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The French Religious Wars 1562–1598 (Essential Histories) Paperback – June 25, 2002
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This unique series studies every major war in history looking at all the aspects of war, from how it felt to be a soldier to the lasting impact of the conflict on the world around it.
About the Author
Robert J. Knecht is Emeritus Professor of French History at the University of Birmingham, where he taught from 1956 until 1994. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he has been Chairman of the Society for the Study of French History and of the Society of Renaissance Studies. He has written extensively on sixteenth-century France, especially the reign of Francis I. His latest book is The French Civil Wars (London, Pearson, 2000).
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It does discuss the major factions in the fighting (the Crown, the Huguenot rebels, and the Catholic League); we get a basic description of French society at the time and why the various factions got the support they did and where; how religion, kinship, and regional ties (and personal ambitions) played into the loyalties of the various leaders and their followers; and more.
The composition and weaponry and training of the armies involved is described as well as how the French lance-armed gendarme heavy armored cavalry finally moved over to the use of pistols. We get a chronology and a description of the major battles involved, as well as brief biographies of three of the leaders and three civilians caught up in the fighting. The effects of the Spanish intervention (while they were themselves engaged in fighting in the Low Countries) in relieving the are described Siege of Paris are described. The book ends with a brief description of how the wars affected France and how much, or little, they actually solved.
To me this was a very good introduction to these little-understood (at least in American schools) 16th century wars.
This book is concerned with the religious wars that plagued France for thirty-six years. These conflicts were incredibly brutal and completely lacked moral justification. But were they fought over differences of religious opinion between Catholics and Protestants? The author of this book gives a different outlook, namely that they were instigated to some extent by the "noblemen" of the time, whose goal was to accumulate wealth, because it was wealth that differentiated them from the "commoners." The "noblemen" were not to engage in "mundane" occupations and needed large blocks of leisure time in order to "exercise body and mind." A small minority of these "noblemen" participated in armed conflict, in order to show off their "virtue." But most the author says remained in their estates and let others do the fighting. This state of affairs in the social structure of France at the time is of course abhorrent from the standpoint of modernity, excluding of course the modern conservative, who wants us to have respect for all institutions and hierarchies. But as this book clearly brings out, these "noblemen" were neither noble nor moral, and deserve absolutely no respect. Women were not allowed of course to occupy the throne of France. That privilege was given to the (male) king, whose rule was considered absolute and only subjugated to God.
Both Catholics and Protestants in these conflicts can lay equal claim to brutality. Burnings at the stake were common to both sides, as was destruction of religious artifacts, and death penalties for `heresy'. And of course both sides had the "preachers and pamphleteers" who encouraged others to participate in armed conflict in order to defend their faith. These individuals of course excused themselves from any actual fighting. Every historical period has its share of yellow abdomens.
The length of the book is one of its virtues, for it allows the curious reader and the non-specialist in history an overview that respects the facts without requiring a large commitment in reading time. References are given for those readers who demand more details. The author classifies the religious wars in this time frame in France as being a "civil war" and it began as a conflict between two groups of French nobles. One of these groups were Catholics who were loyal to the king, while the other consisted of Protestants who desired religious freedom for themselves and their followers. As is typical in historical events, the situation became more complicated as the conflict wore on. Other nobles started their own wars, and ignored the many peace treaties that came about throughout the time frame of the conflicts. It is fair to say though that nothing constructive resulted from these conflicts, and in fact French society suffered greatly from their waste and brutality. Religion may have not been the primary cause of these conflicts, but it did not help in eliminating them. It may indeed have given courage to those who fought. The nobles no doubt realized this and took full advantage of it.