Excerpts From Mack P. Holt's
THE FRENCH WARS OF RELIGION
|EFFECT OF THE MASSACRE ON PROTESTANTISM
THE DEATH OF A BODY POLITIC
All told approximately 2,000 Huguenots were killed in the massacre in Paris, and an additional 3,000 or so were slain in the provinces. What impact did these events have on the Wars of Religion generally and on the Protestant movement in particular?
For the Protestants the massacres proved to be catastrophic. Five thousand of their fellow Calvinists lay dead, including their leader, Admiral Coligny, and the rest of the Huguenot leadership. Of the leading Protestant nobles, only the newlywed Henry of Navarre was spared, doubtless on account of his recent marriage to the king's sister as well as the fact that he was forced to abjure his Calvinist faith and rejoin the Catholic Church as the price for his life.
The victims of the massacres, however, formed only the tip of the iceberg of Huguenot casualties. In the weeks and months following the massacres thousands of Huguenots who survived the violence made their way to Catholic churches, asked to be rebaptised into the Gallican faith, and abjured their Protestant faith. Thus, the real impact of the St Bartholomew's massacres was felt less in the actual killings than in the defections that took place over the next few months. In Rouen, for example, several hundred members of the Protestant community were slain in the massacre there in the first week of October 1572. Over the next few months perhaps fifty times that number abjured their faith and returned to the Catholic church. From its number of about 16,500 souls before the St Bartholomew's massacres, the reformed community in Rouen shrank to fewer than 3,000 in the massacres' aftermath. And Philip Benedict has also shown that this defection occurred in towns throughout France, even in those where there were no provincial mas- sacres.31
Thus, the massacres not only put a permanent end to the growth of the reformed faith in France; they brought about an immediate and catastrophic decline in the numbers, strength, and zeal of the Protestant movement.
The intellectual and psychological impact of the massacres on the Huguenots was just as great, however. The optimism of the 1560s, when growth and expansion of the reformed movement was at its apex, paled significantly in the wake of St Bartholomew's night. Not only had the king turned against the Huguenots, but to many it seemed as if God had abandoned them as well. When the Calvinist minister Hugues Sureau reluctantly abjured after the massacres, he made it clear that he considered the massacres to be a sign of God's displeasure with the Protestant movement. `I began to consider it [the massacre] to be an expression of God's indignation', he noted, `as though he had declared by this means that he detested and condemned the profession and exercise of our Religion'.'
Despair and impotence were the principal feelings of many Huguenots, who must have recognized how powerless they were to defend themselves against the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the kingdom. While many, like those Huguenots in Rouen, ultimately abjured their Calvinist faith and returned to the fold of the majority, many others chose to abandon France altogether for foreign reformed communities in Geneva, London, and elsewhere, where they could continue to keep the faith. This likely only increased the feeling of isolation by those French Protestants who remained, as now they were even being abandoned by their own members.
For those Huguenot survivors of the massacres
who resisted both abjuration and emigration, life was clearly never the
same. The St Bartholomew's massacres thus stood as a watershed in the
Wars of Religion.
Mack P. Holt. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629