No one questioned the need of religious reform. The same ecclesiastical good and evil appeared here as elsewhere: faithful priests, devout monks, saintly nuns, here and there a bishop dedicated to religion rather than politics; and ignorant or lackadaisical priests, idle and lecherous monks, moneygrubbing friars pretending poverty, weak sisters in the convents, bishops who took the earthly cash and let the celestial credit go. As education rose, faith fell; and as the clergy had most of the education, they showed in their conduct that they no longer took to heart the once terrifying eschatology of their official creed. Some bishops appropriated to themselves a luxurious multiplicity of benefices and sees; so Jean of Lorraine held—and enjoyed revenues from—the bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, the archbishoprics of Reims, Lyons, Narbonne, Albi, Macon, Agen, and Nantes, and the abbeys of Gorze, Fécamp, Cluny, Marmoutiers, Saint-Ouen, Saint-de-Laon, Saint-Germer, Saint-Médard of Soissons, and Saint-Mansuy of Toul.33 It was not enough for his needs; he complained of poverty.34 Monks denounced the worldliness of the bishops; priests denounced the monks; Brantôme quotes a phrase then popular in France: “Avaricious or lecherous as a priest or a monk.” 35 The first sentence of the Heptamerondescribes the Bishop of Sées as itching to seduce a married woman; and a dozen stories in the book retail the similar enterprises of various monks. “I have such a horror of the very sight of a monk,” says one character, “that I could not even confess to them, believing them to be worse than all other men.”36 “There are some good men among them,” admits Öisille—which is Margaret’s name, in the Heptameron, for her mother—but this same Louise of Savoy wrote in her journal: “In the year 1522... my son and I, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, began to know the hypocrites, white, black, gray, smoky, and of all colors, from whom God in His infinite mercy and goodness preserve and defend us; for if Jesus Christ is not a liar, there is not among all mankind a more dangerous generation.” 37
Yet the acquisitiveness of Louise, the polygyny of her son, the anarchic morals of the court, gave no inspiring example to the clergy, who were so largely subject to the King. In 1516 Francis secured from Leo X a Concordat empowering him to appoint the bishops and abbots of France; but since he used these appointments largely as rewards for political services, the worldly character of the prelacy was confirmed. The Concordat in effect made the Gallican Church independent of the papacy and dependent upon the state. In this way Francis, a year before Luther’s Theses, achieved in fact, though graciously not in form, what the German princes and Henry VIII would win by war or revolution—the nationalization of Christianity. What more could French Protestants offer the French King?
The first of them antedated Luther. In 1512 Jacques Lefèvre, born at Etaples in Picardy but then teaching at the University of Paris, published a Latin translation of Paul’s Epistles, with a commentary expounding, among other heresies, two that ten years later would be basic with Luther: that men can be saved not by good works but only by faith in the grace of God earned by the redeeming sacrifice of Christ; and that Christ is present in the Eucharist by His own operation and good will, not through any priestly transubstantiation of bread and wine. Lefèvre, like Luther, demanded a return to the Gospel; and, like Erasmus, he sought to restore and clarify the authentic text of the New Testament as a means of cleansing Christianity from medieval legends and sacerdotal accretions. In 1523 he issued a French translation of the Testament, and, a year later, of the Psalms. “How shameful it is,” said one of his comments, “to see a bishop soliciting people to drink with him, caring for naught but gambling .... constantly hunting .... frequenting bad houses!” 38 The Sorbonne condemned him as a heretic; he fled to Strasbourg (1525); Marguerite interceded for him; Francis recalled him and made him royal librarian at Blois and tutor to his children. In 1531, when Protestant excesses had angered the King, Lefèvre took refuge with Marguerite in southern France, and lived there till his death at the age of eighty-seven (1537).
His pupil Guillaume Briçonnet, appointed Bishop of Meaux (1516), set himself to reform that diocese in the spirit of his master. After four years of zealous work he felt strong enough to venture upon theological innovations. He appointed to benefices such known reformers as Lefèvre, Farel, Louis de Berquin, Gérard Roussel, and François Vatable, and encouraged them to preach a “return to the Gospel.” Marguerite applauded him, and made him her spiritual director. But when the Sorbonne—the school of theology that now dominated the University of Paris—proclaimed its condemnation of Luther (1521), Briçonnet bade his cohorts make their peace with the Church. The unity of the Church seemed to him, as to Erasmus and Marguerite, more important than reform.
The Sorbonne could not stop the flow of Lutheran ideas across the Rhine. Students and merchants brought Luther’s writings from Germany as the most exciting news of the day; Froben sent copies from Basel to be sold in France. Discontented workingmen took up the New Testament as a revolutionary document, and listened gladly to preachers who drew from the Gospels a utopia of social equality. In 1523, when Bishop Briçonnet published on his cathedral doors a bull of indulgences, Jean Leclerc, a woolcarder of Meaux, tore it down and replaced it with a placard calling the pope Antichrist. He was arrested, and by order of the Parlement of Paris was branded on the forehead (1525). He moved to Metz, where he smashed the religious images before which a procession was planning to offer incense. His right hand was cut off, his nose was torn away, his nipples were plucked out with pincers, his head was bound with a band of red-hot iron, and he was burned alive (1526).39 Several other radicals were sent to the stake in Paris for “blasphemy,” or for denying the intercessory power of the Virgin and the saints (1526–27).
The people of France generally approved of these executions;40 it cherished its religious faith as God’s own revelation and covenant, and abominated heretics as robbing the poor of their greatest consolation. No Luther appeared in France to rouse the middle class against papal tyranny and exactions; the Concordat precluded such an appeal; and Calvin had not as yet reached the Genevan eminence from which he could send his stern summons to reform. The rebels found some support among the aristocracy, but the lords and ladies were too lighthearted to take the new ideas to the point of unsettling the faith of the people or the comforts of the court. Francis himself tolerated the Lutheran propaganda so long as it offered no threat of social or political disturbance. He too had his doubts—about the powers of the pope, the sale of indulgences, the existence of purgatory;41 and possibly he thought to use his toleration of Protestantism as a weapon over a pope too inclined to favor Charles V. He admired Erasmus, sought him for the new Collège Royale, and believed with him in the encouragement of education and ecclesiastical reform—but by steps that would not divide the people into warring halves, or weaken the services of the Church to private morality and social order.42 “The King and Madame” (Louise of Savoy), wrote Marguerite to Briçonnet in 1521, “are more than ever well-disposed toward the reformation of the Church.”43 When the Sorbonne arrested Louis de Berquin for translating some of Luther’s works (1523), he was freed by Marguerite’s intercession with the King. But Francis was frightened by the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany, which seemed to have grown out of Protestant propaganda; and before leaving for his debacle at Pavia he bade the prelates stamp out the Lutheran movement in France. While the King was a captive in Madrid, Berquin was again imprisoned, but Marguerite again secured an order for his release. When Francis himself was freed he indulged in a jubilee of liberalism, perhaps in gratitude to the sister who had so labored for his liberation. He recalled Lefèvre and Roussel from exile, and Marguerite felt that the movement for reform had won the day.
Two events drove the King back to orthodoxy. He needed money to ransom the two sons whom he had surrendered to Charles in exchange for his own freedom; the clergy voted him 1,300,000 livres, but accompanied the grant with a request for a firmer stand against heresy; and he agreed (December 16, 1527). On May 31, 1528, he was dismayed to learn that both the heads on a statue of the Virgin and Child outside a church in the parish of Saint-Germain had been smashed during the night. The people cried out for vengeance. Francis offered a thousand crowns for the discovery of the vandals, and led a somber procession of prelates, state officials, nobles, and populace to repair the broken statues with silver heads. The Sorbonne took advantage of the reaction to imprison Berquin once more; and while Francis was absent at Blois the impenitent Lutheran was burned at the stake (April 17, 1529), to the joy of the attendant multitude.44
The mood of the King varied with the shifts of his diplomacy. In 1532, angry at the collaboration of Clement VII with Charles V, he made overtures to the Lutheran princes of Germany, and allowed Marguerite to install Roussel as preacher to large gatherings in the Louvre; and when the Sorbonne protested he banished its leaders from Paris. In October 1533, he was on good terms with Clement, and promised active measures against the French Protestants. On November 1 Nicholas Cop delivered his pro-Lutheran address at the university; the Sorbonne rose in wrath, and Francis ordered a new persecution. But then his quarrel with the Emperor sharpened, and he sent Guillaume du Bellay, favorable to reform, to Wittenberg with a request that Melanchthon should formulate a possible reconciliation between the old faith and the new ideas (1534), and thereby make possible an alliance of Protestant Germany and Catholic France. Melanchthon complied, and matters were moving fast, when an extreme faction among the French reformers posted in the streets of Paris, Cléans, and other cities, and even on the doors of the King’s bedchamber at Amboise, placards denouncing the Mass as idolatry, and the Pope and the Catholic clergy as “a brood of vermin... apostates, wolves... liars, blasphemers, murderers of souls” (October 18, 1534).45 Enraged, Francis ordered an indiscriminate imprisonment of all suspects; soon the jails were full. Many printers were arrested, and for a time all printing was prohibited. Marguerite, Marot, and many moderate Protestants joined in condemning the placards. The King, his sons, ambassadors, nobles, and clergy marched in solemn silence, bearing lighted candles, to hear an expiatory Mass in Notre Dame (January 21, 1535). Francis declared that he would behead his own children if he found them harboring these blasphemous heresies. That evening six Protestants were burned to death in Paris by a method judged fit to appease the Deity: they were suspended over a fire, and were repeatedly lowered into it and raised from it so that their agony might be prolonged.46 Between November 10, 1534, and May 5, 1535, twenty-four Protestants were burned alive in Paris. Pope Paul III reproved the King for needless severity, and ordered him to end the persecution.47
Before the year was out Francis was again wooing the German Protestants. He himself wrote to Melanchthon (July 23, 1535), inviting him to come and “confer with some of our most distinguished doctors as to the means of re-establishing in the Church that sublime harmony which is the chief of all my desires.” 48 Melanchthon did not come. Perhaps he suspected Francis of using him as a thorn in the Emperor’s side; or he was dissuaded by Luther or the Elector of Saxony, who said, “The French are not Evangelicals, they are Erasmians.” 49 This was true of Marguerite, Briçonnet, Lefèvre, Roussel; not true of the placardists, or of the Calvinistic Huguenots who were beginning to multiply in southern France. After making peace with Charles (1538), Francis abandoned all efforts to conciliate his own Protestants.
The darkest disgrace of his reign was only partly his fault. The Vaudois or Waldenses, who still cherished the semi-Protestant ideas of Peter Waldo, their twelfth-century founder, had been allowed, under royal protection, to maintain their Quakerlike existence in some thirty villages along the Durance River in Provence. In 1530 they entered into correspondence with reformers in Germany and Switzerland, and two years later they drew up a profession of faith based on the views of Bucer and Oecolampadius. A papal legate set up the Inquisition among them; they appealed to Francis; he bade the prosecution cease (1533). But Cardinal de Tournon, alleging that the Waldenses were in a treasonable conspiracy against the government, persuaded the ailing, vacillating King to sign a decree (January 1, 1545) that all Waldenses found guilty of heresy should be put to death. The officers of the Parlement at Aix-en-Provence interpreted the order to mean mass extermination. The soldiers at first refused to obey the command; they were, however, induced to kill a few; the heat of murder inflamed them, and they passed into massacre. Within a week (April 12–18) several villages were burned to the ground; in one of them 800 men, women, and children were slaughtered; in two months 3,000 were killed, twenty-two villages were razed, 700 men were sent to the galleys. Twenty-five terrified women, seeking refuge in a cavern, were asphyxiated by a fire built at its mouth. Protestant Switzerland and Germany raised horrified protests; Spain sent Francis congratulations.50 A year later a small Lutheran group was found meeting at Meaux under the leadership of Pierre Leclerc, brother of branded Jean; fourteen of the group were tortured and burned, eight after having their tongues torn out (October 7, 1546).
These persecutions were the supreme failure of Francis’ reign. The courage of the martyrs gave dignity and splendor to their cause; thousands of onlookers must have been impressed and disturbed, who, without these spectacular executions, might never have bothered to change their inherited faith. Despite the recurrent terror, clandestine “swarms” of Protestants existed in 1530 in Lyons, Bordeaux, Orléans, Reims, Amiens, Poitiers, Bourges, Nîmes, La Rochelle, Châlons, Dijon, Toulouse. Huguenot legions sprang almost out of the ground. Francis, dying, must have known that he had left his son not only the encompassing hostility of England, Germany, and Switzerland, but a heritage of hate in France herself.