The Christian Church was intolerant and sanguinary from the very beginning and it fostered much hate throughout the Holy Roman Empire. The absolute kings of divine right, anointed by the Pope, ruled over the different parts of the empire and not only persecuted the Jews, the ‘Christ killers’, but all those who refused to follow the Roman Church’s liturgy as well. For instance, the Pope would suggest the need for a crusade, and the kings and nobles fearing excommunication, or wanting to earn their passage into heaven, would be quick to raise an army, France leading the way. The first crusade was against the Muslims in 1099. After slaughtering the Muslims in Jerusalem, the French conquered Palestine and established the Kingdom of Jerusalem which lasted until 1291. In 1209, Pope Innocent III asked the French king to carry out a crusade against his own people, the Cathars, and it lasted from 1209 to 1229. The Cathars were completely annihilated down to the last ‘good man’ who was executed in 1231, more than a million in all. All this because the peaceful Cathars refused to accept the Roman Church’s liturgy.
The Church committed so many atrocities and was so inflexible that opposition to it could only grow. So, when Gutenberg’s printing press came along in 1440, it slowly paved the way for the Protestant Reformation that was to come. At first, printing had a very limited impact, for it was used mainly to print the Bible and such. The Church controlled what was being printed, the language used was Latin, only a few scholars could read, and fewer still could write.
In Germany, in 1517, the pamphlet was first used by the leaders of the protestant movement to inflame popular opinion more efficiently against the Pope and the Church. Martin Luther was one of the earliest and most effective pamphleteers. The coarseness and violence of the pamphlets on both sides and the public disorder attributed to their distribution led to their prohibition. Many scholars, disgusted by the abuses and barbarism of the Church, rallied to Luther’s side, and started reading the contents of the pamphlets to the masses. The Protestant Reformation was not about to go away.
By 1520, Luther’s ideas had spread in France, and as early as 1521, at the initiative of the Sorbonne, the condemnations of the Protestant heretics began. Fines and prison sentences were imposed on lowly infidels, while heretical monks and priests were condemned to the stake.
Then came along Jean Calvin, a follower of Luther, who would do something Luther hadn’t considered doing. Luther had mainly been a reformer trying to change the Church from within, but Calvin, a French humanist, wanted much more, he wanted to lay down the rules for a new religion. He had great success among the French bourgeoisie, which comprised the greatest entrepreneurs of the day. Wanting to make up for lost time after the Hundred Years’ War, these businessmen wanted the backwards and cruel Roman Church out of the way. They of course used pamphlets to make their views known, and after the ‘Affaire des Placards’ in 1534, King François I, having lost patience with them, had several of their leaders hanged or sent to the stake. Following these events, Jean Calvin left France and settled in Geneva. Other French Calvinists started emigrating to Hanau, Amsterdam and London.
While Latin continued to be the language of the Roman Church, French became that of the Calvinists in France and French-speaking Switzerland. As of 1570, the printing houses in Geneva and Amsterdam became major centers for the dissemination of French, and consequently of Calvinism. The French nobility had massively adhered to Calvinism as early as 1555. The French Roman Christians, feeling threatened by the Calvinists, perpetrated the Wassy massacre in 1562, when several hundred innocent Huguenots, as Calvinists began to be called, were slaughtered like animals. Then, in 1572, with printing becoming widespread in France, the Huguenots were on the verge of tipping French political power in their favor, and King Charles IX, no doubt with papal approval, engineered the massacre of St. Bartholomew. On the night of August 24, 1572, more than 10,000 noble and notable Huguenots were killed, in Paris and in the provinces.
Because of the Placards Affair in 1534, the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, the siege of La Rochelle in 1627, and the dragonnades under Louis XIV in 1681, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots migrated to more clement lands, and it was the biggest brain drain in the history of any country. That’s why, when Henry VIII was forced to open the door to those with financial and business skills in 1534, many Huguenots had ended up in England where French was still widely spoken among aristocrats.
But in 1573, when William of Nassau-Orange converted to Calvinism, and later, in 1579, when the Treaty of Union was signed in Utrecht, making the Netherlands independent from Spain, Amsterdam became a Huguenot haven and many Calvinists were encouraged to join up with their brothers who were already established there. More importantly, when the Marranos started arriving after their expulsion from Portugal, they joined forces with the Huguenots in both London and Amsterdam, and their union changed the face of the earth