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La Réforme en France et en Italie

Philip Benedict
Silvana Seidel Menchi
Alain Tallon

Session IV. Élites et Réforme

Elites and Reform in France and Italy

Philip Benedict

Texte intégral

1The papers grouped here under the rubric of « elites and reform » draw attention to some of the most important differences in both the history and the historiography of what we can call for the sake of convenience the French and Italian Reformations. In the domain of historical explanation, their comparison raises some of the largest questions provoked by the confrontation of two national histories attempted in this volume. In both France and Italy, the story begins in similar fashion, with evangelical ideas attracting significant interest from members of leading families throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. Then, between 1542 and 1566, the wind turned decisively against the Italian spirituali. Even the princely states and urban republics where evangelical currents gained their most significant support never saw any moves to implement a territorial reformation of the kind enacted in so many comparable German polities throughout the Holy Roman Empire – and in Béarn. In France, on the other hand, the first period of diffuse evangelicalism was succeeded by a second stage of intense agitation to replace the established church structures with entirely different ones, agitation that disproportionately engaged the adhesion of France’s aristocrats and urban elites, and that eventuated in short-lived urban reformations in several dozen major cities as well as the princely reformation in Béarn. To what extent these different outcomes after apparently similar beginnings were due either to the nature of the reform currents embraced by the elites in each region, to the different geo-strategic situation in which they found themselves, or to tighter family and financial links to the established church and the Roman Curia on the part of the Italian elites that made them less willing to envisage their overthrow, have been themes that the historians of both countries have reflected upon without usually casting them in explicitly comparative terms.

2In the domain of historiography, meanwhile, the different focus of the papers on Italy and France epitomizes the very different character and orientation of the historical literature devoted to each country. Hugues Daussy explores the reaction of France’s elites « face à la Réforme » by focusing on two analytical problems : (1.) what attitudes and policies did members of the royal family assume with regard to the new ideas ? ; and (2.) what motivated such an important fraction of the French nobility and urban elites to rally to the Protestant cause once an important organized network of Reformed churches took shape around 1560 ? These questions do not even appear in the papers of John J. Martin and Pierroberto Scaramella, who instead offer rich panoramas of the diffusion of ideas that the Roman church came with time to define as heterodox among Italy’s elites, focusing mainly on the period before 1560.

  • 1 L. Romier, Les origines politiques des guerres de religion, Paris, 1913 ; Le royaume de Cathérine (...)
  • 2 R. J. Knecht, Francis I, ’Defender of the Faith’ ? in E. W. Ives, R. J. Knecht and J. J. Scarisbri (...)

3To a degree, of course, every country gets the historiography it deserves. Later generations of historians concentrate their attention on the aspects of a country’s history that generated the most intense and contentious subsequent memories. They also gravitate to where the documentation is especially rich. The literature about the French Reformation concentrates heavily on the period from 1555 or 1560 forward and has shown in recent years a particular concern with the sociology of religious conversion and the causes of religious violence. This is because the evidence about who was drawn to Protestant ideas becomes particularly clear and abundant only once formal Reformed churches take shape, and because the drama and significance of the Wars of Religion inevitably draws research toward this period. Furthermore, ever since the early part of the 20th century, the question of what drove the many noblemen who became involved with the Protestant cause to side with that cause has been at the heart of thinking about the origins of the wars of religion thanks to the influential work of Lucien Romier. For Romier, Calvinism was a peaceful movement respectful of the established political and social order until it came under the control of a fraction of the nobility that saw in the cause an opportunity to satisfy its taste for warfare, advance family and clan interests, and recoup the economic losses suffered over the preceding generation1. Since he wrote, those who have examined the relationship between the nobility and the Protestant cause have tended to focus their investigation around the problem of whether or not aristocratic conversion and involvement in the civil wars can indeed be explained by the sorts of economic and clientage concerns Romier highlighted. In this domain the recent tendency to put religion back into the wars of religion has tended to amount to little more than saying that neither a family’s economic situation nor its clientage ties can fully explain the patterns of conversion that can be observed, and thus that religious concerns must have been important, without specifying what they actually were. The question of what drove royal policy with regard to heresy has also been of interest to some historians of France, since it is obviously so central to the story of the reception of biblical humanism and Protestantism in the country. The most important contributions here have come from Francis I’s English biographer R. J. Knecht, undoubtedly alerted to the importance of examining and explaining a king’s religious values and policies by familiarity with the historiography of the English Reformation, where this is so important to understanding the course of events2.

4Meanwhile, on the other side of the Alps, the Protestant movement never was politicized in the same way that it was in France and never gave rise to the same kind of aristocratic involvement in civil war that both allows historians to identify large number of Protestant nobles and raises insistent questions about their motivations for becoming involved in the wars. At least for those parts of the peninsula that fell under Habsburg control, the question of what shaped princely responses to Protestantism has also seemed to involved few mysteries, since Habsburg religious policies are assumed to be well known. Instead, attention naturally turns here to the different circles of patricians drawn to different visions of church reform, the struggles between them to control the direction of the church both at its center, in Rome, and in each territory within the peninsula, and the nature of heresy in all of its different manifestations as revealed by the rich inquisitorial records. Here all those interested in the nature of the modern church and the hold of the church on Italian society can both recover and explore alternatives to the Tridentine model of Roman Catholicism and seek to understand how and why a certain model of doctrine and ecclesiastical authority came to triumph. Attention focuses on the period prior to 1566, when the critical struggles to define the future course of the church took place.

5The different focus of the papers dealing with France and Italy is thus comprehensible. It nonetheless complicates the rapporteur’s task. While each of these three papers summarize well the extant literature, they do not furnish all the elements necessary for a systematic comparison of the response of French and Italian political elites to the spread of the new religious currents in sixteenth-century Europe, since they cover different ground. Instead, their very different orientations call attention to the gaps in the historiography of the other country. Only when these have been filled will it be possible to offer more than preliminary speculation about why elite involvement in the French and Italian Reformations followed such different courses.

  • 3 P. Imbart de la Tour, Les origines de la Réforme, Paris, 1905-35, III, p. 377-378.
  • 4 W. Monter, Judging the French Reformation : Heresy Trials by Sixteenth-Century Parlements, Cambrid (...)
  • 5 On Antoine de Pons and Anne de Parthenay, see E. and E. Haag, La France Protestante, VIII, p. 287  (...)

6One virtue of systematic historical comparison lies precisely in the fact that it can draw attention to dogs that did not bark in the night- and not merely to things that did not happen in one country as they did in another, but also to problems or phenomena different from those usually foregrounded by a single country’s historiography. One such topic is the extent and character of aristocratic religious heterodoxy for the period prior to 1555. If Daussy’s paper does not explore this issue, it is because it has scarcely been studied for France. To be sure, the sources are far less rich than they are for Italy, since minutes of the interrogation of heresy suspects rarely survive. There is no French equivalent to the archives of the Roman Inquisition. Still, scattered bits of evidence show that heterodox opinions began to circulate among the French nobility or high robe well before the later 1550s, when François d’Andelot was imprisoned for his beliefs and Anne Du Bourg executed. As early as 1530, a group of noble men and women in Picardy were denounced to the Parlement of Paris for supporting schoolmasters and preachers who attacked purgatory, the cult of the saints, auricular confession, and the mandatory fasts of the church. One of them, the seigneur de Cardonnet, was accused of publicly advocating clerical marriage, and of telling female religious who requested alms to get married and earn their living properly instead3. In 1542, two Norman noblemen were put to death by the parlements of Paris and Bordeaux for « blasphemous and heretical speech » and « seditious blasphemy ». Their heresies must have been extreme, for noblemen usually received preferential treatment from the French courts in heresy cases4. In the entourage of Renée de France in Ferrara, the leading figures typically identified by historians as « Calvinists » included Antoine de Pons, count of Marennes, and his wife Anne de Parthenay. After they were forced to return to France in 1545, they patronized such figures as Bernard Palissy and Yves Rouspeau from their estates in Saintonge5.

  • 6 The possibilities are suggested by studies such as D. Nicholls, The Nature of Popular Heresy in Fr (...)
  • 7 L. Chatenay, La vie intellectuelle en Aunis et en Saintonge de 1550 à 1660, La Rochelle, 1959, p. (...)

7If historians have yet to explore in detail the specific religious convictions and actions of these aristocrats and others like them, it is not simply because the sources are limited. More could unquestionably be squeezed from the laconic source material, and more effort deployed to locate further sources6. Two deeper problems have also obscured the character and extent of aristocratic support for new religious currents in sixteenth-century France. The first is the prevailing set of images that dominate our understanding of the sixteenth-century aristocracy and the absence of good empirical studies of aristocratic culture and sociability in this period. When scholarship about Italy uncovers for us heterodox cenacoli or networks involving members of the social elites, it is easy for us to imagine the kinds of meetings at which the ideas in question might have been discussed, for historians has given us a pretty clear picture of patterns of aristocratic sociability in sixteenth-century Italy, whether at the courts of the peninsula, in the academies proliferating at this time in so many cities, or in confraternities. For France, the situation is quite otherwise. Studies of court life tell us that attendance at mass was part of the daily ritual of members of the royal family. Literary texts such as Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptameron offer a glimpse of the pastimes of a rustic court – but how much of what they reveal is the product of literary convention rather than social observation ? Otherwise, our stock images of the sixteenth-century aristocracy are so dominated by the vision of the gentilhomme campagnard or the warrior noble that it is hard even to imagine how evangelical ideas or interests could be grafted onto noble lifestyles. When a literary historian tells us that around mid-century a number of noble families of Saintonge, beginning with the provincial governor Antoine de Pons, « founded little learned courts on the model of the one created by Louise de Savoie in Cognac »7, it is hard to envisage exactly what this could mean, much less what the religious practice of the members of these « courts » drawn to evangelical ideas might have consisted of. Until we understand the cultural history of French aristocratic and urban elites in this period as well as earlier generations of studies have allowed us to understand their economic and social history, we will lack the appropriate context for making sense of the evidence that exists about their religiosity.

  • 8 At least according to the Mémoires de Condé, London, 1743, IV, p. 118 ; also Histoire ecclésiastiq (...)

8The second problem that has discouraged detailed investigation of the character of elite heterodoxy in the years prior to 1560 has been the tendency of so many historians of French Protestantism to see these years simply as those of the gestation of the movement that would emerge in full force after that date and to locate the driving force of the movement in Calvin’s ideas, so that those connected with them tend unproblematically to be categorized as « Calvinists » rather than treated as individual thinkers or religious actors in their own right, who might have appropriated some of Calvin’s ideas, rejected others, and drawn inspiration from other sources as well. This tendency derives in no small measure from the writings of Calvin and Beza themselves, who were quick to divide the world between those who had seen the light of Christian truth and those who had not, and who treated those who lent them a measure of support for a while but then broke with them as apostates and dogs who returned to their vomit. For the years prior to the creation of a network of formal Reformed churches within France and their adoption of a common confession of faith, however, it seems at once anachronistic and far too simple to speak of individuals being « converted » to something identified implicitly or explicitly as « Protestantism » or « Calvinism », as older generations of historians of French Protestantism explicitly did, and some current ones still seem to tend unconsciously to do. It seems far more important that we attempt to understand, to the extent that it is possible, both the specific religious convictions of those elite individuals drawn into the orbit of the different currents of evangelical innovation and what it meant according to prevailing cultural codes for them to lend public support to clerics or scholars of noteworthy piety or learning. Only thus will we be able to understand the biography of figures like Antoine de Pons, who despite his apparent support for « Calvinist » ideas in the 1540s and 1550s ended up fighting against the Huguenots in 1562, or – to take a more prominent individual yet – Anthony of Navarre, who followed a somewhat similar course only to state on his deathbed his attachment to the Augsburg Confession8. And more importantly for present purposes, only after we have gained a more accurate sense of the precise currents of opinion circulating among aristocratic evangelicals in France as well as Italy in the years prior to 1560 will we be able to make effective comparisons between the two countries.

  • 9 B. Collett, Long and Troubled Pilgrimage... cit. n. 5, p. 20-21.

9In the absence of better studies of this subject, any observations about the reasons why aristocratic support for new religious currents of the sixteenth century followed a different course in Italy from France must be tentative. A few remarks can still be ventured and some additional avenues for further research indicated. One feature of Italian heterodoxy that recent scholarship has particularly emphasized as a key reason why the cause of religious reformation never became politicized in the same way that it did in France is the influence of Juan Valdés and his disciples within Italian evangelical circles. This is especially evident in Pierroberto Scaramella’s account of events within the kingdom of Naples. With its mystically inspired encouragement of the cultivation of inner faith, its depreciation of the importance of external ceremonies, its relative lack of concern for fine points of dogma, and its willingness to lend itself to a Nicodemite stance, it did not encourage rupture with the established religious order in the same way that Calvin’s fierce attacks on Roman ritual as blasphemy did. To the extent that it was far more central to Italian heterodoxy than comparable ideas were to French heterodoxy, it surely would have led Italian religious dissent down a different course from French. But here is where our relative ignorance of the range and force of different currents within early French evangelical circles comes into play. Barry Collett’s recent study of the correspondence between Marguerite of Navarre and Vittoria Colonna, conventionally seen as one of Valdés’s chief disciples, hypothesizes that a distinctive theology of the Holy Spirit that saw the Spirit as « a solution to the problem of the lukewarm church » developed in France in the 1520s in the circles of Marguerite and Guillaume Briçonnet and spread from there into Italy9. If his hypothesis is correct and such a view can be shown to have been widespread in early French evangelical circles, especially aristocratic ones, or if Valdés’s ideas circulated in France as well as Italy – a question that has not to the best of my knowledge ever been seriously investigated – the Italian situation may be less distinctive and less different from the French than it is currently assumed.

  • 10 The best study of the hold of one of these families over the church is J. A. Bergin, The Decline a (...)
  • 11 B. M. Hallman, Italian Cardinals, Reform, and the Church as Property, 1499-1563, Berkeley, 1985.

10A second reason that historians have often adduced to explain why Italian elites were less prompt to envisage breaking with the Roman church lies in the strong material interests that bound them to the church. This is a thesis that cries out for systematic international comparison to verify its validity. French aristocratic families were also closely tied to the church. The three greatest noble families of sixteenth century France, the Bourbons, the Guises, and the Montmorencys, alll boasted cardinals among their kin, controlled multiple benefices, and derived substantial income from ecclesiastical revenues10. This did not stop certain of their members, including the Cardinal Odet de Châtillon, from embracing the Protestant cause after 1558. At the same time, studies of the Papal curia show that the hold of Italian families over the key positions at the center of the church, always great, grew greater still as the sixteenth century advanced. Furthermore, most aspects of the calls to eliminate pluralism, simony and nepotism from the church that sounded so insistently in reform documents of the early decades of the sixteenth century were conveniently forgotten in the course of actually implementing church reform. The possibility of simultaneously holding more than one bishopric was eliminated, but multiple abbotships, resignations in favor, the appointment of coadjutors, lavish pensions, and the steering of banking contracts to family members all flourished, creating a system whose possibilities for enriching relatives came to be epitomized in the institution of the cardinal nephew. For the families able to suck at the Papal teat, it was not simply a matter of having access to the most lucrative local ecclesiastical benefices. These families profited from the entire central financial machinery of the papacy. Many even draw substantial pensions from Spanish and Portuguese benefices11. It thus indeed seems plausible that the church offered still more wealth and opportunities to Italian than to French elites. But only comparative prosopographic studies of leading families on both sides of the Alps will be able to confirm whether or not elite Italian families directed more of their children into the church and drew more wealth from it than their French counterparts.

11Finally, it would be interesting to know more about the political and cultural constraints that weighed upon the decision making of the rulers of the smaller Italian principalities and city republics as they confronted the Reformation and their perceptions of the events associated with the Reformation elsewhere in Europe. It is generally assumed that between the secular power of the Papal States and the growing strength of Spanish hegemony in the peninsula, any political moves to institutionalize a reformation in a small Italian territory would have been an invitation to outside intervention and political disaster. But how did, for instance, the governing classes of Lucca or the dukes of Mantua perceive the steps taken by their counterparts in Nuremberg and Saxony ? Did any of them ever seriously envisage taking similar steps ? If so, how did they judge the political risks ? How did the baronial families of the kingdom of Naples perceive the actions of their Netherlandish counterparts in the Dutch revolt ? The nobles of the kingdom of Naples occupied only a modest place within the Roman curia. For these families it is not impossible to imagine interest for Protestantism growing within a context of resistance to Spanish authority and the introduction of the Inquisition. The political context within which events unfolded might not always have been particularly unfavorable to the chances of a territorial reformation throughout Italy. All this supposes, however, that Italy’s elites might draw inspiration from the actions of their counterparts in Germany or the Low Countries. Their sense of cultural superiority to the « barbarians » from beyond the Alps might have foreclosed this possibility. Here in any event are a series of questions outside the canon of issues typically investigated by historians of « heresy » or of church reform in Italy that merit further study.

12The comparative examination of the theme of elites and reform thus leaves us for the moment with more questions than certitudes. But highlighting the questions that require further research and suggesting some of the means for carrying out that research can be among the most valuable services that the instruments of comparative history can render.


1 L. Romier, Les origines politiques des guerres de religion, Paris, 1913 ; Le royaume de Cathérine de Médicis. La France à la veille des guerres de religion, Paris, 1922 ; La conjuration d’Amboise, Paris, 1923 ; Catholiques et huguenots à la cour de Charles IX, Paris, 1924.

2 R. J. Knecht, Francis I, ’Defender of the Faith’ ? in E. W. Ives, R. J. Knecht and J. J. Scarisbrick (ed.), Wealth and Power in Tudor England : Essays Presented to S. T. Bindoff, London, 1978, p. 106-127.

3 P. Imbart de la Tour, Les origines de la Réforme, Paris, 1905-35, III, p. 377-378.

4 W. Monter, Judging the French Reformation : Heresy Trials by Sixteenth-Century Parlements, Cambridge (Mass.), 1999, p. 93, 188-190 and passim.

5 On Antoine de Pons and Anne de Parthenay, see E. and E. Haag, La France Protestante, VIII, p. 287 ; E. Rodocanachi, Renée de France duchesse de Ferrare, Paris, 1896, p. 140-152, 167-173.

6 The possibilities are suggested by studies such as D. Nicholls, The Nature of Popular Heresy in France, 1520-1542, in The Historical Journal, 26, 1983, p. 261275 ; B. Collett, A Long and Troubled Pilgrimage : The Correspondence of Marguerite d’Angoulême and Vittoria Colonna, 1540-1545, Princeton, 2000 (Studies in Reformed Theology and History, New Series, 6) ; and J. Reid, King’s Sister, Queen of Dissent : Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549) and Her Evangelical Network, Ph.D. diss., The University of Arizona, 2001.

7 L. Chatenay, La vie intellectuelle en Aunis et en Saintonge de 1550 à 1660, La Rochelle, 1959, p. 5.

8 At least according to the Mémoires de Condé, London, 1743, IV, p. 118 ; also Histoire ecclésiastique des Églises Réformées au royaume de France, Paris, 1884, II, p. 787.

9 B. Collett, Long and Troubled Pilgrimage... cit. n. 5, p. 20-21.

10 The best study of the hold of one of these families over the church is J. A. Bergin, The Decline and Fall of the House of Guise as an Ecclesiastical Dynasty, in The Historical Journal 23, 1982, p. 781-803.

11 B. M. Hallman, Italian Cardinals, Reform, and the Church as Property, 1499-1563, Berkeley, 1985.

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2007

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