Instructor: Dr E. P. Fitzgerald
‘Pity the poor student who faces the labyrinthine, complex and confusing story of the French Wars of Religion for the first time.’ Now that’s the sort of introduction this course could do without! But the British academic who wrote those words really missed the point. Complexity is integral to any historical period worth studying. And along with complexity our period delivers high drama, big ideas, powerful personalities, a tough-as-nails queen, a king chased out of Paris by his subjects, a Catholic chieftain called ‘Scarface’, a Protestant admiral who never went to sea, two royal assassinations, an unsolved murder mystery, and a triangular tug-of-war between ambition, religious belief and political expediency.
Overview: In the 1520s the movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church grew into the religious revolution of the Protestant Reformation. Germany and Switzerland were the epicenter of this upheaval, but the reform movement also took hold in France, where followers of Jean Calvin formed churches in several regions of the country. Local clashes between Catholics and Calvinists (and the grandees who led each camp) soon escalated into civil war. Religion then acted as a transnational ideology, drawing Spain, Holland and England into the conflict. The intensity of the violence validates Umberto Eco’s dictum that ‘men are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction.’ Yet in the end the zealots on both sides lost and the advocates of toleration won. The peace settlement guaranteed religious pluralism and gave French Protestants more freedom than Catholics had in contemporary England.
In short, our subject is the national and international dimensions of the French ‘Wars of Religion’, the factors explaining their origins and outcome, and the long struggle to preserve religious peace and confessional co-existence in their aftermath. Topics include the growth of Protestantism and the efforts of Catherine de Medici to avert civil war; ritualization of violence and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre; foreign involvement and the near collapse of the French monarchy; impact of the wars on local communities; peace and reconstruction under Henri IV; consolidation of state authority under Richelieu; influence of the conflict on political theory.
Format: Two classes weekly, comprising lectures and discussions. Regular attendance is expected.
Readings: R. J. Knecht, The French Wars of Religion 1559-1598 (Routledge, 3rd edition, 2010, ISBN 9781408228197), plus material on Library reserve. La Reine Margot, Patrice Chéreau’s magnificent film about the Saint Bartholomew’s tragedy, will be screened if we can make suitable arrangements.
Assessment: Attendance/participation 30%; a mid-term examination 30%; and a final examination 40%. Students must attend a minimum of eighteen classes to be eligible for academic credit.
Good to know: This course is not a general survey of the Reformation: HIST 3708/RELI 3220 is the right course to take for that broader subject.