In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Reformation and Wars of Religion in France

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections of Documents
  • Heresy and the Persecution of Dissent
  • Iconoclasm and Religious Violence
  • The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
  • Key Figures and Factions

Renaissance and Reformation The Reformation and Wars of Religion in France
Barbara B. Diefendorf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0013


The 16th century began in France as a time of relative peace, prosperity, and optimism, but horizons soon darkened under the clouds of religious schism, heresy persecutions, and civil war. French theologians condemned Martin Luther’s ideas as early as 1521, but his views continued to spread underground. The movement remained small and clandestine until the 1550s, when the penetration of John Calvin’s ideas from nearby Geneva resulted in the formation of Reformed churches, whose growing membership demanded the right to worship openly. The accidental death of King Henry II in 1559 left France with a religiously divided court and a series of young, inexperienced kings. Henry’s widow, Catherine de Medici, attempted a policy of compromise that backfired. Militancy increased on both sides of the religious divide, and civil war broke out in 1562. Neither side could secure a decisive win on the battlefield, and neither was satisfied with the compromise peace that ended the war. Indeed, war broke out seven more times before a more lasting peace was secured by the first Bourbon king, Henry IV, with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The edict set the terms for religious coexistence, allowing French Protestants limited rights to worship and certain protections under the law. It also fostered the spread of a movement already underway for the renewal of Catholic spirituality and reform of Catholic church institutions in France. Until the 1970s, the civil and religious wars that afflicted France through the second half of the 16th century were viewed largely as the consequence of political rivalries that spun out of control following the death of King Henry II. More recently, historians have shifted their attention to the social and cultural contexts in which the wars took place, particularly to the fundamentally religious nature of the quarrels. This has led to a profusion of new scholarship on the impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations in France, the tensions—and ultimately the violence—generated by competing claims to religious truth, and the difficulty of resolving the quarrels or putting an end to the wars that resulted from them.

General Overviews

Holt 2002 contains thematic essays on the French state and its social and economic structures, as well as fuller treatment of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations than most introductory works. Salmon 1975 weaves the Wars of Religion into a more complex narrative of social crisis and change. This book remains an important resource for scholars, but it may prove too difficult and detailed for those new to the field. Mariéjol 1983 remains useful for its narrative of events and is now available online. Crouzet 2008 emphasizes the religious dimensions of the wars and does not attempt a detailed chronological narrative. Greengrass 1995 focuses on the impact of the wars and the process of recovery under Henry IV. Carpi 2012 offers a recent and accessible overview of the wars.

  • Carpi, Olivia. Les Guerres de Religion (1559–1598): Un conflit franco-français. Paris: Ellipses, 2012.

    A valuable synthesis that views the conflicts as both civil and religious wars.

  • Crouzet, Denis. Dieu en ses royaumes: Une histoire des guerres de religion. Seyssel, France: Champ Vallon, 2008.

    Interprets the Wars of Religion as the product of religious anguish and attempts to lay out the underlying religious “imagination” that motivated the conflicts, rather than laying out a narrative of events. As such, this is a difficult book for readers lacking background in the subject matter.

  • Greengrass, Mark. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1995.

    Surveys the situation as France emerged from the Wars of Religion and then focuses on the restoration of royal authority under Henry IV; especially strong on the problem of religious coexistence and the work of financial and economic recovery.

  • Holt, Mack P., ed. Renaissance and Reformation France, 1500–1648. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A topical and thematic approach to the subject, with essays by six American historians of early modern France. Chapters on “Religion and the Sacred,” “The Wars of Religion,” and “Catholic Reform and Religious Coexistence” are especially relevant here, but those on the French monarchy, society, and economy offer useful background and context.

  • Mariéjol, Jean-Hippolyte. La Réforme et la Ligue: L’édit de Nantes, 1559–1598. Paris: Tallandier, 1983.

    First published in 1904 as a volume in the classic Histoire de France depuis les origines jusqu’à la Révolution, edited by Ernest Lavisse (Paris: Hachette). Still useful for its detailed account of royal politics, events leading up to the Wars of Religion, and the wars themselves. Available online from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

  • Salmon, John H. M. Society in Crisis: France in the Sixteenth Century. London: E. Benn, 1975.

    Reflecting social history approaches dominant at the time it was written, this book begins with a description and analysis of French social structures and political and religious institutions. It then moves on to blend narrative and analysis in its account of the wars themselves. Not an easy book but still considered by many to be the best history of the wars in English.

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