The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) offer many illustrations of the nexus between polemics and wars. Polemical depictions of the religious "other"-for the Protestants, of the church of Rome as a boutique of false wars that allowed swindling clergymen to live without working; for the Catholics, of the Huguenots as seditious libertines who wished to tear down the constraints of Christian morality-fed directly into the crowd violence that was so important an element of these conflicts. In this paper, however, I would like to draw attention to a more complicated and surprising connection between polemic and war.
Since the time of the civil wars themselves, the powerful noble house of Guise has been depicted as having been the most forceful noble advocates of the militant defense of Catholicism throughout the Wars of Religion. They certainly were that by the end of the wars, but a growing body of evidence suggests that in the years 1559-62, they were not the most ardent noble advocates of the harsh repression of heresy, and even at certain moments sought to define a compromise middle ground between Calvinism and strict Tridentine Catholic orthodoxy. Despite being less intransigent champions of Catholicism than such contemporaries as the Cardinal of Tournon or the Constable Montmorency, they were subjected to a campaign of intense vilification in 1560 in the wake of the failed Conspiracy of Amboise. This was largely dictated by a logic of polemical necessity. The Guises were unquestionably the most influential advisors of the young king Francis II in 1560. After the failure of the Conspiracy of Amboise, it was essential for the Protestants to defend themselves against the charge of having sought to kidnap or even kill the king. This they could best do by presenting their conspiracy as having been directed against the king's evil advisors, whom they depicted in tracts such as the notorious "Tigre de France" as monsters of depravity and ambition. From this moment on, the Protestants displayed a consistent tendency to project their not entirely unfounded fears of a Catholic plan to exterminate them on the Guises. This proved fateful.
In early 1562, a chance clash between the duke of Guise and a group of Protestants worshipping at Vassy led to the killing of a number of the worshippers. Each side blamed the other for initiating the affray, but Protestant suspicions of the duke of Guise were so great that the duke's disclaimers carried no weight. On the contrary, many Protestants were convinced that this was the first blow of a larger plan of extermination. They took up arms in defense, and it was their arming and seizure of a number of cities in ostensible self-defense that initiated the entire cycle of the civil wars.