Les Huguenots

Romanticism and the French Wars of Religion

When literature comes to grips with History

By Sylvain Ledda 23 October 2018


© Renn Productions/France 2 Cinema/DA Films. Photo Luc Roux

Romanticism and the French Wars of Religion

That Romanticism should have taken up the theme of the French Wars of Religion is hardly surprising. Conscious of living through a period of crisis, the authors of Alexandre Dumas’s generation (he was born in 1802) saw in those conflicts a tremendous dramatic crucible and the mirror of a collective fear, that of civil war. Through the interplay of analogies, the conflicts opposing Protestants and Catholics evoked the cruelties of the Terror, the spectre of which haunted romantic artists. In both cases, France was torn apart and those wielding power eliminated. Under the Restoration and in the aftermath of 1830, as the forty- year period following the beheading of Louis XVI was assessed, the Wars of Religion, long past though they were, offered contemporaries sombre matter for reflection.

1572: a “flash point”

For the romantics, whether reflected in the bloodbath of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre or in the blade of the guillotine, History was punctuated by crises. Now the exactions of the Wars of Religion were many and exorbitant, on both an individual and a collective scale, and constituted a rich reservoir of material for fiction: conspiracies, machinations, worst case scenarios ... everything concurred to attract the artist’s attention to those troubled times. Marked by the night of August 24th 1572, one of the most painful events in the history of France, the Wars of Religion enticed the Romantics to reconfigure history. In his preface to Histoire des Guerres de religion (1856), Jules Michelet thus sees in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre a “point rouge” or flash point, the tragic culmination of political wrangling and disastrous prevarication. By exploring the origins of the event, he unveiled the failure of the crown in the face of religious conflicts and describes the powerful rise of clan violence. Shadowy dealings, diplomatic secrets and plots are fertile soil for literary dramatization and political reflection. Historical studies and fictions have rewritten the story of the collective trauma that radiated out from the catastrophe of August 1572. La Reine Margot by Dumas concentrates its entire plot around that bloody night, describing the macrocosm of the massacre through the conflictual microcosm of the court.

In accordance with the interpretation of Romantic historians, fiction portraying the Wars of Religion neglect genuinely religious and theological questions. It places the emphasis on political motivations, the personal ambitions of individuals at the head of the important families (Guise, Montmorency, Navarre, etc.). The controversial dimensions of Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer and La Reine Margot stem less from spiritual and religious rifts than from the political discourse conveyed by the two works. In both cases also, the great tragic history of France is caught up with individual passions: on the eve of the massacre, impossible lovers’ pacts are sealed, the outcomes of which are irremediably tragic. The loves of Queen Margaret of Navarre are played out with the bloody canvas of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre looming disastrously on the horizon.

The Tragedy and its Actors

The Wars of Religion provide a list of dramatis personae worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. On one side, the last of the Valois and their mother; on the other, enemies and allies, linked by blood or oath to the royal family. Religious conflict was also rendered more interesting by the dynastic crisis that ensued after the accidental death of Henry II. The history of the last of the Valois was propitious to the rise of the legend: each of its actors bears characteristics engraved on the collective imagination. François II was an ailing, weak infant, Charles IX was a mad king, Henri III an effeminate fop and the Duke of Anjou consumed by jealousy ... These sons are dominated by their mother, Catherine of Medici, a masculine and misunderstood figure. A configuration such as this is manna from heaven for a writer of fiction. Alexandre Dumas, for example, rewrites the psychology and the actions of the Great from the clichés that crystallised around them. In his version, Catherine de Medici becomes the stuff of sinister legend. She pursues her political ends with horoscopes and alchemy; she is sometimes represented as a loving mother and sometimes as a disciple of Machiavelli. In his drama Henri III et sa cour, Dumas plunges into clichéd anecdote, attributing for example the queen’s taste for the occult to her Italian origins. Other works, like Aoust 1572 by Lesguillon (1832), show Charles IX in his intimate relationship with Marie Touchet. In times of war, that is not the image of a monarch pacifying his kingdom. The Romantics fantasised endlessly about the reign of this king, besmirched as it was by the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacres. The complex and even contradictory relationship that Charles maintained with his mother and with Gaspard de Coligny worsened the case against him. Bloodshed taints the personality of this unstable king. His death, treated by Dumas in a spectacular manner, symbolised the cruelty of an entire era:

Meanwhile, an abundant sweat had broken out all over the King; and as Charles suffered from a relaxation of the capillary vessels, which caused a skin hæmorrhage, the bloody sweat had alarmed the nurse who was unaccustomed to this strange phenomenon and who, being a Protestant let it be remembered, repeated endlessly that it was the blood of the Huguenots shed on Saint Bartholomew’s Day that was summoning his blood. (“The Sweat of Blood”, LXII, La Reine Margot)

The Romantics were also fascinated by the devastating power of the clans of the Religious wars. At the head of the Catholics, the Duc de Guise, “le Balafré”, always played the villain. In Henri III et sa cour, he has all the characteristics of a traitor from melodrama. Like a new Othello devoured by jealousy, he has his rival strangled with his wife’s handkerchief, not without announcing his regicidal intentions: “Good! And now that we have finished with the valet, let us look after his master” (Henri III et sa cour, V, 3). A foil to such blackness, the Amiral de Coligny is a martyr to the cause. In the theatrical version of La Reine Margot, he has the visionary gift of great politicians. Of the future Henri IV he declares: “This is the king who can make of the kingdom he governs the greatest kingdom in the world”. The Romantics thus often take the part of the Protestants, in other words, the victims, according to the agonistic pattern opposing ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. More ambiguous is the role played by Henri de Navarre. Before acceding to the throne, he is portrayed as a pragmatist, always with an eye to the future – one remembers here the memorable hunting scene in La Reine Margot in which he saves Charles IX by killing a wild boar, before the eyes of his brothers who do not lift a finger. Patrice Chéreau made it one of the key scenes in his film adaptation.

It was in response to this caricatural or anecdotic vision of the Wars of Religion that Balzac wrote Sur Catherine de Medicis, one of the most original essays on this troubled period. Adopting the opposite point of view to the propaganda concerning the Queen, Balzac highlights her political adroitness, her art of navigating between men either weak or avid for power. He attempts to restore each to his rightful place:

Catherine de Medici, on the contrary, saved the French crown; she maintained royal authority under circumstances in which more than one great prince would have succumbed. Wary of sedition and of the ambitions of the Guise family and the House of Bourbon, of men like the two cardinals of Lorraine and the two Balafré, the two princes of Condé, Queen Jeanne d’Albret, Henri IV, the constable of Montmorency, Calvin, the Coligny family and Théodore de Bèze, she had to deploy the rarest qualities, the statesman’s most precious gifts, under fire from the Calvinist press. These are facts that are certainly incontestable. (“Le Martyr Protestant”, Sur Catherine de Medicis).

Fiction is nourished by the actions of the personalities that lived during the Wars of Religion. All of them, to a greater or lesser extent, bear some responsibility in the civil wars that, for Alfred de Vigny, continued during the reign of Louis XIII. Thence, the intention of the Romantics was not to re-establish the truth about the facts but to show the violence of History tragically illustrated by the Wars of Religion.    

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