The geopolitical, economic, social, and religious context that defined Europe in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

On the eve of the 16th century, Europe, which was still largely rural, was faced with latent worldly and spiritual conflicts. The region was also undergoing economic transformations due to the discovery of the New World and the advent of new technologies.


In the second half of the 15th century as well as the 16th century, the overwhelmingly rural European populations were terrorized by the constant threat of death from diseases, famines, wars and other dangers.

From a political perspective, Europe suffered from the multiplicity of its states and governments. Without a central authority, be it a temporal leader (king/emperor) or a spiritual leader (pope), disagreements and conflicts were fueled by the numerous competing authorities.

The European naval explorations in the 15th century and early 16th century brought about many changes : from the numerous advances made in navigation techniques to the slave trade which kept growing in the years to come. 
During the same period, scientific and philosophical thinking underwent major changes. Humanists tried to regain the notion of individualism and authenticity.
Major scientific discoveries shattered the medieval perception of a universe that revolved around the earth. Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed the concept of a solar system, which was confirmed and further developed by Galileo (1564-1662).

Such theories revolutionized intellectual and religious thought and opened the way for new perspectives. While alchemy, astrology and magic continued to hold sway, the fields of astronomy, mathematics, anatomy, and mechanics were already gaining influence.

The Church before the Reformation existed as a state in parallel to other nations and was an extremely rich landlord with courts that collected taxes. Politics and religion were inextricably tied during this time period. To suggest another form of religion was to suggest a different society.
The countries and their populations developed under these conditions and followed the leadership of their kings, princes, emperors, and theologians. Every country in Europe was tied to the Church and nothing was done without the support of the Pope.
The Church was all powerful : a reassuring power for some, a terrifying one for others. While some challenged and questioned the Church, they were hardly revolts, and the Church did not hesitate to met out punishment whenever.

At the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries, the Waldensian movement seemed to meet its end with the excommunication of Pierre Valdo. He was one of the first to question some of the premises held by his Church and was considerably influenced by the number of deaths caused by the famine of 1176. In 1179 he broke with the Church and founded the « the Poor of Lyons » community. The founding principles of the Poor, known as the Waldensians, were that one should only refer to the bible and that they should protest the power and riches of the Church while rejecting the idea of purgatory and the cult of the Saints. The Church was outraged and quickly excommunicated Pierre Valdo. But the story of the Waldensians did not end here, and disciples of this movement existed in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Printed bible Musée du Centre Culturel Vaudois de Torre Pellices
cliquez pour agrandir l'image Printed bible
Musée du Centre Culturel
Vaudois de Torre Pellices

By this time, diverging opinions were developing throughout Europe and some of their representatives began to meet. The printing press came into play and helped spread these heretic ideas. The first book, a bible, was printed by Gutenberg's press. This switch from handwritten to printed works was catalytic to the coming spiritual revolution. The access to and sharing of knowledge was made more widely possible. Volumes that were once reserved for the intellectual elite, became available in places other than castles and abbeys. The wider access to knowledge, be it artistic, philosophical, political, scientific, or religious, was an extremely important step in the changes to come.

It is in this context that Martin Luther (1483- 1546), a German monk, rose to the forefront of the 16th century. A theologist, a scholar, a teacher, and a virulent debater, Martin Luther was confident in his "theses" which went against his Church, his order, the emperor and several of his fellow disciples.
He voiced particularly strong opposition to the sale of indulgences.
To denounce the behavior of Churchmen and the credulity of their followers, he decided to publish 95 theses which listed his assertions. The political and religious reaction was immediate and Luther was excommunicated.
The story of this excommunicated Augustinian monk could have ended quickly. However, Luther had support from the Landgrave de Hesse and the Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony.
Lutheran ideas were developing in France as early as 1520. During the Synod of Chanforan (1536) the Waldensians rallied to the Reformation. By 1540, Protestant literature was becoming abundant and their ideas were also passed on orally. Upon Martin Lurther's death in 1546, the Lutheran Reformation spread to Switzerland through the work of other Reformists such as Ulrich Zwingli.
Zwingli's virulence put him face to face with the cantons that stayed Catholic. With his influence, a civil war between Catholics and Protestants erupted in Switzerland.

A younger Catholic figure continued Luther's work in France and then in Switzerland. Jean Calvin (1509-1564) was born in Noyon in Picardie. He first studied in his native town, and then in Paris. Initially destined for priesthood, he later study to become a jurist. With the death of his father, Calvin chose to revert to studies of theology. Around 1532 or 1533, Calvin decided to turn towards the new ideas proposed by Lutheranism. During this time period, anti-papal movements where growing in number and virulence throughout France. Faced with these apparently organized and extremist movements in 1534, the King Francois I chose to clearly support Catholicism and ordered an anti-Huguenot repression which was the first large scale persecution in the kingdom. From this point on, the crackdown was official and clashes became more frequent. While Nordic countries opted for Lutheranism, the repression in France had religious, social and political consequences. In 1534 Calvin decided to leave France and head to Bâle. Two years later he published his notable work in Latin, "The Institutes of the Christian Religion", which was translated into French in 1541. His jurisprudence education was clearly visible in this theological work. The main themes, which had already been developed by Luther, Zwingli and other Reformists, were stated in a clear and precise manner.
At the same time, in 1536, Francois I conquered the Savoie. Geneva found itself trapped between Savoie, France and the Swiss Cantons and the city decided to adopt the Reform.

Luther and Calvin were successful where others failed because their ideas concerning an individual access to God fit well with the new social groups (merchants and artisans) who wanted a more dynamic and open society.
Thus in the 16th century, Europe was divided along religious lines. These religions had different intellectual and philosophical approaches which led to the development of differing societies and economies. The Christian unity was no longer an attainable utopia, and trouble was brewing throughout Europe.

In France, religious conflicts started as early as 1562 and political conflicts were of course forcibly involved in this spiral downwards. The first of the eight religious wars (1562-1563) was the most religious in nature. The seven could not ignore the political implications of war. Numerous edicts were signed, bringing about truces between each war. But it was not until Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes in 1598, that a stable peace was established. This was mainly due to the fact that Henry IV, who used to be a reformist, truly enforced the Edict of Nantes. However peace only lasted 12 year until the assassination of the King.
The Peace of Augsbourg (1555) allowed Germany to find peace by allowing princes to each chose their religion (Cujus regio, ejus religio : whose realm, his religion)
The Edict of Nantes offered substantial rights for the belief and practice of Protestantism throughout the kingdom. The reformists were no longer deprived of their civil rights. They had rights of access and could open academies. Protestants were also granted 51 military strongholds (places of safety) as well as around 150 emergency forts. These places could be defended by an army. This military protection offered by the Edict was revoked in 1629. The new text forbid political assembly and eliminated the places of safety. However the right to the freedom of worship remained everywhere except in Paris.

Note : Contrary to popular belief, the main reasoning behind the Edict of Nantes was not tolerance, a word which does not even make an appearance in the text. In fact, during this time period, the word had a negative connotation. It was synonymous with "enduring". Nowadays, the term tolerance signifies accepting another's ideas as being as valid as one's own : a perspective that was impossible in the 16th century. In religious matters, each faction believed it represented the truth. With this perspective in mind, it was considered criminal to abandon another to his false beliefs. Interfering, even through force, was necessary as others were risking their eternal destiny. Catholics saw this Edict as a manner in which to contain Protestants as they waited for them to disappear... On the other hand, Protestants saw this Edict as a pause in the path towards the conversion of all Catholics. (Joxe, Pierre. L'édit de Nantes. Hachette 1998)

Starting in the 1660s, Louis XIV instated a policy to convert Protestants throughout the kingdom to Catholicism. This was accomplished through missionary work and repressive measures such as the dragonnades. The policy forced Protestant families to billet a dragoon (house and feed a member of the military). In addition to the cost of housing a dragoon, their presence served as a coercive force.
This policy of "forced" conversions was efficient in official terms, however it also encouraged the spread of clandestine Protestantism.
The "official" number of Protestants greatly decreased and Louis XIV revoked the religious aspects of the Edict of Nantes by signing the Edict of Fontainebleau (Oct. 22, 1685). Protestantism was thus forbidden throughout the French territory.

The Edict of Fontainebleau included measures to avoid the return of Protestantism : churches were demolished, pastors were exiled, the borders were closed to avoid an exodus and an economic outflow, and all children had to be taught according to the King's Catholic religion...

This revocation forced the exile of many Huguenots, which weakened the French territory while strengthening pro-Protestant territories such as England, the English colonies of Virginia and South Carolina, Germany, the Protestant Swiss Cantons, the Netherlands, and Cape colony. Around 300,000 Huguenots left and many were merchants, artisans, or members of the bourgeoisie.

Many of those who remained, and were faithful to their beliefs, united to practice in the wilderness where their pastors could preach and avoid detection. For over a century, they organized a clandestine church life, risking severe punishment, life in prison, or even death. 

In addition to greatly lowering the number of Protestants living in France, the Edict of Nantes had the unintended consequence of inciting Protestant uprisings such as the revolt of the Camisards in Cevennes.
Protestantism remained forbidden even after Louis XIV. However, the repression was enforced in a less military fashion and numerous Protestant communities survived.

In 1787, Louis XVI signed the Edict of Versailles (commonly known as the Edict of Tolerance) and ended the religious persecutions.
Yet it is not until the French Revolution in 1789 that Protestantism regained its freedom.

Side note : According to many historians, the Huguenot cross appeared for the first time in Nimes three years after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Note : The most commonly accepted etymology for Huguenot refers to the Swiss Alemanic expression Eidgenossen ("confederate") which designates the Swiss cities and cantons that supported the Reformation after Ulrich Zwingli.

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