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5 Setting the Problem: Religious Values
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Challenges to the Tradition

Major elements of the sixteenth-century French Catholic tradition were called in question by the reform movement as soon as it materialized in new institutionalized form, specifically that of John Calvin in the French Reformed Church. Although the first edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion , with the dedication to François I and refused by the king, appeared in 1536, it was not until about twenty years later that the new movement came of age as a specific rival to the old church. In the interval the problem of heresy was diffuse—although all forms were labeled "Lutheran." There were several degrees of deviation from orthodoxy in this second quarter of the century. Some dissenters in all classes, not negligible, but difficult to estimate precisely, found the "abuses" of the Roman church offensive, often including among the abuses some well-established practices like the sale of indulgences. A much smaller segment of dissenters moved from talk to action, by violating the rules (for example, eating meat on fast-days), committing blasphemy (very loosely defined), attending unauthorized preaching, possessing forbidden books, and other actions officially condemned by church or state. A narrow scholarly group, surrounding the well known humanist-reformer leaders Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples constituted the nucleus of evangelical reformers under the protection of Marguerite de Navarre, the king's sister. They challenged the papacy—at least by implication—concerning the intercession of saints and the doctrine of Purgatory, on the grounds that these were not to be found in the Gospels and therefore had been humanly rather than divinely instituted.

In this fluid period at midcentury, to be "suspect" of any of these degrees of unorthodoxy exposed one to persecution and/or prosecution by both the


church and the state—which was embodied in the crown's edicts and the power of the courts, especially the Parlement of Paris. Yet challenges to core Catholic dogma were as yet rare; repudiation of the mass was limited to a scattering of virtually unknown radicals (such as the perpetrators of the placards ) and attacks on the papacy and the sacramental system were generally based on their absence from the New Testament, which was a respectable position in an age whose motto was ad fontes . In general, even where the challenge to Roman doctrines was substantial, French doctrines to replace them were lacking.

Of course, some fully formulated heresies were circulating in Europe before the 1550s; Luther's, adopted by the northern German and Scandinavian states in the 1530s, Anglicanism, the Strasbourg reform, many forms of Anabaptism, and, most important, the Swiss movement of Zwingli in Zurich, followed by other reformers in Bern, Basel, and Geneva, the latter led by Guillaume Farel.[16] But none of these had much impact in France, not even the movement led by Farel until after he had attracted other Frenchmen to Geneva—notably John Calvin. The "openness" of the second quarter of the century, when all sorts of compromises and accommodations seemed possible, gave way to an increasingly polarized situation, with each side maintaining, Whoever is not with us is against us, and since God is with us, the others are agents of Satan and should be exterminated. Eventually these reciprocal recriminations would produce rival camps, each with its own confessional-political propaganda, fighting civil wars of religion in France and the Netherlands, as had already happened in the Germanies.

For a Frenchman to leave the traditional faith and embrace that of the Reformed Church (Calvinist) entailed not only a new theology, a new morality, a new view of heaven and earth, church and state, and different rituals but also different interpretations of human history and even differences in personal, inner piety. Moreover, the new religion could not serve as the cement of society, as did the old, whose chief champions had been kings of France, since it specifically differentiated the spiritual community (the church) from the secular community. To belong to the former one had to take definite personal initiatives, and the church stood aloof from—above—the latter. The definitions were drawn up and the regulations enforced not by the king and his council, nor by the bishops he had appointed, but by a new single-minded breed of men, who made stringent demands


on the faithful in every sphere of life and made, significantly, the same demands on lord and serf, rich and poor, men, women, and children—lay and cleric alike.

The new church could be national in that its leaders and language were French, and in that it was confined within national frontiers, but it could not maintain the position of France as the superior member within the universal church—as did the traditional Gallican church. For a Frenchman to leave the old church was, then, to accept a bouleversement of values far beyond the confines of religious belief. For a parlementaire there would be a further disorientation in that the guardianship of the Gallican liberties was a basic function on which the court's existence and prestige depended.

The other new ideology, that of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, began to crystallize in France in the 1560s, but its heyday occurred in the years following 1584, year of the death of the last Valois male after Henri III then reigning, leaving Henri de Bourbon, king of Navarre, first prince of the blood, and leader of the Huguenots as heir presumptive. The raison d'être of the Holy League, led by the Guise-Lorraine family with the support of Spain and the papacy, was to prevent Henri, a heretic, from succeeding to the throne. Since the "heretic" had an indisputable claim under the Salic law and the regular rules of succession, they argued that a more fundamental law required the king to be Catholic, as already mentioned. In the interim, under Henri III, the heretic party survived all attempts to exterminate it, from confiscation of goods and banishment to death-by-fire for individuals and all-out war against the party. In ultra-Catholic eyes the policies of the crown constituted appeasement of the forces of evil, at least, and to the fanatics Henri III was a "tyrant" for tolerating them and especially for the murder of the champions of the true church (the young duke Henri de Guise and his brother the cardinal de Guise, assassinated in the château of Blois on Christmas Eve 1588). In contrast to traditional Gallican Catholicism, the Holy League favored increased papal power over the French church, with a consequent reduction in national autonomy. In political terms, the League was a part of the Spanish attempt to gain European hegemony through championship of the Roman Catholic cause. It was ultramontane in two respects, therefore, looking beyond the Alps to Rome and beyond the Pyrenees to Madrid.

Tridentine Catholicism, in short, posed a brutal and direct challenge to special parlementaire values and concerns. The claim of the League to be defender of the faith ironically compounded the discomfort of Frenchmen already struggling with the desire to preserve the old system but at the same time to allow for needed reforms. Polarization of religious options


created a terrible dilemma for traditional Gallicans, who found less comfort at the hands of their alleged defenders—ligueurs —than those of their heretical enemies.

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