In 1517 Martin Luther, a German theologian and religious reformer, began a campaign to reform what he perceived to be widespread abuses in the church. He was quickly excommunicated. In succeeding years, he developed a new Protestant theology and church, which inspired other reformers to do likewise. The Protestant Reformation had a gradual, but growing, influence in France. On October 18, 1534, in what is known as the affair of the placards, reformers posted broadsides attacking the sacraments of the church all over Paris and other northern cities. By this time, Protestantism had spread well beyond humanist intellectual circles.
In France, Protestantism existed in many forms, some of them Lutheran in inspiration. But it was most heavily influenced by the work of John Calvin, a French lawyer and humanist who had formulated a systematic Protestant theology. Calvin had gone to Geneva, Switzerland, where he built a model Protestant society. From there, itinerant ministers carried his message back into France. Many Protestant congregations began to form, which gave organization to the growing Protestant community. For reasons that are unclear, the members of these congregations became known by the 1560s as Huguenots.
Protestantism in France grew among many different classes, including peasants and nobles, varying in its appeal depending on local conditions. It was especially strong among literate people of the middle classes who lived in a wide southern arc stretching through Guyenne, Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphiné. While Protestantism was clearly advancing during the 16th century, it remained a minority movement among all classes. At its height, only about 10 percent of the total population were Huguenots. The attitude of the French state toward Protestantism was schizophrenic. Francis I was originally inclined to protect intellectuals suspected of Protestant leanings.
But he gradually became more hostile as the new religion’s disruptive effects became more evident after the affair of the placards. In the 1540s, persecution turned violent. Following heresy trials, thousands were executed or condemned to row the galleys (large vessels with as many as 150 rowers).
Overall, however, the enforcement of orthodoxy remained spotty and did little to change religious practice. The church’s attempts to suppress Protestantism in France were met with resistance. Since the 14th century, the French state had promoted the notion of a Gallican Church that followed Rome only on doctrinal matters, a notion that had provided a convenient justification for the crown’s growing control over the bishops. Gallicanism, which would play a major political role in coming centuries, was particularly strong among the members of the parlements, who considered oversight of the French church to be their responsibility. Hence, the measures taken by the Council of Trent to reimpose orthodox doctrine through the enhanced authority of the pope had less impact in France than elsewhere. The Jesuits, the new monastic order devoted to reconquering Europe for the Catholic Church, at first gained only limited entry into France. At the same time, the Counter Reformation did have its impact in France. It inspired efforts to reform the clergy and to launch new spiritual movements within the French church.
Over the long term, the monarchy supported the Counter Reformation’s goal of reuniting the nation in a single Catholic faith. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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