The Huguenots

The Huguenots

by Geoffrey Treasure

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Following the Reformation, a growing number of radical Protestants came together to live and worship in Catholic France. These Huguenots survived persecution and armed conflict to win—however briefly—freedom of worship, civil rights, and unique status as a protected minority. But in 1685, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes abolished all Huguenot rights


Following the Reformation, a growing number of radical Protestants came together to live and worship in Catholic France. These Huguenots survived persecution and armed conflict to win—however briefly—freedom of worship, civil rights, and unique status as a protected minority. But in 1685, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes abolished all Huguenot rights, and more than 200,000 of the radical Calvinists were forced to flee across Europe, some even farther.
In this capstone work, Geoffrey Treasure tells the full story of the Huguenots’ rise, survival, and fall in France over the course of a century and a half. He explores what it was like to be a Huguenot living in a “state within a state,” weaving stories of ordinary citizens together with those of statesmen, feudal magnates, leaders of the Catholic revival, Henry of Navarre, Catherine de’ Medici, Louis XIV, and many others. Treasure describes the Huguenots' disciplined community, their faith and courage, their rich achievements, and their unique place within Protestantism and European history. The Huguenot exodus represented a crucial turning point in European history, Treasure contends, and he addresses the significance of the Huguenot story—the story of a minority group with the power to resist and endure in one of early modern Europe’s strongest nations.

Editorial Reviews

The Times - Iain Finlayson

“In an engrossing study of the Calvinist Protestants . . . Geoffrey Treasure has supplied a comprehensive history of the Huguenots in their native country . . . The resilient nature of the Huguenot faith and the historical effects of their diasporas are reliably presented.”—Iain Finalyson, The Times

The Tablet - Piers Paul Read

“A formidable work, covering complex, fascinating, horrifying and often paradoxical events over a period of more than 200 years . . . Treasure’s work is a monument to the courage and heroism of the Huguenots.”—Piers Paul Read, The Tablet

National Huguenot Society - Naitonal Huguenot Society Award

Winner of the 2014 National Huguenot Society award for the best original work of scholarship covering any aspect of the Huguenot movement.
The Guardian - P D Smith

‘A richly detailed study of the politics and personalities of a religious minority.’—P D Smith, The Guardian
New York History Blog - James Blackburn

“With clarity and depth . . . Treasure’s work tells brilliantly the history and life experience that the Huguenots carried out of France.”—James Blackburn, New York History Blog
Literary Review - Peter Marshall

"[An] enjoyable and authoritative account, which, in telling the story of the Huguenots, doubles as a fine political and religious history of France over the course of two troubled centuries.”—Peter Marshall, Literary Review
Sunday Telegraph - John Gallagher

Geoffrey Treasure’s thoughtful study charts the story of these Protestants, known as Huguenots, across nearly two centuries. It is a history of theology and high politics more than a ground-level study of Huguenot life, beginning with illuminating potted histories of the French monarchy and movements for religious reform.'—John Gallagher, The Sunday Telegraph

Books and Culture - David J. Davis

“A rich distillation of French history.”—David J. Davis, Books and Culture

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

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The Huguenots



Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey Treasure
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19388-6



I hold it to be the principal cause of preservation of this monarchy that only with difficulty might subjects come to dissension and discord. (Claude de Seyssel)

Protestants in a Catholic country, Huguenots were only for a short time more than a tenth of the French population. By 1598 they had settled to being under a million. Yet in one way or another, in faithful lives, in persecution, in rebellion reluctant or eager, in arts, crafts and skills of great value to their society, in heroic acceptance of sacrifice, they were influential beyond their numbers as, eventually, they would be beyond the borders of France. The transformation of separate households and communities into a close-knit organisation with the capacity to defend itself and, after the 'Religious Wars', to secure unique rights and guarantees, came to be of crucial importance for the development of the French state.

The story of French Protestantism is part of the larger story of the European Reformation and of political consequences. The evolution of a distinctive French church and community owed much to humanist critics within the church preparing the ground; then to Luther and fellow reformers; but most to Calvin, the haven at Geneva for French refugees, and the missionary enterprise launched from that city. With varying degrees of intensity and periods of remission, French Protestants were persecuted from the start. To appreciate their unique and uncomfortable position we must see them first in the context of French society, of royal government and its traditions, in particular the special relationship that existed between king and pope.

From the outset the Huguenot would be faced with the question of divided loyalty. It would be set aside, not resolved by the Edict of Nantes which, in 1598, brought a peace of grudging and measured compromise after a series of civil wars. The Edict reflected military stalemate and exhaustion. Toleration, as an active principle, could hardly be imagined. When, in 1685, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, revoking his grandfather's Edict of Nantes, the issue of loyalty became again painfully acute as the remaining Huguenots were required to abjure or were driven by conscience to leave their native land.

So why, defying tradition, risking life, had Frenchmen become Protestant in the first place? What sort of people responded to the appeal of the reformed faith? But if it was so powerful, and the church in the sorry state that is generally portrayed, why not more of them? That there are no neat answers becomes apparent when we look beyond church and state to the very composition of France: the country where Huguenots proclaimed their faith and lived their distinctive lives.

In 1500, in the reign of Louis XII (1498–1515), a cluster of diverse regions, a slow, uneven accretion through centuries of conquest and inheritance, the realm consisted of around 460,000 square kilometres, of which nearly a quarter had been gained in the previous fifty years; 27,000 parishes, supporting in some fashion around 15 million people. To any Frenchman who could even envisage France as a whole country, that was vast. It was customary to talk of twenty- two days at least journeying from furthest north to south. Most would have narrower horizons, bounded by their pays, or more narrowly still the area, some dozen kilometres' radius, around their market town. Though there was a steady trickle from country to towns, especially to the larger ones, France was, and would long remain, a largely rural society. Peasants, some relatively independent, with more substantial means, but mostly poor, lived at best a little above mere subsistence. Typically they were in some degree subject to feudal dues and tithe, or bound to some form of métayage, share-cropping, liable to pay taxes, taille and gabelle, the lucrative salt tax, always subject to the vagaries of nature, chronically vulnerable, likely after a bad harvest or other mishap to fall into debt.

More closely examined, the picture is one of the infinite variety that has given rise to the observation that by rights France should not exist; that from such multiple peoples, France had to be invented. 'France is not a synchronised country: it is like a horse whose four legs move in different time.' Between north and south a broad distinction can be made that would prove significant in the Huguenot story. It was evident in every aspect of culture, from farming practice to housing, to law and language; between the northern 'yes' of oil and the southern, of oc, where, staying in Languedoc, the northerner Racine, finest master of the official language, would declare that he needed an interpreter. Further afield, to Brittany, Flanders or the Basque lands of the western Pyrenees, he would need others. For travelling he would need stamina. From Paris to Lyons at least four days should be allowed; from Lyons across to Nice another four. The river, in this case the Rhône, was to be preferred to bandit-infested roads; the mountain passes and the rugged uplands of the Massif Central were especially dangerous. The same conditions went for correspondence. Even in Colbert's time the minister would be replying a fortnight later to an intendant's dispatch. All made for separatism, and yet within literate society there was a strong sense of a single country and of one singularly blessed by divine providence. In the years of domestic peace and economic recovery, after the plagues and wars of the previous century, many would have approved the eulogy of a chancellor of France: 'the beauty of the country, the fertility of the soil and the healthiness of the air outdo all the other countries of the world'. The picture may not bear close examination but it fairly represents a pride and optimism, sustained well into the sixteenth century by rising incomes for those who had a substantial estate, trading opportunities or royal office, that add emphasis to the tragedy to come.

To an English visitor, no doubt less favourably inclined, who travelled on stony tracks, dusty in summer, deep rutted in winter, through the champaign north of the Loire and east of the Seine, the France that he would first experience would look impoverished. Huddled around château and church, with possibly the houses of a few more substantial fermiers and laboureurs, would be the simple cabins of the journaliers, or that majority of villagers who owned a few strips of land but could barely survive without some other employment. Then beyond the great open fields stretched the meadows, rough pasture, scrub, marsh, heath or woodland, the fringe so valuable for grazing and wood but always shrinking before the plough and the remorseless need for more grain. As he went south beyond the Loire, towards Languedoc or Provence he would see a quite different landscape: more stone in the building, vines and olive trees, wheat in small enclosures and on terraced hillsides; goats and sheep grazing. On the face of it a more balanced regime and one likely to induce independence.

There are, of course, not two but many distinct geophysical areas of France, every variation between mountain and lowland, of climate and kinds of agriculture. In the north the Normandy of the bocage; in the centre and towards the south the high, stony lands of the Massif Central; in the west the poor enclosures and Atlantic climate of Brittany; in the east the vineyards of Burgundy – such diversity reminds us of the limited value of a general description. It is the same with the province. Within each there were distinct pays. In Gascony, for example, Braudel names thirty-seven, the result of barriers, physical or political, to communication; of historic pressures and immigration; even of the magnetic force of larger towns. In Champagne he finds 'a coral reef of pays set at greater or lesser intervals – at least thirty altogether'. There are at least two distinct Normandys: Haute looking to Rouen and the sea, Basse towards Caen and its rich countryside, and within them twenty or so different pays: each 'engenders a type of inhabitant and way of life. Every pays imposes its own history'; or, as Braudel reverses Gaussen's observation: 'every history also creates a kind of inhabitant, a type of landscape, and ensures the survival of a pays'. When we come to the story of Protestantism in Normandy we should not be surprised to find, as in other provinces, that the scene is patchy, that there were many reasons why a Norman should become, or resist becoming, a Huguenot.

It will appear that by and large this mass of people lies outside the Huguenot story. Peasant culture was inherently hostile to novelty, inclined to suspect the outsider, the unfamiliar. Only where there was a local tradition of independence or dissent, as in the Vivarais, or, as happened on some estates, peasants were given a strong lead, even demand, would they desert the traditional faith. The general illiteracy was a crucial factor. Though barely 15 per cent of the people lived in towns, they do figure disproportionately in the Huguenot story. There were to be found the majority of those who subscribed to the faith. Though beneath the haute bourgeoisie, the élite of birth, education and wealth, the petit bourgeois or superior artisan was still more likely than his country cousin to be literate, therefore at least open to the Word and to Protestant teaching. That could even be true of the many, servants and labourers, at the base of the urban pyramid. At one level or another it is the urban mentalité that we have to take most into account.

Yet peasant France cannot be ignored; nor can French Protestants be treated as living wholly apart from the mass, a separate, mainly urban culture. They were affected, like everyone else, by the health of the economy, levels of demand, trading activity and prices; by peasant action when times were hard, by the response of government. As successive ministers, notably the great Huguenot Sully, well understood, power at all levels, from the crown to the municipality, was limited by the condition of the rural economy, the prime source of wealth and the taxes that could be levied, which determined what government could achieve. That is the essential premise to establish before the recurring question. How could it be, in successive bouts of war, even by what was meant to be the final act, the Revocation, that the state was unable to suppress the minority of Protestant subjects who defied the fundamental principles upon which its authority was held to rest?

A comprehensive view of the institutions through which the crown sought to govern is beyond the scope of this book. Yet the reader will have a limited picture of Huguenot life and the challenges that could face church and community if it is read without reference to the political setting: royal government, its values, laws and institutions. The Huguenot was before all a Frenchman, a subject of the crown. What, in effect, did this mean? How can we envisage Huguenot society as it evolved towards a settled condition? The picture will become clearer. Meanwhile we may start with dots and patches, so many communities of faith, living hugger-mugger with Catholic neighbours mainly within the walls of congested towns, except where the control of a seigneur has brought villagers into the religion. Buying or selling at the same market, using the same services, though preferring to find at need a Protestant, say for apothecary or lawyer, they could only live in as separate and self-contained a way as conditions allowed. The growth of Protestantism into a cohesive body can be understood only against the background of a fragmented country, a mosaic, infinitely various in its laws, rights and customs. In due course, when granted rights as a body, their position would indeed be remarkable, but only as enjoying the largest and, because of its religious aspect, most prominent, among examples of corporate privilege. The Protestant ideology was one of certainties, of self-assurance fortified in spirit by a sense of adventure, of the fresh start, of being children of God, enjoying His special favour. The social reality was inevitably one of compromise, requiring caution, if not absolute secrecy.

For Protestant and Catholic alike, royal government was remote, respected vaguely in the person of the king, more likely resented when it came to tax; anyway irrelevant to everyday concerns. Authority was embodied in the royal governor or his deputy; in the province's parlement; in ways more likely to affect ordinary lives, in a bailli or some other officer of the provincial or town government; most relevantly for villagers in the seigneur and his court. Law for the majority in the north and centre was customary, with numerous local variations or, in the Midi, based on Roman law. Differences were most significant in the disposition of property: whereas in the south, through his will, the father could leave most to a chosen son, elsewhere property was divided equally between heirs. Dues and services were as various as the circumstances which had shaped the history of the province or the rights of the seigneur. Even a noble would be likely to look to his immediate superior or patron, and be as ready to serve him in arms as he would the distant king – or it might be against the king. In the south, land of Occitan, only the higher officials, clergy (not all) or nobles who went to court, would readily speak the French language of the north, of government and of high culture. Brittany was virtually closed to the French language. Catholic missions were to be conducted there, as if to a colony, by priests who had first to learn the language. As late as 1708 it could be said of religious education that there were needed as many different catechisms as there were parish schools. Up and down the land most people would find that the patois of their region served their daily needs.

In political terms this land of France may be envisaged as several countries around a central core. Brittany was loosely attached and would retain distinctive institutions after its formal annexation in 1532. Burgundy had only been French since the death of Duke Charles the Bold in 1477, and then only the western part of the original duchy, leaving to the Habsburgs the Franche-Comté. Recovery of the whole of his Burgundian inheritance would be an obsession of Emperor Charles V and, with rival claims to Milan and Naples, a prime source of conflict more deadly as it came to subsume that of Catholic against Protestant. Provence was annexed in 1481, after the death of its count but it was still as count that the king ruled there; as dauphin that he was sovereign in the Dauphiné. These differences were the result of the way in which the state had evolved through conquest and inheritance.

Even when it came to the essential business of raising revenue, along with local variations we find two distinct regimes, pays d'états and pays d'élections, each requiring different treatment by government. At the heart of society and government in the pays d'états was the representative body, the Estates, of which seven survived: Languedoc, Provence, Dauphiné, Auvergne, Brittany, Burgundy and Normandy. With the exception of Normandy, its Estates progressively enfeebled and destined to fade away in 1655, their most valued privilege was the right, in response to government's annual demand, to vote a contribution. In Languedoc, typically, this involved a 'complex mixture of ritual, social interaction and hard bargaining'. Dominated by the First Estate, though with a substantial input from bishops, the body was responsible for assessment and collection of the taille réelle and ministers had to accept limits on what could be raised by this tax on property. The four southerly provinces were the furthest from the capital; they were also in due course those where Huguenots were most numerous. So the authority of the crown rested more on goodwill, the fostering of alliances, and arrangements of mutual benefit through self-constituted power brokers than on the more direct and forceful methods that could be employed elsewhere.

Excerpted from The Huguenots by GEOFFREY TREASURE. Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey Treasure. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Geoffrey Treasure was senior master at Harrow School before his retirement. He lives in Herefordshire, UK.

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