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  • Peace and Authority during the French Religious Wars, c. 1560–1600 by Penny Roberts
  • Frederic J. Baumgartner
Peace and Authority during the French Religious Wars, c. 1560–1600. By Penny Roberts. ( New York: Palgrave. 2013. Pp xiv, 264. $85.00. ISBN 978-1-137-32674-4.)

This book’s author believes in the adage “it is easier to make war than to make peace,” demonstrating its truth in this thorough study of the process of peacemaking during the French Wars of Religion. From the beginning of organized violence in 1562, the French monarchy sought to find a modus vivendi between Catholics and Huguenots that would end the fighting and achieve a permanent peace. After each period of civil war, the crown issued an edict of pacification that was expected to end the violence and reintegrate the two religious groups in a peaceful realm under royal authority. It took eight periods of civil war and eight edicts of pacification over thirty-six years before a permanent peace was achieved.

Roberts concentrates on the monarchy’s efforts to make the edicts of pacification work in the face of the extensive resistance they encountered. The edicts were intended to provide for limited toleration for the Huguenots until they could be persuaded to reunite to the Catholic Church; the kings were always firm believers in the dictum “One Faith, One Law, One King,” and that one faith was Catholicism. That assumption underlay one flaw in royal policy: since the Huguenots also expected that their one true faith would be the sole one allowed in the realm, they were not prepared to make the concessions that the monarchy wanted from them to make the edicts effective. Certainly most Catholics were not willing to accept even the limited toleration provided in the edicts. Thus the pattern was established for more than three decades: a relatively brief period of violence ended by an edict of pacification, followed by a brief period of peace or near-peace, then another outbreak of war.

The author devotes close attention to the royal practice of sending out commissioners to see to enforcement of the edicts. Based on extensive archival research, it is the most original aspect of the book. Chosen largely from royal officials with strong legal backgrounds who had already proven their loyalty to the monarch, they were given an almost impossible task. They were too few to cover the realm effectively and confronted entrenched local authorities—whether nobles or urban elites, Catholics or Huguenots—who refused to accept any diminution of their prerogatives. [End Page 657]

An especially trying issue was finding sites for Protestant worship and cemeteries. The Huguenots were adamant that a peace settlement providing no local sites for worship and places to bury their beloved dead was not worthy of being obeyed, whereas Catholics were equally determined to prevent “heretical pollution” from desecrating their sacred space. Roberts demonstrates the extreme difficulties of the commissioners in trying to negotiate between two such mutually exclusive positions, and until 1598 they largely failed. A second major problem created by the edicts developed out of the clauses that required all injuries suffered during the violence be forgotten. That was especially difficult for the nobles, who often carried on blood feuds for generations; they were quick to return to arms to take revenge for prior injuries.

Roberts concludes that despite the three decades of failed edicts of pacification, they helped to prepare the way for the final and, for a time, largely successful Edict of Nantes of 1598. She shows that Henry IV drew extensively on the previous ones for his and also recognized where they had failed and thus how to fashion a more effective one. She argues also that although the traditional view presents the monarchy’s policy as largely incoherent and vacillating, it was in fact highly consistent in seeking peace, albeit unsuccessfully until 1598. Ultimately, she proposes, the monarchy’s peacemaking efforts strengthened the monarchy by creating a royal presence throughout the realm through the use of the royal commissions, helping to create the absolutism of the next century.

This is an erudite book, based largely on an impressive range of archival sources. At times...


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