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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 18: Witch Hunts, Huguenots, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross

Chapter 18: Witch Hunts, Huguenots, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross




Why did the persecution and hunting of witches happen during this time in Europe and North America?  Why did it eventually cease?


At a time when the dust started settling regarding the oppression and execution of heretics or those whose theology differed, there was a rise in the persecution of accused witches.  Is there simply a need to persecute someone, anyone different? Now that relative peace has come about with Catholics and Protestants a new outlet was needed.


The persecution seemed to have a misogynistic streak.   Widows were targeted especially after their male protectors were gone.  Was pressure from celibate Catholic priests compounded with Protestant clergy seeming rubbing their faces in by being able to marry? Thus women were to be a source of their unholy temptation and thus to blame.  Was the fact that the sexual disease syphilis was rampaging helping with the idea that sex was evil and that women were the source of sexual temptation? Interestingly, did the Medieval Church seem to think brothels were a necessary evil as an outlet for men so they wouldn’t explode against society?


There were reformers such as Bekker with his book Bewitched World who shamed authorities to stop the persecution.  Still it required strong arming such as royal decree in Poland.  Is the need to have an enemy to hate just an ingrained part of man’s nature?





St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Painting by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter born circa 1529 in Amiens, who settled in Switzerland.


The availability of the Bible in vernacular and local languages was important to the spread of the Protestant movement and the development of the Reformed church in France.  Sometime between 1550 and 1580, members of the Reformed church in France came to be commonly known as Huguenots.  Like other religious reformers of the time, they felt that the Catholic Church needed radical cleansing of its impurities. They thought the Pope ruled the Church as if it were a worldly kingdom and was ultimately doomed. Rhetoric like this became fiercer as events unfolded, and eventually stirred up a reaction in the Catholic establishment.


Huguenot numbers grew rapidly between 1555 and 1561, chiefly amongst nobles and city dwellers. During this time, their opponents first dubbed the Protestants Huguenots; but they called themselves reformés, or “Reformed.” They organized their first national synod in 1558 in Paris.  By 1562, the estimated number of Huguenots peaked at approximately two million, concentrated mainly in the southern and central parts of France, compared to approximately sixteen million Catholics during the same period.  As the Huguenots gained influence and displayed their faith more openly, Roman Catholic hostility to them grew, even though the French crown offered increasingly liberal political concessions and edicts of toleration.


The Catholic Church in France and many of its members opposed the Huguenots. These tensions spurred eight civil wars, interrupted by periods of relative calm, between 1562 and 1598. With each break in peace, the Huguenots’ trust in the Catholic throne diminished, and the violence became more severe, and Protestant demands became grander, until a lasting cessation of open hostility finally occurred in 1598.  Some Huguenot preachers and congregants were attacked as they attempted to meet for worship.


The height of this persecution was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre when 5,000 to 30,000 were killed in Paris, although there were also underlying political reasons for this as well, as some of the Huguenots were nobles trying to establish separate centers of power in southern France.  Similar massacres took place in other towns in the weeks following. The main provincial towns and cities experiencing the Massacre were Aix, Bordeaux, Bourges, Lyon, Meaux, Orleans, Rouen, Toulouse, and Troyes. Nearly 3,000 Protestants were slaughtered in Toulouse alone.  The exact number of fatalities throughout the country is not known.  Retaliating against the French Catholics, the Huguenots had their own militia.


Further persecution diminished the number of Huguenots who remained in France, as many fled to Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, and England.  Most French Huguenots were forced to convert to Catholicism, because they did not want to emigrate or they could not. More than three-quarters of the Protestant population finally converted to Catholicism; the others (more than 200,000) moved to different countries.


The effects of the departure of Huguenots from France are quite considerable.  The exodus of Huguenots from France created a brain drain as many Huguenots had occupied important places in society. The kingdom did not fully recover for years.  The continued persecution and flight of the Huguenots greatly damaged the reputation of Louis XIV abroad, particularly in England. The two kingdoms, which had enjoyed peaceful relations prior to 1685, became bitter enemies and fought against each other in a series of wars from 1689 onward. The French crown’s refusal to allow non-Catholics to settle in New France may help to explain that colony’s slow rate of population growth compared to that of the neighboring British colonies, which opened settlement to religious dissenters.  By the time of the French and Indian War (the North American front of the Seven Years’ War), a sizable population of Huguenot descent lived in the British colonies, and many participated in the British defeat of New France in 1759-60.


By the 1760s, Protestants comprised about 700,000 people, or 2% of the population. It was no longer a favorite religion of the elite; most Protestants were peasants. It was still illegal; although the law was seldom enforced, it could be a threat or a nuisance to Protestants. Calvinist lived primarily in the Midi; about 200,000 Lutherans lived in Alsace, where the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia still protected them.  Persecution of Protestants diminished in France after 1724, finally ending with the Edict of Versailles, commonly called the Edict of Tolerance, signed by Louis XVI in 1787. Two years later, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, Protestants gained equal rights as citizens.


Had the Huguenots been allowed to grow and thrive in France it would have been interesting to see what social and cultural impacts they would have had on French society.  In the same breath the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in France as well as throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries almost mirror the modern day conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam in the Middle East.  As we read about the current battles going on in Iraq and Syria we should take special note that these religious sectarian conflicts often take decades if not centuries to heal and diminish.  So don’t expect the religious wars between Sunni and Shiite Muslims to resolve anytime soon and while we’re at it stay tuned for even more religious mayhem courtesy of the delightful and gregarious folks in Afghanistan!!









Teresa of Avila and Juan de Yepes (aka John of the Cross) were both influential Catholic mystics who both made important impacts for the counter-Reformation, but were kept under close watch by the Inquisition for their somewhat non-conventional ways of expressing their devotion to God and the Church in general.  Both of them came from converso (former Jewish) families during the turmoil of the 1490s in Spain during the reign of King Fernando and Queen Isabella.  They both joined the Carmelite Order and their close ties with one another drew suspicion from church officials.


In an attempt to refocus the spiritual energies of the Carmelites, Teresa had them go back into the wilderness and walk barefoot (hence giving the name “Discalced’).  She struggled to persuade the Church authorities to make a leap of the imagination, to allow the women who joined her to engage in a Carmelite balance of contemplation and activism. (loc. 13044)  In her famous mystical writings, she recorded her passionate and intimate meetings with God, often referring to them as ‘piercings of the heart’ or having a ‘mystical marriage’ with God.  She staunchly defended her belief that women had something distinctive to say, through the prompting of Jesus.


Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647 - 52, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647 – 52, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome


In Juan’s case, he repeatedly depicted himself as the lover and even the bride of Christ, an image that was usually reserved for either the institution of the Church or the female soul.  At times he would write how in his visions, he would caress God (or Jesus) as he laid his head upon his chest and would gently brush his hair from his face.  Of course, MacCulloch would describe these depictions as having a homoerotic flavor to them- and I wouldn’t argue against that obvious observation of his.  Both Teresa and Juan would find inspiration from the Song of Songs in the Bible for their writings.  However, he is best known for his explorations into the ‘dark side’ of spirituality and the loneliness of human existence, especially in his meditation titled The Dark Night of the Soul.  He supposedly wrote this while he was in solitary confinement for nine months during 1577-78.  This was the culmination of a larger writing of his called The Ascent to Mount Carmel.  In this ‘dark night of the soul’, he described it as the third stage of the soul’s experience of being purified and purged.


In the end, after overcoming many obstacles, both their efforts paid off.  The Discalced Carmelites were eventually backed by the highest levels of Spanish society and then eventually the monarchy.  Teresa was declared a saint in 1612, only thirty years after her death, and replaced Santiago as the patron saint of Spain.  Juan was canonized in 1726 by the Church more than a century later.


Overall, both mystics played an important part of the counter-Reformation and Catholic reform that was in effect during that time.  Their writings would become a source of inspiration and devotion for the spiritual renewal portion of the counter-Reformation.  The Catholic Church and her bishops spearheaded a pastoral commitment to the educational and spiritual needs of the laity.  It was also good to read something positive and spiritual for a change that was being done by individual Christians rather than focusing so much on Church and national politics – often with the result of Christians killing one another or other forms of abuse of power.  Their works intrigue me and I’m curious as to how I can incorporate their works into my own personal spiritual life.  Though they are Catholic works that are bound to have elements that I might not see eye-to-eye with, I’m sure they will be of good benefit even for Protestants and non-Catholics alike.  They should be far different works to read than the theological treatises or works of theology that were prevalent during this time.  Passionate writings that use colorful and vivid imagery of God or the divine should arouse one’s emotions and spirit when contemplating about God, as they are designed to do.  One should have a good balance between the intellectual and emotional sides of their soul and spirit.






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