Most modern westerners have a hard time with the notion of a religious war. After 9/11 many commentators scrambled to find other alternatives to the notion that the conflict had religious differences at its core. We talked about the relative poverty of the Mideast as the cause, though many leaders of terror groups come from wealthy backgrounds. We argued that they simply fail to understand us, even though many terrorists lived (and currently live) in western countries and got fully exposed to our culture and way of life.
Quite simply, it may be the case that most of us in the west can no longer understand faith as a motive for much of anything, seeing no purpose for religion aside from something purely private and “spiritual.”
Many scholars of the wars that convulsed Europe in the wake of the Reformation take the same approach. Whatever the religious differences between the sides, many point to rising tides of nationalism, economic concerns, class strife, and so on, to explain the crises. While all these issues have their place, they are almost always not the cause, but the fruit of underlying religious differences.
For example, let us take the rise of nationalist feeling in late 15th and early 16th centuries. Such ideas arose no doubt as an outgrowth of the revival of classical culture. Classical culture meant a revival of the city-state ethos, which worked directly against the medieval notion of Christendom. Certainly, the weakness of church leadership in the 15th century did little to stem this tide. But nationalism came from a revival of classical culture, a new life for an old religion buried 12 centuries prior.
Mack Holt’s The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 impressed me immediately by his simple declaration that yes, the French wars of religion really were about religion. If we only realized that sanity comes at such a simple price.
From John Wycliffe on down, reformers often focused their attacks on the Mass and the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic feast. The same happened in France, with the first major Protestant salvo coming with with the “Affair of the Placards” in 1534. Various pamphlets distributed throughout Paris read thusly:
By this mass the poor people are like ewes or miserable sheep, kept and maintained by these priests, then eaten, gnawed, and devoured. Is there anyone who would not say and think that this is larceny and debauchery?
By this mass they have seized, destroyed, and swallowed up everything. They have disinherited kings, princes, nobles, merchants, and everything else alive. Because of this, the priests live without any duty to anyone or anything, even the need to study. What more do you want? Do not be amazed then, that they defend it with such force.
They kill, burn, and destroy all who oppose them. For now, all they have left is force. Truth is lacking in them, but it menaces them, follows them, and chases them, and in the end, truth will find them out. By it they shall be destroyed, Amen. Amen. Amen.
For many Protestants, issues such as the eucharist began and ended in the theologically intellectual realm. Strongly influenced by Renaissance humanists, they believed that truth came via textual analysis and debate. Their arguments centered on interpretation of Scripture. Holt gives a clear yet subtle analysis with this incident. He points out that for Catholics the issue went far beyond abstract theological interpretation. Obviously they had a theological position. But for Frenchmen at least at this time, the celebration of the mass formed crucial social bonds between its participants. The Church placed strong emphasis on not communing unless one had peace with your neighbors. So in the end, attacking the mass meant attacking the linchpin of social cohesion in France. It was the mass, and not any particular laws, political, or social organization that made France “France.” To change the theology of the mass would be akin to dramatically altering our Constitution.
Critics of religious wars today might often wonder why they couldn’t all just get along. Holt again parries and shows us the coronation oath all French kings took, which reads:
I shall protect the canonical privilege, due law, and justice, and I shall exercise defense of each bishop and of each church committed unto him, as much as I am able, with God’s help, just as a king properly ought to do in his kingdom.
To this Christian populace entrusted and subject to me, I promise in the name of Christ:
First, that by our authority the whole Christian populace shall preserve at all times true peace for the Church of God.
Also, that in good faith to all men I shall be diligent to expel from my land all heretics designated by the Church
I affirm by oath all this said above.
Faced with the “Affair of the Placards,” any French king could either abjure his oath or try and fulfill it. We can legitimately question some of the approaches used, but should not fault the French king for trying. He had no other choice, at least initially.
Things got out of hand quickly. The untimely death of certain French kings left a power vacuum filled at different times with different factions. Huguenots often converted from the merchant class. They had money and lived in towns that could easily be fortified against attackers. It would have taken a dynamic king with a budget in the black to defeat them if it came to fighting. France had neither. Eventually, commoners took up the cause themselves, and then things got really ugly, even allowing for the possibility of exaggeration in some accounts.
Catholics and Protestants both committed atrocities for various reasons. Catholics seem to have perpetrated more than their fair share of terrible deeds. Holt shows us, however, how the issues that divided them went far below the skin. Each side fought for a certain theology, and in so doing, fought for different versions of the meaning and purpose of France.
I find understanding the differences between the Protestant and Catholic versions of France tricky, but my best guess would be
- Catholic France had an agricultural bent, while Protestantism favored merchants.
- Protestants defined community via intellectual and doctrinal agreement. Catholics found community in common visible practices and common observance of the liturgical calendar.
- Protestants stressed the written word, Catholics looked to a more embodied “word” in their mass, liturgy, architecture, sacraments, and so on.
Whatever the overlap between Catholics and Protestants, these religious differences would produce different cultures. We can imagine a Huguenot triumph perhaps resembling the Dutch Republic, where Protestants triumphed with a similar theology as the Huguenots–though Huguenots never had the numbers to actually take over France as they did the Netherlands.
For various reasons the monarchy never could root out Protestants. An uneasy peace developed which allowed for toleration and Protestants to have a firm minority presence in France. Some might say this proves that France could still be France with the two faiths co-existing.
Maybe. But France could no longer have the same basis of political and social order if the celebration of the mass no longer held the country together. The role of the king would have to change, his person would inevitably become less sacred, his job more administrative. In time the brilliant but enigmatic Richelieu stated that, “People are immortal, and so must live by the law of God. States are mortal, and thus are subject to the law of what works.” Possibly the emphasis on the text for Huguenots led to a decidedly different, more disembodied intellectual climate, and perhaps this helped lead to the universal dream of a rational Enlightenment.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In the event that you find your house divided, you will therefore need to find a new place to live. In our own Civil War, one side triumphed decisively enough to force their opponents to live with them. In this case, the minority never succumbed to the majority, and so it seems that they both had to find a different house to live in.
Holt’s book reminded me of the quote from Adam Wayne, a character in G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Wayne commented that,
There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars, but the religious wars. For these men fought for something they claimed at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man. A Crusader at least thought that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king, or tinker that it could capture.