The Reformation and Wars of Religion in France

Barbara B. Diefendorf

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
The Reformation and Wars of Religion in France

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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The 16th century began in France as a time of relative peace, prosperity, and optimism, but horizons soon darkened under the clouds of religious schism, heresy persecutions, and civil war. French theologians condemned Martin Luther’s ideas as early as 1521, but his views continued to spread underground. The movement remained small and clandestine until the 1550s, when the penetration of John Calvin’s ideas from nearby Geneva resulted in the formation of Reformed churches, whose growing membership demanded the right to worship openly. The accidental death of King Henry II in 1559 left France with a religiously divided court and a series of young, inexperienced kings. Henry’s widow, Catherine de Medici, attempted a policy of compromise that backfired. Militancy increased on both sides of the religious divide, and civil war broke out in 1562. Neither side could secure a decisive win on the battlefield, and neither was satisfied with the compromise peace that ended the war. Indeed, war broke out seven more times before a more lasting peace was secured by the first Bourbon king, Henry IV, with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The edict set the terms for religious coexistence, allowing French Protestants limited rights to worship and certain protections under the law. It also fostered the spread of a movement already underway for the renewal of Catholic spirituality and reform of Catholic church institutions in France. Until the 1970s, the civil and religious wars that afflicted France through the second half of the 16th century were viewed largely as the consequence of political rivalries that spun out of control following the death of King Henry II. More recently, historians have shifted their attention to the social and cultural contexts in which the wars took place, particularly to the fundamentally religious nature of the quarrels. This has led to a profusion of new scholarship on the impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations in France, the tensions—and ultimately the violence—generated by competing claims to religious truth, and the difficulty of resolving the quarrels or putting an end to the wars that resulted from them.

Article.  16211 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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