The Reformation

Jean Calvin
To contemporaries, the reordering of religion and the sundering of the social unity that it had once provided to European culture was the most significant development of the sixteenth century. It is impossible to understand the time without taking a look at this. Religion was not a matter of personal preference or opinion, it was the very basis of society.

The Pre-Reform

The rediscovery of the learning of the ancient world, the printing press, and all the other forces that came together to create the Renaissance also affected the Church. At the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, Christian humanists sought to apply the new style of scholarship to the study of scriptures in their original languages and to return to the first principles of their religion. In the interests of spreading religious understanding, they began to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages. The end of the fifteenth century saw a popular spiritual revival of a more mystical nature as well, characterised by such works as Thomas à Kempis' Imitatio Christi (translated and published in every major European language). The Renaissance belief in the "perfectability of man" made people less content with things as they were, and more interested in improving them in the here and now. No one could argue that the church was not corrupt: holding vast wealth, exercising enormous political power and waging war, it was administered by holders of patronage positions that had more interest in lining their pockets than in promoting the welfare of their "flocks". The Christian humanists criticized these all-too-human failings, while striving for a purer church.

The early years of the sixteenth century were graced by some great Christian humanist intellects: Erasmus, Lefèvre d'Etaples, and others. Marguerite de Navarre, François Ier's sister, was a great patron, and François Ier as an enlightened Renaissance prince himself, was sympathetic and once offered Erasmus the leadership of his new College de France, founded to promote classical learning. The Bishop of Meaux, Guillaume Briçonnet, gathered a circle of inquiring intellects and passionate, reform-minded preachers around him there during the early 1520s. There was no particular intention of breaking from the church at this time, merely a passion for improving it.

The Gallican Tradition

Since Clovis, the French crown has had a special relationship to the church. There was no concept of the separation of church and state in France.  The Pope gave the kings of France the title of "Most Christian King," and at his consecration (itself a holy rite) the King takes an oath to extirpate heresy in his realm. In spite of this close relationship, or perhaps because of it, the Gallican church in France has also traditionally enjoyed more independence from the central church hierarchy. The King's rights to govern the church were unprecendented. In 1516 the Concordat of Bologna confirmed François Ier's right to make appointments to benefices, but gave the Pope the right to veto unqualified candidates and to collect a year's revenue from each post. Although this gave the Pope many rights, it gave the king more. The king of France had enormous powers to dispose of the Church's wealth and he could (and did) use the offices of bishops, abbots, etc. to provide sinecures for his faithful followers.  This also meant that lords of the church were usually quite worldly people, often quite unfit for their offices if spirituality or theological learning is considered a requirement. (The Pope's veto was hardly ever exercised.) There was no restraint against a single individual holding many simultaneous titles, and there were plenty of bishops who lived well on their revenues and never set foot in their sees. The weaving together of obligation, reward, and responsibility between church and state made for a unique Gallican fusion of church and state, with the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) acting as the scholastic think-tank arm of the church-state complex.


In 1517, a dispute about who was entitled to a cut of the revenues generated by itinerant papal indulgence sellers provoked the controversy that led the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, to nail his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg. The upshot of Luther's theses was that Christians are saved by faith, and faith alone, and that no amount of works (including the purchase of indulgences) made any difference at all. A drastic enough view, but not one that was immediately perceived as having the ultimate consequences that it eventually did. The Pope, Leo X, was a fairly easy going fellow, not inclined to vigorously prosecute this first appearance of heresy. There were plenty of heterodox views in the air at the time, and he thought it could be worked out diplomatically.

As it turns out, it could not. Luther was not immediately burnt for a heretic; he was allowed to present his case in court and had a powerful effect on the populace. He also had a powerful patron and protector in the Elector of Saxony, who shielded him from the ecclesiastical authorities. In addition, the media explosion brought on by the printing press spread his message much further than it otherwise might have gone, and made him the focus for all sorts of religious, spiritual, political, and economic discontent. The right to read and interpret scripture lead to the throwing off of the chains of papal and ecclesiastical authority; and taking this to mean political and economic freedom as well, there were widespread revolts among the German peasantry. This horrified Luther and many of the civil powers.

The deep belief that religious uniformity was essential for political and and social stability made heterodox opinions a potential act of treason. It was not the desire of the intellectual reformers to challenge civil authority, but it was a consequence. The German states were small political units: principalities, duchies, electorates, and so on, all theoretically owing loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor as overlord, but most exercising a fairly independent course a lot of the time. As the leaders of these states made their choices for or against the new opinion, their populations went with them (like it or not). For many, the attractions of "nationalizing" church property was a powerful incentive to become a reformer. Political alliances were made and remade in the name of religion throughout the rest of the century.

The Day of the Placards

After Luther made it more difficult to be neutral, the hidebound, rigidly scholastic Sorbonne denounced the Circle of Meaux as heretics in 1525. Some recanted, some fled into exile, some became avowed Protestants, some fled to the shelter of Marguerite de Navarre's court. During the 1520s and 30s the lines between evangelical Christian humanists and Protestants were very vague. Seminal humanists like Erasmus and Lefèvre d'Etaples never left the Church, not wishing to see its fundamental unity destroyed, while others became religious and social radicals.

In spite of the fear inspired by the example of Luther's followers, the Most Christian King of France was fairly tolerant of the spirit of inquiry and truly valued scholarship. He generally prevented the doctors of the Sorbonne from doing their worst against anyone challenging their medieval views.

However, this tolerance changed with the "Day of the Placards." Early Sunday morning on October 18, 1534, Parisians and many other citizens of northern France awoke to find the city plastered with broadsides denouncing the Catholic mass as "an insufferable abuse", condemning the Eucharist in very vitriolic language, and threatening the priesthood for "disinheriting" kings, princes, and so on by its practice. One of these appeared on the king's bedroom door. This was not just a theological debate, but an attack on the fundamental social fabric. It confirmed the popular suspicion that the "Lutherans" were not only heretics, but rebels and traitors.

A few culpable parties were rounded up and burned, and François Ier responded to this challenge to his dual role as head of the state and the church in France by holding a massive procession of the Holy Eucharist through Paris, in which all the royal and parliamentary institutions participated. Sporadic suppression of Protestantism followed, but it was all very inconsistent. Rabelais wrote his satirical works during this time and managed never to be burnt for them, while others went to the stake for much less.


In the wave of suppression that followed the Day of the Placards, one of the exiles was a evangelical humanist named Jean Cauvin (latinized as Calvin), from Noyon in Picardy. He had studied law and had made a bit of name in humanist circles with a work on Seneca.

In 1536 Calvin published (in Latin) The Institutes of the Christian Religion in Basel. He sojourned in Strasbourg from 1538-1541, refining his thoughts on how to create God's kingdom on earth, and ultimately landed in Geneva. The Institutes were published in French in 1541, and had the most profound effect of any book save the Bible on the development of Protestantism in France. Ironically, the first edition of this book was dedicated to King François, perhaps in the hope that the generally open-minded king could still be persuaded to adopt the reformed religion.

Calvin did not really add anything particularly new to Protestant theology in the Institutes, but he gave much more logical and analytical structure to its doctrines. His book was an effective educational tool, intended to be the foundation for organizing a new Christianity (and by implication, a more godly new society). Calvinism is strongly identified with the doctrine of predestination, but this was not really a novel view -- it was implicit in St Augustine's work of centuries before. It was Calvin's legalistic explanation of the significance of it and other standard articles of Protestant confession that made the difference.

It is an intense irony that the citizens of Geneva, a people who were so determined to be free from an oppressive church hierarchy, who held as an article of faith the priesthood of all believers, and who were fanatical about the liberty to study and interpret the scriptures for themselves, should end up establishing a theocracy where the Kingdom of God was so rigidly enforced that staying up after 9 o'clock in a public inn was a crime.

Incidentally, the Lutherans and Calvinists came to despise each other. Montaigne recounts the story of visiting a town in Germany and having an interesting discussion with the pastor of the church there. (Montaigne was insatiably curious about other's beliefs and never passed up the opportunity to talk to Lutherans, Jews, witches, and anyone else of interest). This Lutheran pastor held that he would rather celebrate the mass of Rome than so much as walk into the service of the Calvinists. Le plus ça change...

The Council of Trent

Eventually the church mobilized itself to deal with splintering of its authority and held the Council of Trent. It was the purpose of this council to try to define a common ground of belief and practice for all Christians, and to attempt to heal the schism. It opened in 1545 in the last years of François's reign, and met for 18 years, during which it healed nothing. There was little hope that the Protestant views would be truly accomodated and honestly debated, and the end result was that Trent ended up reinforcing the more uniquely Catholic aspects of religion in contradiction to the Protestant practice. The special place of Mary was reaffirmed, for example, as well as the role of devotional works, the sacraments, the saints and angels, the role of Latin in worship, the sole privilege of the clergy to interpret scripture, the primacy of the pope, and all the other traditional trappings.

The Gallican church played next to no role in the Council of Trent, and refused to register its decrees. During its early years of convocation, the Papacy was dominated by Hapsburg political influences. The Valois were at war with the Hapsburgs throughout the reigns of François I and his son Henry II, and papal/French relations were at a very low point. The Gallican church was very prickly about its rights and did not acknowledge that the Pope or the Council had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of the church of France.

The Counter-Reformation

The Council of Trent did try to address some of the abuses of the church, calling for a more effective, educated, and involved clergy. The most effective tool of the church came into being during this time. A Spanish bravo was wounded by a cannonball in 1521 and in his frustration at never being able to follow the noble profession of arms again, turned to the comfort of religion. Ignatius Loyola applied a very military sensibility to the development of spirituality, and founded the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits took education of the laity and the common clergy as one of their special goals. They answered to no earthly power but the Pope, and served as the premier strike force of the Counter-Reformation. By 1559, they were were a world power.

There were several other notable saints of the Counter-Reformation. Some responded to the "faith not works" challenge of the Protestants by finding a new vocation in social justice. Vincent de Paul and Francis de Sales were intensely devoted to caring for the poor, founding orders with that mission at a time when an emerging capitalist economy was adding to the social wreckage. It was a time of increasing poverty and homelessness in the face of growing wealth and power for the elite, and this brand of counter-reformation Catholic chose to stand on the side of the meek and humble. Henri IV strongly approved of St. Francis de Sales.

There was also a Counter-reformation revival of Catholic mysticism, another reaction to the desire for a more personal relationship with God. St. John of the Cross probed The Dark Night of the Soul, and St. Theresa of Avila explored The Interior Castle where God dwelt. Theresa reformed the Carmelites and spread contemplation at the same time that her countryman Loyola was spreading orthodoxy by whatever means necessary. Women played a major role in the Counter-Reformation, just as they did in the Reformation. Some were public leaders themselves, but most were leaders of a quieter sort, patronizing the saints, thinkers, and preachers, motivating their families, and acting in their communities.

The post-Trendentine church also took a stronger interest in family life, the roles of husband and wife, parent and child, and the responsibilities of the parents to train their children up in the faith. They began to oppose the excesses of Carnival and other types of pagan "laxity" that was part of everyday life, and began to promote a more watchful sexual morality. Many of the "family values" that we now think of as characteristically "Catholic" were formed during this time and were a response to the Puritan tendencies of the Protestants.

The Demographics of Dissent

Historians have debated for a long time who the Protestants were, why the new faith appealed to them, where the social/religious fault lines lay and why. Marxists have seen a class struggle between the lower orders and the elite, others a conflict between a feudal Catholicism and a capitalist Protestantism, still others the appeal of a more "rational" religion to better educated minds during a time of social flux.

Recent scholarship on this subject has finally provided some hard data. Protestantism in France had more more appeal in the towns than in the countryside, except in the South which had a long tradition of anti-clericalism, heresy, and independence from the crown. In the towns, artisans and learned professionals made up a disproportionate number of the Huguenots (when and why this term was coined for French Protestants is unknown). They were overwhelmingly more literate than the general population, which was important for a religion that so strongly emphasized bible study. Members of new trades like printing and bookselling, as well as newly prestigious trades like painting and goldsmithing, and new manufacturing technologies like silk-making were more likely to take to Protestantism than members of older, more tradition-bound trades. As a whole, these were artisans with more education, independence, and entrepreneurial spirit than average. At least, these generalizations are true in those regions of France where these kinds of trades were strong. Regional context varies and the popularity or lack thereof of the reformed religion needs to be weighed against local conditions, but for the most part, Huguenot artisans were working in trades that their fathers never knew.

Observers have always noted a certain congeniality between Protestantism and capitalism, even though the great banking families and merchant houses first emerged in the Italian city-states, a Catholic region where the church was such a strong native industry that the reform never had a chance. The sober, industrious lifestyle followed by most Protestants went well with the demands of making money in trade and industry. It depends on whether or not you think this is a good thing -- some have seen in the Protestant work ethic the sublimation of people who have no absolution, no ritual means of forgiveness, and who must therefore throw themselves into their worldly labor to forget. Economically, the northern countries and the Atlantic-based trade prospered during this time and many of the nations on the economic upswing were Protestant. In the Netherlands, the southern towns like Antwerp (where Catholicism was imposed by the Spanish) lost out to the growing economic power of the Protestant northern provinces as many refugees fled the Spanish wars to make new lives in places like Amsterdam. Those towns and provinces that prefered to do business rather than enforce religious purity on their subjects did better in the emerging modern world.

French Protestantism would never have amount to the potent social force it became if it had remained a religion of artisans. In the 1550s and 1560s, large numbers of noble elites were attracted to it. Calvin made a concerted effort to recruit them, sending Geneva-trained French evangelists into the country with a mission to influence the powerful decision-makers. Very often, these decision-makers were reached through the influence of their mothers and wives.

Marguerite de Navarre's early humanist patronage blossomed into a full-fledged Protestant conviction in her daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, the Queen of Navarre, Duchess d'Albret, Countess of Bearn and Vicomtesse of Foix. Jeanne brought along her waffling and opportunistic husband, Antoine de Bourbon, raised her son Henry de Navarre in the religion, and made the reformed faith the state religion in her territories. This rock of reform made for a powerful base in the Southwest, where the Huguenots enjoyed more popular support than anywhere else.

Among the other noteworthy converts were the Prince de Condé, another Bourbon and prince of the blood, and the Châtillon brothers: Gaspard de Coligny, Odet Cardinal de Châtillon (who never gave up his cardinal's hat), and François d'Andelot. Many of the nobles no doubt took this course out of opportunism, loyalty to their patrons, and similar motives, but some like Coligny seem to have been genuinely motivated by personal conscience. [Catherine de' Medici is reputed to have disliked Coligny because she couldn't understand a person who was not motivated by personal gain and self-interest.]

An elite group that was also initially attracted to the religion were the judges of the parliamentary courts. This was particularly threatening to the social order, and Henri II took steps to deal with it. One of the famous early Protestant martyrs was Anne du Bourg, a Protestant magistrate who defied the king in the Parliament of Paris and was burned for his intransigence in 1559. Signficantly, the charges were not just heresy but sedition and lese majesté. The year 1559 also saw the untimely death of Henri II, which set the stage for the transformation of the social issues of the Reformation into out and out civil war. (See Wars of Religion.)


This is by no means a work of theology, but the following tables compares a few of the key doctrinal issues separating the Protestants (specifically Calvinists) from the Catholics.
    Catholic (Council of Trent)
Justification by faith -- Christ's sacrifice atones for all sins, and it is only necessary to believe in it to be saved. There is nothing humans can do by their own efforts to add or detract from it. Both faith and good works (acts of devotion, charity, the sacraments, etc.) are necessary for salvation.
The priesthood of all believers -- all believers have equal access to God and no other earthly intermediaries are needed. This does not mean that the flock does not need teachers, but there are no special sacramental functions belonging to any particular class. The Catholic priesthood is necessary as only priests can perform the sacramentsnecessary for spirtual health and correctly interpret the meaning of scripture.
The scriptures as the only source of true doctrine -- studying and understanding the scriptures is therefore important to all believers. Translating the Bible into the vernacular tongues and making it available to all is essential. Scripture is only one way in which doctrine is revealed; the decisions of church councils, encyclicals from the Pope, tradition, etc. are all part of it. Only the priesthood of the church can correctly interpret the meaning of scripture -- do not try this at home.
Christ's sacrifice happend only once, and no repeat of that sacrifice is necessary. Although Calvinists and Lutherans believe God is present at the sacrament and it nourishes the faithful spiritually, the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Zwinglians take a more extreme view that the sacrament is only symbolic. Everyone takes both bread and wine. The Eucharist is a mystery in which the sacrifice of Christ is reenacted; the bread and wine become spiritually transformed into the true body and blood of the Lord (the doctrine of transubstantiation). Only priests partake of the wine and bread, the populace only takes the bread.
No heavenly intermediaries are needed to intercede with God. Atlhough the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels are all in heaven, they should not be the objects of prayer or veneration. The making of images encourages idolatrous worship that should be directed at the more abstract concept of God. Although the saints and angels should not be worshipped, their intercession is valuable and necessary to helping the Christian to achieve salvation. The Virgin Mary is especially honored by God, and should be also by believers. Religious images should not be worshipped, but they help to inspire devotion (these fine points were often lost on the average peasant).
God's foreknowledge and ominipotence mean that everyone is predestined to their fate: either to be or not to be one of the elect. Human action avails nothing. God's omnipotence does not restrict human will, and each individual is still responsible for earning their own salvation.
The Bible only documents two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper (so called to distinguish the Protestant practice from the Catholic Eucharist). No priestly status is required to perform them, although ministers to the church are necessary and useful to directing and guiding it. There are seven sacraments: baptism, Eucharist (see above), penance (confession/ absolution), confirmation, marriage, holy orders, extreme unction (last rites). Of these, baptism can be performed by anyone in an emergency, and marriage (a historical newcomer to the list) is technically bestowed by the two partners on one another -- all the rest can only be performed by a priest.

Web Resources:

  • The Protestant Reformation
  • The Catholic Reformation
  • The Devil and the Religious Controversies of Sixteenth Century France

  • Home to Poulet GaucheBibliography
    -c.t. iannuzzo