This is a brief sketch of the deep historical background to the life and letters of Marie Durand. She would be born in 1711 in Bouchet-de-Pranles into a community with a hoary past of linguistic, cultural, political, and religious autonomy. She was born into a church whose beliefs and practices were deeply rooted in the sixteenth-century Reformation and the labours of John Calvin, one of France’s greatest sons and exiles.
We must come to His Word and be ordered by it. — John Calvin, 1536
An intelligent and educated nineteen-year old woman like Marie Durand (1711–1776) does not give up her freedom and the best years of her life—when she would hope to marry, raise children, and manage a home and farm amid the chestnut groves of Bouchet-de-Pranles—and choose instead to stick to her convictions and endure the brutal conditions of a stone dungeon for nearly four decades, without those convictions being rooted in a long, deep, and rich faith heritage.
In this chapter, I begin to lay the historical foundation for understanding Marie Durand and her words and decisions. I describe the French Reformation of the sixteenth century, that great work of Christ that freed some one-and-a-half million men and women from the shackles of medieval Catholicism. I trace, in particular, its geographical, historical, political, and linguistic roots before sketching some of its most important figures and some of the key events which shaped its first half-century. This is Marie Durand’s heritage, and her life and letters cannot be understood apart from it.
Likewise, we cannot understand the Reformation in France without understanding its own social and geographical roots.
Although Paris played a leading role in the Reformation, in the main the movement traced a crescent far distant from the capital, down the Atlantic coast from La Rochelle, across the Pyrenees, and north-east into the wild Cévennes, Ardèche, and the Dauphiné. This is the le croissant Huguenot, and it was no accident that Reform took hold there.
At the dawn of the sixteenth century a great deal about the south of France was distinct from the north, including its languages. Even today, France harbours many distinct dialects, and a Parisian will hardly understand a single word of the Celtic language spoken in Breton. Things were even more diverse in the sixteenth century. Roughly speaking, those in the south spoke Languedocien dialects, the langue d’oc: the tongue or language of oc, which was the word for “yes” in that region. This was unlike the northern langue d’oïl, oïl being the word for “yes” north of the Loire. (Oïl became the modern oui). It is a law unchanged since the Tower of Babel that different languages underlay different identities and cultures, and for those in the south of France northerners may as well have been from Scotland for all the social affinity they felt with them.
It is no surprise then that during the Middle Ages some distinct religious communities found a foothold in some of those same southern and south-western parts of France. These included the Cathars and Waldensians. Although their beliefs are difficult to circumscribe, the Cathars—the “Pure ones”—attempted in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to recover a more sincere and inward form of Christian life. They were strong in Provence, in the south of France, where they were known as the Albigenses.
The Albigenses spoke Languedocien dialects and developed a distinct and elaborate social culture centered on their own ideals of courtly manners. Their autonomy and their sometimes peculiarly unorthodox doctrines caused grave concern among the Latin Catholic powers and the Pope himself. They were targeted by Dominican missionaries, threatened with the fire of Inquisition, and were ultimately assailed by knights in armour with crosses on their tunics and the massed violent hordes that accompanied them. The Albigensian Crusade (1209–29) spilled over into a general civil war that eventually brought Languedoc under the rule of the northern French kings and left a bitter separatism in the heart of the southern regions.
The Waldensians likewise sprang from a reform movement. They arose around Lyons in the twelfth century and spread into southern France and north-western Italy. They too ran afoul of the Inquisition. (Waldensian Protestants continue to live and worship in northern Italy. The Italian author Bruna Peyrot, who in 1997 wrote an historical novel about Durand, Prigioniere della Torre, is a Waldensian.)
All of this means that long before the Reformation, the Vivarais, the Durands’ home region in the south which roughly corresponds to modern-day Ardèche, bore a strong bent towards cultural separation from the north, religious non-conformity, and political autonomy.
If the south of France felt a sense of proud geographical and cultural autonomy from the north, a great many in France as a whole felt a proud sense of religious autonomy from the Pope and Italy. This divided the late-medieval French church into two groups. The Ultramontanes—literally “over the mountains”were fiercely loyal to the Pope, who resided across the alps in Italy. The opposing Gallicans resented the church being ruled by distant Italians and preferred all things Gallic, French. (Gaul is an ancient name for France.) Needless to say, French monarchs were proud Gallicans, and in 1516 Francis I secured the Concordat of Bologna, which removed the right to appoint senior church positions in the French church from the Pope to the French kings.
The other big social movement that played such a key role in the rise of French Protestantism was the fourteenth and fifteenth-century European Renaissance, which means “re-birth.” Beginning in northern Italy, great minds and artists looked to recover and build upon the achievements of Classical Greece and Rome. This brought tremendous developments in painting, sculpture, music, architecture, historical and textual scholarship, literature, mechanical invention, and political theory.
Renaissance flowered in fifteenth-century Europe into Humanism, a scholarly movement which looked ad fontes, “back to the sources.” From the time of the Crusades, ancient books and parchments flowed into western Europe from Palestine and southern Europe. Scholars strove to grasp the thought of the ancients by mastering their languages—especially Greek, Hebrew, and classical Latinand by searching for and copying and comparing the oldest manuscripts that they could get their hands on.
Gutenberg’s development of the printing press around 1436 supercharged the whole Humanist project. It permitted the cheap, massive, and rapid multiplication of books and pamphlets and the ideas they carried. Western European scholarship was shaken by the content of this tidal wave of fresh thought and the exhilarating spirit of personal intellectual responsibility, of searching out the truth for oneself.
The re-examination of the biblical texts in their original languages sparked a major rethink of Christian thought and practice. A German Augustinian monk at the University of Wittenberg, who was lecturing in the early sixteenth century on the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans, rediscovered the Bible’s teaching about the way of salvation. The teachings of Martin Luther, and especially his recovery of the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, began to be debated in France in the 1520s. Luther’s critique of the papacy and all things Rome appealed to those with Gallican tendencies. They also appealed to a growing intelligentsia with a newly acquired taste for self-education and the new humanism.
Reformation in France was sparked in Paris in the 1520s in the diocese of Meaux around bishop Guillaume Briçonnet (1472–1534), the humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455–1536), and the brilliant author Marguerite de Navarre (1492–1549), sister of the French King Francis I. There was however one great figure who would far eclipse them all.
Visit the 1909 Monument international de la réformation, built into the wall of Geneva’s Old Town, and you will see among the granite statues of such Reformers as Guillaume Farel, Theodore Beza, and John Knox, a five-meter-tall representation of John Calvin. Calvin’s figure stands slightly forward of the others and dominates the monument.