In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Catherine de' Medici

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Dictionaries
  • Bibliographies
  • Gender and Power
  • Legacy

Renaissance and Reformation Catherine de' Medici
Katherine Crawford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0071


Catherine de’ Medici, wife of Henri II (r. 1547–1559) and mother of François II, Charles IX, and Henri III, never ruled in her own right, but she was perhaps the most influential—and controversial—figure at the center of French politics during one of the most troubled periods in French history. The combination of her lack of official authority and the difficulties created by religious civil war have shaped responses to Catherine since her lifetime. Some historians have chided her as a Catholic, others have regarded her as too Catholic, many have considered her irreligious or even Machiavellian in her politics. Despite efforts to rehabilitate Catherine for managing reasonably well under extremely difficult circumstances, the dominant view remains that she was responsible to some degree for the escalating religious violence, mounting fiscal problems, and dynastic collapse of the Valois monarchy. Among the debates in which Catherine and her influence have figured are her place in the monarchy, her relationships with her husband and sons, her response to the crisis brought on by the Protestant Reformation, her management of royal authority, her role as a political patron and power broker, and her role in the cultural life of France and the French court.

General Overviews

The debates over early modern France hinge on interpretations of the crisis of the 16th century in its political, economic, and religious dimensions. Knecht 2004 emphasizes the comparative success of François I and Henri II and the failings of Henri’s sons. Ladurie 1994 situates the difficulties of the 16th century within the larger arc of political and cultural developments in France, seeing the advent of “royal religion” as a long-term trend that defined the French monarchy. Potter 1995 reads the crisis period as revealing both the fragility of the monarchy and its resilience. Although older, Salmon 1975 brings attention to aspects of the crisis that the French monarchy faced. For a balanced treatment that highlights both the major issues and the narrative of change, see Jouanna 1997.

  • Jouanna, Arlette. La France du XVIe siècle, 1483–1598. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997.

    A useful, reliable, readable general narrative, Jouanna’s volume treats the period up to 1559 thematically and then narrates the Wars of Religion chronologically. The complexities of the century, which are many, are handled carefully and clearly.

  • Knecht, R. J. The Valois Kings of France, 1328–1589. London and New York: Hambledon, 2004.

    Knecht is especially interested in the life and career of François I, largely regarding the king’s heirs as unraveling François’s politically functional, highly cultured monarchy. In Knecht’s reading, Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici at least tried to maintain François’s standards.

  • Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. The Royal French State, 1460–1610. Translated by Juliet Vale. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994.

    While structured around political narrative, the text depicts the fundamental developments, stresses, and strains of the period, incorporating the recurrent economic disasters and cultural crises. The focus overall is on the gradual growing authoritarianism of the monarchy, although the style is eclectic, and the claim that the monarchy was inclined toward toleration and “proto-absolutist” must be regarded with some skepticism.

  • Potter, David. A History of France, 1460–1560: The Emergence of a Nation State. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

    Focusing on the earlier period, Potter argues in a vein similar to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, although more systematically. He sees the period in relatively positive terms, arguing that the recovery (economic and demographic) after the Hundred Years’ War enabled the monarchy to survive the troubles of the Wars of Religion.

  • Salmon, J. M. H. Society in Crisis: France in the Sixteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1975.

    Drawing together a number of threads that had been addressed in monographs, Salmon focuses on the economic pressures of the price revolution, the institutional reform of the monarchy, the rise of clientage in place of feudal ties, and the appearance of religious dissent. He follows the implications of these developments across the span of the century with elegance and lucidity.

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