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Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth-Century France.

Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth-Century France, by Henry Heller. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2003. xii, 307 pp. $63.00 US (cloth).

Most historians of sixteenth-century France are familiar with the anti-Roman sentiments of many French humanists expressed in much historical and linguistic writing of the mid-sixteenth century. Historians also have knowledge of the strong hostilities against Catherine de' Medici and her Italian advisors that formed in Protestant and Malcontent circles after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. In his new book, Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth-Century France, Henry Heller argues that such episodes form part of a sustained pattern of ethnic hostilities to Italians that developed in France during the intense conflicts of the Wars of Religion. For Heller, xenophobia has played a recurrent role in the French national experience ever since the development of a sufficiently centralized state in the sixteenth century--meaning, ever since national sentiments were strong enough to allow ethnic hatreds to bear political significance. Yet if ethnic hostilities are recurring, Heller also argues that they made important contributions to the experiences of the religious wars. In providing an alternative focus for the mutual recriminations of Catholics and Protestants, anti-Italianism offered a new, secularized solution to the intense religious divisions plaguing the French in the second half of the sixteenth century. Thus, for Heller, sustained anti-Italian sentiments may be the product of a developing national consciousness, but they also contributed to its elaboration by providing a political language to which Protestants, militant Catholics, and moderates could adhere.

In showing just how ubiquitous anti-Italian sentiments were in France in the second half of the sixteenth century, Heller does force us to re-examine a number of assumptions about French political culture. In placing the well-known anti-court hostilities of the 1570s into the context of a steady current of controversy over Italian commercial practices and fiscal influence, Heller foregrounds the French economy as a major source of concern to contemporaries. Early identifying the Italians in France as a "quasi-colonial elite" (p. 3), Heller argues that their economic dominance of many French commercial markets and expansion from banking to extensive tax farming by the reign of Henri III provided a sustained source of resentment in France. Thus, anger in the city of Lyon that imports of Italian luxury goods were endangering local manufacturing in the period leading up to and including the Protestant takeover of the city in 1562 are to be directly linked with Parisian complaints against partisans of the 1570s and recriminations against royal fiscal expedients during the meeting of the Estates General of 1588. Such hostilities also had direct affects on many of the important events of the Wars of Religion, as hatred of Italians surfaced both among the Parisian participants of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and in the accusations against its perpetrators.

Yet for all of the insights that this work affords, readers should approach it with caution. For a work that focuses on "ethnic" hostilities, there is remarkably little consideration of how individuals actually understood their own identities. Heller does point out that the Italians in Lyon tended to reside in separate "nations" composed of Florentines, Luccans, and others, but he never asks whether his sources' tendency to isolate Italians and lump them together truly reflected the experiences of Italian immigrants to France. As Heller points out with surprise, Turquet de Mayerne wrote a protectionist pamphlet criticizing Italians for manipulating interest rates despite the fact that he was the son of an Italian immigrant. How many other "Italians" had actually assimilated into French culture and thought of themselves as "French"? If analysis of the categories of "French" and "Italian" put forward in sixteenth-century polemic is wanting, Heller examines the growing stranglehold of Italians over the French fiscal system in great detail. Regrettably, because the author is interested to look for evidence of Italian practices specifically rather than to examine royal fiscal expedients in their entirety, the result is to accentuate the picture of Italian commercial greed and financial manipulation. In attempting to discuss French xenophobia, Heller implicitly justifies it.

In addition to the problems that arise from accepting the premises of the sources too readily, this work also exhibits some confusion about how anti-Italianism contributed to the major events of the French Wars of Religion. In discussing the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, for example, Heller argues that Catholic Parisians had developed a detestation of Italians as great as their hatred of Protestants and that Italians only escaped numerous attempts on their lives through the protection of the royal court. Such hostilities were possible against co-religionists because Parisians tended to associate Italian banking activities with the usurious practices of Jews; indeed, anti-Semitism and anti-Italianism were closely linked in that the members of both groups were accused of blood libel. Yet, in assigning responsibility for the Massacre, Heller downplays the role of the Catholic crowd and argues that the Italians must bear blame because some took an active part in the killing. Thus emerges the contradictory situation that Italians were lucky in not being among the victims in August 1572 and that they were perceived as responsible for the killings. Such contradictory ideas may well have existed among the Parisian population, but Heller's analysis does not resolve the confusion. How too are we to reconcile the author's interesting explanations for how Catholics could attack Italians for religious reasons with his general argument that anti-Italianism provided a secular focus in times of intense religious fragmentation? In neglecting to disassociate the various strands of anti-Italianism expressed in Protestant polemic, Malcontent frustrations with royal policies, the specific business complaints of French merchants, and the general discontent with the French fiscal system of the period of the religious wars, Heller has produced an ethnic hostility that meant all things to all people. His work thus has the tendency to reproduce the elisions of the religious and political polemics of the sixteenth century while seeking to explain them.

Hilary J. Bernstein

University of California, Santa Barbara
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Author:Bernstein, Hilary J.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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