The consecrated wafer.
When such superstitious respect was paid to the relics of saints, it is
not surprising that the consecrated wafer or host received the most
extravagant marks of adoration. The king himself was often foremost in
public demonstrations in its honor. Louise de Savoie, mother of Francis
the First, relates in her quaint diary the pompous ceremonial observed
in restoring to its original position a pyx containing the host which
had been stolen from the chapel of the palace of St. Germain-en-Laye.
The culprit had suffered the customary penalty, having had his hand cut
off and being afterward burned alive. In the expiatory procession which
took place a few days
1 Ibid., 140. 2 Ibid., 179, 180.
3 Ibid., 172. 4 Ibid., 156.
later, Francis himself walked with uncovered head and
carrying a lighted taper in his hand, from Nanterre to St. Germain.
If we may credit his mother's somewhat partial account, the sight of the
monarch's signal piety was so touching as to bring tears to the eyes of
In view of the general prevalence of debasing forms of superstition
among the people, it is not inappropriate to consider the condition of
that class of the population which is wont to exert the most potent
influence in forming the moral sentiments and moulding the character of
the unlettered masses. We have already touched upon the external
relations of the clergy to the king and to the Pope; let us now look
more narrowly into its internal state.
Wealth and power of the clergy.
At the period of which I am now treating, the clergy, both regular and
secular, had attained unprecedented wealth and power. Never, perhaps,
had France been more fully represented in the "Sacred College."
Assuredly never since the residence of the Popes in Avignon had the
French members possessed such immense riches. Thirteen French cardinals
sat in the papal consistory at one time in the reign of Francis the
First; twelve at the accession of his son to the throne.2 Their
influence in the kingdom was almost beyond conception, both on account
of the multitude of benefices they held, and the distinction of the
families from whom they sprang and whose titles they retained. Some were
the incumbents of as many as ten bishoprics and abbeys; while the
cardinals of Bourbon, of Lorraine, of Châtillon, of Du Bellay, and of
Armagnac were of the best blood in the realm, and enjoyed in their own
right, or by reason of their office, very extensive jurisdiction.
Non-residence of the prelates.
A standing reproach against the prelates was their non-residence in the
dioceses committed to their pastoral supervision.
1 "Et lors faisoit beau voir mon fils porter honneur et
reverence au saint sacrement, que chacun en le regardant se prenoit à
pleurer de pitié et de joye." Journal de Louise de Savoie, Collection de
mémoires (Petitot), xvi. 407.
2 Gaillard, Hist. de François premier, vii. 45, etc.;
Mézeray, Abrégé chron. de l'hist. de France (Amst., 1682), iv. 644.
In fact, when the Council of Trent, by one of its first decrees, forbade a
plurality of benefices and enjoined residence, its action was regarded as an
open declaration of war against the French episcopate.1 But if this abuse
is deplored by Roman Catholic historians as the fruitful cause of the
introduction and rapid progress of Protestantism,2 the reformers,
viewing their work as an instrument specially designed by heaven for the
purification of a corrupt church, might well be justified in regarding
the negligence of the bishops as a wise providential arrangement. Many a
feeble germ of truth was spared the violence of persecution until the
kindly sun and the plentiful showers had conferred greater powers of
endurance. Happily for the reformers, the duty of watching for the first appearance
of reputed heresy, which belonged properly to the bishops, was but poorly
discharged by many of the deputies to whom they entrusted it. Nor could a
delegated authority always accomplish what might have been done by a principal.3
Revenues of the clergy.
The annual revenues of the clergy of France were estimated by a Venetian
ambassador, with unsurpassed facilities for obtaining accurate information, at
six million crowns of gold, out of the fifteen millions that constituted the total
revenues of the kingdom. While the clergy thus absorbed two-fifths of the
whole income of France, the king was limited to one million and a half crowns,
or just one-tenth, derived from his particular estates.4
Morals of the clergy.
Wealth had engendered luxury and vice. Engrossed in the pursuit of
pleasure or personal aggrandizement, the vast majority of clergymen had
lost all solicitude for the spiritual welfare
1 Gaillard, ubi supra.
2 Cénac Moncaut, Histoire des Pyrénées (Paris, 1854), iv.
342, referring primarily to southern France.
3 Since the end of the thirteenth century the bishop had
been accustomed to delegate the contentious jurisdiction of his diocese
to an ecclesiastical judge, taking the name of vicar, or more commonly
official ("vicarius generalis officialis"). The court itself became
known as the officialité. Trials for heresy, breach of promise of
marriage, etc., came before it. See the Dictionnaire de la conversation
(1857), s. v. Official.
4 Michel Surriano (1561), Rel. des Amb. Vén., Tommaseo, i.
502. The other half went to princes, barons, and other possessors of
of their flocks. About the middle of the century Claude Haton, curate of
Mériot--certainly no friend of the reformatory movement--wrote in his
Mémoires: "The more rapidly the number of heretics in France increased,
the more indifferent to the discharge of their duty in their charges were the
prelates and pastors of the church, from cardinals and archbishops down to the
most insignificant curate. They cared little or nothing how anything went, if
they could but draw the income of their benefices at whatever place of
residence they had selected with a view to the promotion of their
pleasure.1 They let their benefices out at the highest rate they
could get, little solicitous as to the hands they might fall into,
provided only they were well paid according to the terms of the
agreement. The archbishops, bishops, and cardinals of France were almost
all at the court of the king and the princes. The abbots, priors and
curates resided in the large cities and in other places, wherein they
took more delight than within the limits of their charges and preaching
the true word of God to their subjects and parishioners. From their
indifference the Lutheran heretics took occasion to slander the Church
of Jesus Christ and to seduce Christians from it."2
No regard to the spiritual wants of the people.
Such a condition of utter indifference on the part of the clergy to the
interests of the souls committed to their charge cannot surprise us when
we learn that benefices were conferred without regard to the wants of
the people. The Venetian Soranzo, in an address delivered after the
fruits of the concordat had had full time to mature,3 declared that
in the majority of cases these ecclesiastical positions were dispensed
with little respect to things sacred, and through simple favor. They
served as a convenient method of rewarding good services. Little account
was made of the qualifications
1 How they behaved there, the abbé of Mériot elsewhere
tells us: "Et si le plus souvent à telles noyseay estoient les premiers
les prebstres, l'espée au poing, car ilz estoient des premiers aux
danses, jeux de quilles, d'escrime, et ès tavernes où ilz ribloient et
par les rues toute nuict aultant que les plus meschans du pays." Mém de
Claude Haton, 18.
2 Mémoires de Claude Haton, i. 89, 90.
3 Giovanni Soranzo returned from France in 1558, or a year
before the close of the reign of Henry II.
of the candidate, who might have earned his reward in the army or in the civil
service. And so it often happened that he who to-day was a merchant or a soldier,
to-morrow was made bishop or abbot. When, indeed, the fortunate man had a wife
or was reluctant to assume the habit, he could readily get permission to place
the benefice in the name of another, himself retaining the income.1
"These new pastors," said Correro, "placed in charge of the churches men
who had taken it into their heads to be clergymen only to avoid the
toils of some other occupation--men who, by their avarice and
dissoluteness of life, confused the innocent people and removed their
previous great devotion. This was the door, this was the spacious
gateway, by which heresies entered France. For the ministers sent from
Geneva were easily able to create in the people a hatred of the priests
and friars, by simply weighing in the balance the life led by the
The clergy before the concordat.
It was the fashion among those who passed for philosophers to ascribe
the universal dissolution of morals among French ecclesiastics to the
operation of the concordat between Francis the First and Pope Leo the
Tenth, which, said they, by bringing so many bishops and other high
dignitaries to the court in quest of preferment, had corrupted the
characters of the prelates, while exposing their flocks to all the evils
which neglect is wont to breed. Unfortunately, the portraits of the
period preceding the revocation of the Pragmatic Sanction that have come
down to us dispel the Arcadian simplicity of manners which seems only to
have existed in the imagination of a few warm admirers of everything
ancient. If the prelates of France were dissolute after the introduction
of the concordat, we are assured by a writer by no means partial to the
"new doctrines," that the state of affairs was no better at
1 Relazioni Venete, Albèri, ii. 409. Brantôme is a familiar
instance of a favorite thus rewarded from the estates of the church. His
amusing vindication of the anomaly is worthy of a perusal. See
Digression contre les Eslections des Benefices, Œuvres, tom. vii. On
one occasion an enemy of the loquacious courtier caused the
assassination of his titular abbot, apparently in the hope of
depriving Brantôme of his chief source of revenue! Ibid., vii. 294.
2 "Solo col ponderar loro la vita che tenevano." Relazione
di G. Correro, 1569, Tommaseo, ii. 150.
an earlier period. In their abbeys or bishoprics they were as debauched as
those who followed arms for their profession.1 The bishops bought
their places with money, or with promises which were to be fulfilled after
preferment. "And when they had attained these high dignities," he adds,
"God knows what lives they led. Assuredly they were far more devoted to
their dioceses than they have since been; for they never left them. But
it was to lead a most dissolute life with their dogs and birds, with
their feasts, banquets, marriage entertainments and courtezans, of whom
they gathered seraglios.... All this was permitted, and none dared to
remonstrate or utter censure. Even more could be related, which is
passed over in silence through fear of creating scandal. Our present
bishops, if not better men, are at least more discreet hypocrites, and
more skilfully conceal their black vices."2 Nor were the morals of
the monastic orders depicted in brighter colors. "Generally the monks
elected the most jovial companion, him who was the most fond of women,
dogs, and birds, the deepest drinker--in short, the most dissipated; and
this in order that, when they had made him abbot or prior, they might be
permitted to indulge in similar debauch and pleasure. Indeed, they bound
him beforehand by strong oaths, to which he was forced to conform either
voluntarily or by constraint. The worst was that, when they failed to
agree in their elections, they usually came to blows with fist and
sword, and inflicted wounds and even death. In a word, there was more
tumult, more faction and intrigue, than there is at the election of the
Rector of the University of Paris."3 It was not strange, therefore,
that Francis, unable otherwise to recompense his deserving nobles,
should prefer to bestow upon them rich abbeys and priories, rather than
leave these to the monks in their cloisters--monks who, as the monarch
1 "Je n'ay point ouy dire, ny leu qu'auparavant ils fussent
plus gens-de-bien, et mieux vivants; car en leurs Eveschez et Abbayes,
ils estoient autant desbauchez que Gens-d'armes; car comme j'ay dit
cydevant, qu'à la cour s'ils faisoient l'amour, c'estoit discrètement et
sans scandale," etc. Brantôme, ubi supra, vii. 312.
2 "Au moins plus sages hypocrites, qui cachent mieux leurs
vices noirs." Brantôme, ubi supra, vii. 287-289.
3 Brantôme, ubi supra, vii. 280.
say, "were good for nothing but to eat and drink, to frequent
taverns and gamble, to twist cords for the cross-bow, set traps for
ferrets and rabbits, and train linnets to whistle"--men whose idleness
and other vices were so notorious that the expressions, "He is as idle
as a priest or monk," and "Avaricious and lewd as a priest or monk,"
passed into proverbs.1
Aversion to the use of the French language.
Ecclesiastical teachers themselves so ignorant and corrupt could not be
expected to do much for the elevation of the laity. Of popularizing
knowledge, especially religious knowledge, the clergy and their
adherents had little thought. Latin alone was deemed suitable for the
discussion of matters of faith. It was enough to condemn the employment
of French for this purpose, that it could be understood by the people.
For the reformers was reserved the honor of raising the dialect of the
masses to the dignity of a language fit for the highest literary uses,
and of compelling even their antagonists to resort to it in
self-defence, though, it must be confessed, with a very poor grace. So
late as in 1558 we find a leading theologian of the Sorbonne publicly
apologizing for the condescension. "Very dear friend," he writes in
the address to the reader, "I doubt not that, at first sight, you will
regard it as strange and perhaps very wrong that this reply is couched
in the vulgar tongue; seeing that it would be much more suitable were
it circulated in the Latin rather than the French tongue, inasmuch as
the subject-matter consists of things greatly concerning Christian
faith, which require rather to be put in Latin than in French. Of this
also we have the example of the holy ancient doctors, who were always
accustomed to write against heretics in Latin and not in French."2
If such was the avowed repugnance to the use of the language of the
people in the treatment of religious themes, so late as within a year of
the death of Henry the Second, it may readily be conceived how deep the
aversion was a generation earlier, at the first appearance of the
1 Brantôme, vii. 286.
2 Réponse à quelque apologie, etc. Par Antoine de Mouchy,
surnommé Démochares, docteur en théologie, 1558. Feuillet 2. Apud
Henri Lutteroth, La réformation en France pendant sa première période
(Paris, 1859), 137.
Ignorance of the Holy Scriptures.
As to acquaintance with the contents of the Holy Scriptures, either in
the original or in translation, there was next to none among the
professed teachers of science and religion. If the statements of the
celebrated scholar and printer, Robert Étienne, or Stephens, seem almost
incredible, they nevertheless come from a witness of unimpeachable
veracity. Referring to the period of his boyhood or early youth--he was
born in 1503--Étienne sketched the biblical attainments of the doctors
of the Sorbonne after this fashion: "In those times, as I can affirm
with truth, when I asked them in what part of the New Testament some
matter was written, they used to answer that they had read it in Saint
Jerome or in the Decretals, but that they did not know what the New
Testament was, not being aware that it was customary to print it after
the Old. What I am going to state will appear almost a prodigy, and yet
there is nothing more true nor better proven: Not long since, a member
of their college used daily to say, 'I am amazed that these young people
keep bringing up the New Testament to us. I was more than fifty years
old before I knew anything about the New Testament!'"1
Miracles to stimulate the popular faith. The "ghost of Orleans."
The absence of teaching founded upon a rational exposition of the Holy
Scriptures was not less marked than was the abundance of reported
miracles, by means of which the popular faith was stimulated and
sustained. Above all, the doctrine of transubstantiation was fortified
by the circulation of stories of wonders such as that which took place
at Poitiers, in 1516, when the consecrated wine, spilled by a crazy man,
from white instantly became red.2 At other times imposture was
resorted to in support of such profitable beliefs as the existence of
purgatorial fires, or to inculcate the advantage accruing from masses
for the souls of the dead. The "ghost of Orleans" has become historic.
The wife of the provost of the city having died, was buried, as she had
1 "Je suis esbahi de ce que ces jeunes gens nous alleguent
le Nouveau Testament. J'avoys plus de cinquante ans que je ne scavoys
que c'estoit du Nouveau Testament." Robert Étienne, apud Baum,
Origines Evangelii in Gallia restaurati (Strasbourg, 1838), 35.
2 "Un beau miracle," says the Journal d'un bourgeois de
requested, without any pomp and without the customary gifts to the
church. Thereupon the Franciscans conceived the scheme of making use of
her example to warn others against following a course so detrimental to
monastic and priestly interests. The mysterious knockings by means of
which the deceased was supposed to give intimation of her miserable doom
and of her desire that her body, as of one that had been tainted with
heresy, should be removed from the holy ground wherein it had been
interred, were listened to with amazement by the awe-stricken people.
But the opportune discovery of a novice, conveniently posted above the
ceiling of the convent chapel, sadly interfered with the success of the
well contrived plot, and eleven monks convicted of complicity in the
fraud were banished the kingdom. They would have been even more severely
punished had not fear been entertained lest the reformers might find too
much occasion for triumph.1
Theatrical effects. A strange coin.
More excusable were the theatrical effects which were intended, without
actually deceiving, to heighten the religious devotion of worshippers.
Thus, every Pentecost or Whit-Sunday, in the midst of the service an
angel was seen to descend from the lofty ceiling of the Sainte Chapelle
in Paris, attended by two smaller angels, and bearing a silver vase
containing water for the use of the celebrant of the high mass.2 For
this somewhat harmless piece of spectacular display a justification
might be sought in the religious impressions which the people were
supposed to derive most easily through the senses; but nothing could be
urged in defence of much that
1 Histoire ecclésiastique des Églises Réformées au royaume
de France (commonly ascribed to Theodore de Bèze, or Beza) Lille edit.,
i. 11; Gaillard, vi. 460. A MS. narrative of the farce, dictated by
Calvin and taken down by his secretary, Charles de Jonvillers, has been
discovered in the Geneva Library. It is printed in the Bulletin de la
Soc. de l'hist. du prot. franç., iii. (1854), 33, etc. Calvin, who had
himself been a student in the University of Orleans, and was fully
acquainted with the circumstances, drew up this piquant monograph for J.
Sleidan to use in his famous history of the times, where an account may
accordingly be read.
2 See the order of Spifame, of Oct. 5, 1527, for payment to
the master mechanic on several annual recurrences of the scene, Bulletin
de la Soc. de l'hist. du prot. franç., xxv. (1876), 236, with M.
the clergy tolerated or encouraged. Superstitions of heathen origin were suffered
to reign undisturbed. Pagan statues were openly worshipped. An Isis received
homage and was honored with burning candles. An Apollo at Polignac was a centre of religious veneration, and even the unsavory surroundings, when the
spot where it stood was transformed into a stable, could not deter an anxious
crowd of devotees from prostrating themselves before it. What
better could be expected in an age and country in which the people were
imposed upon by reports that prehistoric coins had been discovered
bearing the strange legend: "I believe in Jesus to be born among
animals and of a Virgin"?1
It was not astonishing that the church itself did little to remove the
barbarism prevailing among the common people, for, in point of fact,
buffoonery, immodesty, and cruelty had intruded into the very ceremonial
of religion. Never were there more disgusting exhibitions of the low
state of the public morals than when the occurrence of pestilence,
drought, or some other signal visitation of the displeasure of heaven
induced a clergy scarcely less rude than the laity to institute
propitiatory processions. On such occasions children of both sexes, or
perhaps grown men and women, with bare feet, and wearing for their only
clothing a sheet that scarcely concealed their forms, passed through the
streets of the towns, or wearily trudged from village to village,
responsively singing the litanies of the Virgin or the saints, and
loudly repeating the refrain, Ora pro nobis.2 Often shameful
indecency and a reckless
1 Farel, Du vray Usage de la Croix, 129, 131.
2 "Credo in Jesum inter animalia ex virgine nasciturum."
Chassanée, Catalogus Gloriæ Mundi, fol. 295. The medals were said to
have been unearthed at Autun, the residence of Chassanée, who informs us
"multum curavi invenire, sed non potui." But, in addition to the coins,
Chassanée gravely tells us there was also a church built by the
Franks at Chartres before the advent of Christ, in honor of the most
blessed Virgin parituræ; "from which it is demonstrated that, if other
Gentiles prophesied in word concerning Christ, the Franks believed on
him in deed, just as also the Greeks, who erected a temple to the
unknown God." Ibid., ubi supra.
3 From the simple costume worn arose the designation of
"les processions blanches."
disregard of human life were displayed. In one of the villages of Champagne,
during the protracted drought of 1556, the sacred scenes of the Passion were
publicly enacted in the streets. The person of our Lord was represented by a
young man in a state of entire nudity and bound with cords, who at every step
was scourged by his companions, personating the Roman soldiers. The picture
was true to life, and the blows so far from unreal that the prime actor in the
scandalous performance fell a victim to the inhuman treatment and died
within a few days. The fruits of practices so coarse and debasing were
such as may easily be conceived.1