Stuart Carroll’s work casts aristocratic families as important agents of cultural, religious, and political change in the sixteenth century. This book is truly a pleasure to read. Specialists will appreciate Carroll’s profound knowledge of the period and his rehabilitation of the Guise, although they may long for a more robust scholarly apparatus. Non-specialists will be treated to a narrative richness whose accessibility makes available to a wide audience the author’s scholarly contributions to European history in general.
Stylistically, Carroll aims to attract a popular history readership while accomplishing important academic heavy lifting. He achieves this masterfully. Elaborated below, his scholarly contributions center on the importance of aristocratic families and their complex patronage and clientage networks to the transmission of new political and religious ideas. Instruments of historical interpretation, these grand noble families articulated and executed their own political agendas, a fact that complicated the operation of political power in France, and indeed in Europe more broadly. Understanding the values and objectives of these aristocratic families, therefore, can help explain the circuitous course of the religious wars in France, and the constitutional crises of the 1580s and 90s.
Concerning his methodology, Carroll from time to time attempts to reconstruct the personality and mentalités of the subjects of his narrative. For example, he describes what would have been the mindset of Duke Francis (1519–63) at the massacre of Wassy (1562). Because the Edict of Toleration earlier that year had forbidden Protestant worship in the town, the duke took the meeting as not only an affront to his aristocratic honor, but as insurrection. Whereas the Guise had long strived for reforming the institutions of the Catholic church while maintaining warm correspondence with local Protestant grandees, insurrection—especially when propagated by the lower classes—was an outrage that demanded a physical response, lest disorder infect the body politic and sully family honor.
Carroll advances four theses in this monograph. First, he asserts that the sort of militant anti-Protestant ethos that has come to characterize the Guise was not originally a salient feature of the family’s religious platform, and came to the fore only when the family concluded that allying with the religious moderates was no longer politically tenable. The Guisard strategy entailed extending the boundaries of orthodoxy to include Protestants. If the church could include them in the doctrinal fold, then heresy would cease to exist, thereby eliminating the need to prosecute it. To facilitate a doctrinal rapprochement, the Cardinal of Lorraine (1525–1574), Francis’s brother, sponsored a Parisian salon where “Erasmian,” or “evangelical,” Catholics (Carroll’s words) discussed a reforming program that included practicing an ardent Christocentric piety, eliminating certain extra-biblical religious practices, and translating the Bible into French (39, 133). Despite the efforts to facilitate dialogue, three separate failures at doctrinal compromise with the radical faction of Protestants at Fontainebleau (1560), Poissy (1561), and Saverne (1562) forced Lorraine to conclude that the only hope for achieving doctrinal concord lay in the Council of Trent. Of course, there the conservative Catholic faction would convince Lorraine to [End Page 170] advocate certain modes of Catholic piety that would alienate Protestants. Ultimately, the Guise would abandon their approach, owing in part to Catherine de Medici’s insistence on a policy of tolerance, a stance that shaped the impasse as comprising two irreconcilable confessions (156). With the murder of Francis in 1563 and the increasing violence in the kingdom, the Guise converted to the ultra-Catholic cause.
Second, non-royal dynastic interests played a much more significant role in shaping the evolution of early modern politics and the Reformation than previously imagined. Carroll underscores the family’s extensive clientage network that extended throughout Western Europe. Furthermore, he demonstrates how the rivalry between the Guise and other French aristocratic families, like the Montmorency and Bourbon-Vendôme, shaped decision-making at court. Because he makes aristocratic families into objects of historical analysis, Carroll spends many pages early on establishing how the Guise acquired their status. He also attempts to construct a...