The Edict of Nantes—A Charter for Tolerance?
“THIS crucifies me,” protested Pope Clement VIII, in 1598, upon hearing of the signing of the Edict of Nantes by Henry IV, king of France. Four hundred years later, instead of arousing resentment and opposition, the edict is celebrated as an act of tolerance and one of the important steps toward guaranteeing religious rights for all. What was the Edict of Nantes? Was it really a charter for tolerance? And what can we learn from it today?
Sixteenth-century Europe was characterized by intolerance and bloody religious wars. “Never before the 16th century had the teaching of Christ, ‘Have love among yourselves,’ been so ridiculed by his followers,” observes one historian. Some countries, such as Spain and England, ruthlessly hounded religious minorities. Others, like Germany, adopted the principle of “Cuius regio, eius religio,” meaning that the one governing a territory decided its religion. Any who disagreed with the ruler’s religious choice were forced to leave the area. War was avoided by keeping religions apart, with little or no attempt at religious coexistence.
France chose a different path. Geographically, it lay between northern Europe, which was predominantly Protestant, and southern Europe, which was Catholic. By the mid-1500’s, Protestants had become a significant minority in this Catholic country. A series of religious wars accentuated this division.a Numerous peace treaties, or ‘Edicts to Pacify the Troubles,’ as they were called, failed to bring about peaceful religious coexistence. Why did France choose a path of tolerance rather than imitate its European neighbors?
Politics of Peace
The idea that peace and religious disunity were not necessarily incompatible developed despite widespread intolerance. Generally speaking, at that time the question of religious faith was inseparable from civil allegiance. Was it possible to be French and not belong to the Catholic Church? Evidently, some thought it was. In 1562, Michel de l’Hospital, a French statesman, wrote: “Even he who is excommunicated does not cease from being a citizen.” A Catholic group known as Les Politiques (The Politicals) argued along similar lines.
The unsuccessful peace treaties that were signed in France enshrined some of these new ideas. They also promoted the notion that forgetting the past was a way of building the future. For instance, the Edict of Boulogne, of 1573, said: “Let all the things that took place . . . rest dead and dulled as though they did not happen.”
France had a lot to forget. Before Henry IV became king in 1589, the most durable peace treaty had lasted only eight years. France was suffering economically and socially. Internal stability was vitally needed. Henry IV was no stranger to either religion or politics. He had switched between Protestantism and Catholicism on a number of occasions. After securing peace with the Spanish in 1597 and finally quelling internal dissent in 1598, he was in a position to impose a peace settlement on both the Protestants and the Catholics. In 1598, after France had suffered over 30 years of religious war, King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes.
“A Bill of Rights à la Française”
The Edict of Nantes that Henry signed was made up of four basic texts, including the principal text made up of 92 or 95 articles and the 56 secret, or “particular,” articles dealing with Protestant rights and obligations. Previous peace treaties formed the basic structure of the agreement, providing two thirds of the articles. Unlike previous treaties, however, this edict took a long time to prepare. Its exceptional length can be explained by the fact that it sorted out problems blow by blow, giving it the appearance of a do-it-yourself compromise. What were some of the rights it accorded?
The edict granted French Protestants total freedom of conscience. They were also given the status of a respected minority with rights and privileges. One of the secret articles even assured them of protection against the Inquisition when traveling abroad. In addition, Protestants were given the same civil status as Catholics and could hold State jobs. Was the edict, though, really a charter for tolerance?
How Tolerant an Edict?
Considering the way religious minorities were treated in other countries, the Edict of Nantes was “a document of rare political wisdom,” says historian Elisabeth Labrousse. Henry’s ultimate desire was to see Protestants return to the Catholic fold. In the meantime, religious coexistence was a compromise—the only way “all our subjects can pray and worship God,” Henry said.
In reality, the edict favored Catholicism, which was proclaimed the dominant religion and was to be restored throughout the kingdom. Protestants had to pay the Catholic tithe and respect Catholic holidays and restrictions regarding marriage. Protestant freedom of worship was limited to specified geographic areas. The edict dealt only with Protestant and Catholic coexistence. Other religious minorities were not included. Muslims, for instance, were expelled from France in 1610. Despite its limited view of tolerance, why is the edict celebrated today?
Chronicles of the time made little reference to the edict. Historians call it a “nonevent.” However, it is now considered a masterpiece of political diplomacy. The edict called Protestantism a religion, as opposed to a heresy. Recognizing a religion other than Catholicism opened the way for religious pluralism. According to one historian, this “had the effect of purging French passions of the fanaticism that stalked Protestants as much as Catholics.” The edict recognized that religion was not the determining factor in loyalty to the State or national identity. In addition, criminal activity, not religious affiliation, became the criterion for legal action. These ideas reflected even greater changes.
In signing the edict, King Henry was mainly concerned about civil unity. To ensure this, the edict separated civil unity from religious unity. “It started a process of secularization . . . , the recognition that nation and confession were no longer synonymous,” observes one historian. While the Catholic Church kept a measure of power, the power of the State was greatly strengthened. The monarch was to be arbiter in times of conflict. Political or legal solutions to religious problems meant that politics had mastery over religion. That is why one historian calls the edict “the triumph of political power over the Church’s role.” Another says that it “marked a decisive moment in the emergence of the modern State.”
Some of the paths mapped out by the Edict of Nantes were later adopted by other governments. In time, many countries redefined the relationship between religion and politics, putting the State’s authority on a new footing. In France the path that was eventually chosen (in 1905) was complete separation of Church and State. According to Jean Baubérot, a noted professor of history and sociology, this arrangement is “the best protection for minorities” in a climate of increasing intolerance. Other countries, while clinging to a State religion, have chosen to guarantee freedom of religion and ensure equal treatment for all in their constitutions.
Many today, however, think that progress can still be made in protecting religious freedom. “The Edict of Nantes is commemorated once a century and transgressed the rest of the time,” laments journalist Alain Duhamel. Some informed commentators, for instance, highlight the intolerance of excluding others by arbitrarily labeling all minority religions “sects.” Learning to live together in peace and without prejudice was indeed a vital lesson to be learned 400 years ago. But the lesson is still relevant today.
Issues at Stake
Freedom of worship does not exist when authorities arbitrarily favor some religions and not others. In France, some administrations grant Jehovah’s Witnesses the status of religion, while others do not. Paradoxically, a lay State is defining what is a religion and what is not. This procedure starts with discrimination and leads to persecution. Furthermore, “it may also establish a precedent which can spread to various countries and various religious associations,” says Raimo Ilaskivi, a member of the European Parliament. That is why law lecturer Jean-Marc Florand concludes: “It’s a bad blow for France and the exercise of freedoms. As a Catholic, that really worries me.” History can teach lessons, though, to those willing to learn.
At a recent United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization conference, a speaker argued that “one of the ways of celebrating the Edict of Nantes is to think about the status of religions in our time.” Indeed, the Edict of Nantes can best be commemorated by making sure that real freedom of worship is protected for all!
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Religious Freedom in France Today
Lessons from the past are sometimes forgotten. When arguing in favor of the Edict of Nantes, Henry IV declared: “No more should distinction be made between Catholic and Huguenot.” Jean-Marc Florand, senior law lecturer at the Paris-XII University, explains in the French newspaper Le Figaro that in France, since 1905, “the law places all religions, beliefs, and sects on an equal footing.” Discrimination and prejudice should be things of the past.
Ironically, in 1998, the year marking the fourth centennial of the Edict of Nantes, its lesson—that freedom of religion and equal treatment should be guaranteed for all citizens—has apparently been forgotten. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the third-largest Christian religious community in France, have practiced their religion there for almost one hundred years. Nevertheless, a French parliamentary report denied that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a legitimate religion. As a consequence, some French authorities routinely discriminate against Jehovah’s Witnesses when it comes to their liberties. For example, in child-custody disputes, French judges often question whether parents who are Jehovah’s Witnesses should be allowed to retain the custody of their children. These questions are raised merely because of the parents’ religious affiliation. Also, because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, some foster parents are increasingly at risk of losing the children that are in their care.
Recently, French authorities have been threatening to impose an arbitrary tax on the contributions that Jehovah’s Witnesses make to their congregations. According to the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Without Frontiers, this is a “dangerous precedent” that violates resolutions passed by the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, the European Union guarantees religious freedom. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been repeatedly recognized by the European Court as a “known religion,” making the action by some French authorities even more difficult to understand.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been active in France for nearly a hundred years
Top right: Many families in France have been Jehovah’s Witnesses for several generations
Top left: Roubaix Congregation, 1913
Bottom left: Witnesses in northern France, 1922
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Henry IV, king of France
© Cliché Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris