Tim O’Brien’s short story collection, The Things They Carried (1990), is in part about the culture and life experience American soldiers brought with them to Vietnam, and how this past helped shape identity and action in a foreign environment. And though many have heard of the Huguenots, being French and protestant as a prerequisite, few know their story until they became one of the largest groups of emigrants in European history.
The Huguenot diaspora would spread to lands considered old and new, and would go on to found communities across the Atlantic like New Paltz and New Rochelle most prominently in the colony of New York. This unique people and their pre-refugee history are treated with clarity and depth in The Huguenots (Yale University Press, 2013) by Geoffrey Treasure. Treasure, who has written book length biographies on Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin, brings his expertise on the history of France to bear on this often overlooked and underrepresented early modern French community.
There were no shortage of religious refugees during the Reformation and the following European wars of religion, the Moriscoes of Spain and the German Palatines are just two other prominent examples. The Huguenots were a part of this larger story of violence and movement created by religious difference, but they were unique as a protestant group living for extended periods of relative peace in a country where the majority was catholic.
The Edict of Nantes (1598) marked a period of religious tolerance which was ended by its revocation in the form of Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau (1685). This fragile period of religious tolerance existed, and the Huguenots security rested, purely on the uncertain and wavering opinion of kings. This was made possible by the special relationship between the monarchs of France and the pope in the form of the Gallican Church. Gallicanism was a doctrine that ceded much of the power concerning bishops to the French crown instead of Rome, and on this independence balanced a fragile co-existence within French society for the Huguenots that lasted almost a century.
An explanation for the level of violence visited upon the Huguenots before and after this peaceful period – on some levels that which could be considered genocidal from the Siege of La Rochelle to the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as two examples – was that not only were Huguenots seen as heretics, they were also viewed as traitorous subjects of the crown. Those who chose a religion other than that of their monarch in the time when cuius regio (his country, his religion) was the universally accepted relationship between rulers and their subjects, were then doubly guilty not only in the choosing of their religion but the state within a state that this choice potentially created. So tightly bound were the roles of monarch, religion, and subject intertwined in European law and governance that the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States provided for the freedom of worship and the separation of church and state.
But in some instances the prevailing religion of the people would dictate that of their ruler, as the protestant Henry of Navarre transformed himself in one day into the catholic king Henry IV (known as Good King Henry), who is famously thought to have said “Paris vaut bein une messe (Paris is worth a Mass).” The Good King Henry though did not forget his Huguenot roots all together, and would issue the Edict of Nantes that brought the religious civil wars he ultimately won to a sense of closure through his dual gestures of good will to both camps.
The history of France though is not only the history of Paris, as Annales historian Marc Bloch would take this further to say “there is no such thing as French history; only European history.” Treasure does a wonderful job relating the Huguenot experience across the provinces but also how this religious movement affected bordering countries and rippled further out across Europe as a whole. Treasure tells the Huguenots story from Brittany, Burgundy, Provence, and to the four most southern provinces that were highest in Huguenot populations, yet were furthest from the capital and its intrigues. As the Reformation was primarily an urban phenomena in that it required a level of literacy unavailable to many rural peasants, Treasure examines outside Paris’ periphery to cities like Dijon, Tours, and Nimes just to name a few. And Treasure’s roots as a biographer shine though in this work, giving backstory and forming historic characters in a way that puts them into the Huguenot context.
One such person is John Calvin, who surprisingly (at least to this reader) was French, being born in the city of Noyon in Picardy. Though Calvin is mostly associated with Geneva, the city in which he lived the majority of his adult life. And it would be the Calvinists form of Protestantism, with its democratic leanings and structure that found itself at odds with the growing absolutism of the French crown that would be perfected at Versailles. With growing Gallicanism in France the Catholic Church became more of an arm of the French state, this was at odds as the Huguenots translated the Bible from Latin into French, therefore making every literate person in a sense who wished into their own priest.
Treasure’s history of the Huguenots ends with their exodus, yet this was just the beginning of the story for those hundreds of thousands of Huguenots (at least 200,000) who took refuge in the Netherlands, England, Geneva, the German principalities, Scandinavia, and various colonies across the Atlantic. The policy of New France would not allow Huguenots entry even though the “The Father of New France” Samuel de Champlain was a Huguenot himself. It would be to the more vibrant English colonies from the Carolinas to Boston where many Huguenots would find a place of refuge. In this we find the spirit of what the French born expat St. John de Crevecoeur in his Letters From An American Farmer (1782) called “this great American asylum.” Where those fleeing violence and persecution before even the forming of the United States—often helpless and in need of charity—have often found refuge and a second chance at life on America’s welcoming shores as did so many Huguenots.
Some descendants of these refugees gave rise to some of the countries most venerated, like Henry David Thoreau and Paul Revere (anglicized from Rivoire) who could have both easily through a twist of fate been Canadian if their borders were open to Huguenot refugees. Treasure’s work tells brilliantly the history and life experience that the Huguenots themselves carried out of France, one that would shape their identity, actions, and culture as their exodus brought them to various foreign lands across the globe.