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Sacred Boundaries: Religious Coexistence and Conflict in Early-Modern France.

Sacred Boundaries: Religious Coexistence and Conflict in Early-Modern France. By Keith P. Luria (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005. xxxviii plus 357 pp. $69.95).

The sixteenth-century French Wars of Religion stand out as the most extreme case of Europeans killing each other in the age of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. In no other state in western Europe did civilians turn on each other in such force--often neighbor against neighbor--killing each other in their thousands. The St. Bartholomew's massacres in 1572 are often highlighted as the bloodiest examples of this violence. A combination of significant Huguenot growth in the 1550s and 60s, the vacillating religious policies of the crown, as well as some extremist rhetoric on both sides of the confessional divide all helped to produce an unprecedented civil war that lasted two generations. Indeed, the principal task of historians of sixteenth-century France has been to explain why this degree of violence occurred in France and nowhere else in Europe during the Reformation. The situation changed markedly in 1598, however, as the Edict of Nantes ushered in a period of religious co-existence. The new king Henry IV, himself a recently converted Huguenot, pushed an agenda of harmony and co-existence that ended the civil wars and sought to establish a peaceful coexistence between the two confessions. To be sure, religious tensions and the occasional outbreak of violence continued long after 1598, but the situation on the ground was very different: French Catholics were no longer massacring their Huguenot neighbors, and Huguenots were no longer ransacking and destroying Catholic churches. Indeed, they were being forced by the state to learn to coexist peacefully. That is, they were forced to learn how to break down the cultural barriers and boundaries that had been built up so solidly over the course of the religious wars by the political and clerical elites. Keith Luria's Sacred Boundaries is a rich and sophisticated analysis of how surprisingly successful this policy was over the course of the seventeenth century; and I say surprisingly, because Henry IV's son and grandson eventually abandoned his policy of peaceful coexistence in favor of a return to repression.

Luria's main argument is that the confessional boundaries that divided the two faiths so sharply during the religious wars were much more fluid and permeable after 1598, as in communities all over France Huguenots and Catholics who were forced to live side by side came to terms with each other, not by tearing down the sacred boundaries between the two faiths, but by reconstructing and rethinking them in terms that allowed for peaceful coexistence. By employing a careful and eclectic reading of cultural anthropology and conflict resolution theory, Luria has brought a number of fresh ideas to the very rich primary source materials he has drawn from the archives and a variety of printed sources. The result is a new typology of relationships between the two confessions that makes it very clear how wide the range was between the two extremes of violent aggression and peaceful coexistence. Luria analyzes three types of sacred boundaries designed to dictate relations between the two confessions. First, he describes the fluid and often blurred confessional boundaries that were crossed as Catholic and Protestant neighbors often put aside their religious differences for the social relations of family, business, or civic alliances. Whether it was serving as a godparent, witnessing a marriage, or in some cases even inter-faith marriage, French men and women often trumped the confessional boundaries for familial alliances. The second form of boundary was a more rigid demarcation between the two faiths that allowed a minority to continue to operate within the majority culture. This was more or less what Henry IV had in mind with the Edict of Nantes. This kind of negotiated boundary could work when each side respected the rights of the other, and when each allowed enforcement of the boundaries by the state. Thus, this type of boundary distinguished the two faiths without implying total rejection of the minority faith, much less exclusion from the community. Finally, the third kind of boundary was that of total separation and ultimately ostracism of the Huguenots from the communities they shared with Catholics. This was the policy ultimately pursued by Louis XIV in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, a policy that failed miserably as it only reinvigorated French Protestantism and guaranteed their survival both abroad and underground in France itself. What Luria's book does, however, is demonstrate the many successes that were produced by the first two types of boundaries, especially in terms of funerals and burials, where the seemingly distinct confessional boundaries were in practice more permeable and blurred than one might expect. The chapter on family relations is equally convincing, showing that families and households of mixed faiths were able to function via a variety of strategies, at least until state pressure finally cracked down on them. Ultimately, Luria demonstrates convincingly that not all French men and women in the seventeenth century saw the confessional divide as a boundary that superseded all others. Left to their own devices and without undue pressure from the state, many communities found strategies of coexistence by reconstructing the rigid and seemingly absolute confessional boundaries propagated by militant preachers on both sides during the religious wars of the sixteenth century.

I have one small caveat, albeit a very minor one, and that is that Luria sets up a straw man in his introduction, arguing that the prevailing historiography and Natalie Davis, Denis Crouzet, Barbara Diefendorf, and myself seem to be the chief culprits--has established a model of "unmitigated hostility," with "two irreconcilable cultures ... at war in France." (xviii, xv) To my knowledge none of these historians has ever claimed or even suggested that the religious violence in sixteenth-century France was inevitable, universal, or unmitigated, much less irreconcilable. Luria is correct that all these historians tend to emphasize religious difference and even religious violence in their writings, but they are also writing about the religious wars, where such differences and violence stand out so much more than examples of peaceful coexistence. But none to my knowledge has ever claimed that such coexistence did not exist, even during the religious wars, much less after 1598 when the conditions were so much more favorable. All would certainly agree with Luria that the full range of relations between the two faiths needs to be explored if we are ever to understand how they understood and interacted with the religious boundaries constructed around them. Sacred Boundaries is a rich and rewarding book that now makes this possible.

Mack P. Holt

George Mason University
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Author:Holt, Mack P.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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