Imagine each day wrapping your hair up in a lovely bun and then slipping a very tiny bible into your chignon? Odd? Well, there was a day when many young Christian women hid their bibles this way! In September 1685, in France, all Bible reading was forbidden and Christian homes were subject to search. French Protestants known as Huguenots were forced to keep their scriptures hidden and to worship in secret. I was privileged to get a little glimpse into the lives of this courageous minority on a recent visit to Provence, France while visiting with ICCP of Aix-en-Provence. While staying there with a gracious 93 year-old Huguenot gentleman, a Monsieur D’Cazenove, we were able to visit the Musée du Désert, where this fascinating and inspiring history is kept alive. And indeed it’s true that Huguenot women hid their very tiny bibles in their chignons!
The Huguenots were the fruit of the tide of the Reformation coming to France in the mid 16th century, and were devoted to reforming the church and the political institutions of their times. Many noble and highly intellectual families joined this movement, but in a majority Catholic country where the Church was all powerful, persecution was inevitable. The most notorious incident occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were in Paris to celebrate the wedding of Henry of Navarre (a Huguenot) to Marguerite de Valois (a Catholic). The young King Charles IX, under the sway of his powerful mother, Catherine d’ Medici, ordered the massacre of all Huguenots. Thousands died in Paris that day and tens of thousands all across France.
When Henry IV, a Huguenot known as Le Bon Roi–the Good King, came to the throne, he passed the Edict of Nantes (1598) granting religious freedom to Huguenots–one of Europe’s first documents to protect this fundamental right. However, 80 years later, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and Huguenots were harassed out of all educated professions, arrested, tortured and imprisoned, their lands and properties confiscated. Louis XIV issued countless warrants for the arrest of Huguenots who refused to convert to Catholicism. At left are just a few of King Louis’s numerous warrants persecuting Huguenots. In these samples, agents of the King are instructed to destroy all the Huguenot churches, extinguish and suppress their colleges, arrest their midwives, and to obtain their declarations as to whether they will convert or die as Protestants.
It was particularly during this period that Huguenots became very creative in finding ways to worship in secret. As a large majority lived in the Provence region, where there are thick forested areas and many caves and grottoes, the Huguenots often met secretly in caves to worship. A home church or a church meeting in a factory might have a convertible pulpit, that when not in use looked like an ordinary wooden barrel, but converted quite ingeniously into a pulpit by a clever system of levers. Goblets for communion wine could be converted to appear as ordinary looking candlesticks, and picture frames were designed so that bibles could be hidden between the mirror and the back of the frame.
Despite these subterfuges, countless Huguenots were arrested, tortured and put to death. Over 5000 men were forced to slave on the galleys of the King, choosing that grim fate over giving up their faith. Marie Durand was arrested at age 19 and spent 38 years imprisoned because she refused to violate her conscience.
Remarkably, despite these tremendous hardships, the Huguenot people were known as the “people who sing.” Their secret worship services were marked by their joyful singing of the scriptures set to music, particularly the psalms. When I question our host, Monsieur d’Casenove, about this fact, he slips quietly into his centuries-old chateau and reemerges quickly holding an ancient book in his hand. It is a psalmer, a very old book of the psalms set to music. When I ask him how old it is, he turns to the copyright page, and the book had been printed in the 1550s.
The history of the Huguenot people is a rich, varied, and inspiring history of a people who fought, suffered, and died for freedom of conscience. It is a history that has some bearing on American history too. In my next post I will explore what Huguenot history has to do with Paul Revere, George Washington, and the Marquis de Lafayette!