- The Huguenots by Geoffrey Treasure
The Huguenots and their troubled history have been the subject of countless scholarly as well as popular accounts. The present survey, directed primarily toward an informed public audience, concentrates on time-honored political, military, and religious themes. It offers a detailed narrative of the Huguenots in France from the beginning of the Reformation through the early-eighteenth century. As such, Geoffrey Treasure provides a helpful synthesis of substantial recent, principally Englishlanguage scholarship on the subject. The approach also means that, somewhat regrettably, he tends not to introduce new sources, explore fresh topics, or pursue original methodologies by which the Huguenot experience might be better understood and interpreted. This is, nonetheless, a highly readable and engaging book.
Treasure organizes the material chronologically, dividing the Huguenot past into five major epochs, to each of which he gives a particular focus. Thus, the study begins with an overview of France and the sixteenth-century disruption of its political and religious order. What was the kingdom’s political constitution, the character of late-medieval Christianity, and the challenge posed by John Calvin and the Reformed movement? Treasure then launches into the heart of the matter. This second section poses several basic questions. How did Reformed communities go about establishing churches and asserting political and, more especially, military power? What did it mean to be a Huguenot, and how did a political-military party coalesce for the movement’s defense? The breakpoint for everyone, Reformed and Catholic alike, was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 1572. Part 3 [End Page 938] traces the kingdom’s dissolution into utter chaos in the wake of this horrific tragedy. Only by the end of the sixteenth century was King Henri IV able to restore peace. The Edict of Nantes (1598) granted the Huguenots civil status, legal protections, and the right to worship openly. Still, King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu would crush their political and military influence by the late 1620s. The next section examines the ensuing decades, which in Treasure’s words constituted a “golden age” (p. 269), although one with a dark underside. Huguenot talents in the arts and literature, commerce and artisan pursuits flourished despite unrelenting Catholic and royal pressure. These French Protestants also maintained and deepened a well-disciplined and committed community of faith. Finally, whatever the mix of accomplishment and frustration, the Huguenot world came crashing down by the 1680s. King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) offered few and unpleasant choices. Many Huguenots—Treasure estimates 200,000—famously fled the kingdom. A few such as the Camisards took up arms in open revolt. Others surely assimilated over time into Catholic society, but most hunkered down and endured.
Treasure’s interpretative framework clearly highlights heroism and moral purpose—longstanding virtues associated with the Huguenots. Their struggle for survival amid unrelenting, frequently savage persecution lent them great strength. They simultaneously become archetypically modern in their efforts to secure civil rights, exercise a right to worship, and enjoy full protection as a religious minority. None of this is inaccurate, and the Huguenots are wholly deserving of our respect and admiration. Still, the story told here would have benefited from greater nuance and a more balanced assessment of the complexities of the Huguenot situation. What, for example, were the internal dynamics of the community? How did ordinary members of the local congregations cope with the stressful changes? In the end, this is a comprehensive and accessible, if largely conventional, account of the place and importance of the Huguenots in the European and ultimately broader Atlantic past.