What manifested itself as a religious war between French Calvinist Protestants or Huguenots and their Catholic persecutors was really a fight for economic and political power between two opposing ethnic groups and their corresponding worldviews and lifestyles. In many ways, then, it can be seen as a precursor to the American Civil War, for in each case The new 'Spirit of Capitalism' came into conflict with reactionary forces seeking to maintain a feudal way of life.
|Walking towards Vialas|
That slaughter was restricted mainly to Paris and a few larger provincial cities. The origin of the 'Cévenol' struggle was the 1598 Edict of Nantes passed by the French Protestant King Henri IV. This not only restored internal peace, but gave the French Protestants a virtual state within a state, legitimising Protestant control over some 200 cities. His successor after 1665, the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, was persuaded by his Roman Catholic advisers to embark on a policy of persecuting the Protestants. The "Peace of Alais" (sic), signed in 1629, (now spelt Alès, the gateway to the Cévennes) marked the end of Huguenot political privileges. It was symbolically signed in the heart of Protestant France, where up to ninety-five percent of local villagers were Calvinists.
When the Edict of Nantes was finally revoked in 1685, the policy of forcibly converting Protestants to Catholicism by the 'Dragonades' commenced. This took the form of an officially sanctioned repression, the forced clearings from some villages of all men and the billeting of soldiers from the King's army of 'Black Dragons' inside Protestant homes.
|Gardon at Mialet|
The Camisards confronted the royal army with irregular tactics, or what some historians have described as the first examples of guerilla warfare. They withstood superior forces in several pitched battles and gained some notable successes. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) refers to The Camisards as "A sect of French fanatics" whose origins lay in the "Albigensian spirit." This reference harkens back to the Cathar Crusade against 'heretics' in the same Region half a century earlier.
There seems no doubt that some of the Protestant preaching was apocalyptic and inflammatory, and was used as justification for intensifying repression; some of which was 'outsourced' to Catholics from neighboring communities known as "Cadets of the Cross." Atrocities took place on both sides. The worst of the fighting occurred between 1702 and 1704, with sporadic skirmishes until 1710, and the end of real hostilities in 1715. This followed the death of Louis XIV and the arrival in the Cévennes of the French reformer, Antoine Court, who played a critical role in restructuring the Protestant population and faith.
Some of the local Protestants talk so vividly of the conflict that you could be forgiven for thinking that the fighting has only just ended. Fortunately the 'Catholic locals' are much more welcoming to outsiders nowadays, especially as rural France is now so dependant on tourism for its income. Hikers with a penchant for historical hill-walking can re-live the main events, visit key locations and battlefields, and learn about the principal personalities in play during the course of the rebellion by visiting The Cévennes. It is an opportunity to explore a fascinating theme and troubled period in French history.
About the Author
Scott Anderson lives on the outskirts of The Cevennes and is the director of The Enlightened Traveller, an English tour operator specialising in unique and themed walking tours and activity holidays.
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Three centuries ago, the rugged and isolated Cévennes in south-central France was the venue for a bitter conflict, the severity of which raised eyebrows amongst the landed classes and...