Royal Conspiracy and Religious Hatred: The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
24 August marked the 451st anniversary of the onset of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, probably the worst religious atrocity of the sixteenth century. Before dawn that day, the Roman Catholic Monarchy sent a death squad to murder Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the leader of France’s Protestant Huguenot minority. The killers threw Admiral Coligny’s body out of the upper window of his house on rue de Béthisy—now rue de Rivoli—which was the trigger for an outbreak of exterminationist violence of Catholics against Protestants: the gates to the city were closed and the slaughter raged for the best part of a week, until the Catholic mobs ran out of people to kill. Before Paris had returned to some kind of order, the murder of Protestants had begun in the provinces and continued for more than a month. This atrocity in the late summer of 1572, which remains mysterious in so many of its details all this time later, marked a turning point not only in the French Wars of Religion that had begun a decade earlier, but in the course of the great civil war in Latin Christendom, between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
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“TURN THE DARKNESS BEFORE THEM INTO LIGHT”1
Martin Luther’s confrontation with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, initially perceived as an internal dispute, had by the early 1520s become a rupture that had set in motion the process that would in time be called the Reformation. In truth, cycles of reformatio—attempts to renew the world—went back to the beginning of Christian history. The foundational Christian story of triumph after a long struggle with pagan Rome was told as one where those lost in the darkness of superstition and idolatry had been brought into the light of the True Faith.2 The narrative would be replayed in the early medieval mission to the Germans, and in the titanic project of reformatio associated with Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-85) that humbled secular power and remade Latin Christendom.3
For Luther, it was the last of these, the Papal Revolution, he said himself against—a backhanded compliment to its seismic achievement.4 The victory of the universal claims asserted when the Emperor kneeled before the Pope in the snow at Canossa was the wrong-turning, Luther concluded: it had ushered in a new reign of darkness and the way to the light, the path of real reformatio, was undoing all that had followed from it. Luther thus framed his intentions as recovering primordial truths buried by ideological deviants: this was counter-revolution, not innovation. The State would need to reclaim its prerogatives, and the whole demonic edifice of clerics and canons would have to be torn down so individuals could access Scripture for themselves. The Roman Church, for its part, was not about to let the unitary order of baptismal purity it had secured with grinding effort over half-a-millennium be set at risk by a demented friar who had appointed himself God.5
Sola scriptura was Luther’s preaching: the word of God was the sole source of authority for Christian teaching. By reading the text themselves, men would be shown the truth by the Holy Spirit, rather than being misled by the accumulated superstition of papist philosophy and exegesis: they would be guided out of Romanist darkness into the light. Unfortunately, the Spirit was in the habit of showing different things to different people, and the Protestant movement soon splintered into sects. One sect, the Anabaptists, took the logic of this anti-clerical egalitarian ethos as far as it would go: in January 1534, these radicals converged on Munster and swept away the old order in a proto-communist revolution. As with all such systems that followed, the Anabaptist regime was more gruesomely predatory domestically and more dangerous externally than what had come before—so much so that Catholic and Lutheran Princes in the Holy Roman Empire united to put it down in June 1535.
For the Roman Church and the Catholic powers, the Munster experience was vindication: the dangers of unmediated interaction with Scripture and the exercise of power without Church supervision were on full display. The prospect of the Anabaptist nightmare, however, was not enough to stem the Protestant tide: the early “populism” checked, Reform would be pursued from the top-down by capturing the magistrates. By 1545, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland, and two-dozen German States were Protestant. Meanwhile, a number of other States in the Empire were teetering, Reform was making deep inroads in the Low Countries, and England—already broken from Rome—was about to formally adopt Protestantism under Edward VI (r. 1547-53). Urgent action was clearly needed.
To respond to the Protestant challenge, the Roman Church convened the Council of Trent in December 1545, which ran in three phases over eighteen years. Broadly speaking, Trent did two interrelated things. First, it refined Church doctrine. Second, having sealed up the doctrinal cracks in which the Papacy believed the Protestant heresy had grown, the Church prepared for battle: it could focus on uprooting Protestantism, sure that the conditions in which it could grow back had been eliminated. It was ironic that post-Tridentine Catholicism—in setting down orthodoxy on everything from the status of Saints to the format of Mass in such a sharply-defined, textual manner—was every bit as much a product of the Protestant Revolution as the new Reformed sects across Christendom. But it was a firm footing for war. The haphazard operational elements of counter-revolution—notably the establishment of the Jesuits under Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 and the Roman Inquisition in 1542—were systematised into a Counter-Reformation, proclaimed at the final Tridentine session in December 1563. In time, there would be those who wondered if it had not been the splendid ambiguities purged at Trent that had made the Church capacious enough to contain the whole Continent, but by then it was too late: too many Rubicons had been crossed, the ideological trenches had widened too far, and too much blood had been shed.
The Wars of Religion can be said to have begun in 1546, when the World Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-56) tried, with Papal support, to stamp out the Schmalkaldic League of Lutheran Princes within his Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor prevailed quickly and was magnanimous in victory, but the issue smouldered and flared into rebellion in 1552. The Augsburg Peace settlement in 1555 conceded official recognition to Lutheranism and contained the famous phrase, “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose realm, his religion). The centre of gravity of the Catholic-Protestant war then shifted to France, and it is the overt outbreak of conflict there in 1562 that is usually referred to as the “First War of Religion”, not least because the Counter-Reformation formally begins shortly afterwards, colouring the series of civil wars that follows.
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