The following is an excerpt from Thomas Cahill’s book Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. Cahill joined Bill Moyers to talk about the role of religion in our lives, the rediscoveries of the classics during the Renaissance and Reformation, as well as the ascendance of Christopher Columbus.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus articulates the norm by which his true disciples may be identified: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Christians seem to have followed this norm even as late as the early third century, if we are to credit the testimony of the early African theologian Tertullian, who describes the surprise of the pagans of the Roman empire in their encounters with contemporary Christians: “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).”
Verbal and physical sparring, tracking down heretics, putting whole communities to the sword, the very public (and insanely cruel) burning of supposed heretics — all these activities grew slowly, intermittently and regionally over the course of the medieval centuries, Europe’s avowedly Christian centuries. But in the 16th century, the inter-Christian violence grew exponentially. Open-air burnings became more common and more elaborate liturgically: comfortable, curtained boxes would be provided for local lords and higher clergy; colorfully vested bishops and priests (or severely vested reformed ministers), often assisted by acolytes or other lesser ecclesial servants, would process about as if engaged in a service in a church sanctuary; a preacher would mount a specially constructed pulpit to sermonize the condemned and terrify the spectators, for whom temporary stadium seats had been constructed; the condemned prisoners would be paraded in their dunce’s hats; the ghoulish conclusion, anticipated by all, would be public torture by fire, ending in horrifying death. Why burning, rather than, say, hanging or decapitation? Because the great Christian promise, the hope of all believers, was physical resurrection at the end of time — and you couldn’t be resurrected if you had no body, could you? The promise of the waking of the dead and their rising from their graves must not be permitted to heretics.
And now, as whole regions, whole kingdoms even, were in the course of adopting “heretical” beliefs (or recommitting themselves to their traditional “heretical” beliefs) — and as princes and other political lords and leaders saw that land grabs and even more subtle, more fully compassing modes of political domination could be ascribed to pious religious motives — the occasional conflict of Christian against Christian progressed swiftly to bloody regional clashes and thence to unforgiving national wars, a state of affairs that Europe would hardly attempt to forsake till the bleak period of unavoidable reflection that would follow the global disaster of World War II. Let’s draw our swords and kill all the Others — all the heretics, all their spouses, all their children, for all these are hopelessly compromised by their invincible wrongheadedness and their perverted commitments.
No epitome of the conflicts that wracked Europe from the 1560s to the middle of the 17th century could possibly account for the needless suffering that men inflicted on their fellow men and on the women and children trapped in these hostilities. So I shall not try. We pause briefly only to bow our heads in the direction of a few glaringly unavoidable highlights.
In our appreciation of Rabelais, we had occasion to note that, though he had a naysayer’s spirit, he had little or no access to the company of men like Luther. By the time of Rabelais’s death in 1553, such contact was becoming more feasible for a Frenchman. In fact, less than a decade after Rabelais died, the first of the French Wars of Religion commenced. By the usual count there would be seven more of these throughout the century, though it is also possible to view them as one nearly continuous war.
The wars (or war) were partly made possible by a continuing weakness in the French monarchy of this period: a series of kings were underage or ill or ineffective. This continuing intergenerational weakness permitted powerful lesser lords to grow ever more powerful, asserting their rights against one another as the royal family, the House of Valois, stood helplessly by. Though there were many lords involved in many clashes, the two leading families were the Bourbons and the Guise, neither of which intended to cede anything to the other. The Valois were religiously and temperamentally moderate, Catholic by tradition but humanistic and intellectually open. Their leader and the source of their continuity was the widowed queen mother, the durable Italian Catherine de’ Medici, who, sometimes serving as regent, did her best to protect the king of the moment but who also got a great chortle out of reading aloud from the most outrageous Protestant propaganda, which assaulted her mercilessly. The France from which Calvin had had to exile himself was becoming an increasingly fruitful field for Protestantism of the Calvinist variety, thanks especially to operational planning initiated by the well-organized Calvin himself.
The Bourbons saw themselves as championing their fellow Huguenots, which is how French Calvinists were then designated (though no one today is entirely certain of the origin of the designation). Huguenots were suddenly everywhere, accounting for more than half of all the nobility, who worshipped in more than a thousand Huguenot churches in the company of two million of their fellow Calvinists.
The Guise were exceedingly aggressive and self-righteous super-Catholics. Though Catherine had reason to distrust both factions, the Guise gave her nightmares. In early 1562, Guise retainers, opposed to concessions the crown had made to Huguenots, surrounded a worship service in Champagne and massacred all the people at prayer, who, in conformity with the king’s edict of limited toleration, had assembled outside the walls of their town. (Whether or not the worshipping Huguenots were in strict conformity with the king’s wishes remains a point of some contention.) In the course of the melee, the Duke of Guise was accidentally cut on his cheek. His followers, seeing this, became enraged and set off through the town, Wassy-sur-Blaise, killing every human being they could find.
The precipitating incident was the murder of the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny by the Duke of Guise and his men. Coligny was an ally of the young king, and the Guise party afterward claimed that they feared Coligny was about to stage a coup. The outrages to which they subjected the admiral’s dead body — castration and other mutilations, suspension from a public gallows, burning — suggest that Guise’s fears were ineradicably mixed with the vengeful hatred of the classical tyrant. Certainly, his example stoked up the fears and rage of the Catholic partisans, who repeated their horrifying butchery throughout France, having been given leave to enact the worst nightmares that human beings are capable of. Both Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XIII, relying on the intelligence that a Protestant coup had been frustrated, ordered bells to be tolled, Te Deums to be sung, festivals to be celebrated.
Though Gregory was hardly the worst of popes, his blessing of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, along with his strong encouragement of Philip II’s invasion of England (and, following the failure of the Spanish Armada, the papal plots to assassinate Elizabeth), gave him the reputation of a depraved monster in Protestant Europe. It is not surprising that the Protestant countries refused to accept his (very necessary) reform of the Julian calendar, thus initiating a long period of confusion in which different countries kept different calendars.
The French war(s) did not end with the infamous massacre but continued through five additional and consistently bloody phases, ending only after the “War of the Three Henrys.” Catherine de’ Medici’s sole surviving son, Henry III, was king. With no issue at hand, Henry knew that, in accordance with the Salic law of France, the crown should pass to his Bourbon cousin Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot. Knowing also that Paris, in particular, would never accept a Protestant king, King Henry tried to convince his cousin to convert to Catholicism but was unsuccessful in his attempts. A third Henry, Duke of Guise, militant leader of the militant Catholic League, was certain to stand against Henry of Navarre’s accession, no matter his formal adherence. So the king had Henry of Guise killed, after which he himself was fatally knifed by a sneaky Dominican.
The war that followed was a seesawing conflict between Henry of Navarre’s forces and those of the Catholic League. Huguenot Henry, a keen and courageous cock of the walk, gradually realized that his royal cousin had been right: he would never gain Paris unless he was Catholic. So, with the warm encouragement of his favorite mistress, he shrugged and became a Catholic, saying (or so legend would have us believe), “Paris vaut bien une messe” (“Paris is worth a mass”). As Henry IV he would reign vigorously and skillfully for more than two decades, establishing freedom of religion under the Edict of Nantes and bestowing peace and its benefits on his previously divided country. But in 1610 he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic (and failed Jesuit) named Ravaillac. The Catholic League had tried repeatedly to end Henry’s life. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has written, “With one major assassination attempt a year, the murderous persistence of their religious zeal would have won admiration in the 1990s from devotees of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie.”
The peace that fell on France, thanks to a king who was Huguenot, Catholic and very smart, would now fail by degrees, as France would be pulled back and forth by conflicts beyond its borders. Europeans had long specialized in interminable wars. The late Middle Ages had witnessed the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Even now, as Henry of Navarre’s son, Louis XIII, ascended the French throne, the Spanish and the Dutch were in the midst of their Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) over the religious destiny of the Netherlands. And less than a decade after the assassination of Henry, the Thirty Years’ War would start up, involving most of Europe in bloody disputes over religion and territory — or, rather, starting with religion and ending in territory, ending indeed in 1648 with no one among the exhausted combatants able to articulate persuasively why they had been fighting each other for thirty years. In battles too numerous to name, Catholic forces had gradually won back some territories — such as Bohemia, the lower Netherlands (now Belgium), parts of Germany, even parts of France — that had been previously ceded to Protestants. With few exceptions, the results established the map of Europe as it stands today. But no one will ever be able to begin to account for the blood that was shed.
Even though Julius II in the time of Michelangelo was the only pope to ride armed into battle, many of the popes and other bishops continued to affect a warrior stance toward the designated heretics of their moment; and many of the Protestant leaders followed suit. Zwingli, for instance, clad like Julius in full armor, was cut down in a battle with Swiss Catholics, whom he had made desperate by imposing an economic blockade. Jesus’s blessing on “the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9) was hardly the most frequently quoted biblical text of the 16th century. Indeed, except among the universally reviled Anabaptists, the notion of peacemaking was hardly mentioned. Looking back, one might wonder why it never occurred to the war makers that they should be called the children of Hell.
Excerpted with permission from Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, by Thomas Cahill (October 29, 2013 from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).