Steam train revisited: thinking through the Edict of Nantes

by CarlD

In the textbook we use to teach introductory World history there’s a picture of a peasant leader from the Peasants’ War in the Holy Roman Empire during the early 16th C. He’s a handsome bearded man with his arms tied behind him, attached to a stake with a short line. The stake is surrounded a couple of paces out with a ring of dry burning wood. He is undoubtedly roasting slowly to death.

This seems sort of unfriendly to the students, and I’d have to agree. But since it’s a History class we have to try to figure out what was going on in the heads of everyone involved where it ‘made sense’ to them. There were of course various dimensions of political and class conflict in these events, but the religious conflict of the early Reformation is easier to get at and revealing of the profound cultural differences that help to make history worth studying, so I focus at first on that.

One obvious wonder has to do with the disconnect between this seemingly-unfriendly treatment and what we today would think of as ordinary human rights. We might not like someone, we may even think it’s ok to kill them. But doing so by inflicting lengthy extraordinary pain is beyond a kind of threshold to us. (I tease students that if the threat of this kind of punishment did not deter the peasant leader, what chance does painless execution have to be deterrent? I also look outward to the history of the Atlantic slave trade and point out that if Europeans were acting in nasty burny ways toward ‘each other’, there’s not much point in being shocked about how badly they treated the Indians and Africans.)

So what was the moral context in which this sort of public spectacle of pain made sense? Was it just the amoral brutality of war? Yes, there was some of that. When you’ve just got done stabbing and hacking at other people’s flesh with edged weapons, and perhaps been carved like deli meat a bit yourself, a little extra fire might not seem like a big deal. Among the participants in this particular war were early mass armies with little sense of noblesse oblige, along with rural knights whose self-restraint was being seriously tested by a shift of power to the towns that soon made them obsolete.

This explanation won’t do the whole trick, however. There’s a symbolic, even ritually sacred quality to the execution that isn’t captured by mere brutality or resentment. I suggest to the students that we take seriously for a moment the idea of heaven and hell, eternal reward and punishment. Let’s say we really believed that. It would start to matter a whole lot how we lived our lives here. There’s no sense in talking about hell if ‘it’s all good’, so apparently there are ways of living that will send you or others there; and given the scale of the punishment, it would be very important to avoid them. It would also be nice and friendly to do everything in your power to save others from this fate.

In the scale of eternity, this peasant’s torturous end is fleeting. Nor is the pain of earthly fire any comparison to the furnaces of hell. Furthermore, from his perpective this pain is also as nothing compared to an eternity of bliss. At the individual level, therefore, his torture is of little consequence; but at the symbolic level it represents a vivid contrast between an object lesson in the wages of sin, on the one hand, and his own virtuous martyrdom, on the other. (The former is why the execution had to be done in public. The latter is part of why eventually executions were moved away from public view.)

‘Human rights’ are quite beside the point here. They are about the secular sacredness of the human individual, but the flesh being fried here is much bigger – ideas of fundamental truth and eternal salvation or damnation. No individual can measure up to this level of moral universalism.

Which is why the Edict of Nantes and its various analogs are so significant. It’s not actually that Henry IV said ‘it’s all good’. What the Edict actually says, in context, is that we think you’re still wrong and you’re still going to hell, but we’re exhausted by all the killing each other over it so we’re not going to try to stop you anymore; and if you can talk other poor fools into following you there, so be it. This turned the murderous logic of moral absolutism into a pragmatic policy of toleration.

It was for the intervening centuries and processes I hope to get to in good time to turn this license to be wrong into the notion that each of us is right in our own way.

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