(asked by Larry from Australia)

I saw in a previous post another Australian was talking about Protestantism and the Reformed Church of France. Although, as you said, French are either generally ambivalent or hostile towards religion, how do they feel about the historic treatment of the Huguenots and events such as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre? Are there feelings of guilt or remorse amongst the population, apathy towards these events, or just a feeling that it was entirely the fault of the Monarchy and Catholics, one of which has now been eliminated and the other effectively neutered by the Separation of Church and State?
Are people generally interested in the Huguenots as a movement or is there such a strong aversion to the damage caused by the Wars of Religion that the whole period is distasteful to most people? I imagine the whole thing must be somewhat ambivalent because, despite the enormous damage and suffering caused by the Wars of Religion, Henri of Navarre (Henri IV) emerged from it and, as I understand it, is regarded as a great king.


I have to admit Larry that I find this question to be a little strange. But I guess it makes sense that someone interested in history and coming from a “protestant country” would ask it. :-)

The thing is that I’m not too sure how to answer it. I guess the part that makes me wonder is “the treatment of the Huguenots.”

I’m not sure how and what you learned about the 16th century Wars of Religion in France (as this is what we’re talking about here for those of you who had no idea) but we cannot reduce it to an oppression and a massacre of the Protestants by the Catholics. We’re not in a situation here that would be similar to genocide or something along those lines, with defenseless Protestants against blood-thirsty, armed and violent Catholics.

We’re talking about a war that lasted a few decades (about 40 years if I’m correct). The Catholics came out as the victors, but it could as well have been the Protestants.

Yes, the Catholics were armed, violent and bloodthirsty, but so were the Protestants.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (I advise you to read the French page in Wikipedia if you can, it’s better, the English page considers as fact things are just hypotheses at times) is one of the most famous events of this war, but while it took place in a quite unique context (while King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de Medici trying to end the war, just after they married Henri de Navarre and Marguerite de Valois, etc.), in Paris, and involved a lot of “important” people, it is just one of the many massacres that happened during that time. There have been similar massacres in Protestant strongholds, but maybe they’re not as famous because they didn’t take place in Paris, nor in a “famous” context.
And let’s not forget that in Protestant areas, many Catholics were as oppressed and massacred as Protestants were in Catholics area.

But all in all, nowadays, it is understood that this civil war was as political as it was religious, if not more, and I think that in France it is regarded as just one of the many episodes of French history. It’s not seen as special or anything, and I don’t know anybody that has strong feelings, one way or the other, about it. Maybe it has been “toned down” over the years in the educational system, mostly because it is the main civil war we have had in France and well, when kids learn history, it’s always a very “patriotic” version of it with France being portrayed as the good guy in every situation (just like it is the case in any other country), so in this context, hard to spend too much time on an episode where French people were at war against other French people.

I think what I find interesting in your question (and it is the reason why I’m having trouble answering it) is that you insist of French people’s “feelings” in it.
Personally I find it odd that anybody would have any feelings about events that took place more than 400 years ago. It is just one of the many episodes of French history, no more no less.
Also I don’t think French people nowadays have any feelings, good or bad towards Protestants back then. They’re just seen as one faction in the war, that’s pretty much it. Massacred at times, and murderers at other times.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

  2 Responses to “What do the French today think of the Huguenots back then, especially during the 16th Century War of Religions?”

  1. G’day Frenchman,

    Thanks for that interesting response. Yes, I guess my question may seem odd from a French viewpoint. I guess my reasoning was heavily coloured by the Australian approach to history, which has been the subject of ideological “wars” for the last two decades:




    Hopefully, my question will make a lot more sense in light of the above articles!

    I was thinking of the oppression of the Huguenots in the same light as white/British Australian revisionist guilt over the oppression of Aboriginal tribal cultures.

    Yes, I understand that the Huguenots committed atrocities, just as the Catholics did. As is true of all history, nothing is black and white and terrible deeds were done by both sides.

    Your statement that “Personally I find it odd that anybody would have any feelings about events that took place more than 400 years ago” is the most telling for me, coming from a nation that is now starting to grapple with events that happened primarily in the 19th Century. Although ultimately, an apology statement was issued by Prime Minister Rudd to Aborigines in 2007, parts of the community question whether modern Australians really should apologies for deeds committed by their forebears. Maybe part of this is due to the fact we are a younger nation.

    It is also very interesting that you state France still has a very patriotic approach to history. In Australia, we tend to be much more self-critical in many regards. (At least it was until Howard/Hanson.) Beyond the Aboriginal issue, aspects of Australian history like Anzac Day, the White Australian Policy and the Cold War and Vietnam were looked at from traditional, revisionist and post-revisionist angles. (Maybe I was just lucky though - my history teacher won “Australian Teacher of the Year” the year before he took my class.)

    Anyway, although crimes were committed by both sides, ultimately the Huguenots were largely expelled from France, leaving the Roman Catholic Church with a monopoly on religion until the Revolution. That alone would have had a significant impact on French history. Likewise, the loss of many tradespeople, particularly the silkweavers, would have had a severe economic impact on your nation.

    However, I have also heard that Henri of Navarre is regarded by some (many?) French people to have been your greatest king so I guess I was also subconsciously wandering if there was some wish that history had taken another path. We are really in the speculative realm when it comes to alternative history but, had the protestant dynasty continued, the Bourbons would never have come to power and all of French history may have been different. That is enough day dreaming though!

    To end this long post, I must ask about French attitudes towards Calvin. Obviously, he is now closely associated with Geneva but he was born in France. As a Catholic/post-Catholic country, are people interested in his teachings, proud he came from France or is he thought of as an heretic or is there simply apathy about the guy?

    Cheers and thanks!

    • Hey Larry,

      Yeah, thinking about it a bit further, people from the “new countries” tend to have a very different approach to history than the “old countries.” From a historical perspective I tend to divide the world in three parts: the “new countries” being countries that have been colonized in the past 500 years or so, and where the colonizer became the majority of the population (basically the American continent, Australia and New Zealand - I may forget one or two), the “old countries” being basically Europe and most of Asia that have a history dating back to thousands years ago, and finally the “colonized countries” (roughly Africa, the Middle East and a few more) that have been colonized but gained independence in the 20th Century, and the colonizing population is gone if not its influence.

      And yeah, those three groups of countries tend to have very different approaches to history.
      One day I read a line that is so obvious when you think of it, but the thing is that we don’t always think of it. That line was in an American book about French culture and it basically said: “The difference between French people in France and Americans in the US, is that French people are both the dominant population and the natives of the land”.

      So back to our topic, there cannot be “feelings” involved for an event that took place so long ago, and that was involving French vs French and that was mostly political in nature (religious too, but they went hand in hand back then), not racial or cultural.
      Yes, I feel that there is a need to apologize from Australians to the Aborigines, same goes in the US with Amerindians, and same goes with the French and Africa (but in this case it’s too recent so too many feelings are involved). But there is no reason whatsoever for the French to apologize to the Huguenots. And that for many reasons, the main one is that France is not officially Catholic today (and even in practice, French people who are fervent Catholic still don’t really like Protestants for the most part). Also, notice that while the term “Huguenot” does exist in France, it is rarely used - and I never use it in a French context.
      I think it comes from the fact that in the Anglo world, when you use the term “Huguenot” it’s more a question of cultural/racial origin (French) than a question of religion (as both the “Huguenots” and most Anglos are Protestants). In other terms, a Huguenot is a French that is a Protestant. So in France, it doesn’t matter that they’re French. Not sure if I make sense here.

      In other terms, there aren’t any difference between a Huguenot and a French, you can’t oppose and compare those, as “Huguenot” is included in “French.”

      Concerning the patriotic dimension of history, don’t get me wrong, here I mean basic history that is being taught in school to every citizen. Not “grown up history” that historians deal with. And I assume that this is roughly the same in any country, isn’t it? Or maybe countries that aren’t/weren’t as important on the international scale don’t have that need as much?

      Concerning the Protestants being expelled, make sure you don’t confuse a few things:
      -Protestants were never “expelled” they left in mass (but not all of them), but they didn’t do it because of the Wars of Religion, they did it almost a Century later when Louis XIV became a bigot and revoked the Edict of Nantes (that allowed religious freedom in France), making Catholicism the only authorized religion in France again. And while it must have had an economical impact, it’s all relative (I don’t have facts here, I may say things that are wrong). Also keep in mind, that revocation of the Edict made the most religious Protestants flee, but the ones who were not that religious simply converted to Catholicism and went on with their lives.
      -Maybe I read you wrong, but you seem to imply that the Catholic Church had the monopoly in France from this revocation to the Revolution only. Not at all. The Catholic Church had the monopoly from 497AD to the Revolution with decades here and there were other religions were more or less tolerated, one of them being the 1598-1685 period of the Edict de Nantes.

      Henri de Navarre / Henri IV is more regarded as the King who cared the most about its people rather than the “greatest.” But don’t get confused about your history with him. There never was a “Protestant Dynasty” and he is the first Bourbon. Things go this way:
      -When Henri III died, he had no heir, and tracing back the genealogical tree, the next in line was Henri de Navarre, a distant cousin of the Valois (the Valois being the reigning dynasty), there was a major problem though. Henri was a protestant and as such couldn’t become King.
      -There was two options: either he stays Protestant, can’t become King and another distant cousin somewhere becomes the King (I don’t know who, but he must be somewhere in history books), or he converted to Catholicism and became King. This is what he did. And as such he is the first King of the Bourbon branch (Louis XIII is his son, Louis XIV his grandson).
      So you see, there is no Protestant dynasty, there couldn’t be one. Or if there was one, it is the Bourbon (don’t tell that to Louis XIV, but once again, religion is not a race, nor a culture).

      Finally, to answer your final question here is what I know about Calvin: he was born in Switzerland, he was one of the inventors of Protestantism, and some people today are called Calvinists, I don’t even know where they live… in Switzerland maybe? France?
      That’s pretty much all I know about the guy. So I guess your answer is “simple apathy” as while I’m far from being an historian, I believe I have a stronger interest in history than most of my compatriots. :-)

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

© 2007-2011 Ask a Frenchman (except for pics & graphics - Logo © 2011 - FB) | Legal Stuff and Privacy Policy Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha