The Edict of Just Kidding

Henri III

Well, September 17 gives us an opportunity to celebrate the Edict of Poitiers. I hear surprisingly little cheering.

OK, OK. So it was this 1577 declaration by French king Henri III of toleration for Protestants. Are we happier now?

Possibly not. It came, some say, after the sixth phase of the French Wars of Religion, a brouhaha that went on for some 36 years between 1562 and 1598 and caused millions of deaths directly or through famine and disease. Others deny that these wars, or this war, can be divided neatly into stages because the violence treachery and death just kept erupting despite periodic flowery declarations of reconciliation. Certainly if you look at a timeline it’s depressing how the wars blend into one another, punctuated by this assassination and that massacre ending in the “War of the Three Henries”.

As for the Edict of Poitiers, well, it was issued by the last Valois king, fourth son and favourite of Catherine de Medici which gives you some idea what his word was worth. And in any case the Edict, which arose from the Treaty of Bergerac three days earlier between Henri and the Huguenot (French Protestant) princes so everybody hated one another anyway, only granted Protestants the right to practice their religion in the suburbs of a single town in each judicial district. Not exactly life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Still, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, right? And after the “War of the Three Henries” ended with two assassinations (the ultra-Catholic Henri de Guise and then Henri III) the last man standing, Henri of Navarre, becoming Henri IV (the first Bourbon) things apparently got better even if he did have to pretend to be Catholic to become king. It was under him that the Edict of Nantes in 1598 promised Protestants something much more like genuine tolerance and even the freedom to, say, have a job you actually wanted including in government.

Still, we’re back in anecdote territory here, because France was still an absolutist state. Henri IV eventually became a very popular monarch and was assassinated in 1610, after which you got the three eternal Louis (XIII, XIV and XV, holding the throne between them for 164 years) and, uh, revocation of the Edict of Nantes and destruction of Protestant churches, closing of their schools and intimidating quartering of unruly dragoons in the homes of Protestants unless they happened suddenly to, you know, discover the truth of Catholicism. (Louis XIV, who revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 through the Edict of Fontainebleu, boasted that of nearly a million Huguenots, less than 2,000 remained in France a year later; some of my own ancestors were among those who fled to England where their talent and energy was actually welcome.)

We are accustomed to the story of freedom being a story. It has better and worse chapters, heroes and villains. But there’s meant to be a story arc in which in the end liberty prevails, to the point that any claim that can be advanced as furthering the cause of freedom has a strong advantage in public debate in Canada today. But again, where despotism reigns, you don’t have a story so much as a series of bleakly amusing anecdotes about the folly and viciousness of mankind.

Sadly, the Edict of Poitiers is essentially in the latter category. Hence the silence.