generate an anti-aristocratic sentiment among the lower classes. An important point missed by many scholars, argued Heller, was that there existed in the early 1560s a widespread refusal – among Catholics as well as Protestants – to pay the tithe, which provided the financial foundation for the Catholic Church in France. While conceding that the Protestant movement was the catalyst against the oppressive religious tithe, Heller argued that there existed a general movement from below that was more anti-oligarchic in nature than anti-clerical.

Protestant theologian John CalvinLeft: Protestant theologian John Calvin

One of the most interesting examples Heller cited to demonstrate the failure to achieve a Huguenot reform involved the city of Aix, in which the Calvinist elite produced a counter-reaction against Protestantism by Catholic commoners. During an annual Catholic procession, barefoot pilgrims walked to the shrine of St. Mark; Calvinist zealots spread thorns on the path in order to disrupt ceremony of the Catholic faithful, and appeared the next day to “mock the pilgrims as they made their way to the sanctuary.” For Heller, the Calvinist movement in the 1560s was really a popular revolt with a Protestant mask that “began as a movement of class from below [that] turned into a class war from above,” and, after the popular revolution failed, the conflict turned into a civil war dominated by Protestant and Catholic nobles who dictated the terms of the conflict.

Heller culled dozens of popular revolts from archival sources to build a convincing case for the primacy of economic conflict in the Wars of Religion. His interpretation of the rise of the Catholic League, however, is especially unique in its analysis. Traditional historians have seen the League as largely religious in nature, with devoted Catholic commoners led by the Guise faction banding together to preserve their faith and exterminate the heretical Calvinists. Heller, while recognizing the religious component, argued instead that the League should be viewed as “part of the broader pattern of popular rebellion against military occupation and oppressive fiscalism.” For most members of the Catholic League, Calvinists were seen lass as heretics than as disruptive elements whose zeal brought misery and deprivation to people across France.

Accompanied with a glossary, hearty bibliography, and cross-referenced index, Iron and Blood is a provocative book that cannot be dismissed as a mere exercise in reductionism. Even for historians who look with disdain upon analyses the notion that social class and economic constraints largely determine historical outcomes, Heller’s book makes persuasive argument for the primacy of economic conditions as causative factors in the Wars of Religion.


Stephanie said...

Not to judge a book by it's cover, but dang that's a goofy picture!

liberal_dem said...

Religious wars? Is that the ultimate oxymoron or what?

But then, our history shows that we humans love to kill for god or God, or whatever the local word is.

How'd that deviant gene pass down the generations in the dominant form?

Makes one wonder just how far from ape we are.