This post is the first of a short series on Huguenots, French-speaking Protestants who were forced to flee France during the Christian conflicts — including the Wars of Religion — which took place between 1545 and 1685.

The most intense battle was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which began on August 23, 1572, and lasted several weeks.  Some years ago, Le Monde featured a lengthy daily series on this battle and its ramifications for France and religious practice. Even today, I know Catholic families there who refuse to have anything to do with Protestants socially.

As a result of the Wars of Religion, Huguenots sought refuge not only in northern European countries but also in the Americas (both North and South) and South Africa. It is possible that some reading this post have Huguenot ancestors. This photo from Wikipedia lists the names of Huguenot families who settled in South Africa:

File:South-Africa Johannesburg Botanical Garden-011.jpg

The history of the Huguenots is complex and contentious.

The contention surrounds even the origin of the word ‘Huguenot’ itself.

French opponents to Catholicism from the Middle Ages through to the Reformation would have been mainly — depending on the times in which they lived or their location — Waldenses, Hussites or Lutherans. As Lutheranism became more widespread, French Catholics sometimes referred to  Protestants collectively as Lutherans.

In the 16th century, most French Protestants gravitated to Calvinism, which today in that country is largely watered down and resembles the United Reformed Church or the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. Theologically, anything goes (e.g. Communion is offered to everyone, including the unbaptised). The structure of the services is still good, however, and a French Reformed church is worth a visit on a Sunday morning.

The following theories attempt to explain the origins of the word ‘Huguenot’. (You can read more from the Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia.) It’s useful to remember that in the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe was not cleanly divided into the nations we know today. City-states (e.g. Geneva) and duchies (e.g. Savoy) were to some extent, self-determining and self-governing.

Besançon Hugues

Hugues was a Catholic politician living in Geneva. He died in 1532; at that time, incidentally, John Calvin was still a Catholic and living in France.

As a leader of the city’s Confederate Party, Hugues openly favoured Geneva’s breaking away from the Duchy of Savoy in favour of the Swiss Confederation. So, there was a link between ‘Hugues’ and the term for French Protestants. However, there was another association with Hugues:

a clever derogatory pun on the name Hugues by way of the Flemish word Huisgenoten (literally housemates), referring to the connotations of a somewhat related word in German Eidgenosse (Confederates: i.e. A Citizen of Switzerland) [1]

The French equivalents for these words were eigenots (or aignots).

The French first used the term a few decades later in 1560 with regard to the Amboise plot which attempted to

gain power of France by abducting the young king Francis II and arresting Francis, Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine.

Had it succeeded, France would have become more allied with the Swiss Confederation — and Protestantism.

Thus, Hugues plus Eidgenosse by way of Huisgenoten supposedly became Huguenot, a nickname associating the Protestant cause with politics unpopular in France.[2]

Hugues Capet

Hugues Capet, who ruled France long before the Reformation — between 987 and 996 — was universally respected in France as a man who defended personal liberty. Some historians, such as Janet Gray, theorise that ‘Hugenot’ meant those who longed for another Hugo (Hugues Capet).

Coincidentally, Capet and Calvin were both born in Noyon in the northern province of Picardy.

King Hugo, le roi Huguet

This King Hugo lived a few decades before Hugues Capet, between 885 and 948. He is also known as Hugo of Arles or Hugo of Provence. He was the King of Italy between 924 and 948.

How the city of Tours, in the northern half of France, came to have a gate or bridge called Huguon, named after him, is unclear, especially as he was not well regarded. However, it was at Huguon that French Protestants gathered at night to sing Psalms and pray. French Catholics believed that scoundrels such as King Hugo were not actually in Purgatory paying for their sins and that such souls haunted these places at night.

As for Protestants meeting there at night, the only explanation we have is that townspeople and authorities watched them so closely during the day that they had to assemble at night. This begs the question why they would purposely go to Huguon. Were they being deliberately provocative? This seems the weakest of the theories, even though it was documented as early as 1560, the year of the Amboise plot.

The monkeys/apes of Jan Hus

The last theory proposes that the phrase guenons [apes, monkeys] de Hus was (reversed) the origin of ‘Huguenot’.

Who knows?

As Wikipedia states,

While this and the many other theories offer their own measure of plausibility, attesting at least to the wit of later partisans and historians, “no one of the several theories advanced has afforded satisfaction.”[9]

More about the Huguenots tomorrow in light of the Reformation.