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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 4 — Commencement of persecution in France

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The World's Center – The Kingdoms at War – In the Church, Peace – The Flock at Meaux – Marot's Psalms of David universally Sung in France – The Odes of Horace – Calvin and Church Psalmody – Two Champions of the Darkness, Beda and Duprat – Louisa of Savoy – Her Character – The Trio that Governed France – They Unsheathe the Sword of Persecution – Briconnet's Fall.

THE Church is the center round which all the affairs of the world revolve. It is here that the key of all politics is to be found. The continuance and advance of this society is a first principle with him who sits on the right hand of Power, and who is at once King of the Church and King of the Universe; and, therefore, from his lofty seat he directs the march of armies, the issue of battles, the deliberation of cabinets, the decision of kings, and the fate of nations, so as best to further this one paramount end of his government. Here, then, is the world's center; not in a throne that may be standing to-day, and in the dust to-morrow, but in a society – a kingdom – destined to outlast all the kingdoms of earth, to endure and flourish throughout all the ages of time.

It cannot but strike one as remarkable that at the very moment when a feeble evangelism was receiving its birth, needing, one should think, a fostering hand to shield its infancy, so many powerful and hostile kingdoms should start up to endanger it. Why place the cradle of Protestantism amid tempests? Here is the powerful Spain; and here, too, is the nearly as powerful France. Is not this to throw Protestantism between the upper and the nether mill-stones? Yet he "who weigheth the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance," permitted these confederacies to spring up at this hour, and to wax thus mighty. And now we begin to see a little way into the counsels of the Most High touching these two kingdoms. Charles of Spain carries off the brilliant prize of the imperial diadem from Francis of France. The latter is stung to the quick; from that hour they are enemies; war breaks out between them; their ambition drags the other kingdoms of Europe into the arena of conflict; and the intrigues and battles that ensue leave to hostile princes but little time to persecute the truth. They find other uses for their treasures, and other enterprises for their armies. Thus the very tempests by which the world was devastated were as ramparts around that new society that was rising up on the ruins of the old. While outside the Church the roar of battle never ceased, the song of peace was heard continually ascending within her. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Therefore, will not we fear, although the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be removed."

From this hasty glance at the politics of the age, which had converted the world into a sea with the four winds warring upon it, we come back to the little flock at Meaux. That flock was dwelling peacefully amid the green pastures and by the living waters of truth. Every day saw new converts added to their number, and every day beheld their love and zeal burning with a purer flame. The good Bishop Briconnet was going in and out before them, feeding with knowledge and understanding the flock over which, not Rome, but the Holy Ghost had made him overseer. Those fragrant and lovely fruits which ever spring up where the Gospel comes, and which are of a nature altogether different from, and of a quality infinitely superior to, those which any other system produces, were appearing abundantly here. Meaux had become a garden in the midst of the desert of France, and strangers from a distance came to see this new thing, and to wonder at the sight. Not unfrequently did they carry away a shoot from the mother plant to set it in their own province, and so the vine of Meaux was sending out her branches, and giving promise, in the opinion of some, at no distant day of filling the land with her shadow.

At an early stage of the Reformation in France, the New Testament, as we have related in the foregoing chapter, was translated into the vernacular of that country. This was followed by a version of the Psalms of David in 1525, the very time when the field of Pavia, which cost France so many lives, was being stricken. Later, Clement Marot, the lyrical poet, undertook – at the request of Calvin, it is believed the task of versifying the Psalms, and accordingly thirty of them were rendered into metre and published in Paris in 1541, dedicated to Francis I [1] Three years afterwards (1543), he added twenty others, and dedicated the collection, "to the ladies of France." In the epistle dedicatory the following verses occur: –

"Happy the man whose favor'd ear
In golden days to come shall hear
The ploughman, as he tills the ground,
The carter, as he drives his round,
The shopman, as his task he plies,
With psalms or sacred melodies
Whiling the hours of toil away!
Oh! happy he who hears the lay
Of shepherd or of shepherdess,
As in the woods they sing and bless
And make the rocks and pools proclaim
With them their great Creator's name!
Oh! can ye brook

that God invite
Them before you to such delight?
Begin, ladies, begin!…" [2]

The prophecy of the poet was fulfilled. The combined majesty and sweetness of the old Hebrew Psalter took: captive the taste and genius of the French people. In a little while all France, we may say, fell to singing the Psalms. They displaced all other songs, being sung in the first instance to the common ballad music. "This holy ordinance," says Quick, "charmed the ears, heart, and affections of court and city, town and country. They were sung in the Louvre, as well as in the Pres des Clercs, by the ladies, princes, yea, by Henry II. himself. This one ordinance alone contributed mightily to the downfall of Popery and the propagation of the Gospel. It took so much with the genius of the nation that all ranks and degrees of men practiced it, in the temples and in their families. No gentleman professing the Reformed religion would sit down at his table without praising God by singing. It was an especial part of their morning and evening worship in their several houses to sing God's praises."

This chorus of holy song was distasteful to the adherents of the ancient worship. Wherever they turned, the odes of the Hebrew monarch, pealed forth in the tongue of France, saluted their ears, in the streets and the highways, in the vineyards and the workshops, at the family hearth and in the churches. "The reception these Psalms met with," says Bayle, "was such as the world had never seen." [3] To strange uses were they put on occasion. The king, fond of hunting, adopted as his favorite Psalm, "As pants the hart for water-brooks," etc. The priests, who seemed to hear in this outburst the knell of their approaching downfall, had recourse to the expedient of translating the odes of Horace and setting them to music, in the hope that the pagan poet would supplant the Hebrew one [4] The rage for the Psalter nevertheless continued unabated, and a storm of Romish wrath breaking out against Marot, he fled to Geneva, where, as we have said above, he added twenty other Psalms to the thirty previously published at Paris, making fifty in all. This enlarged Psalter was first published at Geneva, with a commendatory preface by Calvin, in 1543. Editions were published in Holland, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, and so great was the demand that the printing, presses could not meet it. Rome forbade the book, but the people were only the more eager on that account to possess it.

Calvin, alive to the mighty power of music to advance the Reformation, felt nevertheless the incongruity and indelicacy of singing such words to profane airs, and used every means in his power to rectify the abuse. He applied to the most eminent musicians in Europe to furnish music worthy of the sentiments. William Franc, of Strasburg, responding to this call, furnished melodies for Marot's Psalter; and the Protestants of France and Holland, dropping the ballad airs, began now to sing the Psalms to the noble music just composed. Now, for the first time, was heard the "Old Hundredth," and some of the finest tunes still in use in our Psalmody.

After the death of Mater (1544) Calvin applied to his distinguished coadjutor, Theodore Beza, to complete the versification of the Psalms. Beza, copying the style and spirit of Marot, did so, [5] and thus Geneva had the honor of giving to Christendom the first whole book of Psalms ever rendered into the metre of any living language.

This narration touching the Psalms in French has carried us a little in advance of the point of time we had reached in the history. We retrace our steps.

A storm was brewing at Paris. There were two men in the capital, sworn champions of the darkness, holding high positions. The one was Noel Beda, the head of the Sorbonne. His chair – second only, in his own opinion, to that of the Pope himself – bound him to guard most sacredly from the least heretical taint that orthodoxy which it was the glory of his university to have preserved hitherto wholly uncontaminated. Beda was a man of very moderate attainments, but he was moderate in nothing else. He was bustling, narrow-minded, a worshipper of scholastic forms, a keen disputant, and a great intriguer. "In a single Beda," Erasmus used to say, "there are three thousand monks." Never did owl hate the day more than Beda did the light. He had seen with horror some rays struggle into the shady halls of the Sorbonne, and he made haste to extinguish them by driving from his chair the man who was the ornament of the university – the doctor of Etaples.

The other truculent defender of the old orthodoxy was Antoine Duprat. Not that he cared a straw for othodoxy in itself, for the man had neither religion nor morals, but it fell in with the line of his own political advancement to affect a concern for the faith. A contemporary Roman Catholic historian, Beaucaire de Peguilhem, calls him "the most vicious of bipeds." He accompanied his master, Francis I., to Bologna, after the battle of Marignano, and aided at the interview at which the infamous arrangement was effected, in pursuance of which the power of the French bishops and the rights of the French Church were divided between Leo X. and Francis I. This is known in history as the Concordat of Bologna; it abolished the Pragmatic Sanction – the charter of the liberties of the Gallican Church – and gave to the king the power of presenting to the vacant sees, and to the Pope the right to the first-fruits. A red hat was the reward of Duprat's treachery. His exalted office – he was Chancellor of France – added to his personal qualities made him

a formidable opponent. He was able, haughty, overbearing, and never scrupled to employ violence to compass his ends. He was, too, a man of insatiable greed. He plundered on a large scale in the king's behoof, by putting up to sale the offices in the gift of the crown; but he plundered on a still larger scale in his own, and so was enormously rich. By way of doing a compensatory act he built a few additional wards to the Maison de Dieu, on which the king, whose friendship he shared without sharing his esteem, is said to have remarked "that they had need to be large if they were to contain all the poor the chancellor himself had made." [6] Such were the two men who now rose up against the Gospel. [7]

They were set on by the monks of Meaux. Finding that their dues were diminishing at an alarming rate the Franciscans crowded to Paris, and there raised the cry of heresy. Bishop Briconnet, they exclaimed, had become a Protestant, and not content with being himself a heretic, he had gathered round him a company of even greater heretics than himself, and had, in conjunction with these associates, poisoned his diocese, and was laboring to infect the whole of France; and unless steps were immediately taken this pestilence would spread over all the kingdom, and France would be lost. Duprat and Beda were not the men to listen with indifferent ears to these complaints.

The situation of the kingdom at that hour threw great power into the hands of these men. The battle of Pavia – the Flodden of France – had just been fought. The flower of the French nobility had fallen on that field, and among the slain was the Chevalier Bayard, styled the Mirror of Chivalry. The king was now the prisoner of Charles V. at Madrid. Pending the captivity of Francis the government was in the hands of his mother, Louisa of Savoy. She was a woman of determined spirit, dissolute life, and heart inflamed with her house's hereditary enmity to the Gospel, as shown in its persecution of the Waldensian confessors. She had the bad distinction of opening in France that era of licentious gallantry which has so long polluted both the court and the kingdom, and which has proved one of the most powerful obstacles to the spread of the pure Gospel. It must be added, however, that the hostility of Louisa was somewhat modified and restrained by the singular sweetness and piety of her daughter, Margaret of Valois. Such were the trio – the dissolute Louisa, regent of the kingdom; the avaricious Duprat, the chancellor; and the bigoted Beda, head of the Sorbonne into whose hands the defeat at Pavia had thrown, at this crisis, the government of France. There were points on which their opinions and interests were in conflict, but all three had one quality in common – they heartily detested the new opinions.

The first step was taken by Louisa. In 1523 she proposed the following question to the Sorbonne: "By what means can the damnable doctrines of Luther be chased and extirpated from this most Christian kingdom?" The answer was brief, but emphatic: "By the stake;" and it was added that if the remedy were not soon put in force, there would result great damage to the honor of the king and of Madame Louisa of Savoy. Two years later the Pope earnestly recommended rigor in suppressing "this great and marvelous disorder, which proceeds from the rage of Satan;" [8] otherwise, "this mania will not only destroy religion, but all principalities, nobilities, laws, orders, and ranks besides." [9] It was to uphold the throne, preserve the nobles, and maintain the laws that the sword of persecution was first unsheathed in France!

The Parliament was convoked to strike a blow while yet there was time. The Bishop of Meaux was summoned before it. Briconnet was at first firm, and refused to make any concession, but at length the alternative was plainly put before him – abandon Protestantism or go to prison. We can imagine the conflict in his soul. He had read the woe denounced against him who puts his hand to the plough and afterwards withdraws it. He could not but think of the flock he had fed so lovingly, and which had looked up to him with an affection so tender and so confiding. But before him was a prison and mayhap a stake. It was a moment of supreme suspense. But now the die is cast. Briconnet declines the stake – the stake which in return for the life of the body would have given him life eternal. On the 12th of April, 1523, [10] he was condemned to pay a fine, and was sent back to his diocese to publish three edicts, the first restoring public prayers to the Virgin and the saints, the second forbidding any one to buy or read the books of Luther, while the third enjoined silence on the Protestant preachers.

What a stunning blow to the disciples at Meaux! They were dreaming of a brilliant day when this dark storm suddenly came and scattered them. The aged Lefevre found his way, in the first instance, to Strasburg, and ultimately to Nerac. Farel turned his steps toward Switzerland, where a great work awaited him. Of the two Roussels, Gerard afterwards powerfully contributed to the progress of the Reformation in the kingdom of Navarre. [11] Martial Mazurier went the same road with Briconnet, and was rewarded with a canonry at Paris. [12] The rest of the flock, too poor to flee, had to abide the brunt of the tempest.

Briconnet had saved his mitre, but at what a cost! We shall not judge him. Those who joined the ranks of Protestantsism at a later period did so as men "appointed unto death," and girded themselves for the conflict which they knew awaited

them. But at this early stage the Bishop of Meaux had not those examples of self-devotion before him which the martyr-roll of coming years was to furnish. He might reason himself into the belief that he could still love his Savior in his heart, though he did not confess him with the mouth: that while bowing before Mary and the saints he could inwardly look up to Christ, and lean for salvation on the Crucified One: that while ministering at the altars of Rome he could in secret feed on other bread than that which she gives to her children. It was a hard part which Briconnet put upon himself to act; and, without saying how far it is possible, we may ask how, if all the disciples of Protestantism had acted this part, could we ever have had a Reformation?

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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