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De Thou Studies

Part II

Jacques-Auguste de Thou on Heresy

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Chapter 5 — Staying the course of Non-theological Engagement

For someone born in 1553 and writing in the 1590s, the explosive early 1560s would have predated memory. Yet those years perhaps were no more remote than the times in which, through literature and history, de Thou lived: Greece in the Age of Plato and Sophocles, and Rome in the Age of Livy and Virgil. By the 1580s and 1590s the intense theological and doctrinal engagements of the mid-century had been articulated, elaborated, and were less capable of prompting fresh waves of conversions. The Leagues were not theologically inspired movements; they were a powerful devotional intensification motivated by the desire to eliminate heresy.

De Thou would used the word "Lutherans" when referring to those who accepted the Confession of Augsburg, while French Protestants were simply "Protestants," or sectaires, or those of the "Nouvelle Religion." Given his stated devotion to the "religion de ses ancêtres," the term "nouvelle religion" could only be interpreted as critical and negative. Were the reforms of the Council of Trent also a "new religion"?

He frequently refers to the very large number of conversions to Protestantism in the early 1560s, and with this occurred greater boldness in the form of demands for recognition, protections and rights. De Thou's entire account of the 1560s centers on the challenges and fractures of the État de droit that was the French Monarchy. How to reconcile the aspirations, traditions, princely claims and rivalries, and jurisdictional conflicts that had been unleashed by Henry II's sudden death? How to state (in written-down agreements that would be honored by the contesting parties) religious controversy, and the consequences of Spanish military actions? For de Thou, during all this contestation the members of the House of Lorraine took advantage of disorder to carry out ambitious actions on behalf of their rank, clients, and wealth. Here was, for de Thou, a consistency of purpose and action at the highest levels of the state such as none of the other princely and ducal families possessed. And, again for de Thou, the Guises' consistent and overt devotion to Catholicism served to assure the support of the peuple. It will not be our purpose to ascertain whether or not de Thou was fair, or in some sense "objective" about the Guises. And like so many other prominent parlementaire families, the de Thous had strong ties to the Guises!

De Thou is paraphrasing a source when he says that in 1559 Philip II sought new bishoprics in the Low Countries to prevent "l'hérésie [qui] infecteroit bientôt les Pays Bas." David George, the "véritable Christ et Méssie" to his followers, caught de Thou's attention and prompted the following summary:

Afin de se faire des sectateurs par un dogme séduisant et licencieux (qu'avoient forgé avant lui les Anabaptistes), il disoit que le mariage ne liot point l'homme à une seule femme, et qu'il étoit permis à ceux qui étoient regenerés par l'esprit de David, d'avoir des enfans de plusieurs. (1)

De Thou also notes a wave of image-breaking after Mary Tudor's death.

With the end of the war with the Hapsburgs in 1559, the two kings (Spanish and French) could concentrate on eliminating heresy, but the court seemed equally if not more interested in marriage negotiations and ceremonies; after which de Thou adds:

La duchesse de Valentinois, maîtresse du Roi, qui esperoit de s'enrichir par la confiscation des biens de ceux qui seroient condamnez, et les Guises qui cherchoient à se rendre agréables aux peuples par la punition des Sectaires, ne cessoient de dire au Roi que le vénin de l'hérésie se repandoit par toute la France; qu'il ne seroit jamais véritablement Roi, s'il laissoit cette secte faire de plus grands progrès .... (2)

Royal action to eliminate the Albigeois is already in parallel with what the king should do. (3)

The duc de Guise's relations with the clergy are quickly summarized: "Il avoit trouvé moyen de se l'attacher étroitement, en se montrant zelé défenseur de la Religion ancienne, et en faisant paroître une haine implacable contre les sectaires." (4)

Henry II's death created a regency crisis which need not detain us, except regarding de Thou's harsh critique of Jean du Tillet's Pour la majorité du Roy tres chrestien. Having noted du Tillet's profound knowledge of French law, de Thou accuses him of ignoring the fact that the Lorraines were princes étrangers. De Thou, who had hoped that the cardinal de Lorraine would be excluded from the Regency council on those grounds, continues: "...pour répandre le fiel de sa plume vénale sur les Protestans, comme sur les perturbateurs du repos public." (5) The cardinal is characterized as un homme violent who gave this "inhuman" counsel to the king: have a gallows installed in the area around Fontainebleau. (6) De Thou also reports that the Protestants are accused of infanticide.

De Thou makes it evident that the du Bourg trial and execution, in the summer of 1559, was partly the result of quarrels over jurisdiction. He notes that Judge du Bourg's confession was "en tout conforme à celle de Geneve, et des Suisses Protestans. Il y déclamoit aussi contre le pape...." (7)

The year 1560 really opens, for de Thou, with the Conjuration of Amboise. His portrait of La Renaudie notes a relation with du Tillet, the greffier. (8) Castelman's tragic fate results from his effort to slow down the Guises' rise to power. A du Tillet nephew, La Planche, testifies that there are two types of Protestants, but he does not provide details. (9) About the general religious atmosphere, de Thou adds: "C'est ainsi que la Religion Protestante jusque-là si odieuse, commença à être tolerée et comme approuvée, du consentement tacite de ses ennemis mêmes." (10)

Just a few pages later, de Thou makes the same point: "Cependant le nombre de Protestants augmentoit en France tous les jours, et leur audace croissoit en même tems." (11) He notes troubles in Provence, and incidents such as the killing of a certain Antoine by an enraged populace. (12) He also recounts the trial of Martin Guerre, relying on Coras. (13)

L'Hospital is recognized as being opposed to "rigors and cruelties," and de Thou briefly recounts how a policy of some moderation was put in place, and why it was not respected. The links between this policy and weak royal authority during a minority, and fears that the state will be overthrown and princely authority compromised, are at the heart of de Thou's assessment of what might be called the "moment" of moderation. Without the inherent instability akin to the sort that Machiavelli found in republics, a monarchy might collapse in the wake of certain conditions.

When the subject turns to the Colloque de Poissy (1561), de Thou notes that the principal aim was a reconciliation between the princely factions, and that the second aim was to enable the cardinal de Lorraine to display his skills at oral controversy: "Il se vantoit de confondre les Protestans par les témoignages des Peres; et pour inspirer du courage et de la confidence à ceux de son parti." (14) Would it be possible for Beza and his fellow pastors to accept the Confession of Augsburg? The cardinal, according to de Thou, initially approved of some of the terms of German Lutheranism:

Mais comme il étoit ambitieux et inconstant, il changea de sentiment, pour se conserver l'estime et l'affection du peuple, qui étoit la chose qu'il recherchoit avec plus de passion. On lui entendit dire plusieurs fois, pour justifier son changement, qu'il avoit d'abord pensé comme des Protestants d'Allemagne; mais que les questions controversées ayant été jugées par le Concile de Trente, il s'étoit soûmis à ses decisions. (15)

The Machiavellian idea that power may be sought by assuming the guise of the devoutly religious is a leitmotif in de Thou's account of French politics and religion in the late sixteenth century.

Poissy's stated purpose was to try to work out some jurisdictional and administrative issues in the church. Would it be possible to reduce litigation over nominations to benefices? Chancellor l'Hospital's opening speech dealt with church-state relations such as the role that church councils played, or might play, in the repression of heresy. The cardinal de Tournon challenged l'Hospital to put his remarks in writing, and the cardinal de Lorraine supported Tournon; but the chancellor refused.

De Thou sets the stage for Beza's speech at the Colloque de Poissy by noting that he began with a protest about the violations and the injuries that the Protestants had suffered in the king's law courts. Then Beza summed up the theological issues on which the parties agreed or disagreed. In characterizing the Eucharist, he rejected Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation. Indeed, Beza "se laissa tellement emporter à l'ardeur de la dispute," that he said:

J'avouë et je reconnois que dans la réception du Sacrement les fideles participent au corps et au sang du Christ d'une maniere ineffable et aussi véritablement, qu'ils voyoient les Sacremens des yeux, qu'ils les touchoit de la main, et les approchoient de leur bouche. Cependant ayant égard à la distance des lieux (comme il est necessaire, lorsqu'il s'agit de la présence du corps, et de l'humanité même du Christ, considérée séparément), je soûtiens que le corps du Christ est aussi éloigné du pain et du vin, que le plus haut des cieux l'est de la terre. (16)

This, adds de Thou, was "heard with horror by Catholics, some of whom remarked, with reference to St. Augustine, that Christ, like God, was everywhere."

Various prelates spoke; and there were other meetings where Beza and his fellow Protestants proposed more consensual doctrines. The cardinal de Lorraine spoke about God being present in all the sacraments, implying that the Protestants had become too centered on the Eucharist.

De Thou's account of Poissy does not include a personal view of any of the theological issues that were debated; nor does he lament the lack of reform in the Gallican church. He recognizes the cardinal de Lorraine's later intervention in the debates; but he does not comment on whether these interventions furthered conciliation or deepened the divisions between Protestants and Catholics. Similarly, he makes no personal observation about the failure of an effort at reconciliation concerning the role of images and crosses in churches. Beza could not accept crosses on tables or altars. (17) The violent events at Sens, Paris and Vassy against Protestants are mentioned, as are exclusions from Paris and the pillaging done by Protestants in Tours; but for de Thou, it was the "arrêt violent" of the Paris Parlement, in 1562, that shifted opinion against Protestants, declaring the Protestants "proscrits, et ordonnant à tous les Catholiques de prendre des armes, de sonner par-tout le béfroi, de les poursuivre, et de les tuer sans crainte d'en être repris." (18) Numerous declarations against Protestants followed. The pattern was different, however, in Dijon, because the rigueur of the governor and the magistrates was such that "le peuple, quoiqu'animé par le magistrat, les traitoient avec plus de modération." (19) In Toulouse, the Parlement eventually overcame its divisions and issued a decree authorizing the extermination of Protestants that was as severe as the one in Paris. (20)

For de Thou, the following year, 1563, which brought the decrees of the Council of Trent, seems to have had mostly to do with church administration, especially the requirement that bishops reside in their dioceses. There was some debate over communion des deux espèces, but de Thou finds papal-Gallican contestation to be the principal issue, and the cardinal de Lorraine was strongly pro-papal. (21)

There are phrases of descriptive and analytical overview, (22) but the situation remained too fluid to prompt a summary, beyond military matters prior to the death of Charles IX. By contrast, it seemed relatively easy for de Thou to sum up the new religious developments in England (1568):

Dans cette même année [1568], Colman, Button, Hallingham, Benson, et d'autres Anglois, qui pensoient de la même façon, se persuaderent, ou au moins voulurent faire croire qu'ils avoient des sentimens plus purs et plus sinceres en matière de Religion et de doctrine. Ils commencerent donc à attaquer la discipline reçûë dans l'Eglise Anglicane, la liturgie et l'autorité des Evêques. Ils prétendirent qu'en tous ces points l'église d'Angleterre étoit, au moins en apparence, trop conforme aux rit[e]s et usages de celle de Rome, et qu'il falloit ramener toutes ses cérémonies et tous ses usages à la discipline prescrite par l'Eglise de Geneve. (23)
* * *

I certainly have missed some turns in the de Thou labyrinth, but I have not found engagement with any theological or doctrinal issue. This is not to say that impartiality or engagement are absent from the History. De Thou sought to make readers aware of the atrocities that institutions (primarily royal ones) meted out upon innocent people. His was a critical perspective of Humanity, an Erasmian principle frequently noted throughout the History.

A major reason, if not the principal reason for de Thou's disengagement from theological engagement is what Robert Schneider has aptly defined as "self-censorship." The history of the reception of the History is well known, thanks to Alfred Soman's pioneering thesis of 1968, published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 120 (1976), pp. 439-463. The Buckley edition of the History contains the correspondence between de Thou and the cardinals in the French "party" in the Vatican; these letters reveal the historian's efforts to avoid censorship. But his non-engagement with theological debates was so sustained and coherent that it became part of the deepest fabric of the work.

Other readers will find other references to religious beliefs; but the issue raised in this particular reading is that, in working through the vast history of politics, religion and heresy in the sixteenth century, de Thou remained disengaged on religious issues -- that in a century marked by what was perhaps the greatest religious controversy since the first centuries of the church.

On what foundations was de Thou's disengagement built? Three possible explanations come to mind, and they are complementary. First, there is considerable evidence of de Thou's knowledge of the history of the church. Second, he was well informed about church-state relations since Constantine. It would be useful to work through the entire oeuvre to find the references to the councils of the Early and Medieval church, as well as to royal-imperial decrees since Charlemagne. De Thou was a man of institutions, laws and jurisdictions. He viewed history through a Gallican lens. His anti-papalism centered on "corruption," not on papal power over matters of doctrine. In other words, his religious beliefs may have been so deeply grounded in historical thought that the theological debates of his contemporaries did not engage him.

Now to the third explanation. I will certainly continue to pay attention to any and all of de Thou's views on heresy and conformity while reading about the events in France that he recounts in the remaining volumes of the History, that is, from the 1570s on; but I suspect that while he was writing about the crucial events of the 1560s, de Thou pretty well worked out his framework for understanding religious and political experiences in his own patrie.

As is well known, he breaks his narrative at the end of most books, to note the deaths of prominent individuals, political, religious and scholarly. Thus at the end of book XXXVI, for the year 1564, a short statement about Calvin's death appears among the eulogies for Emperor Ferdinand and George Cassander, Giambullari, Borré, Bibliander, Vesalius, Morel and Boteon. What de Thou writes about the emperor and Cassander is emphatically laudatory: in dealing with the Turks, Ferdinand had learned the value of "lenteur, retardement, et l'adresse," (24) and he applied the same approach to religious matters. The key word concerning Cassander is accommodement, that is, seeking to avoid increased sectarian and physical violence. In the brief paragraph about Calvin, de Thou finds only one aspect of his life to praise:

... Jean Calvin, de Noyon en Vermandois, homme d'un esprit vif et ardent, d'une merveilleuse éloquence, et qui passoit pour un très profond Théologien parmi les Protestans, étoit mort le 20 mai, après avoir essuyé pendant sept ans diverses maladies douleureuses, qui ne l'empêcherent pas néanmoins de continuer les fonctions de son ministère, de travailler, et d'écrire. Il mourut d'un asthme à Genéve, où il avoit enseigné vingt-trois ans, n'ayant pas encore cinquante-six ans accomplis. (25)

After this portrait, one of the "destitute Parisian scholars and journalists" working on the Defontaine edition (Kinser's phrase, p. 272) wrote that de Thou never refers to Luther or Calvin as "chefs d'une secte," and that in his History he does not use the words Lutherans, Calvinists or Huguenots. Not unlike the official royal designation the "Religion prétendue réformée," de Thou's avoidance of the final ontological step of calling something or someone by a name (Protestant) marks a limit beyond which he would not go in recognizing new religious identities. Yet he apparently had no trouble referring to Donatists and Pelagians, designations that, like the later terms Lutherans and Calvinists, were derived from personal names and had, centuries earlier, been transformed into the names of distinct heretical beliefs.

The single strong attribute that de Thou grants to Calvin is eloquence, a term rarely, if ever, used with negative connotations. It could refer to Calvin's sheer power to move the thoughts of thousands of readers through his own words, a fact that de Thou felt obliged to recognize even though he might not agree. Referring to Calvin as a theologian whose thought was not generally recognized as major or important is obviously negative in two ways. First, judging from the contexts of the eulogies in general, we learn that de Thou did not hold theologians in his general esteem; he probably would have referred to St. Augustine as a bishop, not a theologian. Second, he asserts that only Protestants viewed Calvin as profound. The sectarian dimension is thus given considerable emphasis in the overall statement, which is not a eulogy.

There is little that is exceptional in the quite specific phrases about Calvin's health and the cause of his death; if the facts are available to him, de Thou frequently adds that sort of information about the people who figure in the History. Missing, for example, are references to Calvin's education at Bourges and his youthful commentary upon Seneca's De Clementia -- just the type of facts that de Thou invariably included in other portraits.

Though not a parallel, the portrait of Melanchthon (really a eulogy) notes how different his character was, as a disciple, from that of his master, Luther. Melanchthon strove to have Luther write clearly. He liked tranquility, concord and moderation; and zealous Lutherans rejected Melanchthon's attempts at reconciliation: "après sa mort les Protestans blamérent en lui cet éloignement des dissensions et des disputes ...." (26) Clearly, de Thou's sympathies lay more with Melanchthon than with Calvin; and, of course, not surprisingly he does not mention matters of faith.



1. HU, vol. III, bk XXII, p. 347.

2. HU, vol. III, bk XXII, p. 357.

3. HU, vol. III, bk XXII, p. 365.

4. HU, vol. III, bk XXIII, p. 376.

5. HU, vol. III, bk XXIII, p. 397.

6. HU, vol. III, bk XXIII, pp. 397-98.

7. HU, vol. III, bk XXIII, p. 400.

8. HU, vol. III, bk XXIV, p. 469.

9. HU, vol. III, bk XXV, p. 514.

10. HU, vol. III, bk XXV, p. 535.

11. HU, vol. III, bk XXV, p. 543.

12. HU, vol. III, bk XXV, p. 555.

13. HU, vol. III, bk XXVI, p. 581-82.

14. HU, vol. IV, bk XXVIII, p. 72.

15. HU, vol. IV, bk XXVIII, p. 100.

16. HU, vol. IV, bk XXVIII, p. 89.

17. HU, vol. IV, bk XXIX, p. 163.

18. HU, vol. IV, bk XXX, p. 221.

19. HU, vol. IV, bk XXXI, p. 277.

20. HU, vol. IV, bk XXXII, p. 382.

21. HU, vol. IV, bk XXXV, p. 582.

22. For example, HU, vol. VI, bk L, pp. 262-63.

23. HU, vol. V, bk XLIII, p. 431.

24. HU, vol. IV, bk XXXVI, p. 629.

25. HU, vol. IV, bk XXXVI, p. 631.

26. HU, vol. III, bk XXVI, p. 623.