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Judging the French Reformation

Judging the French Reformation

Heresy Trials by Sixteenth-Century Parlements

William Monter

ISBN 9780674488601

Publication date: 09/10/1999

This original look at the French Reformation pits immovable object--the French appellate courts or parlements--against irresistible force--the most dynamic forms of the Protestant Reformation. Without the slightest hesitation, the high courts of Renaissance France opposed these religious innovators. By 1540, the French monarchy had largely removed the prosecution of heresy from ecclesiastical courts and handed it to the parlements. Heresy trials and executions escalated dramatically. But within twenty years, the irresistible force had overcome the immovable object: the prosecution of Protestant heresy, by then unworkable, was abandoned by French appellate courts.

Until now no one has investigated systematically the judicial history of the French Reformation. William Monter has examined the myriad encounters between Protestants and judges in French parlements, extracting information from abundant but unindexed registers of official criminal decisions both in Paris and in provincial capitals, and identifying more than 425 prisoners condemned to death for heresy by French courts between 1523 and 1560. He notes the ways in which Protestants resisted the French judicial system even before the religious wars, and sets their story within the context of heresy prosecutions elsewhere in Reformation Europe, and within the long-term history of French criminal justice.


  • Superb. One of Monter's greatest contributions is simply the amount of fresh information he provides, based on intensive research in a number of different French archives in which the manuscripts of French parlements are kept. This fresh information makes possible Monter's greatest single discovery: that the peak of prosecutions for heresy came in the reign of Francis I in the late 1540s, not during the reign of Henri II in the 1550s, thus before the organization and rapid spread of Calvinist Protestantism in France--a conclusion that is counterintuitive. Monter's presentation is excellent. He has organized his material clearly and logically, presented it with appropriate use of dramatic detail, and written it fluently.

    —Robert M. Kingdon, University of Wisconsin-Madison


  • William Monter is Professor of History, Northwestern University. He is the author of numerous works on Calvin’s Geneva, witchcraft, and the Spanish Inquisition, including Frontiers of Heresy: The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Lands to Sicily.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press