Guest lecturer Father Haake explained the historical, political and religious atmosphere surrounding the discovery of what came to be known as the Épître in 16th century France.
PROVO, Utah (Oct. 19, 2016)—On May 6, 1576, in the throes of the French Wars of Religion, King Henry III of France approved the Edict of Beaulieu, which granted the Huguenots – a term used at the time for the French who were followers of Protestantism, or the “reformed religion” – the right to worship publicly. The edict of the King, who was himself Roman Catholic, made many Catholics in France uneasy with the growing influence of the Huguenots in the historically Catholic country. On the other hand, it emboldened the Huguenots to defend their gained precarious freedom.
Father Haake, an assistant professor of French at the University of Notre Dame, gave a guest lecture examining the deep relationship between religion and right to rule in 16th-century France. He presented the tensions present in the country in the framework of a series of documents called the Épître, a copy of which can be found in the Special Collections of BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library.
In 1576 the French chronicler Pierre de L’Estoile noted in his Registre Journal the death of an insignificant Parisian lawyer named Jean David in an attack on his way back from Rome. What was sensational was not his death but the papers, known collectively as his mémoir, or the Épître, found on his person at the time of his death. According to L’Estoile, the papers concerned “the claim of those from the House of Lorraine who say that they are from the race of Charlemagne, and because of this quality, claimed to destroy an ancient king, and the people descended from the great Capetian king.”
Charlemagne was deposed by the “great Capetian king,” Hugues Capet, the first of a long line of Capetian kings that continued to rule at the time the papers were discovered. It included a detailed plan of rebellion called the Abrégé. The plan – supposedly backed by the Pope – called for the Catholic Guises to stage an uprising against King Henry III and his mother, Catherine de Medici, and restore the descendants of Charlemagne to power. The plan, according to Father Haake, “reads like a Guise wish list. In addition to being a bit too perfect, it is also outrageous and completely unrealistic.”
Father Haake explained that even amidst French Catholic fervor, there were still numerous differences amidst various groups of Catholics across the country. In addition, the fact that a record of the plan existed at all and claimed that the Pope knew of it weakens the credibility of the document.
Along with claiming the throne for the Guises, the Épître recounts a story from the 700s that tells of a vision Pope Stephen II had while on the brink of death at the Abbey of Saint Denis, where he was staying to escape persecution in Italy. The Pope was supposedly miraculously healed by a visitation of Saint Denis, along with Peter and Paul. The story holds that along with performing masses of gratitude, the Pope, grateful for the protection of King Pippin, bestows an apostolic benediction upon him and his posterity (one of whom was Charlemagne), charging them to never “establish a king of any other race than that of Pippin,” thus tying the right to rule with the religious power of the Pope.
The problems with this story, Father Haake points out, are those of its accuracy. Pope Stephen’s vision supposedly happened in 753, but doesn’t appear in writing until 908, increasing the probability of its inaccuracy. In addition, the earlier versions of this story do not mention Pippin by name, while the Épître does.
The appearance of the Épître garnered substantial attention due to the fact that, not only did it propose a dramatic, large-scale uprising against the current government, but used religion as a source of legitimacy. Religion was already a divisive topic, and the fact that the members of the House of Lorraine were Catholic further enforced the rising anger amidst French Catholics at the power the Huguenots were gaining. The documents were effective because the Guises had a history of violently killing Protestants in defense of Catholicism, so the possibility of a violent uprising wasn’t unfounded.
However, during this time renaissance humanism brought forth philology, a discipline used to determine the authenticity of a document. It that made a good case for discrediting the documents as a fabrication by the Huguenots to stain the reputation of the House of Lorraine. Philology was popular amongst renaissance humanists who were generally more inclined toward a Gallican church and government, free from the ties to Rome. Therefore, the religious stories and claims to legitimacy in the documents held little weight with them; they saw them as remnants of what Haake described as “the old way of thinking.” Additionally, the claim that only Charlemagne’s descendants had the Pope’s apostolic benediction to rule didn’t hold up logically when considering that King Louis VIIII, a Capetian king, was also a canonized saint in the Catholic Church.
Although the Épître is generally accepted as a fraud, it offers insight into the opinions and instability of the time. It also gives a rare glimpse into the Huguenot fears of a plan to overthrow the religiously tolerant government and destroy the Huguenots themselves.
-Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’17)
Olivia covers events for the Department of French and Italian for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in writing and rhetoric.
Photos courtesy of the Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and the University of California