While events were unfolding in France, my OU course saw me writing an essay about 16th century Protestant Reformation. This juxtaposing of issues set me to thinking about French religious history, which was pretty bloody! Then I took a look at France today…
François Dubois’ painting (above) of unknown date depicts the 1572 massacre. To the left rear, Catherine de Médici is emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect the outcome of her plotting. Source: Cantonal Museum of Lausanne
It was in France that the Protestant movement encountered its most bloody period. This should not have come as much of a surprise:
- In the middle of the 8th century it was the Frankish King Pepin who conquered parts of Italy and originally donated the Papal States to the Church
- In the 11th century French King Robert I the Pious began a bloody persecution of the Jews, forcing them to convert to Catholicism or die. In Rouen, Richard II, Duke of Normandy, dealt with the local Jewry so harshly that women drowned themselves rather than face the mob
- In 1182 King Philp Augustus expelled all Jews from his royal lands, confiscated their property and converted synagogues to churches – by 1198 he had recanted
- In the 13th century the French mounted a war of terror, a bloody internal crusade, against the Cathars. A massacre in Béziers (1209) was estimated to have claimed between 7,000 and 20,000 followers, but the whole campaign is suggested to have killed over 500,000
- King Philip the Fair (these royal sobriquets almost sound ironic – the Pious, the Fair) ordered the Inquisition that was set up against the Albigensians/Cathars to investigate southern France’s Jewry. In 1306 the Jews were banished, their properties sold off at auction to fill Philip’s Treasury that had been bare. In exiling them he removed his most likely source of funding for the future. They were welcomed back in 1315, only to be expelled again in 1394.
- In the 14th century France was where the Popes were based – in Avignon.
The French connection Church to Crown was deep-rooted
The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
So the early French Protestants should not have been surprised to meet strong opposition. The growth in their numbers, later becoming known as Huguenots, led to a civil war in the 1560s and culminated in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on 24th August 1572.
The mother of King Charles IX was Catherine, from the infamous Italian Médici family. She is ‘credited’ with approving the attacks. Meeting with nobles at the Tuileries Palace, she plotted to have all the Protestant leaders murdered while they were in Paris for the marriage of her daughter Margaret de Valois to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant.
Most authorities agree that 3,000 were killed in Paris on that day. Certainly a payment was made for 1,100 bodies to be removed from the River Seine and buried. By the end of September the number killed in Paris had risen to 25,000. The killings spread through France with estimates of between 70,000 and 100,000 slaughtered – men, women and children. The king granted an amnesty to the perpetrators!
Some 75% of Huguenots converted back to Catholicism in response. Over 200,000 fled to other countries where Protestant beliefs were accepted. The process continued for the next two centuries, the total number of Huguenots fleeing France was 500,000 by the 18th century.
So if history has taught us anything, it is that religion is divisive!
Perhaps understandably Protestants today represent just 2% of the French 66 million population.
The French Jewish population is lower at just 1%, last week’s newspapers quoting it at around 500,000 with suggestions that many were leaving on account of feelings of insecurity – bizarre that the numbers is the same as that of Huguenots who fled France for the same reason!
The Muslim population is quoted in a strangely wide band between 5 and 10%, thus representing some 3–6 million of France’s inhabitants. The four Charlie Hebdo plotters were all French-born Muslims.
(Population statistics: CIA World Fact Book)
CNN on 10Jan15 suggested some background to the Charlie Hebdo event, pointing out that a disproportionate 70% of France’s prison population is Muslim and that Muslim incomes in France are around 15% below their Christian counterparts. CNN added that it was therefore no surprise that France had supplied more foreign fighters to the war in Syria than any other Western nation — around 700.
Sunday’s march with fifty heads of state and some 4 million marchers across France was impressive. Interesting that the posters proclaiming Je suis Charlie and Nous sommes Charlie, were all too soon diluted by Je suis Franck, Je suis Juif, Je suis Musulman, Je suis Ahmed and Je suis Flic.
Among the 700 French foreign fighters in Syria referred to in the CNN piece was one of the Charlie Hebdo plotters –