Dr. Edwin Bezzina of Grenfell’s program unit of Historical Studies is exploring Protestant-Catholic relations in sixteenth and seventeenth-century France as part of a book project this summer. Specifically, Dr. Bezzina is examining the community of Loudun from 1560 to 1640 during and after a time of religious conflict known as the French Wars of Religion.
“In the first half of that period, France was embroiled in a very difficult period of religious civil war,”
“I’m looking at how this religious civil war was experienced at the local level.”
The Wars of Religion resulted from tensions between French Protestants and Catholics and are estimated to have cost somewhere between two and four million lives. Not a single conflict, but rather a series of conflicts, these wars also involved the public, the French nobility, and religious institutions, as well as foreign powers such as England and Spain that were sympathetic to either the Protestant or Catholic causes. Religious orthodoxy played a significant role in stoking the tensions of the period, as few people prior to the wars could foresee the possibility of people with differing interpretations of the Bible coexisting. The dominant mindset at the time held that a kingdom should only have one religion and one denomination of that religion, as Dr. Bezzina explains:
“Protestantism was very much a persecuted religion in France, a minority religion, seen as an aberration. But in Loudun the governor of the town was Protestant. It was heavily fortified… It had high walls, it had towers, but the governor was Protestant and so was the garrison, and that actually determined the kind of reactions the town would experience in response to what was going on at the national level.”
Dr. Bezzina’s work on Loudun includes a detailed study of family interactions, commercial exchange, intermarriage, and genealogical connections during the conflict and in the following period of recovery . The end goal is to determine the level of religious coexistence and religious accommodation within the community. This summer he is examining two specific aspects of the community’s history; commercial interactions and instances of direct conflict.
Property and Trust
The commercial interactions being studied focus on contracts involving the sale of property between Catholics and Protestants in the community during the period, from which it is possible to gain significant insight into the community’s levels of religious coexistence in the past. These contracts, by their nature, meant that Catholics and Protestants had to rely on one another.
“The reason why these contracts are important is because there’s a level of trust imbedded in them. The amount is not paid up front; it’s paid over a period of time. The seller of the property has to depend on the buyer to uphold the conditions of the agreement… The other aspect of these sales that’s interesting is that each property at the time was in what’s called a fief, and the property owner had to pay feudal dues, a kind of property tax, to the feudal seigneur or the lord who had jurisdiction over the fief. The ‘feudal lord’ could, in many cases, be a monastery and in this case it’s interesting because property being sold to Protestants could exist within the fief of a [Catholic] monastery.”
These contracts also help to reveal the level of literacy in the community, even the differing levels of literacy between Protestants and Catholics. Participants would either sign the documents or would have to declare an inability to sign, to some extent providing evidence as to which participants could write and which could not. Literacy could in turn reflect the impact of religious differences, where Protestants were encouraged by their denomination to learn to read and write so that they could read the Bible for themselves.
Sales contracts can even help plot out the city and show where people were living and if residential patterns evolved along religious lines.
“Houses didn’t have numbers on them like they do today. At the time, the way people located a house on a contract was that they listed all the neighbors around you, like on either side or in front, often with their socio-professional status. Thus I have all this great information on the neighbors and where everyone lives… I can build up the social configuration of the town… were there areas that were dominated by Catholics, or areas where Protestants were ghettoized?”
Religious Violence and Concord
The other aspect of the research that Dr. Bezzina will be focussing in on this summer revolves around direct instances of conflict in the community between Catholics and Protestants. These instances often involved troops from passing Protestant or Catholic forces, who had camped or based themselves near Loudun, entering the community and causing havoc.
“I’m looking at the actual riots, the instances of conflict… To see how the wars themselves were not only being fought close by, by major armies composed of tens of thousands of soldiers, but also how those wars spilled over into Loudun itself. This aspect of the research is more about the history of events.”
This story isn’t only one of conflict. The research focusses on the efforts made to generate tolerance between the two denominations in Loudun as well as the clashes that they suffered. Indeed, Dr. Bezzina sees the story of Loudun as having lessons for modern day religious conflict and intolerance that could be further explored by other researchers in fields such as political science.
“There are some bright spots, too. In 1580 the Protestant and Catholic elites signed a pledge that they would try to live in peace and concord, to try to avoid religious violence, and I’m trying to find evidence to explain what motivated that pledge. It’s a beautiful document… It’s an intriguing example of how over 400 years ago people living in a period of civil and religious turmoil could still make a pledge to try to live in peace and next to each other, to prevent religious violence. In many ways it has a lesson for us today.”
Dr. Bezzina expects the project will take some time to complete and tries to mix up the type of work he does to keep the process from becoming too repetitive. He is hoping to finish data entry by the end of the summer but still has 400 sales contracts to go through, with each taking about one to two hours to process and analyze. In previous years he finished working on the tax records, marriage contracts, wills, parish records, and church documents relevant to the project.
“It’s in French what one would call un projet [project] de longue haleine. Longue haleine meaning ‘take a deep breath.’ So, I’m gonna be at it for a while.”
Written and edited by Conor Curtis; Additional editing by Dr. Edwin Bezzina