Components of the Myth
In this section, I will lay out the basic components of the narrative of the wars of religion as used by the figures above. Subsequent sections of this chapter will examine the historical record to determine the plausibility of each component of the narrative. For the overall narrative to be true, each of the following components must be true:
- Combatants opposed each other based on religious difference. The killing in the wars that are called religious took place between combatants who held to different religious doctrines and practices. We would expect to find, therefore, in the wars of religion that Catholics killed Protestants and that Catholics did not kill fellow Catholics. We would likewise expect to find that Protestants killed Catholics, but we would not necessarily expect that Protestants did not kill each other without being more specific in differentiating those who are commonly lumped together as “Protestants.” Certainly, we would expect that Lutherans did not kill other Lutherans, Calvinists did not kill other Calvinists, and so on. But given that Lutherans had significant theological differences with Calvinists, Zwinglians, and Anabaptists—and those groups had great doctrinal differences among themselves—we should expect violence among different types of Protestants as well. We should expect, in Kathleen Sullivan’s phrase, a “war of all sects against all.”
- The primary cause of the wars was religion, as opposed to merely political, economic, or social causes. Protestants and Catholics not only killed each other, but they did so for religious—not political, economic, or social—reasons.
- Religious causes must be at least analytically separable from political, economic, and social causes at the time of the wars. Although the historical reality is inevitably complex, and people’s motives are often mixed, we must be able, at least in theory, to separate religious causes from political, economic, and social causes.
- The rise of the modern state was not a cause of the wars, but rather provided a solution to the wars. The transfer of power from the church to the state was necessary to tame the disruptive influence of religion. As we have seen, there are two versions of this narrative. In one, the liberal state tames religion by separating church and state and removing religion from the public realm. In the other, the absolutist state enforces political unity by absorbing the church. For contemporary liberal political theorists of the latter type, absolutism is a necessary but temporary stage on the way to liberalism.
We will now see how each of these components stands up to recorded history. This is important, given that the tellings of the narrative we examined above tend not to look very closely at history. Toulmin’s, Skinner’s, and Pocock’s books contain scattered references in the notes to contemporary histories of the religious wars. None of the other figures cites, either in the main text or the footnotes, any work by any historian of the European wars of religion.
The Historical Record
(A) Combatants Opposed Each Other Based on Religious Difference
The myth of the wars of religion is an uncomplicated tale of violence between religious groups who held to different theological doctrines. Historical records of these wars, however, show many examples of members of the same church killing each other and members of different churches collaborating:
- If there truly were a war of all sects against all, one would expect that war would have broken out soon after Europe split into Catholic and Protestant factions. However, between the time that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and the outbreak of the first commonly cited religious war—the Schmalkaldic War of 1546-1547—almost thirty years would pass. The Catholic prosecutor of the Schmalkaldic War, Holy Roman emperor Charles V, spent much of the decade following Luther’s excommunication in 1520 at war not against Lutherans, but against the pope. As Richard Dunn points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527, and when the papacy belatedly sponsored a reform program, both the Habsburgs and the Valois refused to endorse much of it, rejecting especially those Trentine decrees which encroached on their sovereign authority.”93 The wars of the 1520s were part of the ongoing struggle between the pope and the emperor for control over Italy and over the church in German territories.94
- The early decades of the Reformation saw Catholic France in frequent wars against the Catholic emperor. The wars began in 1521, 1527, 1536, 1542, and 1552; most lasted two to three years.95 Charles V was at war twenty-three of the forty-one years of his reign, sixteen of them against France.96 Although most of these wars predate what are commonly called the wars of religion, they come in the wake of the Reformation and underscore the fact that the first decades of religious difference in Europe did not produce war between sects. War continued to be based on other factors.
- In a similar vein, starting in 1525, Catholic France made frequent alliances with the Muslim Turks against Catholic emperor Charles V.97 Until the Schmalkaldic War of 1546-1547, the Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire generally supported the Catholic emperor in his wars against France. In 1544, Charles granted wide control to the Protestant princes over the churches in their realms in exchange for military support against France.98
- The first religious war of Charles V against the Schmalkaldic League found a number of important Protestant princes on Charles’s side, including Duke Moritz of Saxony, the Margrave Albrecht-Alcibiades of Brandenburg,99 and the Margrave Hans of Kiistrin.100 The Protestant Philip of Hesse had already signed a treaty to support Charles against the Schmalkaldic League, but he reneged in 1546.101 Wim Blockmans remarks, “The fact that a number of Protestant princes joined Charles’s army shows that the entire operation was based on sheer opportunism.”102
- Catholic Bavaria refused to fight for the Habsburg emperor in the Schmalkaldic War, though Bavaria did provide some material assis-tance.103Already in 1531, Bavaria had allied with many Lutheran princes in opposing Ferdinand’s election as king of the Romans, and in 1533 Bavaria had joined Philip of Hesse in restoring Wurttemburg to the Protestant duke Ulrich.104
- The popes were equally unreliable. In January 1547, Pope Paul III abruptly withdrew his forces from Germany, fearing that Charles’s military successes would make him too strong.105 As Blockmans comments, “[The pope found a few apostates in northern Germany less awful than a supreme emperor.”106 In 1556-1557, Pope Paul IV went to war against another Habsburg monarch, the devoutly Catholic Philip II of Spain.107
- In alliance with Lutheran princes, the Catholic king Henry II of France attacked the emperor’s forces in 1552.108 The Catholic princes of the empire stood by, neutral, while Charles went down to defeat. As Richard Dunn observes, “The German princes, Catholic and Lutheran, had in effect ganged up against the Habsburgs.”109 As a result, the emperor had to accept the Peace of Augsburg, which granted the princes the right to determine the ecclesial affiliation of their subjects. Dunn notes that the German peasantry and urban working class “were inclined to follow orders inertly on the religious issue, and switch from Lutheran to Catholic, or vice versa, as their masters required.”110 Most of Charles’s soldiers were mercenaries; these included many Protestants. Some of Charles’s favorite troops were the High German Landsknechte, who commanded a relatively high wage but were good fighters, despite the prevalence of Lutheranism among them.111 The French wars of religion, generally dated 1562-1598, are usually assumed to have pitted the Calvinist Huguenot minority against the Catholic majority. The reality is more complex. In 1573, the governor of Narbonne, Baron Raymond de Fourquevaux, reported to King Charles IX that the common people believed that the wars were rooted in a conspiracy of Protestant and Catholic nobles directed against the commoners.112 The Huguenot and Catholic nobles “openly help each other; the one group holds the lamb while the other cuts its throat.”113 Other contemporary accounts confirm that this view was widespread.114; Though the existence of such a grand conspiracy is doubtful, there were many examples of nobility changing church affiliation at whim115 and many examples of collaboration between Protestant and Catholic nobles. Instances of Protestant-Catholic collaboration among the nobility were generally aimed at asserting the ancient rights of the nobility over against the centralizing efforts of the monarchy. In 1573, the Catholic Henri de Turenne, duke of Bouillon, led the Huguenot forces in upper Guyenne and Perigord.116
- In 1574, the Catholic royal governor of Languedoc, Henri de Montmorency, Sieur de Damville, who had previously fought against the Protestants, joined forces with the Huguenot nobility to support a proposed antimonarchical constitution.117 He led the anti-Crown military forces in the west and south against the forces of Jacques de Crussol, duke of Uzes, a former Huguenot destroyer of Catholic churches.118 In 1575, the Catholic duke of Alencon, King Henry III’s brother, joined the Huguenots in open rebellion against the monarchy’s oppressive taxation.119 In 1578, as duke of Anjou, he sought the hand of the staunchly Protestant Elizabeth I of England in marriage, in an attempt to secure an English-French alliance versus Spain.120
- A number of Protestants joined the ultra-Catholic duke of Guise’s war of 1579-1580) against the Crown. J. H. M. Salmon comments, “So strong was the disaffection of the nobility, and so little was religion a determining factor in their alignment, that a number of Huguenot seigneurs in the eastern provinces showed a readiness to follow Guise’s banners.”121
- In 1583, the Protestant Jan Casimir of the Palatinate joined forces with the Catholic duke of Lorraine against Henry III.122
- Catholic nobles Conti and Soissons served the Protestant Conde in the 1587 campaigns. 123
- The Crown was not above making alliances with the Huguenots when it served its purposes. In 1571, Charles IX allied with the Huguenots for an anti-Habsburg campaign in the Low Countries.124
- Henry III joined forces with the Protestant Henry of Navarre in 1589.125 The Catholic kings also made alliances with Protestants beyond France’s borders. In 158o, Anjou offered the French Crown’s support to Dutch Calvinist rebels against Spanish rule. In return, Anjou would become sovereign of the Netherlands, if the revolt should succeed. He took up his position in the Netherlands in 1582, though his reign lasted only a year.126
- The fluidity of the nobles’ and the Crown’s ecclesial affiliations is captured by Salmon in the following passage:
If the shift from feudal obligation to clientage had intensified the spirit of self-interest among the nobility of the sword, it was never more evident than in the years immediately before the death of Anjou in 1584. Ambition and expediency among the princes, magnates, and their followers made a mockery of religious ideals. Huguenot and Catholic Politiques had co-operated in Anjou’s service in the Netherlands, just as they had at Navarre’s petty court at Nerac. Montpensier, once a zealous persecutor of heretics, had deserted the Guisard camp to advocate toleration. Damville had changed alliances once more and abandoned his close association with the Valois government to effect a rapprochement with Navarre. For political reasons Navarre himself had resisted a mission undertaken by Epernon to reconvert him to Catholicism. Not only his Huguenot counselors, Duplessis-Mornay and d’Aubigne, urged him to stand firm, but even his Catholic chancellor, Du Ferrier, argued that more would be lost than gained by a new apostasy. More surprising was a covert attempt by Philip II to secure Navarre as his ally, coupled with a proposal that the Bourbon should repudiate Marguerite de Valois to marry the Infanta.127
- Collaboration between Protestants and Catholics of the lower classes was also widespread in the French wars of religion, mainly in an effort to resist abuse by the nobility and the Crown. In Agen in 1562, the Catholic baron Francois de Fumel forbade his Huguenot peasants from conducting services in the Calvinist manner. They revolted and were joined by hundreds of Catholic peasants. Together, they seized Fumel’s château and beheaded him in front of his wife. Holt comments, “The episode shows above all how difficult it is to divide sixteenth-century French men and women into neat communities of Protestants and Catholics along doctrinal or even cultural lines.”128
- In 1578, the Protestant and Catholic inhabitants of Pont-en-Roians acted together to expel the Protestant captain Bouvier, who had refused to abide by the terms of the Treaty of Bergerac.129
- In 1578-1580, the widespread Chaperons-sans-cordon uprising united Catholics and Protestants against the Crown’s attempt to impose a third levy of the taille tax in a single year. In 1579, an army of Catholic and Protestant artisans and peasants based in Romans destroyed the fortress of Chateaudouble and went on to capture Roissas. The combined forces moved throughout the region, occupying seigneurial manors. They were finally trapped and slaughtered by royal troops in March 1580.130 In 1579, Catholic and Protestant parishes actively collaborated in the revolt in the Vivarais against the violence and corruption of the ruling classes. In the spring of 1580, the Protestant Francois Barjac led a combined Catholic and Huguenot force from the Vivarais against the troops stationed at the fortress of Crusso.131
- In 1586, Catholic and Protestant villages collaborated in an attack on Saint Bertrand de Comminges.132 In 1591, the peasant federation of the Campanelle, based in Comminges, joined Catholics and Protestants together to make war on the nobility.133
- In the Haut-Biterrois in the 1590s, a league of twenty-four villages of both Protestants and Catholics arose to protest taxes and set up a system of self-defense and self-government.134
- In 1593-1594, Protestant and Catholic peasants joined in dozens of uprisings in the southwest of France. Some of these consisted of a few hundred peasants, while others gathered up to 40,000.135 The most famous of these revolts was that of the Croquants, whose articles of association required the ignoring of ecclesial differences.136
- If Protestants and Catholics often collaborated in the French civil wars of 1562-1598, it is also the case that the Catholics were divided into two main parties, the Catholic League and those called politiques, who often found themselves on opposing sides of the violence. The queen mother, Catherine de Medici, promoted Protestants like Navarre, Conde, and Coligny to positions of importance in order to counter the power of the ultra-Catholic Guises. In May 1588, the Guise-led Catholic League took Paris from the royal troops, and Henry III fled the city. In December of that year, Henry III had the duke and cardinal of Guise killed and made a pact with the Protestant Henry of Navarre to make war on the Catholic League. Henry III was assassinated in August 1589 by a Jacobin monk. With Henry of Navarre as successor to the throne, Catholics split into royalists who supported him and Leaguers who led a full-scale military rebellion against him and his supporters.137 The myth of the religious wars presents the Thirty Years’ War as one widespread unified conflict pitting Europe’s Protestants against its Catholics. There was indeed an attempt in 1609 to expand the Protestant Union created by eight German principalities into a pan-European alliance. However, only the counts of Oettingen and the cities of Strasbourg, Ulm, and Nuremburg responded. The elector of Saxony, King Christian of Denmark, and the Reformed cities of Switzerland—in short, the majority of Protestant princes and regions—refused to participate in the Protestant Union.138 When the Protestant estates of Bohemia rebelled against Emperor Ferdinand II in the opening act of the Thirty Years’ War, they offered the crown of Bohemia to Frederick V of the Palatinate, one of the founders of the Protestant Union. The other members of the Protestant Union refused to support him, however, and the union disbanded two years later.139 The Protestant Union attracted some Catholic support. The now-Catholic Henry IV of France sent troops to support the Protestant Union’s intervention in the succession crisis in Cleves-Julich in 1610, but he demanded as a condition of support that the union sever all contact with French Huguenots.140 The Catholic prince Carlo Emanuele I of Savoy made an alliance with the Protestant Union in 1619 because the Austrian Habsburgs had failed to solve the succession crisis in Monferrato in a way favorable to his interests. After the Bohemian Protestants were defeated at the Battle of White Mountain, Carlo Emanuele switched his support to the Habsburgs.141
- The Lutheran elector of Saxony, John George, helped Emperor Ferdinand II to reconquer Bohemia in exchange for the Habsburg province Lusatia.142 In 1626, the elector of Saxony published a lengthy argument in which he tried to persuade his fellow Protestants to support the Catholic emperor. According to John George, the emperor was fighting a just war against rebels, not a crusade against Protestants; what the emperor did in Bohemia and Austria was covered by the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. Those who opposed the emperor were guilty of treason. The elector of Saxony even cited Luther’s admonition to obey the powers that be.143 John George would later throw in his lot with the Swedes against the emperor.144
- Catholic France supported Protestant princes from early in the war. France supported the Protestant Grisons in Switzerland against the Habsburgs in 1623.145 In 1624, the minister for foreign affairs, Charles de la Vieuville, made alliances and promises of aid to the Dutch and to multiple German Protestant princes. He also opened negotiations with England to restore Frederick to the throne of Bohemia.146
- Cardinal Richelieu replaced Vieuville later in 1624 and demanded English and Dutch help in repressing the Huguenots. When such help was not forthcoming, Richelieu abandoned plans for an alliance with England; the Dutch, however, did send a fleet to aid in the defeat of the Huguenot stronghold La Rochelle in 1628.147
- While the Calvinist Dutch were helping the French Crown to defeat the Calvinists at La Rochelle, Catholic Spain was supporting the Protestant duke of Rohan in his battle against the French Crown in Languedoc.148 The principal adviser of the Calvinist elector of Brandenburg, George William, was a Catholic, Count Adam of Schwarzenberg.149
- One of the leading commanders of the Imperial Army under Albrecht von Wallenstein, Hans Georg von Arnim, was a Lutheran. Historian R. Po-Chia Hsia remarks, “To build the largest and most powerful army in Europe, Wallenstein employed military talent regardless of confessional allegiance.”150
- Wallenstein’s foot soldiers included many Protestants, including, ironically, those fleeing because of the imposition of Catholic rule in their home territories. In April 1633, for example, Wallenstein gained a large number of Protestant recruits from Austria who left because of Emperor Ferdinand’s policy of re-Catholicization there.151
- Private mercenary armies of flexible allegiance helped to perpetuate the Thirty Years’ War. Soldiers of fortune sold the services of their armies to the highest bidder. Ernst von Mansfield worked first for the Catholic Spanish, then for the Lutheran Frederick V, and subsequently switched sides several more times.152 Protestant Scots and English served as officers in Catholic armies, especially in France. Some, like Captain Sidnam Poyntz, switched sides several times.153 Sir James Turner acknowledged that he “had swallowed, without chewing, in Germanie, a very dangerous maxime, which military men there too much follow, which was, that soe we serve our master honestlie, it is no matter what master we serve.”154
- Sweden’s king Gustavus Adolphus is sometimes presented as the champion of the Protestant cause upon his entry into the war in 1630. However, Gustavus found it difficult to gain Protestant allies. When Swedish troops landed in Germany, their sole ally in the empire was the city of Stralsund. Over the next few months, the Swedes gained only a few more small principalities as allies.155 The most powerful of the Protestant imperial diets saw the Swedish invasion as a threat. They met in the Convention of Leipzig from February to April 1631 in order to form a third party independent of Swedish and imperial control.156 After the initial Swedish victories in 1631, however, many formerly neutral territories were forced to join the Swedes. With Swedish troops approaching in October 1631, Margrave Christian of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, who had heretofore avoided any military engagement, swore his allegiance to Gustavus and agreed to quarter and subsidize his troops. The common people endured many hardships due to the presence of the Swedish troops. When the Lutheran peasants attempted to drive out the Swedes in November 1632, they were massacred.157 France under Cardinal Richelieu signed a treaty with Sweden in January 1631, in which France agreed to subsidize heavily the Swedish war effort.158 Cardinal Richelieu also made a pact with the Protestant principality of Hesse-Kassel.159 The French began sending troops to battle imperial forces in the winter of 1634-1635, and the latter half of the Thirty Years’ War was largely a battle between Catholic France, on the one hand, and the Catholic Habsburgs, on the other.160
- In March 1635, the troops of fervently Catholic Spain attacked Trier and kidnapped the Catholic archbishop elector. Catholic France subsequently declared war on Catholic Spain.I61
- In May 1635, the Protestant principalities of Brandenburg and Saxony reconciled with the emperor in the Peace of Prague. Not only did hostilities between the parties cease, but the armies of the Protestant principalities were absorbed into the imperial armies. Within months, most Lutheran states made peace with the emperor on the same terms and proceeded to direct their energies against the Swedes.162 By 1638, the Scottish Presbyterian Robert Baillie could observe, “For the Swedds, I see not what their eirand is now in Germany, bot to shed Protestant blood.”163
- The pope, on the other hand, refused to support the Holy Roman emperor and gave his approval to the Swedish-French alliance. Pope Urban VIII’s main interest lay in weakening Habsburg control over the papal states in central Italy.164
- In 1643, Lutheran Sweden attacked Lutheran Denmark. King Christian IV had long harassed Swedish shipping in the Baltic and given asylum to political enemies of Sweden. When word reached Stockholm that Denmark was negotiating an alliance with the emperor, Sweden decided on a preemptive strike. The conflict lasted two years. Despite the Catholic emperor’s aid, Denmark was defeated and forced to sue for peace.165
It would be difficult to come up with a list similar to the one above for the English Civil War, in part because the major contestants—Puritans and Laudians—were factions of the same Anglican Church. However, Scottish Presbyterians entered the fray on the side of the Puritans, while Irish Catholics supported Scottish Presbyterians as a way of weakening the monarchy.166
If the above instances of war making—in which members of the same church fought each other and members of different churches collaborated—undermine the standard narrative of the wars of religion, the absence of war between Lutherans and Calvinists also undermines the standard tale. If theological difference tends toward a war of all sects against all, we should expect to find Lutheran-Calvinist wars, but in fact we find none. Although there were internal tensions in some principalities between Lutheran princes and Calvinist nobility or Calvinist princes and Lutheran nobility,167 no Lutheran prince ever went to war against a Calvinist prince. The absence of such wars cannot be attributed to the similarity of Lutheranism and Calvinism. There were sufficient theological differences to sustain a permanent divide between the two branches of the Reformation. Such differences were serious enough to produce sporadic attempts by the civil authorities to enforce doctrinal uniformity. In the decades following Phillip Melanchthon’s death in 1560, there was an effort to root out “Crypto-Calvinists” from the ranks of Lutheranism. The rector of the University of Wittenberg, Caspar Peucer, was jailed for Crypto-Calvinism from 1574 to 1586; Nikolaus Krell was executed for Crypto-Calvinism in Dresden in 1601. Many Crypto-Calvinists among the Lutherans were forced to relocate to regions friendlier to Calvinism, such as Hesse-Kasse1.168 However, the fact that Lutheran-Calvinist tensions played no part in the wars of religion indicates at minimum that significant theological differences in the public realm did not necessarily produce war in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. There simply was no war of all sects against all.
The long list above is almost certainly incomplete. It is gleaned from a reading of some standard histories of the wars of religion. Undoubtedly, a professional historian of this period could add more instances of war between members of the same church and collaboration in war among members of different churches. Undoubtedly as well, we could compile an even longer list of acts of war between Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless, we must at least observe at this point that the first component of the myth (A) must be significantly qualified by all of the above instances in which it does not hold. As we will see, once we consider the implications of the above list, problems arise with the other components of the myth as well.
(B) The Primary Cause of the Wars Was Religion, as Opposed to Merely Political, Economic, or Social Causes
May we not simply conclude that the above list contains exceptions to the general rule of war between different religions in this era, but the standard narrative of the wars of religion still holds? That is, may we not claim that the majority of violence was Catholic-Protestant, and so, granting the above exceptions, the standard narrative is valid?
There are two immediate reasons that this would not be an adequate response. First, the above list contains more than just a few isolated instances. In the case of the Thirty Years’ War, for example, the entire latter half of the war was primarily a struggle between the two great Catholic powers of Europe: France, on the one hand, and the two branches of the Habsburgs, on the other. Second, the above list contains more than just exceptions; if the wars in question are indeed wars of religion, then the instances above are inexplicable exceptions, unless other factors are given priority over religion. Why, in a war over religion, would those who share the same religious beliefs kill each other? Why, in a war over religion, would those on opposite sides of the religious divide collaborate? If the answer is that people prioritized other concerns over their religious views, then it does not make sense to call them wars of religion.
Imagine I am writing a history of World War I. I am telling the standard story of the war as a struggle between two sets of nations, fueled by complex national aspirations, when I uncover a startling fact: the English counties of Somerset, Kent, Durham, Shropshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cumbria, and Cornwall entered World War I on the side of the Kaiser. Leaders in each of these counties declared their allegiance to the German cause, and thousands of troops were sent by ship to Hamburg to join the German forces fighting on the Western Front. I could respond to this discovery by noting these odd exceptions, but pointing out that the majority of English counties fought for the Allied powers, so the basic plotline of the war is unaltered. If I were a good historian, however, I would most likely drop everything and try to find a narrative that would take these cases into account. Perhaps nationalism was not the only force driving this war. What motivated the leaders of these counties? Did the troops from these counties go out of conviction or desperation? Were they volunteers, conscripts, or mercenaries? What grievances did these counties have against London that made them unwilling to fight for the king? What other factors besides nationalism were at work in this war?
In the actual case of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars, historians generally deal with the facts from the list above by acknowledging that other factors besides religion were at work in the wars of religion—political, economic, and social factors. The question then becomes one of the relative importance of the various factors. Are political, economic, and social factors important enough that we are no longer justified in calling these wars “of religion”? The above list consists of acts of war in which religion as the most important motivating factor must necessarily be ruled out. But once religion is ruled out as a significant factor from these events, the remainder of the acts of war—those between Protestants and Catholics—become suspect as well. Were other factors besides religion the principal motivators in those cases too? If Catholics killed Catholics for political and economic reasons, did Catholics also kill Protestants for political and economic reasons?
Historians take different positions on this question. Opinions range from those who think that religion was an important factor among other significant factors to those who think that religion was not important, except as a cover for underlying political, economic, and social causes. Since the Enlightenment, these wars have been labeled wars “of religion.” Since the wars occurred, however, there have been those who have doubted whether in fact they were actually religious wars.169 Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century remarked that, “if anyone should sift out of the army, even the average loyalist army, those who march in it from the pure zeal of affection for religion …he could not make up one complete company of men-at-arms out of them.”170
This divide is apparent if we look at twentieth-century historiography of the French wars. For much of the century, historians downplayed the role of religion in favor of supposedly more fundamental political, economic, and social causes. J.-H. Mariejol in 1904 stressed the role of the dissident nobility of the sword who joined the Huguenot movement to avenge grievances against the monarchy and the church: “Whether it wanted to or not, [the Huguenot church] served as a rallying point for all kinds of malcontents. It ceased being uniquely a church; it became a party.”171 Lucien Romier—whose two-volume 1913 study Les Origines politiques des guerres de religion set the tone for much further historiography of the period—also focused on the role of dissident nobility and found their theological bona fides wanting: “In short, the nobility were thinking of their own interest and were not particularly concerned with bringing it into accord with any precise doctrine. It cannot be denied that selfish passion and sometimes unrestrained greed persuaded many of the nobility and captains to join the Protestants.”172 James Westfall Thompson’s 1909 book, The Wars of Religion in France, which was for decades the standard text in English, took a similar approach. Thompson wrote, “Although the purposes of the Huguenots were clandestinely more political than religious, it was expedient to cloak them under a mantle of faith.”173 John Neale located the root of the religious wars in the weakness of the French monarchy.174 As for the dissidents who opposed the monarchy, he concluded, “Generally speaking, social discontent found an outlet for itself in religious and political unrest.”175 Henri Drouot’s 1937 work on the Catholic League in Burgundy saw religious factors as merely a cover for class tensions: “With the economic and monetary crisis [of the late 1580s], with civil war replacing foreign war and internal peace, social mobility ceased. Classes were more clearly defined, and above all, social tensions arose and festered, social tensions that religion could disguise in its own colors and intensify with fanaticism, but which were really the basis of local tensions at the time of the League.”176 Henri Hauser wrote of the outbreak of violence in 1562, “Elements of social and political discontent were to become much more significant than religious faith in the complex attitudes of the new Protestants, and thenceforth it became possible to speak of ‘political’ as well as of ‘religious’ Huguenots.”177 In the 19 6os, George Livet’s Les Guerres de religion identified the “economic and social crisis” of France in the sixteenth century as the principal cause of the wars.178 Hauser’s distinction between types of Huguenots indicates that religion was not entirely forgotten as a motivating force, and some mid-twentieth-century historians, such as Robert Kingdon and N. M. Sutherland, maintained the importance of religious factors.179 Until the 1970s, however, the dominant opinion tended to push aside religion in its search for the underlying material causes of the wars.
Natalie Zemon Davis’s 1973 article, “The Rites of Violence,” is considered a watershed for bringing religious factors back into the study of the French wars. Davis objects to the standard practice of reducing religious factors to, for example, class conflict, and identifies the cause of popular riots in sixteenth-century France as “ridding the community of dreaded pollution.”180 For Catholics, the rites of violence promised the “restoration of unity to the body social”; for Protestants, the goal was the creation of a new kind of unity in the body social.181 The rites of violence were drawn from a variety of sources: the Bible, the liturgy, the action of political authority, the traditions of folk justice.182 Their underlying function was the dehumanization of victims.183 Such riots were religious because they drew from the fundamental values of the community.184 Other factors, economic, social, and political, were at play in popular riots—pillaging was common, for example, indicating economic motives—but “the prevalence of pillaging in a riot should not prevent us from seeing it as essentially religious.”185
In his 1993 review article, “Putting Religion Back into the Wars of Religion,” Mack Holt identifies a number of other twentieth-century attempts to take religious factors seriously. According to Holt, the older Weberian approach is being supplanted by a more Durkheimian influence; rather than see material causes as more fundamental than religion, Durkheim identified religion with the rituals necessary to bind adherents to the social group. Holt sees this influence in the work of Natalie Davis, Carlo Ginzburg, John Bossy, Keith Thomas, and other historians who retain Durkheim’s emphasis on religion as social, but give a greater role to human agency than did Durkheim. Holt then goes on to review several attempts to put religion back into the French religious wars. Denis Crouzet’s massive two-volume Les guerriers de Dieu: La violence au temps des troubles de religion, which appeared in 1990, finds the source of the wars in the prevalence of popular apocalyptic visions of the end times.186 The collective psychology of “eschatological anguish,” rather than political, economic, or social factors, was the principal engine of the wars. The Huguenot project of desacralization was a threat to the sacral monarchy and the purity of the entire social order. The threat was interpreted in apocalyptic terms, as an attempt to create a new world. Holt also reviews Natalie Davis’s student Barbara Diefendorf’s 1991 book, Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris. According to Holt, Diefendorf “shows how the normal socioeconomic tensions of the period were exacerbated by confessional strife.”187 Holt notes that Diefendorf is particularly effective in showing that Catholic eucharistic imagery was used to reinforce the boundaries of the social order and identify threats to that order. Holt writes that Diefendorf’s book underscores Crouzet’s attempt to “restore the centrality of religion” in the French civil wars,188 but Diefendorf herself positions her book as occupying a “middle ground” between Crouzet’s book, which offers “very little room for politics,” and more standard, “overly political” interpretations of the period.189 Holt also reviews books by Denis Richet and Michael Wolfe, which do not downplay the importance of religious factors, and one that does, Iron and Blood by Henry Heller. Richet argues that “the ‘idea of nation’ was enfolded with religion during the civil wars”;190 Wolfe argues, “Although politics certainly had its place, as did questions of social interest and economic competition, these bitter conflicts were primarily religious wars.”191 Holt applauds Richet and Wolfe, but takes issue with Heller’s view that the French civil wars of the sixteenth century were “from start to finish … a kind of class war from above.”192 In Heller’s avowedly Marxist approach, both the Huguenot movement and the Catholic League were seen as threats to monarchy and the nobility, who put them down with force. Holt objects to the reductionism implied by Heller’s blunt contention that “[r]eli-gion is beside the point.”193
We have, then, one group of historians that dismisses religion as an important factor in the French civil wars of the sixteenth century, and another group that wants to reclaim religion as an important driving force among others in these conflicts. (We should note that similar conflicts of interpretation are present in the historiography of the other wars of religion beyond France.) We must at least note that historians have given us ample reason to doubt the straightforward tale of theological zealotry run amok that Voltaire, Rawls, Shklar, and others tell. No academic historian, with the possible exception of Crouzet, tells the story that way. With regard to component (B) of the myth of the wars of religion, then, we must conclude that the myth is at best a distorted and one-dimensional narrative; at worst, it eliminates so many of the relevant political, economic, and social factors as to be rendered false.
But is the solution simply to seek balance among the various factors? Barbara Diefendorf’s question is an apt one: “Must we go from an overly political interpretation of the period to one that seems to offer very little room for politics, at least as traditionally viewed?” Should we, like Diefendorf, seek a middle ground between political and religious interpretations? Or is there a problem with the way politics and religion have been, in Diefendorf’s phrase, “traditionally viewed”?
- William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 141-155.