Jules Michelet (1798-1874) was the most celebrated of 19th century romantic historians, and his colourful and highly subjective work still exerts an influence on French public opinion, if not in academic circles. Despite the poverty of his boyhood he had a brilliant academic career and became professor of ancient history at the Ecole normale Supérieure at the age of 28. He was subsequently custodian of the National Archives, where he prepared the early volumes of his history of France. He interrupted this history in 1843, five years after his appointment to the Chair of History at the Collège de France, to write his fervent and imaginative study of the French Revolution. He lost his posts in 1851 through his refusal to support the Second Empire, and returned to his general history. The extract that follows belongs to this portion of the work, which began to be issued in 1855 with the declaration in the preface that it was "written not to trouble those elements from the past that are dying but to appeal to those that are vital and alive." Michelet's romantic vision schematized history in terms of revolutionary liberty and popular democracy. His persuasive eloquence has made his work a historical force in itself.

By 1558 it was time, time indeed, for Protestantism to take up the sword and look to its defence. It would certainly have perished if it had not become an armed party. Significant events - events a hundred times more important than the futile war between the two Catholic courts of Hapsburg and Valois - had taken place in the religious sphere. The supreme question of the age stood revealed. It had been disclosed in England under the bloody terror of Mary Tudor. In France, it burned like some subterranean fire, casting a jet of flame from the darkness. Before these portents the Kings were ready to come to terms, to end a conflict devoid of meaning, to declare that they agreed in designating Protestant freedom as their sole enemy, and to turn their strength against it.

In the Low Countries, in England, in Italy, in Spain and in France, in both north and south, everything was concerted to stifle Protestantism. The French Reformation could say to its children, as the wolf in the fable to its cubs: "Climb to the top of the mountain and look towards the four winds: as far as you can see you will behold no-one save your enemies."

Germany was no friend. Through their success over Charles V the Lutherans had become an officially recognised party, an established church. They were now secure withing the political framework of the Empire, and much less disposed to abandon their security and risk the adventure of new wars to support Calvinism in contradiction of the Lutheran interest. They were Germans as well as Lutherans, and they hated France for the theft of the three bishoprics (Metz, Toul and Verdun). French Protestants were none the less Frenchmen as far as they were concerned. Nor could the French Reformation hope for greater help from the Catholic or Protestant Swiss - especially when the Swiss were in the pay of the French and Spanich monarchies.

The Christian answer in such a predicament was doubtless to accept martyrdom, to offer one's neck to the executioner and to expect triumph through suffering. The philosophers and self-appointed guardians of civilisation would presumably have advised waiting for events to take their course, trusting the all-powerful light of new-born liberty to win through in the end. But these were answers that suited tyrants: indeed they were just what tyrants demanded. Martyrdom had been accepted unresistingly for the preceding forty years. As Christians, pacifically minded townsmen, workers or merchants, had surrendered themselves for butchery. What was more, they had seen their wives and children burned without a word of protest. This excessive, one might say unnatural, submission to the powers that represented the flails of God was a betrayal of the family. The innocent souls of the weak, whose protection should have been a sacred duty, were delivered up not only to death but to temptation, corruption and damnation. Some might insist that primitive Christianity had triumphed by patience and the stubborness of its martyrs; but there were other considerations, such as the strength that came from a great social revolution within the lower classes, from conquest and the sword of Constantine.

So much for the Christians. It may also be asked what would have become of the Renaissance, since the men of the Renaissance had yielded to a tranquil inertia which obscured their vision. The light of the Renaissance, instaed of growing in intensity, was going out. A vast extension of the conspiracy of Catholic piety, coupled with the materialism of Ignatius Loyola, was taking place. On the other hand, fools were replacing the bearers of light: Ronsard was eclipsing Rabelais. The sceptical, individualist, pessimistic book of Montaigne represented a great decline from the lively optimism of the work of Rabelais. Natural science, which had shone so brilliantly at the beginning of the century, had become weak and enfeebled. The heroes of science had served as martyrs. Paracelsus, the Luther of science, had been killed. So, too, had perished Vesalius, the doctor of Charles V and the Christopher Columbus of anatomy - or, at least, he had died of hunger on a desert island. Goujon, Ramus and Goudimel had been killed in a singly day. Such men were irreplaceable, and both history and common sense declare that creativity is not automatically engendered.

No, if the Protestants had not unsheathed the sword - if they had not become a great armed force which pursued the quest for liberty in England and the Netherlands beyond the boundaries of the condemned continent - if the conquering fleets of the Dutch had not kept safe one last refuge in Europe for human thought, then the new rays of light would never have been seen. There would have been no Shakespeare, no Bacon, no Harvey, no Descartes, no Rembrandt, no Galileo. Galileo deserves mention in this context, for it was the telescope made in Holland that opened the heavens to his gaze.

( Recall that Galileo was also tried before the Papal Inquisition for saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun! )

Before studying the great conflict in which Protestantism preserved human freedom, it is appropriate to visit the Louvre, and in reverential mood to inspect the picture of Ruysdaël and Backhuyen saluting the sacred tricolour flag of that Republic of Holland, which defended the world against Philip II and Louis XIV. When the true faith has won the victory, and the temples to the God of human intellect have been erected, those pictures should be hung there which express the infinite within the infinitessimal space of their canvass. Such were the portraits composed by Rembrandt in the haven provided by his country, especially the portraits of his old teacher, who could no longer read, but who sat with his thoughts before the fire, and fixed his eyes on a globe in which, like some great cosmographer, he measured the seas - that battlefield of victory and arena of liberty.

A hundred years of conflict had to pass before that victory was gained in the seventeenth century. The vistory could not have been secured without war and the use of the sword. We need not quibble at the fact that Protestant initiative had to pass from those peaceful classes who had allowed themselves to be slaughtered to the only military class that then existed, the nobility. It is a well known trick of the enemies of liberty to stop at this point, and appeal to our egalitarian instincts by asking whether one can accept such aristocratic leaders as William the Silent and Coligny. They ought indeed to be accepted, for they inured the people to war, and in consequence the people were in their turn ennobled.

Coligny and his brother, both colonels general of the French infantry, were the rough, austere instructors of our soldiery of former times. They turned us into a fighting nation of the calibre of men who, in the aftermath of St. Bartholemew when their leaders were slain, could confidently start the war once more in France and the Netherlands, and oblige the Kings to come to terms. These noblemen of the sword, who were the first to form the advance guard of liberty, deserve to be known as men of the people. The historian ought to do for them what was done for a member of the Genoese nobility when, although his class was excluded from office, he performed services for the state. He was rewarded by being degraded from the nobility and advanced to plebeian rank. No-one deserves this reward more than does Coligny, for it was Coligny who, after a particular treaty, asked the Prince de Condé: "Your treaty protects the nobles, the chateaux and the seigneurs, but who will protect the people of the towns?"

The Reformation seemed tied in a tangled knot that could not be unravelled. Despite the doctrines and the doctors who defended them, it was necessary for Protestantism to become a powerful armed force and to take up the gage of battle. Calvin had not hesitated to call upon force to execute justice. He had established the jurisdiction of the Genevan republic by condemning to death those former leaders of the city who would have surrendered it to Catholic France. It became a cruel limitation of the concept of the public welfare when, in order to survive, Geneva had to inflict wounds upon itself. When the so-called Libertines perished they took with them their friend, the unfortunate Servet. The Italian and Spanish reformers at Geneva, whose rationalism sapped the unity of the Genevan community, were obliged to seek safety in flight. In England, in 1555 Protestants were burned for making too much of the power of reason: in Geneva Calvin insisted that philosophers could not be Protestants.

Calvin did not contest the right of secular authority to punish. He acknowledged it as representing the power of God. Kings were divinely instituted and it was vain for private men to dispute as to what was the best form of government. If the subjects of princes used such an argument to justify revolt, "it would be foolish and evil speculation. Although those who possess the sword may be enemies of God, he has instituted kingdoms so that men may live in peace and without fear." Such was the doctrine of Geneva. If Geneva was the mainspring of the Protestant cause as a republican stronghold and a seminary for martyrs, it was also the source of its weakness, through its doctrine of authority and its respect for secular powers.

Salvation came, I believe, through two means - means by which the Protestant church unwittingly broke free from Genevan domination. Our French nobility, which had been ruined by the court and the shameful reign of Dianne de Poitiers, had retained scant respect for an authority that had fallen into feminine hands. They acquired a love and admiration for men of austerity, whose way of life revealed the full measure of the disgrace of the monarchy. To the nobility, the ideal of duty seemed incarnate in Coligny. Secondly, the example of the Scottish nobility (with their acceptance of the "covenants" devised by the agitator John Knox in a manner far more positive than Calvin's) modified French Protestantism at an early stage. It served as a counterweight to the system of passive obedience still maintained by the Genevan doctors.

( * * * )

If ever a blow was struck by the hand of God, the death of Henry II was such an instance of divine intervention. The Protestants assumed it to be so. Some unidentified Protestant even dared to place among the hangings in the room where the corpse was lying a tapestry showing St. Paul struck dumb on the road to Damascus as he heard the voice of thunder from the skies: "Why do you persecute your God, Oh Saul?"

An act which was equally daring in another way had just taken place secretly in Paris, Let us call it by its true name, of which even those who participated in it were ignorant: the Protestant Republic. From 26th to 29th May a general assembly of French pastors met in the suburb of Saint-Germain. During the violent debates in the Parlement, close by the execution pyres, and in the midst of a frenzied population who would even massacre Catholics suspected of toleration, these intrepid men came from every Province in France to sit in council. In their strength and high seriousness they inscribed their faith, their discipline and the foundation of religious democracy.

The impulse for this act came neither from Paris nor Geneva: it was pricipally the result of necessity. The French Reformation had undergone a vast underground expansion and consisted of a throng of churches, born from spontaneous inspiration or missionary activity in caverns, barns, woods and solitary moors. Great diversity existed. There were few links between the congregations and they differed without realising it, in organisation and discipline. Choudieu [la Roche Chandieu], a pastor in Paris, was sent by his church to the synod at Poitiers. He brought there, or perhaps, found there, the idea of establishing an agreement between the [Protestant] churches of France. The place of meeting was to be Paris, in the fiery centre of the persecution. The suburb of Saint-Germain, which in those days was being built outside the city walls, offered some means of concealment for this secret assembly.

In discipline and in faith the intention was to return to the primitive church, as Geneva had endeavoured to do. "No church will be superior to others. The ministers will assemble twice a year, each bringing with him and elder and a deacon. A new minister elected by the elders and deacons is to be presented to the congregation for which he is ordained. If any oppose him, the matter will be judged in the consistory or the provincial synod, not in such a way as would constrain the people to receive the elected minister, but rather to justify his claims as a minister." This was the republican basis of the church of France. It was truly republican then, for the electors (the elders and deacons) were first themselves elected by the people.

All this was copied from Geneva, but it proved very different in effect when the organisation suited to a small town was applied to the kingdom of France, and generally to that vast empire which the Reformation was in process of creating in the Netherlands, Scotland, England, and soon, in America. The difference was yet more marked when the Protestant Republic was no longer limited to a town of refuge and instruction which was kept closed and defended, but had embarked upon a hazardous adventure in the great battlefields of civil war.It was doubtful whether the separate nature of the spiritual world in which the church hoped to preserve its identity could be seriously maintained. One could not be sure whether the words of the Gospel and the weapon of excommunication, which were the sole means of defence the church wished to possess, would be sufficient. The secular tyrants might not take such weapons seriously. Would not the need to defend the people and the duty to protect the weak oblige the churches to take up some other sword? The issue was whether the Protestant Republic should become an armed republic. Scotland decided it must be so, but France at first refused to agree and still tried to follow the Genevan tradition and remain loyal to the old spirit of Christian obedience.

( * * * )

In June 1562 the Protestants throughout France paused momentarily when rumours of peace began to circulate. They were weakened and disconcerted, and when they measured the strength of their own resources they found them pitifully slight. It seemed that they were near to death. The nation was roused in opposition, the Parlement stirred up Paris against them. Sixty men had been killed at Vassy, but that, it seemed, mattered little. The hound of death (as Catholics called the populace) had now been unleashed, and it remained only to observe it hunt its prey.

The year 1562 was as fearful a one as that in which the Massacre of St. Bartholemew occured a decade later. The horrors of 1572 took place pricipally in Paris, whereas in 1562 the slaughter was general throughout France. Events in one town after another revealed three entirely new aspects. First, massacres inside the town walls; second, the maddened pursuit of the fugitives by the peasants; third (since so much blood did not slake these murderous appetites) the judges had yet to have their fill, and executions began on a vast scale. In one place three hundred persons were hanged; in another two hundred broken on the wheel.

Let us return for a moment to the month of April, when the news of the massacres at Vassy and Sens was still current. The Protestants had reacted violently, especially in the south, where the race was more passionate in temperament. There was never lack of pretext for murder along the Rhône, in the violent country of the Albigenses. Many priests were killed, but it must be said that for the most part veangence was wreaked upon stones and images. The Protestant lower classes, often led by children at first, decapitated the images of the saints in the cathedrals. Celebrated relics that had performed many miracles were called on to achieve a new miracle to save themselves from destruction. These curers of universal ills, who had drawn men from such great distances, were powerless to cure themselves, and they were dragged down as liars, imposters and charlatans. In this welter of destruction, there perished, along with the saints, several tombs of kings and princes. It was a foolish mob that broke dead idols and yet it adored the living. It was absurd that a war for freedom should be waged in the name of a prince of the blood and in the name of the King, reputed to be the prisoner of the Guises.

As for those artistic monuments, whose loss I deplore as much as anyone, I am surprised that several authors, who pass lightly over the massacres, should shed such tears over stones. They call it irreparable disaster, but surely less irreparable than the loss of so many lives in the massacres. The cynical witticism of the mighty Condé surveying a battlefield, "Only a night's work in Paris," is false. The genius and virtues of the dead can never be replaced. That generation of slaughtered Protestants who had purified France, would, had they been spared, have saved the nation from the incredible moral collapse that followed -- from the putrefaction of indifference and the hypocritical scepticism, whence liberty could scarce be resuscitated.

The good sense of the men of our day has been so distorted, and our associates have so readilly swallowed the gross lies thrown to them by our enemies, that they believe and repeat the fables that the Protestants tended to dismember France, that all the Protestants were noblemen, etc., etc. Hence the absurd conclusion that Paris and St. Bartholemew preserved the national unity, that Charles IX and the Guises performed the role of the Convention of 1793. This is a bizarre and eccentric paradox, displaying impartiality without sympathy, making a friend of our enemy, and utterly lacking in compassion for the slaughtered precursors of liberty. How odd it is to compare the assembly that defended France with the fanatical intrigue that delivered it up to a foreign power!

When the Protestants of the towns (the 25,000 in Toulouse, for example) fled desparately into the night with their children in their arms, when the tocsin rang out against them in the countryside, and the peasantry, armed by the priests, hunted them down in the woods, then, to be sure, scarcely any Protestants remained in the towns. To have done so would have necessitated a strong fortress. Those who would claim that the Protestants comprised an aristocracy belong themselves to the party of the murders. Moreover, in the 1562 rehearsal of St. Bartholemew, when the Parlement organised the ringing of the Catholic tocsin, the names and professions of the unfortunates who perished reveal that they were workers. Rope-maker, bookseller, printer, pedlar, goldsmith, embroiderer - there is not a nobleman among them.

( * * * )

Armed with the weapons of criticism, I am now entering a forest of lies. I dare to proclaim with a genuine love of truth that I shall re-establish the true nature of the League, and I shall do so to the real advantage of that great Catholic party, which was so miserably deceived and became the plaything of its leaders. If I reveal my own blindness, I will protest my good faith.

A sound observer who was absent from Europe between the years 1780 and 1818 remarked: "This is no longer the same people. The France I knew in former times possessed a certain Savoyard character." I would add an Irish, and a Polish character, too. These old Catholic races may help us to guess the instinctive character of our ancestors - charming, brilliant, but lacking in gravity and capacity for reflection.

Although the nation tended towards frivolity, it was none the less settled in its ways. Every endeavour towards improvement seemed to lack coherence and seriousness of purpose. It clung tenaciously to its way of life with a careless disregard for order and formality. The austere aspect of the Protestant party harmed it more than did anything else. Those stiff collars and starched ruffs (an economical means to cleanliness) were generally regarded as aristocratic pretensions. A petty clerk or bookseller who dressed himself thus incurred resentment. An abbé from those clerical institutions which were laws unto themselves would not have had to walk in sandals or proclaim his unwashed state to secure the adoration of the crowds. There was no personal pride in such men: all that the "good monk" had to say would be willingly heard.

We have seen the popularity of the worst of the hooded brethren in the streets of Paris. This democracy received an additional piece of Spanish filth when Toledo sent Loyola1 here, ostensibly to study. The crazed Italian mountebanks, such as that Panigarola whom the Pope sent on the eve of St. Bartholemew, also supposedly to study, were even more popular when they performed on public platforms. A certain extravagant mixture of cynical coarseness and pedantic affectation amused the people. The first of this kind was Auger, who deserted his profession as a juggler to become a scullion for the Jesuits, and was fished out from among the saucepans by Loyola, the fisher of men. Loyola coached him, made him into a pedant, and launched him on his new career. His successes were unbelievable: everything he said was believed. One of his sermons at Bordeaux delighted the Church hierarchy, and persuaded them to conduct their own St. Bartholemew. Another sermon, at Issoire, converted 1500 men of Auvergne. Henry III, always seeking to please, said that he would have no other confessor, and gave him the laborious task of cleansing the royal conscience. He was the first of that dynasty of royal Jesuit confessors in the line of Cotton, Tellier and La Chaise.

1. Note: Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuits (Society of Jesus) in 1540, as part of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation against Protestantism.

The ability to have believed whatever was said was power itself. On the 24th August 1572 it was believed that Montmorency and a force of cavalry were coming to Paris to aid Coligny and to massacre the citizens. This was the clever lie that determined the issue on St. Bartholemew's day. On the 25th of August the belief that a thorn bush had flowered for a second time was taken to indicate the joy of heaven and divine approval for the carnage of the preceding day. All the church bells of Paris pealed in unison to celebrate the miracle, and so signalled the resumption and extension of the massacre. At the end of 1575 it was believed that Montmorency-Damville was coming from the south with a great army to burn everything eithin twenty leagues of Paris, and that he demanded from the King a fearful punishment for the people of Paris. This ingenious fiction, which no historian has hitherto mentioned, explains the ease with which the terrified scum of Paris were persuaded to sign their adherance to the [Catholic] League. The most miraculous achievement was to make them believe that the League, whose existence they had seen and experienced for the past fifteen or twenty years, had actually been first been inaugurated in that year, 1576.

Let us go back to the venerable origins of the [Catholic] League. At a very early stage the clergy had felt that our French monarchy, violent and capricious as it was, would not have the same terrible steadfastness of purpose evidenced by the Spanish crown. The priest-led rabble of March 5th, 1559 had cried out, when the royal police had obstructed its intentions: "We shall kill the King himself if we have to." Those were effectively the first words of the League.

Like the monarchy, the Parlement vacillated between mildness and cruelty. A few of the magistrates were charitable men, as were the Séguiers and Harlays about the year 1558. The men of the gown tended to be unstable. In a massacre of St. Bartholemew an attorney who commanded the court's guards would not participate in the killing because he had "not yet worked himself up into a sufficient state of anger." The Catholic nobility was no more dependable. Vigor, the leader of the massacre, complained: "Our nobility does not want to strike down our enemies . . . God will have this bastard nobility overwhelmed by the commonality."

The clergy was far more confident of its ability to carry through its intentions. When in 1561 the King desired to have an inventory made of clerical wealth, his first words were assumed to imply the sale of Church property, and the clargy, assembled in Notre Dame, was moved to take its most decisive act. This first step was also the last, for it involved and appeal for civil as well as foreign war. On one hand it placed itself under the protection of the king of Spain; on the other it addressed itself to Guise. That sovereign captain of the party, of whom mention is made in the act of 1576, had appeared in the proceedings of fifteen years before. The first declaration of the [Catholic] League was made in May 1561.

The death of François de Guise seemed a hindrance, but nothing was really lost thereby, and everything was arranged at leisure. The role of the future captain, Henri de Guise, was prepared by concentrating within the Guise family a vast reserve of money, including the revenues of fifteen bishoprics, and, later of five provincial governorships. The first treasury of the League consisted of the means to nourish a great household and to buy bravos and German mercenaries. The League did not amount to much in the country, but it was very important within a large town. Paris was controlled in masterly fashion. The associations of artisans provided the League with a hold on the city. The light troops of the movement, the monks whose actions were somewhat unpredictable, were not enough to set the associations in motion. For this the regular work of the powerful Parisian Diocese and its parish priests were needed. It is only necessary to contemplate the formidable edifice of Notre-Dame, and to know of its origins, to understand what was afoot. In the Middle Ages its foundations had been built on the ruins of the Albigenses, the Jews, and the Templars, and its attitude to Protestantism in the sixteenth century was clear.

Gondi, the brother of that Comte de Retz who was the principal counsellor of the Massacre of St. Bartholemew, was elevated to the Parisian episcopy. A skilled group of the most vehement preachers was selected for the parish pulpits. From one generation to the next their violence mounted. The furious Vigor, the curé of Saint-Paul, was a veritable lamb in comparison with his disciples. Prévôt, of Saint-Séverin trained the incomparable Boucher, curé of Saint-Benoît, in invective. The Gascon Guincestre, curé of Saint-Gervais, surpassed all these illustrious models, for, suiting his actions to his words, he roused the stupefied crowd by standing beside the altar and driving a dagger into the heart of a doll representing Henry III. On the right bank of the Seine the pulpits of Saint-Paul, Saint-Gervais, Saint-Leu and Saint-Germain-l'Auxcrois called down thunder and lightening. On the left bank roared the pulpits of Saint-Benoît, Saint-Séverin, Saint-Côme and Saint-André-des-Ares. Such were the organs of the [Catholic] League's propaganda.

These activities began twenty years earlier than the date assigned to them. They began well before St. Bartholemew, though doubtless with less co-ordination than was later achieved. The loosing of these little serpents long preceded the deaths of Henri de Guise and of Henry III, the martyr of Jacques Clément, when the whole nest of vipers suddenly burst into vituperation.

It is commionly supposed that the main purpose of this campaign was to satirise the King. This is broadly true. Poncet, the entertaining curé of Saint-Pierre-des-Arcis, and several others repeated buffooneries about him which greatly amused their audience. But it can be perceived that deeper and more political elements were cleverly intermingled with these tragi-comical ravings. The things that were vital to the League were repeated over and over again: that Saint Bartholemew was a revenge for Protestant excesses; that the Catholic League was also a reaction against, and an imitation of, Protestant leagues. So often was this said that more than one historian repeats it today. A well-cultivated lie, long repeated in chorus by by half a million men, becomes a true fact!

The [Catholic] League was in no way an imitation. It had its own original and distinctive characteristics. The pricipal differences may readily be listed:

1. The Protestant unions were the defensive acts of a slaughtered minority which united its forces to prevent further slaughter. The [Catholic] League was an offensive association of a murderous majority which protested against the removal of the knife from its grasp.

2. One aspect that was quite peculiar to the [Catholic] League, and completely foreign to the Protestant associations which it is alleged to resemble, was the intimidation and persecution by denunciation of neutral and peacefully-inclined men. He who failed to join the League was regarded as an enemy; he who left it as a traitor, liable to punishment in person and in property.

3. The captain of the League was not simply a military leader, as were Condé and Coligny, who never assumed judicial power and allowed the ministers and the army to follow their own judicial procedures. This Catholic captain, in the terms of the constitutive act of the League, was a kind of supreme judge who could proceed against thos guilty of failing to join the League, and could punish those Leaguers who quarrelled among themselves.

4. The liberties of the provinces were to be restored to them by the League, in the forms in which they had existed at the time of Clovis. This was a direct appeal to local independence which the Protestants, who are so often accused of federation, never formulated. Their seclusion, and their demand for fortress towns to guarantee peace treaties, were purely defensive measures. They walled themselves in as much as they could, but this was only to survive. On the other hand, the restoration of local privileges, promised in the name of a vast Catholic majority, which no necessity or danger constrained to do so, meant but one thing: the destruction of national unity and a call to dissolution.

From Jules Michelet, Histoire de France (1.III Guerres de Religion, I.IV La Ligue et Henri IV), 3 vols., édition Rouff (Paris, N.D.) vol. 3, pp. 1138-1340, 1348-1350, 1399-1400, 1508-1511. [Editor's translation.]

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