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De Thou Studies

Part I

The Divinity (or the non-Divinity?) of King Henry IV

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Chapter 2 — Jacques-Auguste de Thou's Understanding of Heresy (1)

Addressing Henry IV almost familiarly. Author of a Préface with royalism, religion, and violence as its principal themes. A Préface cast in the form of argument, specific historical examples of how the Church over the centuries avoided the use of repressive force in its efforts to bring about religious conformity. De Thou's aim is to understand the religious "différends" that have brought about violence in Europe over the last century.

L'expérience (2) nous apprend assés que le fer, les flàmes, l'exil, et les proscriptions, sont plus capables d'irriter, que de guérir un mal, qui ayant sa source dans l'esprit, ne se peut soulager par des remédes qui n'agissent que sur le corps. (3)

Only saine doctrine and une instruction assidue will insure conformity under the sovereign authority of magistrates and the prince (4): "il n'est plus tems d'employer l'épée du Magistrat; on ne se doit servir que du glaive de la parole de Dieu." (5)

Jurist-historian that he is, de Thou then turns to examples offered as preuves to support his argument. He begins by noting what St. Augustine wrote to Proculeainus, a Donatist bishop, and then to Cecilianus, to persuade in favor of charity to schismatics, rather than rigor.

The last letter by Augustine that de Thou brings up is addressed to Boniface. For all his future thought on the subject, it contains an important distinction: namely, when there are one or two schismatics, they may be considered lost and a harsh punishment presumably may be justified. But when the "destruction de tout un peuple" is involved, "il faut se relâcher de la rigueur, et prévenir par la charité des maux plus considérables" (6); and he asserts that these sentiments have prevailed in the Church, that they may be found in several places in Gratian's Decretals. The concept "humanity," says de Thou, filled the holy doctor's (Augustine's) mind. We shall see that this is central to de Thou's ethical thought and, presumably, action. Rather than use verbal threats, intimidate instead by passages from the Holy Scriptures that engender the fear of God.

De Thou uses the word preuve about the fate of Priscillian, who was condemned and put to death for heresy by imperial authority, not by episcopal authority in the early Church. There was also the case of Itacius's partisans, who were to be put to death for heresy by imperial authority, and on the recommendation of some bishops; but were saved by St. Martin, who intervened to have the "ordre inhumain" revoked. In this instance, and in several others, de Thou condemns judgment based on "l'air de leur visage, et par leurs habits," rather than on doctrine. Priscillian's death did not put an end the sect he had founded; instead, his followers became strengthened by his example and honored him as a saint.

Then, more personally and intimately, as de Thou rereads an account by Sulpicius Severus, de Thou recalls how, in his own childhood:

lorsque les troubles de la Religion étant survenus, on marquoit d'un coup d'oeil, comme dignes de la mort, une infinité de personnes suspectes, non par leurs moeurs ou par leur conduite, mais par l'air de leurs visages, ou par leur habillement. (7)

De Thou repeated the point, so it seems correct to repeat it here. As he advances his "preuves" that civil, not ecclesiastical authorities, were responsible for the capital punishment of sectarians, de Thou lets his reader see, in their minds, a church, a religion (not the same thing) weakened and in a perilous state.

But at the same time, since the days of St. Martin, the church has been more moderate toward heterodox persons. They were only banished and fined, he argues, not put to death. In 1060, Béranger of Angers sowed his doctrines, and Bruno, archbishop of Trier, did not put Béranger and his followers to death; he merely banished them from his archdiocese.

And then came the time of the Vaudois. Armies were raised against them, as strong as the one that had been raised to chase away the Saracens. De Thou refers to the Vaudois as "malheureux," as they flee to Provence, the Alps, Calabria, Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Livonia, and England. It is believed, he says, that the ones who went to England influenced John Wycliff, professor of theology at Oxford, who died a natural death. Not until three hundred years later did the magistrates think of bringing him to trial, and to burn his bones publicly.

We shall explore at a later point those writings that linked the sectarianism of the sixteenth century to the Vaudois, the Cathars, and the Hussite and Wycliffite sectarian movements. De Thou does not discuss them here, as if to avoid proposing a genealogy of heretical movements; but he will have much more to say on these issues in the History. His aim is to prove and to convince that violent physical repression strengthens, not weakens, movements that have separated themselves from the church.

But before leaving the subject, at some risk to himself, says de Thou, he brings it up to the present. He commends Prince Ferdinand (Emperor Charles V's brother) for learning that war against the Protestants is without success; and therefore, when Ferdinand became emperor, he ordered "conférences spécifiques" and selected Georges Cassander to examine, with Protestant doctors, the contested articles of the Augsburg Confession. The poor health and eventual death of each, deprived Germany of the fruits of such study.

The high nobility of Poland followed the German example; but owing to the French alliance, Emmanuel-Philibert of Savoy undertook a ruinous war against the inhabitants of the Piedmont valleys. He soon recognized his error and granted liberty of conscience to his subjects.

Turning next to Henry IV in a candid dialogue, de Thou states:

La guerre n'est pas un moyen légitime de remédier au schisme de l'Eglise. Les Protestants de ce royaume, qui diminuoient en nombre et en crédit pendant la paix, se sont toûjours crûs pendant la guerre et parmi nos divisions. (8)

His account of the civil wars at this point is brief and without reference to doctrinal or ecclesiastical issues. It is Henry's prudence and conversion that he celebrates in this direct address to the king. De Thou's ultimate aim is to place the king and his realm in a providential relation, expressing hope and his own faith in a personal testimony. (9)

There are no references to the works that have characterized French sectarianism and heresy as a flowering of or continuity with the Hussites, Wycliffites, and Cathars. As a learned jurist, de Thou himself ventures no comment whatsoever on the theological and ecclesiastical disputes. To be sure, he favors reforms in the church under the aegis of the king, not the Council of Trent or the Papacy. He addresses Henry: "Vous avez révoqué tous les édits que le Roi votre prédécesseur avait publié malgré lui, contre les Protestants et contre vous." (10)

Concerning the edicts in favor of the Protestants, de Thou comments:

[Vous] les avez rétablis dans leurs maisons, dans leurs biens, dans leurs honneurs; vous en avez méme avancé quelques-uns aux premieres dignités de l'Etat; dans l'espérance que les haines et les animosités venant à se calmer, la concorde prescrite par vos édits, se rétabliroit plus aisément, que les esprits reprendroient leur premiere sérénité ... (11)

Public tranquility will be restored, de Thou argues, by the revocation of repressive laws and by the concord prescribed by Henry's edicts -- a clear reference to Nantes. Put simply, public tranquility would not return merely by revoking repressive laws; those who had been repressed needed royal legislation and favor to impose peace.

De Thou turned to the history of the Early Church in order to discern the jurisdiction of the Church and the Empire; he concluded that civil authority's resort to violence not only failed to maintain religious conformity, but actually caused an increase in non-conformity and heresy.



1. References to de Thou are from the Paris (called "London") edition and translation of 1734. If doubts develop about this work (Kinser warns that it is unreliable), I will turn to the Latin edition of Buckley and Carte, London 1733. The Eisenhower Library of the Johns Hopkins University contains these editions, and others. I thank its staff, particularly Amy Kimball, for their patient support.

2. Mind-body distinctions and arguments, while having numerous antique resonances, had recently been profoundly re-expressed and developed in the final chapter of Montaigne's Essais. That chapter deals with expérience.

3. Histoire universelle (hereafter "HU"), vol. I, Préface, p. 313. The not-footnoted quotations in this chapter come from de Thou's preface and can be found between the ones that are cited.

4. Readers in 1602 would probably have quickly noted the absence of any reference to the church universal, the Papacy, or ecumenical councils.

5. HU, vol. I, Préface, p. 315.

6. HU, vol. I, Préface, p. 315.

7. HU, vol. I, Préface, p. 317.

8. HU, vol. I, Préface, p. 320.

9. See the section of these Studies titled: "The Divinity (or the non-Divinity?) of King Henry IV" (which extends through Chapter 1).

10. HU, vol. I, Préface, p. 324.

11. HU, vol. I, Préface, p. 324.