It is May 13, which makes today the 412th anniversary of the Edict of Nantes, a document granting religious toleration to the Huguenots, French Protestants who had failed to defeat Catholic forces in the chaotic French Wars of Religion. (Which other conflict has a name like “War of the Three Henrys”?). Henry IV, who issued the Edict, was a sometimes religious opportunist (though not entirely disinterested in faith), who became Catholic on accepting the crown. “Paris is worth a Mass,” he is reputed to have said.
Toleration, as is sometimes the case, was too lax for the majority party (Roman Catholics) and not enough for the minority (Huguenots). The Edict was declared, maintained, and later ended by royal authority alone, with varying degrees of social support. Nevertheless, religious toleration in the political sphere was an important (eventual) consequence of the Reformation. Not that there had been no toleration before 1517, but in some ways there had been no “political sphere.” On the one hand, the humanist reinvigoration of the classical republican ideal was bringing a sense of personal identity back to political involvement. The zoon politikon, with all his interest in public affairs, was back. On the other hand, the policies of “cuius regio, eius religio” were creating the modern territorial state, identifiable with a place, a(n ethnic) people, and more, rather than the sole authority of the lord-vassals-tenants social structure.
Roger Scruton has noted that the ability to view ourselves as an “other” is key to the concept of irony, where we can be critical of ourselves as if we were looking from the outside. This concept of irony, found in the statement of Jesus, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” is also related to forgiveness. In forgiving, we have to allow a person to be, rather than take ownership of him in our vengeance. “The West’s democratic inheritance stems, I would argue, from the habit of forgiveness.”
Toleration, then, became a key to citizenship by creating a situation where men act like citizens: they must see each other, at least in the law, as they might see themselves. With an increasing interest in public participation, this could easily become an issue of personality … which might be why Western men eventually came to see toleration as a key tenet to his “natural” being.
In 1685, at the high tide of the Counterreformation, Louis XIV removed this official toleration. A liberal historian of the 1920s, G. M. Trevelyan, repeatedly used the nickname “the Revoker of the Edict of Nantes” to refer to Louis. The acrimony of Trevelyan, champion of modern liberty, is hardly discernible outside this context of toleration, citizenship, and identity – a context that Scruton has lodged into the core of Western identity.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.