to the tenets of the Roman church was to be shaken by a closer study of
the Scriptures. In 1508 Lefèvre completed a Latin commentary upon the
Psalms.1 In 1512 he published a commentary in the same language on
the Pauline Epistles--a work which may indeed fall short of the standard
of criticism established by a subsequent age, but yet contains a clear
enunciation of the doctrine of justification by faith, the cardinal
doctrine of the Reformation.2 Foresees the coming reformation.
Thus, five years before Luther posted his theses on the doors of the
church at Wittemberg, Jacques Lefèvre had proclaimed, in no equivocal
terms, his belief in the same great principles. But Lefèvre's lectures
in the college and his written commentary were addressed to the learned.
Consequently they produced no such immediate and startling effect as the
ninety-five propositions of the Saxon monk. Lefèvre was not himself to
be an active instrument in the French reformation. His office was rather
to prepare the way for others--not, perhaps, more sincere, but certainly
more courageous--to enter upon the hazardous undertaking of attempting
to renovate the church. His faithful disciple, indeed, has preserved for
us a remarkable prophecy, uttered by Lefèvre at the very time when he
was still assiduous in his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints.
Grasping Farel by the hand, the venerable doctor more than once
addressed to him the significant words, which made a deep impression on
the hearer's mind: "Guillaume, the world is going to be renewed, and you
will behold it!"3
1 Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, i. 4, 481.
2 See the dedication, dated Dec. 15, 1512, Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, i. 2-9.
3 Letter of Farel to Pellican (1556), Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, i. 481:
"Pius senex, Jacobus Faber, quem tu novisti, ante annos plus minus quadraginta, me manu
apprehensum, ita alloquebatur: 'Gulielme, oportet orbem mutari, et tu videbis'
dicebat." So in the "Epistre à tous Seigneurs et Peuples" (Ed. Fick),170: "Souventefois me disoit
que Dieu renouvelleroit le monde, et que je le verroye." A few years later, at Strasbourg, the
reformer reminded his former master of his prediction: "Voicy par la grace de Dieu, le
Sorbonne, Professor Soldan is mistaken in saying: "Seit 1493 lebte er
als Doctor der Theologie zu Paris, u. s. w." The error is of long standing.
2 See Alphonse de Beauchamp's sketches of the lives of the
two Briçonnets, in the Biographie universelle.
made by the young ecclesiastic to enforce the observance of canonical
discipline by the luxurious friars of the monastery of St. Germain. Here,
too, he had tasted the first fruits of the opposition which was before long
to test his firmness and constancy.
Briçonnet had been appointed Bishop of Meaux (March 19, 1516) about the
same time that Francis the First despatched him as special envoy to
treat with the Pope. It would seem that the intimate acquaintance with
the papal court gained on this occasion, confirming the impressions made
by a previous diplomatic mission in the time of Louis the Twelfth,
convinced Briçonnet that the church stood in urgent need of reform; and
he resolved to begin the work in his own diocese.
Lefèvre and Farel invited to Meaux.
Weary of the annoyance and peril arising from the ignorance and malice
of his enemies, the theologians of the Sorbonne, Lefèvre d'Étaples
longed for a more quiet home, where he might reasonably hope to
contribute his share to the great renovation descried long since by his
prophetic glance. He was now invited by Briçonnet, to whom his learning
and zeal were well known, to accompany him to Meaux, where, at the
distance of a little more than a score of miles from the capital, he
would at least be rid of the perpetual clamor against Luther and his
doctrines that assailed his ears in Paris.1 He was accompanied, or
followed, to Meaux by his pupil, Farel. Over the views of the latter a
signal change had come since he entered the university, full of
veneration for the saints, and an enthusiastic supporter of the mass, of
the papal hierarchy, and of every institution authorized by
ecclesiastical tradition. After a painful mental struggle, of which he
has himself given us a graphic account,2 Farel had been reluctantly
brought to the startling conviction that the system of which he had been
an enthusiastic advocate was a tissue of falsehoods and an abomination
in God's sight. It required no
1 According to a contemporary letter, this was the sole
cause of Lefèvre's departure. "Faber Stapulensis ab urbe longe abest ad
XX. lapidem, neque ullam ob causam quam quod convitia in Lutherum audire
non potest." Glareanus to Zwingle, Paris, July 4, 1521, Herminjard, i. 71.
more than this to bring a man of so resolute a character to a
decision. Partly by his own assiduous application to study, especially
of the Greek and Hebrew languages and of the Church Fathers,
partly through the influence of Lefèvre, he had become professor
of philosophy in the college of the Cardinal Le Moine. This
advantageous position he resigned, in order that he might be able
to second the labors of Lefèvre in the new field which Bishop Briçonnet
had thrown open to him. Other pupils or friends of the Picard doctor
followed--Michel d'Arande, Gérard Roussel, and others, all more or less
thoroughly imbued with the same sentiments.
The king's mother and sister encourage the preaching of the reformers.
A new era had now dawned upon the neglected diocese of Meaux. Bishop
Briçonnet was fully possessed by his new-born zeal. The king's mother
and his only sister had honored him with a visit not long after
Lefèvre's arrival,1 and had left him confident that in his projected
reforms, and especially in the introduction of the preaching of the Word
of God, he might count upon their powerful support. "I assure you,"
Margaret of Angoulême wrote him a month later, "that the king and madame
are entirely decided to let it be understood that the truth of God is
not heresy."2 And a few weeks later the same princely correspondent
declared that her mother and brother were "more intent than ever upon
the reformation of the church."3 With such flattering prospects the
reformation opened at Meaux.
From the year 1521, when the ardent friends of religious progress made
their appearance in the city, the pulpits, rarely entered by the curates or by
the mendicant monks unless to demand a fresh contribution of money, were
1 In October, 1521. Herminjard, i. 76.
2 "Vous asseurant que le Roy et Madame ont bien delibéré de
donner à congnoistre que la vérité de Dieu n'est point hérésie."
Margaret of Angoulême to Briçonnet, Nov., 1521, MSS. National Lib.,
Herminjard, i. 78; Génin, ii. 273.
3 "Vos piteulx desirs de la reformacion de l'Eglise, où
plus que jamais le Roy et Madame sont affectionnés." Same to same, Dec,
1521, Ibid., Herminjard, i. 84; Génin, ii. 274. Compare Louise de
Savoie's own entry in her journal, in December, 1522, a year later, to
which reference has already been made.
filled with zealous preachers. The latter expounded the
Gospel, in place of rehearsing the stories of the "Golden Legend;" and
the people, at first attracted by the novelty of the sound, were soon
enamored of the doctrines proclaimed. These doctrines stood, indeed, in
signal opposition to those of the Roman church. By slow but sure steps
the advocates of the Reformation had come to assume a position scarcely
less unequivocal than that of Luther in Germany. In 1514, two years
after the publication of the commentary in which he had clearly
enunciated the Protestant doctrine on one cardinal point, Lefèvre would
seem still to have been unsurpassed in his devotion to pictures and
minds of its early apostles, the determination of its opponents was
equally fixed. An incident occurred about this time which might almost
be regarded as of prophetic import. Farel, who was present, is our sole
informant. On one occasion Lefèvre and a few friends were engaged in
conversation with some warm partisans of the old abuses, when the old
doctor, warming at the prospect he seemed to behold, exclaimed, "Already
the Gospel is winning the hearts of the nobles and of the common people
alike! Soon it will spread over all France, and cast down the inventions
which the hand of man has set up." "Then," angrily retorted one De Roma,
a Dominican monk, "Then I, and others like me, will join in preaching a
crusade; and should the king tolerate the proclamation of the Gospel, we
shall drive him from his kingdom by means of his own subjects!"1
The Dominican friar stood forth at that moment the embodiment of the
monastic spirit speaking defiance to the nascent reform. The church of
the state, with its rich abbeys and priories, its glorious old cathedrals, and boundless possessions of lands and houses, was not to be resigned without a struggle so terrific as to shake the foundations of the throne itself. The germ
of the Guises and the League, with Jacques Clément and
1 "Moy et autres comme moy, lèverons une cruciade de gens,
et ferons chasser le Roy de son Royaume par ses subjectz propres, s'il
permet que l'Évangile soit presché." Farel au Duc de Lorraine,
Herminjard, i. 483.
Ravaillac, was already formed, and possessed a prodigious
Bishop Briçonnet was himself active in promoting the evangelical work,
preaching against the most flagrant abuses, and commending to the
confidence of his flock the more eloquent preachers whom he had
introduced. The incredible rumor even gained currency that the
hot-headed prelate went through his diocese casting down the images and
sparing no object of idolatrous worship in the churches.1 But,
however improbable it may be that Briçonnet ever engaged in any such
iconoclastic demonstrations, it is a strong Roman Catholic partisan who
has preserved the record of this significant warning given by the
prelate to his flock, and elicited either by the consciousness of his
should I, your bishop, change my speech and teaching, beware that you
change not with me!"2
Lefèvre translates the New Testament.
Under Briçonnet's protection Jacques Lefèvre assumed a task less
restricted in its influence than preaching, in which he probably took a
less active part than his coadjutors. The Bible was a closed book to the
common people in France. The learned might familiarize themselves with
its contents by a perusal of the Latin Vulgate; but readers acquainted
with their mother tongue alone were reduced to the necessity of using a
rude version wherein text and gloss were mingled in inextricable
confusion, and the Scriptures were made
1 Pierre de Sébeville au Chevalier Coct, Grenoble, Dec. 28,
1524: "Je te notifie que l'évesque de Meaulx en Brie, près Paris, cum
Jacobo Fabro Stapulensi, depuis trois moys en visitant l'evesché, ont
bruslé actu tous les imaiges, réservé le crucifix, et sont
personellement ajournés a Paris, à ce moys de Mars venant, coram suprema
curia, et universitate erucarum parrhissiensium, quare id factum est."
Herminjard, i. 315.
2 Fontaine, Histoire catholique, apud Merle d'Aubigné,
Hist. de la Réform., liv. xii. The earliest Protestant chronicle, by
Antoine Froment, of which there is a MS. fragment in the Library of
Geneva, gives a slightly different form to Briçonnet's caution:
"Autrefois, en leur preschant l'Évangile, il leur avoit dit, comme
Sainct Paul escript au Gallates, que sy luy-mesme ou un Ange du ciel
leur preschoit autre doctrine que celle qu'il leur preschoit, qu'ils ne
[le] receussent pas." Herminjard, i. 158.
to countenance the most absurd abuses.1 The best furnished
libraries rarely contained more than a few detached books of
the Bible, and these intended for ornament rather than use.2 Lefèvre resolved, therefore, to apply himself to the translation
of the Sacred Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into the
French language. In June, 1523, he published a version of the four
gospels, and in the autumn of the same year he gave to the world the
rest of the New Testament. Five years later he added a translation of
the Old Testament. It was a magnificent undertaking, prompted by a
fervent desire to promote the spiritual interests of his countrymen. In
the comparative harshness of the style, can readily be forgiven. For,
aside from its own merits, the version of Lefèvre d'Étaples formed the
basis for the subsequent version of Robert Olivetanus, itself the
groundwork of many later translations.
The translation eagerly bought. Delight of Lefèvre.
Lefèvre and his associates had not erred in anticipating remarkable
results from the publication of the Scriptures in the language of the
people. The copies of the New Testament no
1 Nisard, Histoire de la littérature française, i. 275. The only printed work in favor
of which the claim of Lefèvre's translation to be the oldest in the French language
could be disputed is the "Bible" of Guyars des Moulins, finished in 1297, and printed
by order of Charles VIII. in 1487; but the greater part of this is a free translation,
not of the Scriptures themselves, but of a summary--the "Historia
scholastica" of Pierre le Mengeur (latinized "Comestor")--and is
consequently no bible at all. See M. Charles Read, in Bulletin, i. 76,
who remarks that, "everything considered, it may therefore be asserted
that the translations of Lefèvre d'Étaples and of Olivetanus are the
first versions without embellishment or gloss (non historiées et non
glossées), and that thus the first two versions of the Bible into the
language of the people are Protestant."
2 The inventory of the library of the Count of Angoulême, father of Margaret and
Francis I., consisting of nearly two hundred volumes, contains the title "Les
Paraboles de Salomon, les Espistres Saint Jehan, les Espistres Saint Pol et l'Apocalipse,
le tout en ung volume, escript en parchemin et à la main, et en françoys, couvert
de velous changeant et a deux fermoeres, l'un aux armes de mon diet
Seigneur, et l'autre aux armes de ma dicte dame." Aristotle, Boethius,
Boccaccio, and Dante figure in the list, the latter both in Italian and
in French. The inventory is printed in an appendix to the edition of the
Heptameron of Margaret of Angoulême published by the Soc. dea
bibliophiles français (Paris, 1853), a work enriched with many original
documents of considerable value.
sooner left the press than they were eagerly bought. They penetrated into
obscure hamlets to which no missionary of the "new doctrines" could find
access. By the wool-carders of Meaux the prize thus unexpectedly placed
within reach was particularly valued. The liberality of Bishop Briçonnet is
said to have freely supplied copies to those who were too poor to afford the
purchase-money. The prelate introduced the French Scriptures into the
churches of Meaux, where the unparalleled innovation of reading the
lessons in an intelligible tongue struck the people with amazement. "You