The Gordon Collection and the
French Wars of Religion


One of the most unexpected riches of the Gordon Collection is its stock of beautifully bound and preserved pamphlets, polemical writings, royal and parliamentary edicts from the French Wars of Religion (1562-98) or “nos grans troubles & controversités,” as contemporaries often referred to them. It is one of the largest such collections outside of France. By consulting the almost 100 primary documents directly related to these conflicts, the bulk of them published in the 1580s and ‘90s but including a number of important works from the 1560s and ‘70s, interested readers can appreciate the breadth and depth of the “troubles” as those who actually experienced them understood and recorded them.

Brief History

The French Wars of Religion were long in preparation and far from simply a matter of religion. Decades before confessional and doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants (or Huguenots, as the militant members of the Reformed or Calvinist Church came to be known) erupted into war following the 1562 Massacre of Vassy, learned and popular, clerical and lay reflection on spiritual matters and the efficacy of the “one holy catholic and apostolic” church’s ministrations to the spiritual needs of its flock set France on the road to conflict. Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses galvanized and polarized the European intelligentsia as early as the 1520’s, including many influential people in France, particularly in the circle of King Francis I’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549), herself represented in the Gordon by an important copy of the Heptaméron (Gordon 1560 .M35). Popular critique and vociferous satire of Roman Catholic practice and doctrine began to appear in French almost as soon as the ink had dried on the orthodox Paris Faculty of Theology’s 1521 Determinatio censuring Martin Luther’s writing. The bulk of it was initially published in such Francophone Swiss cities as Neufchâtel and Geneva but French cities outside the Parisian sphere of influence, Lyon in particular, would also become publishing centers for anti-Catholic polemic. A vernacular anti-Protestant response, slow in coming, would emanate primarily from the overwhelmingly Catholic French capital, Paris.

Arguably the earliest work in the Gordon to enter the fray, however, is Poitiers canon Jean Poitevin’s orthodox co-option and completion of the Huguenot Psalter (Gordon 1554 .P65, first published in 1551), consisting at that date of 50 psalms translated by poet Clément Marot. (The Calvinists themselves would not have their own complete translation until 1562.) Among the latest works are the Prior (and co-conspirator) Edme Bourgoings’s tribute to fellow Dominican Jacques Clément and his “divinely sanctioned” 1589 assassination of Henry III (Gordon 1589 .P55 and Gordon 1589 .F38 no.8), and Jean de la Taille’s subsequent exposé and indictment of the Holy League that backed the regicide (Gordon 1595 .L37). In between, almost a half-century of conflict and the works that sought to provoke, quell or merely document it are well represented in the Gordon.

The premature death of Henry II in 1559 (eulogized in Latin by poet Joachim Du Bellay, Gordon 1559 .D83, and in French in the funeral orations by Girolamo della Rovere, Gordon 1559 .R68) was followed by the ill-fated reigns of his young sons: first François II (1559-1560) under the sway of the Catholic House of Guise, a member of which, Mary, Queen of Scots, was his wife (and very soon widow); then Charles IX (1560-1574), whose politically savvy mother and Regent during his minority, the redoubtable Catherine de’ Medici, was to maintain royal power and autonomy by playing the rival Catholic and Huguenot factions off one against the other. This climate of uncertainty – which would lead in 1562 to the first of eight different “wars,” almost as many ineffectual peace treaties and, among the worst atrocities, the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre – prompted a renewed round of polemical pamphlets and tracts.

Catherine and her sons attempted to put a definitive end to the religious controversy by calling for what amounted to what we would now call a “national dialogue” on confessional difference, in the hope of arriving at an acceptable compromise. The Colloque de Poissy (Sept.-Oct. 1561) brought together expert theologians on both sides of the divide, including Charles de Guise, Cardinal de Lorraine, on the one (Gordon 1561 .G85) contains the printed text of his oration), and Théodore de Bèze, Calvin’s right-hand man and eventual successor in Geneva, on the other. It was a dismal failure. Parisian (and Reformed) jurisconsult Pierre de la Place provides a detailed, contemporary account in Gordon 1565 .L35. The ultimate irreconcilable difference remained the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eurcharist (Transubstantiation), understood literally in orthodox Catholic doctrine but refused, or rather, understood metaphorically in the Reformed Church.

Proselytizing, or pitching religious reform, in French – as opposed to Latin, the traditional language of the Catholic establishment – and in print, quickly became the principal tool of the Reformers, who, with the definitive establishment of Jean Calvin in Geneva in 1541 and the publication of a French translation of his Christianœ Religionis Institutio that same year, quickly came to be identified with Calvinism. Clandestine church organization would follow in France throughout the 1550s, culminating in the violent clashes of the 1560s and beyond. The continuing and prolific Latin exchange, indispensable for international communication and debate, is but marginally represented in the Gordon Collection. Calvin, and particularly his followers, quickly recognized the importance of the vernacular—of French—for reaching the target audience of “les simples” (“simple folk”), whether in Francophone Switzerland or in France.

The Gordon Collection includes numerous works representing such appeals, concentrated in the following areas:

The Penitential Psalms – Translated into French, the psalms came to be associated with the Protestant Reform movement, in part due to Marot's links to the reformers in the eyes of the French Roman Catholic authorities. The edition of Jean Poitevin's translations (paraphrases) along with Marot's, however, displays a tenuous balance between Protestant and Catholic orientations.

The “Marmite Cycle” – a collection of somewhat extreme attacks and counter-attacks loosely organized around the motif of the “marmite papale” or “papal cooking pot.”

The Ronsard Polemic – a rich collection of polemical and religious poems written by Pierre de Ronsard in defense of the Roman Catholic church and the Queen Regent, Catherine de Medici, and calling for a restoration of peace and unity in France.

Atrocities and devastation – a number of pamphlets describing and reacting to the violence of the French wars of religion from both the Catholic and the Calvinist points of view.

Catherine de Medicis– attacks on and defenses of the Queen Regent and her role in the wars of religion.

View the complete Chronological List of works pertaining to the French wars of religion in the Gordon Collection.

Materials on this page were generously contributed by Jeffrey Persels, University of South Carolina.