Versailles and Knightfall and the persecution of religious minorities

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By a strange coincidence, both of these (thoroughly inaccurate!) historical dramas have chosen to include major sub-plots involving the persecution of religious minorities in France – in Versailles, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which led to hundreds of thousands of Huguenots leaving the country and is said to be when the term “refugees” originated, and, in Knightfall, the Great Exile of the Jews in 1306.  Versailles even cheekily but not inappropriately chose to show a character coming out with the famous line by Heinrich Heine – who, on the subject of religious discrimination, converted from Judaism to Protestantism because Jews were excluded from academic posts in Prussia – about how burning books leads to burning people, 136 years before it was written.

The “burning books” line always sounds as if it was about the Nazis: obviously, having been written in 1821, it wasn’t. It was actually about the Spanish Inquisition – which was closely associated with the Alhambra Decree of 1492, expelling Jews from Aragon and Castile and their subject territories, and the Expulsion of the Moriscos by their great-great-grandson Philip III in 1609-14.

It was hardly just France and Spain. Religious discrimination was practised across Europe. It’s often associated with the Middle Ages – burnings at the stake et al – and with the Reformation era, but it went on long after that.  Even countries generally considered fairly liberal practised legal and practical discrimination: Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom (then, of course, including the whole of Ireland) didn’t come about until 1829, Catholics in the Netherlands suffered discrimination until the twentieth century, and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants includes an interesting portrayal of the persecution of non-Lutheran Protestants in nineteenth century Sweden.  In most places, things were improving by the mid nineteenth century, helped by Napoleon’s secularisation policies, but the 1882 May Laws in the Russian Empire led to a wave of pogroms and the emigration of over two million Jews.

It’s not a problem that ever seems to go away. We don’t really get new religions developing any more, and religious minorities have tended to evolve into ethno-religious minorities, so it can be difficult to say whether the issues are about ethnicity or about religion, but the point is that minorities are still being discriminated against and even persecuted.  China’s clamping down on the Uighur Muslims.  The Rohingya Muslims are suffering horrific persecution in Burma/Myanmar: that and the barbaric treatment of the Yazidi people by so-called Islamic State – who have now turned on the Druze as well –  are probably the worst examples in recent years.  Christians have come under attack in Egypt and Nigeria.  Concerns have been expressed about the attitude of the right-wing Hindu government in India towards Sikhs and Muslims, and about the effect of the new Israeli constitution on the status of the Druze.  Just a few examples.  Even in the UK, you can’t turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or glance at the internet without reading/hearing about someone accusing Jeremy Corbyn of anti-Semitism or Boris Johnson of Islamophobia.

Neither programme comes even remotely close to being historically accurate!   Versailles has a group of Huguenots (who for some reason all have North of England accents) plotting to assassinate Louis XIV … who has just found out that he and the Duc d’Orleans are not really the sons of Louis XIII but are in fact the products of an affair between Maria Teresa of Austria and Spain, Queen of France, and the Man in the Iron Mask. Knightfall, quite apart from featuring a pope who’d died several years before it’s set, has a major plot involving Princess Isabella (the She Wolf of France, she who would eventually marry Edward II, have an affair with Roger Mortimer and overthrow her husband) having an affair with a Prince Lluis of Catalunya, son of King and Queen of Catalunya … despite the fact that the Crown of Catalunya had been part of the Crown of Aragon for nearly 150 years by this time!  Not to mention the Queen of France having an affair with one of the Knights Templar.

But the fact that they are such utter twaddle – although quite entertaining, and I’ll rather miss Versailles now that it’s finished – actually makes it even more interesting that they’ve chosen to focus so much on something as serious as this.  Really, the two situations aren’t comparable, and, in terms of both numbers and impact elsewhere, the Edict of Fontainebleau/Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the Alhambra Decree would be a better comparison, but there’s nothing on about Spanish history at the moment.  And the Revocation wasn’t an instrument of expulsion: the Huguenots weren’t told to get out of France.  But their lives were made so miserable that most of them did.

Just going back to the impact of the Revocation, it had a big effect elsewhere, and nowhere more so than here. As well as the impact of the refugees who flooded into the British Isles – and had a very positive effect on the economy – the fear of what a Catholic monarch might do, and the way in which interested parties (to use a Jane Austen expression) used that fear, played a big part in bringing about the Glorious Revolution and everything associated with it.  The Great Exile didn’t really affect anywhere other than France – but it’s worth noting that the persecution of religious minorities in Spain and, later, the Russian Empire, had a big impact on international impressions of those countries, and that the flood of emigration had a big effect – as with the Huguenots, often a positive one – on the countries to which those emigrants went.

Are the events of 1306 and 1685 comparable in terms of motive?   Was any of it actually about actual religion/piety, for a kick off?  Not really.  There has always been an idea that Louis XIV was influenced by Madame de Maintenon, who was very Catholic and disliked Protestants for religious reasons.  That idea certainly came across in Versailles.  Why do people always want to blame women for what men do??  No-one’s ever suggested that Philip IV of France was henpecked into exiling the Jews, but I’ve certainly read articles suggesting that the Edict of Expulsion of Jews from England, in 1295, was influenced by Edward I’s mother, Eleanor of Provence.  I’m not buying any of that – and I don’t think any of it was actually about religion.

Philip, like Edward I, was probably largely motivated by money: he didn’t want to pay his debts to Jewish moneylenders, and he also grabbed the money and other assets which the exiled Jews were forced to leave behind. Louis wasn’t, though, to be fair.  France actually suffered economically as a result of the expulsion of the Huguenots, who included many skilled craftspeople.

Attempt to gain popularity, maybe, in the case of either or both? We’ve all seen how “populist” politicians seek to appeal to a certain section of public opinion by railing against religious minorities, and that’s very definitely nothing new.  Toleration of Huguenots, granted by Henri “Paris is worth a Mass” IV, once a Huguenot himself, was not popular amongst French Catholics.  The expulsion of Jews from Edward I’s England has been seen as a sop to the upper classes ahead of the imposition of a new tax, and the Great Exile (one of several expulsions of Jews from medieval France, but probably the one which had the most effect) probably went down pretty well with the Christian majority.  Again, though, I don’t think it was really that.  Religious minorities are an easy target, blamed for everything from heavy taxation in Polish-ruled Ukraine (i.e. at the time of the Khmelnytsky Massacres) to the Great Fire of London, but there was nothing particular of that sort going on in either 1306 or 1685.

No: it mainly seems to have been about power and control. Maybe not so quite much so in 1306, but definitely in 1685.  And you can say the same about the “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” idea in Alexander III and Nicholas II’s Russian Empire, the drive to eradicate Protestantism in the Habsburg Empire, and a million and one other examples.  Religion and control are very closely intertwined, and it’s a lot easier to control people when you’ve got religious uniformity – when you’ve got everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, in fact, and, as part of that, when you can make everyone feel that they’re all part of a whole.  Attacks on religious minorities by random groups of people are usually motivated by hatred, or just by wanting someone to blame for social and economic problems,  but, when it’s coming from the state, from the centre of power, it does tend to be about power and control.  And Louis XIV was very keen on power and control.

Of course, sometimes, power and control involve political leaders clashing with the power of the majority religion –Henry VIII and Napoleon – but that’s another story. And we get enough programmes about the Tudors and about the nineteenth century: it’s nice to see something different!   And, whilst this again is another story, the hunted, if they gain power, often become the hunted.  All those stories about the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire – and then, once the Roman Empire became Christian, the Christians set about persecuting minority Christian sects and everyone else!

The Great Exile and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes are far from being the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of Europe, or the history of the world. They aren’t even the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of France – the Albigensian Crusade was probably that, and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre also springs to mind.  There were no massacres, no mass rapes and no autos da fe.  And there weren’t any gas chambers … the Nazi genocide isn’t really to be compared with the general history of religious persecution, but I want to say something (in case anyone’s actually reading this!) about the current trend for the use of very incendiary language and inappropriate comparisons with events from history, and referencing the actions of the Nazis is one of the main forms of it.

We are currently seeing a very worrying rise in far right attitudes, in many countries, but the use by the media and by individuals of inappropriate comparisons with the atrocities of the past is, in addition to being inappropriate, extremely unhelpful.  It increases tensions which really don’t need increasing – and it’s also rather insulting to the victims of those atrocities.

If you’re talking about the persecution of the Rohingya, by all means compare it to the worst incidences of persecution in the past. But yelling and screaming about how Donald Trump’s immigration policies are reminiscent of Nazi Germany isn’t helpful.  The separation of children from their parents is beyond disgusting, and deserves to be condemned in very strong terms – but not in terms which reference the murder of seventeen million people.  The blockade of the Gaza Strip has created an appalling humanitarian crisis, and is completely unacceptable, but, again, referencing the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany is completely inappropriate.

The other week, racist graffiti was daubed on the home of a black family in Rochdale. That’s utterly appalling, and I hope that the victims are getting whatever support they need and that the perpetrators are caught and locked up, but I was rather taken aback to hear someone telling a local TV news crew that we seemed to be going back to the days of slavery.  Graffiti is not comparable with the evils of slavery.

There is undoubtedly a problem with anti-Semitism within elements of the Labour Party, and Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t really have made a worse mess of handling it if he’d tried. But is it really appropriate to talk about him being an “existential threat to Jewish life” in the UK?  He’s hardly planning to re-issue the 1295 Edict of Expulsion, is he?  And Boris Johnson’s comments about burkas were extremely offensive, and have caused a completely unwarranted row – I appreciate that he was talking about the bans on burkas imposed in several Continental countries, but it isn’t an issue here, so why make it one? – but he was actually opposing the imposition of bans on burkas, unacceptable as his language was.

I wish people would just tone down the language with all of this.   Especially when it comes to comparisons with events of the past.  Possibly don’t watch Versailles and Knightfall, if you’re after an accurate idea of what went on in the past.  But do think about some of the horrors which they’re addressing, and the many other lessons of history which we need to learn and ensure are never, ever repeated.  Think about all those people who were driven from their homes, and their home countries, in 1306 and 1685.  Think about the current series of Who Do You Think You Are, which has shown both Marvin Humes and Shirley Ballas finding out that some of their ancestors were enslaved, and Robert Rinder learning about his grandfather’s experiences and the loss of many of his relatives in the Holocaust.  Please don’t reference those events, when talking about today’s events, unless it really is appropriate to do so.  But please also remember just how bad it can get.  There’s a lot of unpleasant stuff going on at the moment.  It needs to be stopped.  Far too often, it hasn’t been.

 

 

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