Monday, May 03, 2010

The Religious Wars

No, this is not going to be a post about the current culture clash in the U.S. wherein some people of a particular Christian persuasion and belief believe they have figured out TRUTH for all of us. To them, I say--go read Winesburg, Ohio. We can all know truth (lower case t) but if we believe we have Truth (upper case T) we are most likely wrong.

OK--enough of that.

Almost everywhere we went with city guides and local guides in France, we heard some reference to the religious wars. At first, I was thinking--huh? Religious extremism has taken hold in France? Well, yes and no. No, not currently. Yes, in the past. I find the denouement of France's religious wars somewhat instructive, perhaps even for U.S. history.

Many parts of Europe went through volcanic struggles as Christianity moved from "one true faith"--Catholicism--to dual expressions of faith in Catholicism and Protestantism. Frankly, I am far more familiar with England's struggles--bound up as it is in Henry VIII's marriages--than any other part of Europe. I had an inkling of knowledge about Germany's struggle, of course including Luther and his connection to peasant uprisings. I even had a bit of knowledge about Spain, where religious struggles focused more on the driving out Muslim invaders by "los reyes Catolicas" (Ferdinand and Isabella) and on exiling Jews from Spain--same monarchs.

But France? Religious wars? Nope--nothing--no knowledge.

I will not for a minute try to cover the sweep of French history that
the religious wars encompass. It is enough to say that, in general, these wars had to do with a century of fighting between Catholics and Protestants. Naturally, powers aligned with each side, so frequently the subject at hand had to do with who would inherit the throne, or who had just inherited the throne, or who people did not want to inherit the throne. Some hot religious topic, right?

The map below, from, gives you some sense of the deep divide within France that these wars caused.

Basically, areas marked in red were Catholic controlled, areas marked in pink were Protestant controlled. The Huguenots were the lead advocates of Protestantism.

Before all the conflict resulting from Catholic vs. Protestant, France was also the scene of an internecine religious war, when the Avignon papacy arose. Once again, the genesis of the religious conflict arose out of a struggle for power. French kings exercised their control over papal selection. When the pope died in 1304, the French cardinals and the Italian cardinals fought over who would dominate and elect the pope. For a year, the papal throne was unfilled. Finally, Pope Clement V was elected--and tipped the balance toward France.

To demonstrate that power shift, the seat of the papacy was eventually moved to Avignon, France, and remained there for 70 years.

Papal seal in Avignon Papal Palace

We visited Avignon and saw the now long abandoned Papal palace. It is a huge cavernous unoccupied building. I couldn't help but think of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias." Admittedly, this poem talks of temporal power. But, even popes die and their kingdoms fade away. Here's the visual evidence of that.

Exterior of Avignon Papal Palace

Ceiling of Papal Dining Hall

Painted walls in Papal bedroom

Interior courtyard of Papal Palace

Simple stained glass windows

The Avignon papacy ended when Pope Gregory XI moved back to Rome, but the schism in the Catholic church continued.

When Napoleon rose to power, 4 centuries later, he added to this convoluted religious history. Coming after the French Revolution, as he did, Napoleon benefited from some of the ways in which France had changed. The power structure, of church holding sway over things temporal, had shifted. But Napoleon was still unhappy with the extent of temporal power the church retained. So, Napoleon set about demoting various cathedrals--now you have a cardinal and have a cathedral; now you don't. By simple decree, Napoleon undid much of the church's power structure in France.

Back to our guides and their assertions--actually more than assertions. They would say "religious wars" with almost a note of horror in their voices. Today's France is the heir to this demonstrable separation of church and state. Our guides indicated that no French politician would use his or her religious stance as a means to garner support. The French simply wouldn't stand for it.

I came away from this part of our trip to France wondering. The U.S. has experienced a civil war. Will we be wise enough to steer away from repeating that history? Will we escape the turmoil that a country divided over religion experiences? Will we ever reach the enlightened state where we would have politicians who would NOT use their religious stance as a means of garnering support? I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. . .


Ruth said...

An interesting historical review. History is so instructive but its lessons so easily forgotten.

Jayne said...

Seems every country has had their history of religious struggle. I do hope we can avoid religious wars here, but it seems to become more and more common for people to associate certain flavors of politicians with conservative religious conviction and fervor.

Anvilcloud said...

Not in the my or your lifetime, I expect.

Climenheise said...

I have been enjoying the blog, even though I have little time to comment. Applies to this post as well. One small comment on an otherwise instructive review of religious wars, you write: "The map below, from, gives you some sense of the deep divide within France that these wars caused."

I would quarrel with the phrase, "that these wars caused." Could the wars have resulted from the divisions within France, and could the watrs have been used in aid of power struggles between different factions.

I deplore the use of religion to legitimate violence. I had to put my CO stance to the test during the war in Vietnam, and I think you know that I love peace. But the charge that religion causes wars is often a myth, I believe. As you have reminded us often enough, precision is important in our use of language!

KGMom said...

@ Daryl--a couple of comments.
Fair comment on the map--one summary of the religious wars points out that it was a power struggle among 3 leading families: the Bourbons, the Guise, and the Montmorency-Chatillons. The Bourbons were Huguenots, and the Guise were Catholics. The Montmorency-Chatillons were Catholics who supported the Protestant side.

I don't think it is a stretch to say religion causes war--religion, after all, is a human artifice.

Sounds like the topic for a longer conversation someday between us!

NCmountainwoman said...

Very interesting bit of history. I do wish we would reach the enlightened state, but I fear not.

Climenheise said...

We must take up that discussion some day. I agree that religion is sometimes one of the causes of war. But one might as well say that education is the cause of war when it is used by one side or the other. I think it is more accurate to say that religion -- and a variety of other factors -- are used to support each side. The root cause is usually a power struggle of some sort, or a lack of resources leading to competition, and so on.

I don't know that we necessarily disagree, and the religious wars" is the name history has given these -- and other conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland share this characteristic. (NI is another good example in which religion looks like a cause, but in fact is brought in by both sides for support. I would be interested in your potted analysis of the troubles there. (By potted, I mean brief; not analysis after drinking too much!)

Cathy said...

Fascinating history and great pictures.

Politicians will always use whatever means they have at hand to persuade people and garner votes.

Humans haven't changed much over the centuries. One can only hope that the appeal they make is to the better angels of our nature.

Anonymous said...

Your last paragraph poses some very interesting questions.

Sometimes I feel that The Handmaiden's Tale is just around the corner.

JeanMac said...

If only we could all live in peace - live and let live.