Preferred Citation: Roelker, Nancy Lyman. One King, One Faith: The Parlement of Paris and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996.



The prominence of lawyers toward the end of the ancien régime and in all phases of the French Revolution is a cliché of conventional historiography, but only recently has attention been drawn to the numbers and influence of men trained in the law in early modern culture throughout Europe. Many figures important in fields other than politics or statecraft brought the fruits of a legal education or experience—as John Calvin did to religious leadership, or Leibniz and Hume to philosophy, Guicciardini and Gibbon to history, or Corneille and Molière to literature, or as Montesquieu and Voltaire did to social criticism. Specialists in intellectual history, despite many differences of opinion, are agreed that humanist culture was "largely a creation of lawyers and notaries." Of France, one scholar says that the "brilliant Pléiade of French thinkers who so enriched the intellectual life of Europe in the sixteenth century consists almost entirely o f jurists. " George Huppert's analysis of the authors included in the most comprehensive bibliography of the time, La Croix du Maine's Bibliographie françoise (1584), has established that among French writers of indisputable leadership (1540-84) in letters, arts, and sciences robins constitute the largest occupational category, 80 percent.[1]

The virtually simultaneous or overlapping emergence of centralized states under rival dynasties, of new commercial centers in Europe resulting from shifting trade routes, and of new products from colonies rich in raw materials; the revival of powerful ideas from the ancient world stimulating unparalleled outbursts of creativity, ideological conflicts between adherents

[1] . Bouwsma, "Lawyers and Early Modern Culture," 309; Huppert, Perfect History , 185-193; Myriam Yardeni, "L'Idée de progrès et sentiment national en France au 16e siècle: Bodin, Le Roy, et Pasquier," Studies in History 23 (1972): 175-176.


of conflicting versions of Christianity—all contributed to an atmosphere of recurrent crisis, "in which lawyers were especially qualified to function effectively." William J. Bouwsma points out that "men of the law were uniquely fitted by their social role and the nature of their experience with the world to interpret it . . . they were in a better position than other groups . . . to give expression to Europe's changing perceptions." In the Italian towns and in the highest echelons of the Roman church "lawyers and notaries assumed responsibilities out of all proportion to their numbers precisely because they possessed skills essential to the development of a more complicated social order ." They shaped the new institutions more than any other group.[2]

Their role, in short, was to man the frontiers between the safe and familiar on the one hand, the dangerous and new on the other; between the tolerable and the intolerable. . . . They constituted a kind of civil militia whose difficulties were compounded by the fact that the precise location of the frontiers to which they were assigned was rarely clear . . . and constantly changing. . . . The lawyer knew the world . . . he was peculiarly fitted to play so large a role in forming the culture of worldliness and vigilant individualism to which the more optimistic . . . culture of the preceding period gave way.[3]

More fundamental than the law's numerous practical uses, in Bouwsma's opinion, was that it served as an antidote to widespread disorder and offered the possibility of peaceful and reasonable resolution of conflict. "Repudiating great systems of thought . . . the flexible, pragmatic attitude of lawyers. . . . and their part in the articulation of a novel set of empirical . . . attitudes . . . [gave rise to] a perception of the world as an infinitely complex population of forces in conflict." Lawyers knew that conflict was unavoidable and that constructive results were often achieved through the vita activa , by facing up to its ambiguities and dangers. This approach converged with developing empirical science, vernacular literatures, and the elaboration and glorification of national institutions, as our study of the Parlement attests.[4]

Bouwsma describes lawyers as "the supreme secularizers of their world."[5] As such, while they were agents of change, they also gave expression to the conservative impulses of the age.

[2] . Bouwsma, "Lawyers and Early Modern Culture," 309-310; my italics.

[3] . Ibid., 314.

[4] . Ibid., 319-322.

[5] . He underlines the point that secularism is not synonymous with unbelief and sketches the basically Erasmian religious tendencies of both Catholic and Protestant lawyers spelled out in chapter 5 (ibid., 322).


In a period singularly troubled by the collapse of traditional ways . . . and yearning for stability, [the lawyer] promised a measure of security, both for individuals and for society as a whole. . . . His role was to foresee and provide against as many as possible of the dangers that might lie ahead, and thus it reflected both distrust of the future and . . . some confidence in the ability of men . . . to control the unfolding of their earthly lives. . . . Resort to lawyers implied the reverse of fatalism.

He was above all concerned to make the social system work .[6] He did this by being "constantly prepared to mediate between the general and the particular, the ideal and the concrete . . . the life of the law is potentially fraught with tension between these poles." For our purposes, most crucial was "the tension between continuity and novelty."

If we measure the performance of the Paris magistrates by Bouwsma's criteria, we see that they did indeed "represent the need for order" and were "above all concerned to make the social system work." But they were slow to recognize that "workability was likely to operate against a complete rigidity of mind" and that the structures within which they worked "must be flexible if they were also to be responsible and continuously useful." In order "to man the frontiers . . . they had to have already accepted the inevitability of conflict even in the body of Christ."[7] The magistrates of our early generation were taken by surprise when heresy erupted in their midst, and they lashed out in anger and fear with the execution of Berquin. They reacted as to a sudden, isolated, attack, say, by a dangerous snake escaped from the zoo, normally unknown in the region.

The affaire des placards , five years later, further delayed their recognition that "a more complicated social order" was emerging to which their special skills should be adapted, because the general hysteria obscured the differences between iconoclasts and sober men bent only on spiritual reform and kept them from seeing that whereas iconoclasm could easily be stamped out with the overwhelming support of all classes in the community, the deeper and subtler heresy was a manifestation of basic social and intellectual change, with far-reaching implications that must somehow be accommodated.

In the second period of tension, the 1540s, the transitional generation was sharply divided between those who thought an engine of repression would eliminate the evil once and for all—as if discovering that instead of one alien snake there were many—and the moderate majority. Lizet's tactics

[6] . Ibid., 322, 324; my italics.

[7] . Ibid., 310.


still postulated a passing phenomenon that could be finally disposed of. Tragically, the domination of the acharnés further misled public opinion concerning the significance of heresy and further delayed a realistic and effective response by Parlement. The temporarily neutralized moderates were almost equally appalled by the medicine of repression and the disease of heresy—both endangered the constitutional equilibrium and the Gallican tradition of which Parlement was the guardian.

Thus it was not until the late 1550s, under the moderate leadership of Pierre (I) Séguier and Christophe de Thou, that the court really began to "man the frontiers" and "mediate the tensions," especially the all-important one—between continuity and novelty. In the nearly four years between the mercuriale of June 10, 1559, and the Pacification of Amboise (March 19, 1563), the question of heresy was still the main focus of parlementaire concern—though soon to lose out to the Gallican issue—and the court was finally taking it seriously as a source of inevitable conflict in an imperfect world. The debates of 1560 and 1561 among members of Parlement, the sharp clashes between the court and Chancellor L'Hôpital, the agonizing over Condé after the Conspiracy of Amboise (March 1560) and through his trial in 1561, and finally, the endless negotiations to end the civil war after all attempts to avoid it had failed. All testify to the difficulty of adjusting to the unwelcome fact that reform could not be contained within the Catholic fold. The imposition of the first Profession of Faith (June 1562) and the relatively easy readmission to the court of the suspects of 1559-60 were signs that the fact that some Frenchmen had chosen irrevocably to step outside the religious tradition was at last being assimilated in mainstream parlementaire mentalité and accepted, at least for the short run.

If parlementaire accommodation to heresy had been slow and the threat virtually ended before they faced up to it, the court recognized the ultramontane danger at once. Even before the Trent decrees became a major issue, the status in the French kingdom of the Jesuits, who acknowledged only the authority of the papacy, sharply divided Gallicans from ultramontanes. Étienne Pasquier established his reputation in a famous case in which he represented the University of Paris against the order in 1565, and in his writings he repeatedly expressed distrust of the order as a "foreign body," asking at one time whether they were truly French and at another whether all Christians were not members of the real society of Jesus.

The Tridentine danger was, of course, easier to recognize than heresy; although the idiom was new, Rome was an old enemy and the weapons to be used had been forged long before, some as far back as Du Bois and Gerson, and they had recently been sharpened in the fight against the


Concordat. For thirty years, from the end of the Council of Trent (1563) to the Estates of the League (1593) the Gallican battle raged, rising to a higher pitch with each step that brought Henri de Bourbon nearer to the throne, notably the death of Alençon (1584) and the assassination of Henri III (August 1, 1589), when the heretic became Henri IV only to be attacked more violently than ever by the ligueurs .

After Henri IV's abjuration-conversion, the question of toleration for Huguenots arose again, advocated this time by a strong king who also represented the triumph of the constitution: fundamental law, reassertion of French national autonomy, and the Gallican liberties. In the years immediately following his coronation Henri put much effort into cultivating the papacy, in order to obtain personal absolution and acceptance of his claim to the throne, but he resumed the traditional royalist-Gallican posture whenever it was called into question. For magistrates this meant reassurance on the point of their greatest anxiety, and release of energy to resist the older, if lesser threat—the breach of unity in faith between crown and people by toleration of alternate (heretical) beliefs and practices. Some members of the court were more nervous about this than they might otherwise have been because of the personal religious history of the king.

Yet neither parlementaire attitudes toward heresy as such nor the policy they thought should be adopted by the royal government, had changed in any fundamental way since 1562. To summarize: first, the Roman church had flaws, to be sure, but the proper leadership would correct them as far as could realistically be expected, through the Catholic reform; it was not up to individuals, certainly not to judges, to do so. Second, some of the new religious doctrines had much intellectual and spiritual appeal, but it was unlikely that God would have revealed the ultimate truth to private individuals rather than to the vicars of Christ, the doctors of the church, the solemn councils. Church administration belonged to the French king and his bishops, and one should always remember to render unto Caesar . . . but doctrinal authority belonged to the successors of Peter. Third, any breach in the unity of church and state, crown and people was dangerous and opened the way to overthrow the traditional equilibrium of the several elements of the French constitution. Finally, any proposal to make exceptions or to tamper with the overall system was therefore unsound, risky, an unconstitutional innovation that should be firmly resisted by the court with all the resources it could command.

In the end, like the Concordat of Bologna and the Edict of January, the Edict of Nantes was registered under the formula de expresso mandato regis . The record was clear that the Parlement of Paris was not responsible


for the disasters certain to follow and that it had fulfilled its traditional duties to the letter, yielding to superior force only when there was no other choice. Unlike those earlier occasions, however, the struggle was brief, some of it pro forma, and the capitulation less subject to bitterness and arrière-pensées, in part because nobody (except Protestants) expected the Edict of Nantes to last.

The Range of Parlementaire Religious Options

Each parlementaire generation arrived at and expressed its own range of options in the circumstances peculiar to its own decade, but a few generalizations about patterns are possible.

The century falls into two halves . Heresy was the dominant divisive issue from its appearance in the 1520s only until the early 1560s. After 1563, the fact that all previous attempts to resolve the issue had led only to civil war seemed to demonstrate that efforts to make allowance for reformist ideas beyond the limits set by the church were not merely futile but counterproductive. The fate of earlier advocates of toleration was also a deterrent. At the same time a new force, the Tridentine Reformation, posed a different threat from the opposite direction. More dangerous in every respect than the earlier menace, it threatened the total annihilation of the religious tradition and not merely its modification, by permitting the existence of an exceptional category. The Gallican issue consequently moved to center stage and held the spotlight for the remainder of the century, but the problem of dissent persisted and was never forgotten. On the contrary, every sign of leniency toward heresy on the part of the crown and the Gallicans, or attributable to them, however implausibly, was ammunition for the ultramontane party in its propaganda, both at home and abroad. With each Edict of Toleration marking a truce in the wars, heresy briefly recaptured attention.

Center positions held by the majority are consistent . A spectrum of religious postures between poles at either end is discernible in each period of tension, but the substance of the polar positions differs not only between the two parts of the century, as one would expect, but also in the time segments within each part. Significantly, however, throughout the century a comfortable majority of the court held firmly to center positions.

Mainstream attitudes toward heresy move toward the center, in a conservative direction . When heresy was uppermost, the spectrum went from a more tolerant, open, and generally more flexible position at one pole to


an intolerant and inflexible position at the other. With time, the orientation shifted in the conservative direction. A center position, that we might call moderate-conservative in say, 1528, would have stood at the extreme liberal end by 1548, except that those who probably held it were keeping it to themselves. It had become suspect because at the other, conservative, pole a harder-line view had crystallized. Strongly held by a faction of ultras led by Pierre Lizet, it was temporarily imposed on an uncomfortable but silent majority during the existence of the Chambre Ardente and thus could appear to be the opinion of the whole court.

Parlementaire attitudes toward heresy moved steadily in the orthodox direction, whereas views open to change in any degree dropped out of sight if not out of existence. Consequently those who followed the tradition and took no overt stand (the silent majority) then seemed more liberal by comparison with the ultra extremists who claimed to be defenders of the tradition against heresy—but in fact, French ecclesiastical tradition would have been mutilated if not destroyed had they prevailed. The special significance of the crisis period, 1557-63, was that it marked the highwater mark of this trend. The ultras overreached themselves by the attack on the centrist members; the attack boomeranged and the moderate-traditionalists under Séguier and de Thou were able to reassert leadership. Within a few months members of Parlement who had been arrested or who had absented themselves for fear of arrest, or worse, were readmitted after some gestures of conformity, with the exception of Anne du Bourg, an authentic heretic, who had been executed in the hysterical atmosphere of 1559.

Mainstream attitudes toward the ultramontane movement move toward the center, in a liberal direction . When the ultra-Catholic threat was uppermost, the spectrum went from a traditional, nationalist-Gallican position in the center (liberal nuances had disappeared) to the party-line ultramontanism of the League, which resulted in some compromises of the autonomy of the French church. This was the situation of the 1580s. The really radical extremists of the 1590s, who would have destroyed the Gallican liberties and set aside the Salic law (by accepting a sovereign who was both a foreigner and a woman), never gained adherents in the mainstream of the Parlement of Paris. The spectrum was, therefore, very much truncated; lacking both reformist and rigid orthodox extremes, it was actually an extended and internally differentiated center.

Thus, despite the big difference in emphasis between the two parts of the century and the contrasting directions in the movement of religious opinion in the two series of spectra, all the forces ultimately strengthened


the traditional center, which was already the option of a majority that never deviated in its allegiance.

Magistrates from lower robin levels act differently from the mainstream . Of course, in the general population some Frenchmen did choose to become Protestant and a much larger number did respond to the Catholic revival—in its later, French forms. Members of Parlement are to be found in considerable numbers among the latter in the seventeenth century, in movements founded by Cardinal Bérulle, Saint François de Sales, and especially in the Jansenist group, both of the latter two having embodied some features usually associated with Protestantism. In the parlements, in Paris and the provinces, there were a few acknowledged Protestants, but the many obstacles they faced severely limited their numbers and deprived the court of some able men who seem to have been natural-born parlementaires. The case of the Pithous is well known. The erosion of Protestant participation in the judiciary over four generations is illustrated by the Cappel family, documented in detail by Salmon.[8]

Jacques (I) Cappel, who died in 1541, was prominent in the parquet , as avocat général, but his son, Jacques II, despite his office of conseiller in the Parlement of Rennes, procured for him by his father-in-law Nicolas Duval of the Paris Parlement, was imprisoned in the Conciergerie in March 1560 and forced to resign his post and flee the country at the time of St. Bartholomew. After the creation of the chambres mi-parties in 1576, he was named to that chamber, in Paris, but was never allowed to exercise the office. In the revived civil wars of the 1580s, he was forced to flee again, to Sedan, where he soon died. As with the Pithou, the superior intellectual skills of the Cappel enabled them to have distinguished careers outside the judiciary; three of Jacques II's brothers made a mark in scholarly study of classical literature; his sons and grandsons were noted biblical scholars and professors of Hebrew.

As far as the record shows, there were no followers of the ultramontanism that violated the Gallican liberties, in the highest echelons of the Parlement of Paris, but this does not mean that the capital's entire legal profession was equally immune. Robins were to be found in both the ranks and the leadership of the League, even in the extreme wing—the Sixteen. But they did not belong to the mainstream , let alone to the elite core. This fact has led some historians to correlate adherence to the League in the legal pro-

[8] . J. H. M. Salmon, "Protestant Jurists and Theologians in Early Modern France: The Family of Cappel," in Die Rolle der Juristen bei der Entstehung des modernen Staates , ed. R. Schnur (Berlin, 1986), 357-359.


fession with frustrated ambition and resentment of those at the top of the ladder.[9] Incontestably, the mainstream members of the Paris Parlement—and not only their leaders—stood aloof from the League, poured scorn upon it, and effectively blackballed any acquaintances or fellow professionals who favored it. Conversely, the greatest hostility of the Sixteen was directed against the court—in a verbal flood of violent and sometimes obscene abuse in satires and sermons, in physical threats against the members, and finally, in the murder of the premier président.

To isolate the religious issue from the traditional constitutional complex is impossible for members of the Parlement . The ultimate conclusion reached by this twentieth-century student of parlementaire mentalité is compatible with their own justification of their consistently conservative stand on religious dissent—although reached by a very different route: loyalty to the tradition (and, I would add, awareness of what they stood to lose by abandoning it) simply did not permit the religious question to be isolated from or taken out of the constitutional complex and considered in itself. The constitutional package was strong when kept whole, but the parts were fragile; parlementaires feared that once taken apart, it would be impossible to put together again.

This attitude was an important factor in keeping the Parlement in le parti conservateur from the 1520s (as proven by Farge) throughout the century. It also accounts for the virtual nonexistence of Nicodemism among ranking magistrates: although willing to concede some points regarded by the ultras as heretical, they clung to "the trunk of the old church . . . though she be a whore, still she is my mother."

Parlement's role in the high drama of the 1590s is generally reckoned as the finest hour of the Parlement of Paris in the nearly five hundred years of its history. The patriotic action of the loyal members who followed the king into the provinces while the capital was in the hands of the Sixteen, the personal heroism of many and their willingness to sacrifice everything in the nationalist-royalist-Gallican cause, earned them a high reputation, lasting for generations and only partially undermined by the fiasco of the Fronde. Of course, their cause was also the cause of the Parlement itself.

French magistrates of the last generation became more flexible, pragmatic, committed to the vita activa in a way that enabled them to synthesize fundamental and customary law, the French language, and the Gallican

[9] . This is the thesis of Henri Drouot's influential study of the Parlement of Dijon, Mayenne et la Bourgogne ; Mack Holt in his current work (1990s) expresses some reservations and modifications.


liberties with the mystiques of the crown, the people, and the court into self-determined national culture. The ingredients had long been available; the threat of national annihilation in the 1590s was the fire that fused them into a whole, suitable to the dawning modern age that would take "exclusion of any kind of foreign interference" to be a prerequisite to the survival of the national community and its autonomous ordering.[10] In this achievement, the parlementaire mentalité was the indispensable ally of Henri IV, as the legist-practitioners became the ideological shock troops of la monarchie de France and took their places as guardians on the frontiers of social change.

[10] . Bouwsma, "Lawyers and Early Modern Culture," 326.



Preferred Citation: Roelker, Nancy Lyman. One King, One Faith: The Parlement of Paris and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996.