Enmity of the Franciscans. Weakness of Bishop Briçonnet.
But the bishop had excited the active enmity of a resolute and
suspicious foe. In forbidding the Franciscan monks entrance to any
pulpit within his jurisdiction, he had, even before the advent of
Lefèvre and the reformed teachers, incurred their violent
animosity.2 The new movement, while arousing their indignation, gave
them the opportunity they coveted for invoking the power of the
university and of parliament. At first the bishop was bold enough to
denounce the doctors of the Sorbonne as Pharisees and false
prophets,3 while in his private correspondence he stigmatized the
clergy as "the estate by the coldness of which all the others are
frozen,"4 or even as "that which is the ruin of all the
rest."5 But, frightened by the incessant clamor and attacks of his
enemies, he began gradually to waver, and presently lost all courage. In
the end he yielded so far as to suffer to be published in his name
official documents which were intended to overturn from the foundation
the very fabric he had been striving to rear. In one of these, a
"Synodal Decree" addressed to the faithful of his diocese,
1 "Provinciam interpretandi populo promiscui sexus,
quotidie una hora mane, epistolas Pauli lingua vernacula editas, non
concionando, sed per modum lecturæ interpretando." Lefèvre to Farel,
ubi supra, i. 222. He gives the names of four such "lectores
puriores"--Gadon, Mangin, Neufchasteau, and Mesnil--of whom we know little.
2 Parliament, however, as late as June 1, 1525, sustained
his episcopal authority by prohibiting the monks from preaching in
Meaux, whether in the morning or in the evening, when the bishop either
himself preached or had preaching before him in that part of the day.
Reg. of Parliament, Preuves des Libertez de l'Eglise Gallicane, iv. 102.
3 Gaillard, vi. 409.
4 "L'estat par la froideur duquel tous les aultres sont gelléz." Briçonnet to
Margaret of Angoulême, Dec. 22, 1521, Herminjard, i. 86.
5 "Celluy qui tous ruyne." Same to same, Jan. 31, 1524, ibid., i. 186.
the bishop was made to condemn the books of Martin Luther, and to
denounce Luther himself as one who was plotting the overthrow of "the
estate which keeps all the rest in the path of duty."1 Quite another
description of the clergy this from either of the descriptions which he
gave to Margaret of Angoulême! The other document was a letter to the
clergy of his diocese, warning them against certain preachers "brought
in by himself to share his pastoral cares," who, under cover of
proclaiming the Gospel, had "dared, in defiance of the evangelical
truth, to preach that purgatory does not exist, and that, consequently,
we must not pray for the dead, nor invoke the very holy Virgin Mary and
The precise time of Briçonnet's pusillanimous defection, as marked by
the publication of these pastoral letters, is involved in some
obscurity; for assuredly the date affixed to the transcripts that have
come down to us conflicts too seriously with the well-known facts of
history to be accepted as correct.3
Later Roman Catholic historians have asserted that the act was a
voluntary one; that Briçonnet had never in reality sympathized with the
religious views of reformers whom he had invited to Meaux simply because
of his admiration for learning; that no sooner did he discover the
heretical nature of their teachings than he removed them from the posts
to which they had been assigned; and that he spent the residue of his
life in the vain endeavor to retrieve the fatal consequences of his
mistake.4 But this view is confirmed by nothing in the prelate's
extant correspondence. Everywhere there is evidence that until his
courage broke down, Briçonnet was in full accord with the
1 "L'état qui contient tous les autres dans le devoir," as
translated by Herminjard, i. 154.
2 See both documents in Herminjard, i. 153 and 156.
3 Instead of October 15, 1523, it is probable that these
documents ought to be placed nearly, if not quite, two years later. See
M. Herminjard's remarks on this difficult point, Correspondance des
réformateurs, i. 158, note. The same uncertainty affects Briçonnet's
subsequent pastoral, revoking the powers accorded to "Lutheran
preachers," attributed to December 13, 1523, ibid., i. 171.
5 Maimbourg, Histoire du Calvinisme (Paris, 1682), liv. i.
11-14; Daniel, Histoire de France (Paris, 1755), x. 23.
reformers. His first step may possibly have been justified at the bar of
conscience by the plausible suggestion that, since the anger of the Sorbonne
had been directed specially against Meaux, the evangelical preachers could
be more serviceable elsewhere. But, from the mere withdrawal of support
to positive measures of repression, the transition was both natural and speedy.
He is cited to appear before the Parliament.
Unsatisfied by Bishop Briçonnet's merely negative course, the Parliament
of Paris at length cited him to appear and answer before a commission
consisting of two of its own counsellors. The information thus obtained
was next to be submitted to the judges delegated by the Pope, a tribunal
of the institution of which an account will be given in another
chapter.1 To this secret investigation Briçonnet objected, and
begged to be tried in open court by the entire body of parliament;2
but his petition was rejected, and his examination proceeded before the
inquisitorial commission. What measures were there taken to influence
him is not known. To Martial Mazurier, lately an enthusiastic preacher
of the "Lutheran" doctrines, who had himself, through fear, receded from
his advanced position, the doubtful honor is ascribed of having been
prominent in exertions to overcome the prelate's lingering scruples.
However this may be, when Briçonnet had given sufficient guarantees to
satisfy the Sorbonne that no apprehension need be entertained of a
repetition in Meaux of the dangerous experiment of the public
instruction of the people in the Holy Scriptures, there was nothing to
be gained by his condemnation. He was accordingly acquitted of all
charge of heresy, although condemned to pay the sum of two hundred
livres as the expense of bringing to trial the "heretics" whom he had
himself helped to make such.3 Hereupon he is said to have
1 Registres du parlement, Oct. 3, 1525, Preuves des Libertez de l'Église gallicane, iv. 102.
2 "Et supplie la Cour qu'il soit interrogé en pleine cour,
et non par Commissaires." Registres du parlement, Oct. 20, 1525, ibid., iv. 103.
3 Registres du parlement, Nov. 29, 1525, where the Bishop
of Meaux is ordered to pay 200 livres parisis for the trial of the
heretics, prisoners from Meaux (Preuves des Libertez, iii. 166), and the
receipt for the same (Ibid., ubi supra). This was, however, merely an
application of the general prescription of Nov. 24, 1525, requiring all
prelates to defray the expenses of the trial of any heretics discovered in their dioceses, with the right to indemnify themselves from the property of the convicted heretics (Ibid., iii. 165).
So the Archbishop of Tours contributed to the expenses incurred in the trial of Jean
Papillon, Feb. 5, 1526 (Ibid., iii. 167).
returned to his diocese, and, having convened a synod, to have prohibited, as we
have seen, the circulation of Luther's writings, reintroduced the
ecclesiastical practices that had been condemned or discarded, and given
to the persecution now set on foot his unequivocal sanction.1
Dispersion of the reformed teachers.
The teachers whom Briçonnet had so cordially invited to assist him were
compelled one by one to abandon Meaux. Among the earliest to leave was
Farel.2 His was no faint heart. If he gave up his activity in Brie,
it was only to return to his native Dauphiny, where a young nobleman,
Anemond de Coct, and a preacher, Pierre de Sebeville, were among the
leading men whose conversion was the fruit of his indefatigable
exertions. After a visit to Guyenne, of which little is known, he passed
into German Switzerland, and labored successively in Basle, Strasbourg,
Annoyances of those who remain.
Lefèvre and Roussel were among the last to withdraw; but, beset with
watchful enemies, they found their position neither safe nor
comfortable. It was as difficult to maintain a semblance of friendship
with an ecclesiastical system which they detested in their hearts, as to
refuse their sympathy and support to the persecuted whose opinions they
shared without possessing the courage necessary to suffer in attestation
of the common faith. Busy informers at one time found evidence, more
than warranting the suspicion that Roussel's manuscripts had furnished
the material of which scandalous placards defamatory of the Pope were
framed.4 A little later the proctor of the cathedral drew attention to the
1 Daniel, x. 23, 24; Gaillard, vi. 409-411.
2 Neither the reason nor the precise time of his departure
is known. It was apparently as early as 1523.
3 See Haag, La France protestante, art. Farel; Dr. E.
Schmidt, Wilhelm Farel, in Hagenbach, Leben d. Väter und Begründer der
Reformirten Kirche, vii. 3, etc. A brief but very accurate sketch in
Herminjard, i. 178, etc.
4 MS. Seminary of Meaux, January 11, 1524/5, Bulletin, x. 220.
irregular conventicles held in the church itself, every Sunday
and feast-day, after Roussel had preached. These "combers, carders, and
other persons of the same stamp, unlettered folk,"1 brought with
them books containing the Epistles of St. Paul, the Gospels, and the
Psalms, in flagrant disregard of the prohibitions they had heard
respecting the discussion of such topics as faith, the sacraments, the
privileges of Rome, and the use of pictures in the churches. It was made
the occasion of "charitable rebuke" and then of formal complaint against
Roussel by his fellow canons, that he failed to repeat the angelic
salutation, according to the orthodox practice, after the exordium of
his sermon. To the combined exhortations and threats of his accusers
Roussel replied in the chapter that, if he had done wrong, it belonged
to the bishop to reprove him, but that as to himself he esteemed the
repetition of the Lord's Prayer quite as efficacious as the recital of
the Ave Maria.2
Lefèvre and Roussel take refuge in Strasbourg. Excessive caution of Roussel.
At last danger thickened, and Lefèvre and Roussel found themselves
forced to leave Meaux (October, 1525), and sought refuge within the
hospitable walls of Strasbourg; for the persecuting measures adopted by
the regent, Louise de Savoie, and the Parliament of Paris, during the
king's captivity, as we shall shortly see, had placed the lives of even
such prudent reformers in peril.3 In the free city on the banks of
the Rhine, Lefèvre met his pupil Farel, and in the midst of cordial
greetings was reminded by him that the day of "renovation" which he had
long since predicted and desired had really come.4 But the contrast
between the two men had become sharply drawn. The fearless athlete, soon
to measure his strength with no puny antagonists at Neufchâtel,
Lausanne, Geneva, and so many other places in French
1 "Plusieurs peigneurs, cardeurs et autres gens de même trempe, non lettrés."
2 MS. Seminary of Meaux, February 6, 1524/5, Bulletin, x.220.
3 Compare for the date, Herminjard, i. 378, 389, 401.
Gérard Roussel was ordered by parliament to be seized wherever found,
etiam in loco sacro. So, too, were Caroli and Prévost. Jacques Lefèvre
was cited to appear. Régistres du parlement, Oct. 3, 1525, Preuves des
Libertez de l'Égl. gall., iii. 102, 103.
4 Farel to Pellican, 1556, Herminjard, i. 481.
Switzerland, whose course was to be a succession of rough encounters,
discovered that the master from whom he had received the impulse that
shaped his entire life, shrank from sundering the last link binding him to the
Roman church. And Gérard Roussel was even more timid. The elegant preacher,
with fair prospects of preferment, could not bring himself openly to
espouse the quarrel of oppressed truth. A mysticism investing his entire
belief, and perverting his moral perceptions, led him to imagine that
the heart might be kept pure in the midst of many external corruptions,
and that the enlightened could worship the Almighty acceptably in spite
of superstitious observances, which, while countenancing by apparent
acquiescence, they rejected in their hearts. The excellence of the
reformation already inaugurated at Strasbourg made a deep and very
favorable impression upon Roussel. He wrote to Bishop Briçonnet that the
daily preaching of a pure doctrine, "without dross or leaven of the
Pharisees,"1 the crowds of attentive hearers, the schools presided
over by men as illustrious for piety as for letters, and the careful
provision for the poor, would delight his correspondent were he to see
them. He did not dissemble his own great satisfaction that the
monasteries had been changed into educational establishments, the
pictures taken away from the churches, and every altar removed except
one, on which the communion was celebrated, as nearly as possible,
according to the plan of its institution.2 At the same time he
renounced none of his excessive caution. His words were still those he
had uttered when urged, a twelvemonth earlier, by Farel,
Œcolampadius, and Zwingle, to strike out boldly and by an open
dispute on religion compel the attention of the thoughtless world. "The
flesh is weak! As my friends, Lefèvre and others, urge, the convenient
season has not yet come, the Gospel has not yet been scattered
sufficiently far and wide. We must not assume the Lord's prerogative for
sending laborers into the harvest, but leave
1 "Ita invigilent Verbo ecclesiarum ministri, ut, nulla
pene hora diei, suum desit pabulum et quidem syncerum, ut nulla subsit
palea aut fermenti pharisaici commissura."
2 Roussel to Briçonnet, Strasbourg, Dec, 1525, Herminjard, i. 406, 407.
the work to Him whose it is, and who can easily raise up a far richer harvest than
that for whose safety we are solicitous!"1
Such were the paltry evasions of cowardly souls, to excuse themselves
for the neglect of admitted duty. We cannot wonder at the burning words
of condemnation which this pusillanimity called forth from the pen of
brave Pierre Toussain. "I have spoken to Lefèvre and Roussel," he wrote
some months later, "but certainly Lefèvre has not a particle of courage.
May God confirm and strengthen him! Let them be as wise as they please,
let them wait, procrastinate, and dissemble; the Gospel will never be
preached without the cross! When I see these things, when I see the
mind of the king, the mind of the duchess [Margaret of Angoulême] as
favorable as possible to the advancement of the Gospel of Christ, and
those who ought to forward this matter, according to the grace given
them, obstructing their design, I cannot refrain from tears. They say,
indeed: 'It is not yet time, the hour has not come!' And yet we have
here no day or hour. What would not you do had you the Emperor and
Ferdinand favoring your attempts? Entreat God, therefore, in behalf of
France, that she may at length be worthy of His word."2
The remainder of the task imposed on the weak Bishop of Meaux and his
new allies, the monks of St. Francis, proved a more difficult
undertaking. The shepherds had been dispersed, but the flock refused to
forsake the fold. From the nourishing food they had discovered in the
Word of God, they could not be induced to return to the husks offered to
them in meaningless ceremonies, celebrated in an unknown tongue by men
of impure lives. The Gospels in French remained more attractive
1 Roussel to Farel, Meaux, Aug. 24, 1524, Herminjard, i.
271--a document that throws a flood of light upon the motives of the
conduct of both Roussel and Lefèvre. A letter of the same date to
Œcolampadius is, in some respects, even more instructive. Notice the
pitiful weakness revealed in these sentences: "Reclamabunt episcopi,
reclamabunt doctores, reclamabunt scholæ, assentiente populo, occurret
Senatus (parliament). Quid faciet homuncio adversus tot leones?"
Herminjard, i. 278. A reference to the book of Daniel might have enabled
the Canon of Meaux to answer his own question.
2 Pierre Toussain to Œcolampadius, Malesherbes, July 26,
1526, Herminjard, i. 447.
than the legendary, even after the bishop had abandoned the championship of
the incipient reformation. Briçonnet's own expressed wish was granted:
if he had "changed his speech and teaching," the common people, at
least, had not changed with him.
The wool-carder, Jean Leclerc, tears down a papal bull.
His barbarous sentence.
Among the first fruits of the Reformation in Meaux was a wool-carder,
Jean Leclerc, into whose hands had fallen one of Lefèvre's French
Testaments. He was a man of strong convictions and invincible
resolution. A bull, issued by Clement the Seventh in connection with the
approaching jubilee, had been posted on the doors of the cathedral
(December, 1524). It offered indulgence, and enjoined prayers, fasting,
and partaking of the Communion, in order to obtain from heaven the
restoration of peace between princes of Christendom. Leclerc secretly
tore the bull down, substituting for it a placard in which the Roman
pontiff figured as veritable Antichrist. Diligent search was at once
instituted for the perpetrator of this offence, and for the author of
the subsequent mutilation of the prayers to the Virgin hung up in
various parts of the same edifice. A truculent order was also issued in
the bishop's name, threatening all persons that might conceal their
knowledge of the culprits with public excommunication, every Sunday and
feast-day, "with ringing of bells and with candles lighted and then
extinguished and thrown upon the earth, in token of eternal
malediction."1 Leclerc was discovered, and taken to Paris for
trial. The barbarous sentence of parliament was, that he be whipped in
Paris by the common executioner on three successive days, then
transferred to Meaux to receive the like punishment, and finally branded
on the forehead with a red-hot iron, before being banished forever from
1 Mandement de Guillaume Briçonnet an clergé de son
diocèse, le 21 janvier, 1525, Herminjard, i. 320, etc.
2 It may seem surprising that Jean Leclerc escaped the
stake in punishment of his temerity. But the reason is found in the
circumstance that he was tried, not for heresy, but for irreverence.
This appears from the Registres du parlement for March 20, 1524/5. The
interesting discussions of that session, printed in the Bulletin de la
Soc. de l'hist. du prot. français, iii. (1854) 23, etc., establish the
fact that the reformed doctrines were already making formidable headway
in Paris and the adjoining towns. A brother of Bishop Briçonnet took a
prominent part in the debate, and gave a deplorable view of the
prevalence of impiety and heresy in the higher circles of society.
The cruel prescription was followed out to the letter (March, 1525). A
superstitious multitude flocked together to see and gloat over the
condign punishment of a heretic, and gave no word of encouragement and
support. But, as the iron was leaving on Leclerc's brow the ignominious
imprint of the fleur-de-lis,1 a single voice suddenly broke in
upon the silence. It was that of his aged mother, who, after an
involuntary cry of anguish, quickly recovered herself and shouted, "Hail
Jesus Christ and his standard-bearers!"2 Although many heard her
words, so deep was the impression, that no attempt was made to lay hands
He is burned alive at Metz.
From Meaux, Leclerc, forced to leave his home, retired first to Rosoy,
and thence to Metz.4 Here, while supporting himself by working at
his humble trade, he lost none of his missionary spirit. Not content
with communicating a knowledge of the doctrines of the Reformation to
all with whom he conversed, his impatient zeal led him to a new and
startling protest against the prevalent, and, in his view, idolatrous
worship of images. Learning that on a certain day a solemn procession
was to be made to a shrine situated a few miles out of the city gates,
he went to the spot under cover of night, and hurled the sacred images
from their places. On the morrow the horrified worshippers found the
objects of their devotion prostrated and mutilated, and their rage knew
no bounds. It was not long before the wool-carder was apprehended. His
religious sentiments were no secret, and he had been seen returning from
the scene of his nocturnal exploit. He promptly acknowledged his guilt,
1 For a description of the punishment, see Bastard
d'Estang, Les parlements de France.]
2 "Vive Jésus Christ et ses enseignes!"]
3 Histoire ecclésiastique des églises réformées, attributed
to Theodore Beza (Ed. of Lille, 1841), i. 4; Crespin, Actiones et
Monimenta Martyrum (Geneva, 1560), fol. 46; Haag, La France protestante,
art. Leclerc; Daniel, x. 23, who finds no more suitable epithet for
Leclerc than "ce scélérat."]
4 At this time a city of the Empire, and not conquered by
France until the reign of Henry II. (1552).]
and was rescued from the infuriated populace only to undergo a more
terrible doom at the hands of the public executioner (July 22, 1525).
His right hand was cut off at the wrist, his arms, his nose, his breast
were cruelly torn with pincers; but no cry of anguish escaped the lips
of Leclerc. The sentence provided still further that, before his body
should be consigned to the flames, his head be encircled with a red-hot
band of iron. As the fervent metal slowly ate its way toward his very
brain, the bystanders with amazement heard the dying man calmly repeat
the words of Holy Writ: "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of
men's hands." He had not completed the Psalmist's terrific denunciation
of the crime and folly of image-worship when his voice was stifled by
the fire and smoke of the pyre into which his impatient tormentors had
hastily thrown him. If not actually the first martyr of the French
Reformation, as has commonly been supposed, Jean Leclerc deserves, at
least, to rank among the most constant and unswerving of its early apostles.1