Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots In Sixteenth Century France

Barbara B. Diefendorf, a distinguished historian, narrates the events prior to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was a way for the ruling French monarchy to dispose or eliminate all Huguenots in France. After the Protestant Reformation in Germany, there was a diversification of the Protestant faith all over Europe. In Switzerland, Zwingli established a sect that mixed Orthodox Catholicism and Lutheranism. In England, Henry VIII declared himself as the supreme head of the Church of England, without changing traditional elements of Catholic faith.

In Geneva, a zealous preacher, John Calvin, taught the doctrine of predestination. According to this doctrine, before a man is born, his soul was ordained by God to be in either heaven or hell. Man, even by his own freewill, cannot change his destination. Thus, in order to assail his own salvation, he must show to the world that he is destined to heaven. The trajectory of life, according to Calvin, is cloaked with uncertainty of the afterlife. This doctrine shocked the even Calvin’s Protestant contemporaries, notably Luther and Zwingli.

The Pope even agreed with other Protestant leaders that such faith could not be Christian or borne out of Christ-centered faith. Thus, the first seed of persecution was released. Among all Protestant faiths, Calvinism suffered the longest and most brutal persecution. Other factors also contributed to the Calvinist persecution in Europe (especially in France). Among were as follows:

  • The Huguenots were able to acquire political and economic power (thus assuming significance in European affairs;
  • The new faith rejected the absolute power of the monarchy.
  • It proposed a new social system that relies heavily on communalism and brotherhood;
  • And, pressure from the Papacy forced Catholic countries to realign their policies toward traditional faith and social system (this was a reactionary move to the ideals of Calvinism).

Main Theme of the Book In the book, the main theme can be summed up as: the gradual toleration of Huguenots in France generally resulted to increasing persecution of the adherents of Calvinism (although Huguenots comprised only 5% of the French population).

The resulting struggle between Catholics and Huguenots was known as “The Wars of Religion. ” For more than two centuries, France was the scene of legal and military struggle between the two factions, until Cardinal Richelieu (the regent of Louis XIII) and King Louis XIV destroyed the last bastions of Huguenots in France. The main theme is subdivided into three sub themes.

The Huguenots demanded more toleration (the opening of more districts for Huguenot worship and the removal of Huguenot books from the list of forbidden books). This was the period prior to the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. Results Many Catholics in France felt that the degree of toleration granted to the Huguenots (the followers of Calvin) was more than enough to destroy the authority of the Church and the Catholic monarchy.

There was an increasing call among traditionalists to destroy the very foundation of Calvinism: their worship districts. Admiral Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots, was severely wounded after an assassination. Several clashes between Catholic and Huguenots were notably in most of France’s major cities. On the night of august 23, a decision was taken at the Louvre to kill Coligny and the entire Huguenot hierarchy. Catherine de Medici, the mother queen, forced his son Charles IX to sign the order. Thus the infamous massacre in history finally came.

Generally, the result of “The Wars of Religion” was the destruction of Huguenot power and the restoration of Catholicism as the official state religion of France. Methods The use of “historical documents” was highly noted in the book. Several documents dating back to the sixteenth century were presented to compound the main thoughts of the author. There was also a heavy reliance on the use of autobiographies, especially that of the Huguenot leaders who survived the massacre. In general, the methods used by the author were complex in structure and analytical in form.

General Critique The author was able to historically “slice” the events prior to the Huguenot massacre. This is unlike other history books where events were seen as linear progression of cause and effect. Here, events were treated as a web of related forms, leading to a major event. It failed though to explain the “conditions” which gave Huguenots tremendous power in France despite their minute number.

Writing Quality

Grammar mistakes

F (57%)


A (96%)

Redundant words

C (74%)




F (41%)

Total mark


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