The French Protestant, even more than the English Catholic, sounds an unlikely proposition. Today, one is generally surprised, and interested, to meet such a person. But France represents the single greatest might-have-been of the European Reformation. French Protestants – known as Huguenots – comprised at their peak, around 1570, some 1.8 million people, more than 10 per cent of the population, concentrated in a southern arc from La Rochelle to Lyons as well as in the towns of Normandy and the Loire Valley. They worshipped in 1,200 churches and had the backing of dozens of powerful nobles. There was even, briefly, a Huguenot king – Henry IV – who may or may not have actually said, ‘Paris is worth a Mass’, but clearly thought it. France was also the laboratory of a unique western European experiment: between the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 and its revocation in 1685, the rights of a religious minority, including its right to worship, were protected by law. How this situation came about, and subsequently unravelled, is the theme of this enjoyable and authoritative account, which, in telling the story of the Huguenots, doubles as a fine political and religious history of France over the course of two troubled centuries.
What’s in a name? Geoffrey Treasure is agnostic on the etymology of that curious word Huguenot. Is it a corruption of the Swiss-German Eidgenossen, meaning oath-bound confederates? Was it derived from clandestine meetings in Tours, near a haunted gate named after the wicked King Huguet, or, more prosaically, from a