Political Thought in the French Wars of Religion | Sophie Nicholls

Sophie Nicholls Imagem University of
Sophie Nicholls | Imagem: University of Oxford

The book series ‘Ideas in Context’, published by Cambridge University Press since 1984, has played a major role in establishing the history of political thought as a prominent field of research and debate. Although the series’ roots lie in the so-called Cambridge school of intellectual history associated with J.G.A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and others, its volumes have always set out to break down any ‘artificial distinctions between the history of philosophy, of the various sciences, of society and politics, and of literature’.(1)  It is perhaps surprising that until now no volumes in the series have focused on the political thought of the French Wars of Religion (c.1562-c.1598), a period known not only for confessional violence, dynastic crisis, and social rupture, but also for major controversies over questions of authority and resistance, liberty and rights, and other issues that are crucial to the study of early modern political thought.(2)  Nevertheless, path-breaking studies of the political thought of Jean Bodin, François Hotman, and key figures in sixteenth-century French intellectual history published with Cambridge University Press by Julian Franklin, Ralph Giesey, and J.H. Salmon all preceded the series and perhaps helped to establish its terms.(3)

Political Thought in the french Wars of religionThirty-seven years after the ‘Ideas in Context’ series was founded, these important new books by Emma Claussen and Sophie Nicholls both advance the series in new directions and bring it back to its roots in the intellectual history of sixteenth-century France. Their complementary approaches engage closely with established interpretations in the field, but also overcome them by offering new readings of key texts and alternative ways to interpret them, breaking down disciplinary distinctions between the history of literature, philosophy, and politics. Claussen’s eloquent and innovative book explores the uses and ambiguities of the term politique throughout the Wars of Religion, and gives a new history of this keyword that traces its movement from a disciplinary descriptor of political science in the 1560s and 1570s to a polemical weapon of partisan abuse.

By the 1580s and 1590s politique became an insult levelled at a disparate group of individuals who supposedly put personal interest above religious conviction when they supported the succession of the Protestant Henri de Navarre as King Henri IV of France by hereditary descent. Nicholls’ deeply learned and wide-ranging study sets out a revisionist account of the political thought of the Catholic League in particular—the party that opposed Navarre’s succession in the final civil war (c.1584-c.1598) on the grounds that he was a Protestant—and overturns received ideas about the political role and intellectual significance of this movement, situating it in a long-term and Europe-wide context. Together, these books represent a major contribution to the intellectual history of sixteenth century France in general, and the political thought of the Wars of Religion in particular. While their subjects are superficially similar, and their appearance in the same book series might reinforce this impression, nevertheless their approaches and arguments are highly complementary and together suggest new ways to approach literary and philosophical texts in this period.

Politiques and Leaguers: the groups at the heart these studies have complex histories because they have been so severely maligned by contemporaries and later generations alike. Supporters of the League denounced Politiques, the targets of their attacks denounced the Leaguers, and many readers who engaged with the publications associated with both parties have inherited their partisan perspectives. The front covers to both books under review demonstrate this problem of interpretation.(4)  Claussen’s book analyses its cover image, ‘the portrait and description of a Politique’ (Figure 1), as the epitome of the League’s polemical campaign against the Politiques, and ‘an amalgam of the endless factionalised quarrelling of contemporary discourse’ (p. 197). The monstrous, shape-shifting Politique resembles Medusa, the Sirens, and Dagon, and ultimately exposes the inner wickedness that the Leaguers suspected the Politiques harboured all along, but which they disguised through their outwardly confirming language and comportment. Nicholls’ book is emblazoned with the ‘portrait of the infernal League’ (Figure 2), an engraving published by Leonard Odet in Lyon. The image denounces the League as a Janus-faced abbess whose gaze is split between the might of the French crown and the perfidy of the Spanish monarchy. In this critical portrait, the League appears as a ‘false holy Union’ that claims to be acting in order to preserve the Catholic faith but instead is a devil in disguise and a creature of the Spanish Habsburgs. The individuals associated with both groups attempted to distance themselves from these representations, not least in their responses and critiques of the many pamphlets produced at this time of weakened regulation of the print trade, and which provide a significant proportion of the source material for Claussen and Nicholls’ analysis. As a result, it is often impossible to identify who—if anyone—should be identified as a Politique or a Leaguer in the strict sense represented by these caricatures.

A key contribution of both books is to challenge these caricatures and demonstrate that they are more interesting as terms of contestation rather than fixed descriptors of any particular group. As Claussen and Nicholls explain, it is the Politiques who have often appeared more favourably in the eyes of historians writing between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. After Henri IV’s coronation in 1594 and victory in the civil wars by 1598, it seemed like their caused had triumphed, and so the Politiques have often been associated with the rise of religious toleration and the growth of royal authority in the age of the absolute monarchy. The licentious ‘portrait and description of a Politique’ in Figure 1 has accordingly been replaced by a solid canon of great thinkers that includes Michel de L’Hôpital and Michel de Montaigne, among others, whose writings receive compelling but properly contextualised attention in Claussen’s book, even if ‘Politique’ is not a label that any of these thinkers would necessarily have embraced in all of its resonances. By contrast, the Leaguers have been more difficult to characterise for historians, and so interpretations maintain something of the Janus-facing aspect of Figure 2. As Nicholls explains, building on the social and cultural analysis of Robert Descimon in particular, the League was torn between transnational Habsburg affinities and a commitment to a vision of the French kingdom that rooted the Church in the commonwealth.(5)  Yet a prominent interpretation of the political thought of the League has characterised its movement as one of ‘radical reactionaries’ and historians have often dismissed the key arguments of some of its texts as derivative of Protestant resistance theory.(6)

Both books under review work within as well as around these inherited problems of interpretation in order to give new insights into the intellectual history of the period as a whole. Rather than evaluate whether or not the term Politique might apply to a particular thinker, Claussen explores the interpretative tensions inherent in the term Politique itself, as a keyword that became ‘a vector for ethical controversy’ (p. 238). By training Claussen is a literary scholar, and a key strength of the book is to bring this close attention to the rhetoric and literary qualities of the polemical and non-canonical works she examines, and to demonstrate the significance of this analysis for any historical account. There is a clear narrative progression to Claussen’s interpretation. Texts published in the early civil wars used the term politique in ways that established political discourse as a genre and a form of knowledge to be explored through literary debate and humanist scholarly practices. Louis Le Roy’s annotated translation of Les politiques d’Aristote [Aristotle’s Politics] (1568) and Jean Bodin’s Six livres de la république [Six Books of the Republic] (1576) provide Claussen’s key case studies in this process of the formation of a normative language of politics, a normative language incarnated in the politic interlocutor of the Protestant polemic Le reveil-matin des François [An Alarm Bell for the French, published in response the 24 August 1572 Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

The emergence of the substantive term Politique as a party label and a form of insult—often qualified as disorderly, heretic, lying, and treasonous— occurred in the polemical pamphlets published around the time of two major political assassinations: in December 1588 Henri III ordered the killing of the figureheads of the League, the duc and cardinal de Guise, and then the Dominican friar Jacques Clément took revenge for that act in August 1589 in his assassination of the last Valois king, Henri III. One of the most compelling passages of the book comes in its final chapter, where Claussen analyses the varied appropriations of the term politique in two major texts published around the time of Henri de Navarre’s conversion and coronation as Henri IV of France, the Discours entre le maheustre et le manant [Dialogue between the Knight and a Townsman] (1593) and the Satyre menippée [Menippean Satire] (1594). In this final twist to the tale, the authors of these complex texts mock the Leaguers’ violent use of the language of politique as a form of insult in order to develop alternative models for the social order at the end of the civil wars, one in which politic discourse might be restored and guaranteed by firm royal authority, but perhaps also infused in equal measure with learning and jest.

Nicholls’ revisionist interpretation of the intellectual history of the League in some ways represents a more conventional example of the application of the methods associated with the history of political thought than Claussen’s book, since it explores how significant authors engaged in debates over foundational questions of political theory. What is the relationship between church and state? Is it legitimate to resist authority? And should arguments be based on reason, faith, or precedent? Nevertheless, by bringing this approach into dialogue with the historiography of the French Wars of Religion Nicholls makes a series of significant new contributions to the history of Leaguer thought, as she situates publications by key figures such as Jean Boucher, René Choppin, and Louis Dorléans in a much broader context than previous interpretations have done.(7) Rather than interpreting these Leaguers as ‘radical reactionaries’, Nicholls explains their arguments in favour of the just resistance to tyrants with reference to long-standing traditions of scholastic thought that Spanish theologians in particular developed in the later sixteenth century. The result of this interpretation is that texts such as the anonymous De justa reipublicae Christianae in reges impios et haereticos authoritate [On the just authority of the Christian commonwealth, regarding heretical and impious kings] (1590), published under the pseudonym Guilelmus Rossaeus, makes far more sense as an engagement with discussions of natural and divine law, virtue, and sin in Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard, and Domingo de Soto (among others) than as a cynical appropriation of Protestant resistance theory, as previous interpretations have suggested.

Another legacy of the contemporary polemical critique of the League is that it has often been seen as populist not only because of its reliance on civic unrest but also because of the concept of popular sovereignty that its leading thinkers advocated, especially in terms of the election of the king. Nicholls provides a characteristically critical interpretation of this subject, demonstrating how Boucher and Choppin in particular developed complex interpretations of sovereignty that they rooted in the political community, representative institutions, and the ancient Frankish constitution in ways that depended on the circumstances and goals of their publications. Readers familiar with the intellectual history of sixteenth-century France might be surprised to see in Nicholls’ book such an extended discussion of the liberties of the Gallican Church, when the classical interpretation associates Politique authors with the Gallican cause and Leaguers with an ultramontaine allegiance to Rome. However, Nicholls clearly demonstrates that League authors did not simply advocate for unbridled papal authority, but instead developed sophisticated arguments about its extension and limits in ways that responded to the critique of so-called Politique writers such as Pierre de Belloy, who deliberately distorted the League’s position in order to caricature its arguments. In coming to their conclusions, Leaguers took part in a debate over papal authority that particularly engaged with English Catholic thought, but in dialogue with authors abroad Leaguers also developed their own understanding of the French constitution, a topic that Nicholls analyses through their use of the concept of amor patriae. In this sense, Nicholls’ book argues that Leaguers engaged with central questions in the intellectual and political debates of the French Wars of Religion, and so equally had a role in shaping the terms of dévot Catholic and politic royalist discussions alike in the decades that followed.

By applying the approaches of literary analysis and intellectual history, then, Claussen and Nicholls provide give fresh insight into key texts and lesser-known works in sixteenth-century French political thought. Their arguments about the authors that matter and the contexts in which to situate their thought reshape the field, in ways that do not always overlap but do not necessary come into conflict either. Most notably, Claussen emphasises the League as a moment of rupture linked to the greater intensity of pamphlet literature and a more severe tone to political debate around 1589, whereas Nicholls gives more attention to the deep roots of Leaguer thought both in the previous decades of the civil wars and in the wider scholastic tradition that long preceded the conflict. The difference here depends in part on the selection of texts, since Claussen’s chapter on the League studies the occasional pamphlets that targeted the fundamental theoretical arguments studied by Nicholls at their immediate political adversaries. Both books exemplify the importance of understanding ideas in context, but they do so in different ways, depending on a literary approach to the analysis of the tensions inherent in understanding a particular keyword in Claussen’s book, and an intellectual history approach to situating the terms of political debate in Nicholls’ book.
In these ways, both books build on key traditions in the history of political thought, but they nevertheless set out an intellectual history that is also more expansive than the discipline’s founding fathers laid out. They make a clear case for close readings of texts within and beyond the canon, situated in their wider cultural, intellectual, and political contexts. But they should also encourage further research in pursuit of a similarly expansive approach that thinks flexibly about possible contexts for understanding the history of ideas in the sixteenth century, contexts that might include institutions such as law courts, libraries, and universities, but also stretch further to include parish churches and print shops, city streets and village squares, and any place where concepts of politics and practices of political engagement came under the kind of scrutiny that Claussen and Nicholls’ work exemplifies.

Figures referenced:

Figure 1. Le pourtraict & description du politique (Paris: Hilaire le Boue and Pierre Chevillot, 1589) in Pierre de L’Estoile, ‘Les belles Figures et Drolleries de la Ligue’, Bibliothèque nationale de France, RES FOL-LA25-6, fo. 1v. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k859264h/f26.item.

Figure 2. Pourtrait de la Ligue infernalle (Lyon: Leonard Odet, late sixteenth century) in Pierre de L’Estoile, ‘Les belles Figures et Drolleries de la Ligue’, Bibliothèque nationale de France, RES FOL-LA25-6, fo. 32r. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k859264h/f162.item.


1 The quotation comes from the series’ mission statement in each volume. For a reflection on the history of the series in its intellectual context, see Christopher S. Celenza, ‘Ideas in Context and the Idea of Renaissance Philosophy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 75 (2014), 653–66.Back to (1)

2 Three major books in the series address related topics—Martin van Gelderen, The Political Thought of the Dutch Revolt, 1555-1590 (Cambridge, 1992); Harro Höpfl, Jesuit Political Thought: The Society of Jesus and the State, c. 1540-1630 (Cambridge, 2004); and Felicity Green, Montaigne and the Life of Freedom (Cambridge, 2012)—while the parallel series ‘Texts in the History of Political Thought’ includes the translations Charles Loyseau, A Treatise of Orders and Plain Dignities, ed. Howell A. Lloyd (Cambridge, 1994) and Jean Bodin, Bodin: On Sovereignty, ed. Julian H. Franklin (Cambridge, 1992).Back to (2)

3 Julian H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge, 1973); François Hotman, Francogallia, eds. Ralph E. Giesey and J.H.M. Salmon (Cambridge, 1972). These works were published in the series ‘Cambridge Studies in the History and Theory of Politics’, which included J.G.A. Pocock on its editorial board. Salmon later published a collection of essays, Renaissance and Revolt: Essays in the Intellectual and Social History of Early Modern France (Cambridge, 1987), in the series ‘Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History’. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume Two, The Age of Reformation (Cambridge, 1978), engages with but does not always follow the findings of these historians, eg. 293 n.2 on the question of contextualising Bodin’s theory of sovereignty.Back to (3)

4 Both of these images derive from the collection of the Parisian diarist and chancery official Pierre de L’Estoile. For a modern critical edition, see Pierre de L’Estoile, Les belles figures et drolleries de la Ligue, ed. Gilbert Schrenck (Geneva, 2016). A high-resolution colour digitization of the miscellany is available via Pierre de L’Estoile, ‘Les belles Figures et Drolleries de la Ligue’, Bibliothèque nationale de France, RES FOL-LA25-6. ark:/12148/bpt6k859264h. On the visual culture of the League, see Florence Buttay, Peindre en leur âme des fantômes: image et éducation militante pendant les guerres de religion (Rennes, 2018), which reinforces Nicholls’ arguments about the importance of the Jesuit order and scholastic traditions for the intellectual history of the League.Back to (4)

5 Descimon’s pioneering works on the history of the League, discussed in Nicholls’ Introduction and Chapter One on ‘Contextualising the League’, include Robert Descimon, Qui étaient les Seize ? Mythes et réalités de la Ligue parisienne 1585-1594 (Paris, 1983)—on the social origins of the movement in Paris—and Robert Descimon and José Javier Ruiz Ibáñez, Les ligueurs de l’exil: le refuge catholique français après 1594 (Seyssel, 2005)—on the trajectories throughout Habsburg Europe of the Leaguers in exile.Back to (5)

6 The phrase comes from Frederic J. Baumgartner, Radical Reactionaries: The Political Thought of the French Catholic League (Geneva, 1975). Nicholls discusses the complex relationship between Leaguer and Protestant resistance theory on pp. 4-8 and throughout the book.Back to (6)

7 In this sense, Nicholls’ interpretation engages with the detailed case study presented in Cornel Zwierlein, The Political Thought of the French League and Rome 1585-1589: De justa gallici ab Henrico tertio defectione and De justa Henrici tertii abdicatione (Jean Boucher, 1589) (Geneva, 2016), and situates its findings in a long-run context of scholastic traditions.Back to (7)


Emma Claussen

Referências desta Resenha

NICHOLLS, Sophie. Political Thought in the French Wars of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Resenha de: CLAUSSEN, Emma. Politics and ‘Politiques’ in Sixteenth-Century France. Reviews in History. Londres, n. 2458, abr. 2022. Acessar publicação original [DR]

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