The religious wars began with overt hostilities in 1562 and lasted until the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It was warfare that devastated a generation, although conducted in rather desultory, inconclusive way. Although religion was certainly the basis for the conflict, it was much more than a confessional dispute.

“Une foi, un loi, un roi”

(one faith, one law, one king). This traditional saying gives some indication of how the state, society, and religion were all bound up together in people’s minds and experience. There was not the distinction that we have now between public and private, between civic and personal. Religion had formed the basis of the social consensus of Europe for a millenium. Since Clovis, the French monarchy in particular had closely tied itself to the church — the church sanctified its right to rule in exchange for military and civil protection. France was “the first daughter of the church” and its king “The Most Christian King” (le roy tres chretien), and no one could imagine life any other way.

“One faith” was viewed as essential to civil order — how else would society hold together? And without the right faith, pleasing to God who upholds the natural order, there was sure to be disaster. Heresy was treason, and vice versa. Religious toleration, which to us seems such a necessary virtue in public life, was considered tantamount to letting drug dealers move next door and corrupt your children, a view for the cynical and world-weary who had forgotten God and no longer cared about the health of society.

Innovation caused trouble.

The way things were is how they ought to be, and new ideas would lead to anarchy and destruction. No one wanted to admit to being an “innovater.” The Renaissance thought of itself as rediscovering a purer, earlier time and the Reformation needed to feel that it was not new, but just a “return” to the simple, true religion of the beginnings of Christianity.

These fears of innovation certainly seemed justified when Henri II died suddenly in 1559, leaving an enormous power vacuum at the heart of social authority in France. The monarchy had never been truly absolute (although Fran