Bourges: Public rituals of collective and personal identity in the middle of the sixteenth century

by Jonathan A. Reid

Located at the geographic center of France, Bourges was an important regional capital of some 12,000 inhabitants during the sixteenth century. Much like other French cities, it was socially and politically complex. Peopling its streets were swarms of priests, mendicants, monks, and nuns belonging to the town’s dozens of independent churches; equal numbers of royal, ecclesiastical, feudal, and civic officials and justices drawn from the lower nobility and bourgeoisie; professors and students (many of them foreign) in its famous university; and, most numerous of all, the ‘common people,’ who worked in several industries, including textiles and agricultural commerce.

Jean Glaumeau, a beneficed priest in the collegial congregation of Notre-Dame de Moutiers-Moyen, recorded in his journal spanning the years 1541 to 1562 what he considered to be the major events occurring in Bourges and in his own family life leading up to the first War of Religion in France. It is a rare and precious primary source, for Glaumeau’s observations reveal much about the social order as well as how contemporaries experienced and enacted their collective and individual identities within it, and even forged new ones as the rise of the Reformed Church undermined established structures.

In his journal, Glaumeau frequently described the staging of communal processions and demonstrations - in times of war, famine, drought, as well as peace and prosperity - along with other public rites of civic life. During times of peace, such rituals tended to promote unity. Participants reaffirmed the roles, authority, responsibilities, and relationships of the members of the constituent groups of the town. His detailed accounts of these rituals provide us, in effect, with a map of the socio-geography of Bourges.

Glaumeau devoted his longest journal entry to a week-long series of celebrations held at Bourges following the birth and baptism of François de Valois, the first son born to the Dauphin (heir apparent), Henri de Valois, son of the reigning king, Francis I. The year was 1544 and King Francis was in poor health. The boy’s birth raised the hope that there would be a smooth transition of power from royal father to son for at least two more generations, thus promising future stability and prosperity. The people of Bourges’ festivities reflected the social world they hoped the fortuitous event would preserve.

Rituals of collective & personal identity 81

As Glaumeau reports, the people of Bourges feted this boy’s “nativity” (nativité in French, not a mere ‘birth’ or naissance) with fitting pomp:

“First, on Sunday, February 4, a general procession was held in which all the clergy, attired in vestments accustomed for the feast of Corpus Christi, carried several reliquaries from the cathedral of St. Etienne down the main road to the church of the Carmelites, where a High Mass of the Holy Spirit was celebrated. All the town officials, dressed in their ceremonial robes, attended, each one of them carrying a candle of virgin wax. Upon returning from the procession and entering St. Étienne, everyone commenced singing the Te Deutn laudamus (We Praise You God) accompanied by bell ringing and the organ. It was very good to hear God honored for the new son born to my lord, the Dauphin.

“The same day, between three and four in the afternoon, the town officials, numbering 100 to 120, all on horseback or mule ... left from town hall and proceeded through the streets ... to see the triumphs and celebratory bonfires, which were as follows ...”*

Glaumeau goes on to describe in detail a lengthy block party attended by “a great multitude of common people, who danced and sang accompanied by several instrument players, all at the town’s expense.” The town councilors treated them to huge bonfires with fireworks, a simultaneous cannonade of thirty to forty pieces of artillery, free cakes tossed from balconies, “a vat of wine from which one could drink as much as one liked,” and commemorative metals stamped with the Dauphin's, arms and the words of Isaiah, (which were typically used at Christmas), “To us a boy is born; to us a son is given.”2

Never in living memory had there been such a joyous celebration. And the festivities, “too numerous to recount,” did not stop. Over the next week, by turns in the different neighborhoods of Bourges, “all the estates [corporations] of the town put on some show or celebration. First the university and students, [then] the judges and lawyers,...” and on and on across the occupational spectrum, including the guilds of manual laborers, such as vine-dressers, wool combers and carders, weavers, and cloth fullers. Glaumeau prayed, expressing the people’s shared wish: “God grant that everything may come to a good end, and that he [the newborn] may someday, when a man, bring as much joy to the people as has his birth.”3

The principal dimensions of the urban social order are on display in this collective moment of exuberance: the ties of affection binding people to the royal house; the religious dimensions of royal power and civic life; the divisions and order of precedence among clergy, lay authorities, educated elites, and the common folk; the responsibilities of the governing orders - king, clergy, and magistrates - to ensure the wellbeing of the town as well as those of the lower ones to give due thanks and respect to them.

However, such social structures and norms were severely tested by the rise of the Reformed Church in France. In Glaumeau’s account of the tumultuous events at Bourges from 1557 to 1562, he describes new groups

82 Jonathan A. Reid and uses new names to identify them when he tries to size up what was by then an unsettled social world, one in which he had trouble finding his place. In the deeds themselves and the categories Glaumeau uses to describe participants, we see that the old social identities and bonds were breaking under the strain of new competing religious ones. In 1559, hundreds of “men and women”4 - apparently from across the social spectrum and hence otherwise defying categorization except by gender, with women appearing in this sense as a social group for the first time - gathered outside the city walls to sing Protestant versions of the psalms in direct contravention of the town officials’ orders. By 1561, collective ‘rites of violence’ - repeated street battles involving as many as 2,000 armed people - pitted “those of the Gospel” against “those of the Roman church.”5 Iconoclasm, the burning of houses and clerical property, and murders ensued.

In January 1562, Glaumeau made his choice in this newly divided social and religious landscape: He publicly professed his long-secreted Protestant identity and joined “the church of the Christians,” otherwise “named by evil ones as ‘the church of the Huguenots.’”6 He did so following the powerful symbolic moment when M. de Passy, the former Bishop of Nevers now turned Protestant pastor, celebrated the first public Reformed communion in Bourges.

In all this, we see that in times of social peace as well as of radical upheaval Jean Glaumeau and the people of Bourges mediated, contested, and expressed their corporate and individual identities through the idiom of collective rituals in public spaces.


  • 1 Jehan Glaumeau, Journal de Jehan Glaumeau: Bourges, 1541-1562, ed. Alfred Hiver de Beauvoir, Bourges: Just-Bernard, 1867, pp. 9-10. Translated by Jonathan A. Reid.
  • 2 Ibid., pp. 12-13.
  • 3 Ibid., pp. 14-15.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 103.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 118.
  • 6 Ibid., pp. 122-123.

Castres, 1561: A town erupts into religious violence

by Barbara B. Diefendorf

Although Luther’s writings were outlawed in France as early as 1521, Protestant teachings continued to spread underground. In the mid-1550s, converts formed churches on the model of Calvin’s Geneva so as to worship according to their beliefs. They also became increasingly militant, particularly in those parts of southern France where conversions were most numerous and local officials often sympathetic to the cause. Religious war broke out in March 1562 after Catholic-led troops attacked Protestants worshipping outside the town of Vassy, in Champagne, but the wars must also be understood in the context of the increasingly provocative behavior of militant Protestants. Taking advantage of the less repressive atmosphere introduced when Catherine de Medici became regent in December 1560, members of French Reformed churches became more open in their worship but also demonstrated their opposition to Catholicism by attacking Catholic churches and clerics. Protestants claimed to be cleansing the churches of error in removing side altars, saints’ images, and other objects that they believed promoted false worship and superstition. To Catholics, however, these were deliberate and unforgivable acts of sacrilege and blasphemy.

Jean Faurin, a Protestant citizen of Castres, left a detailed record of events in this southern French town of approximately 5,000 people, as tensions built toward the first War of Religion. By his account, Castres’ Protestants, tired of clandestine night-time meetings and the constant danger of attack, held their first public services in October 1560 in a local school. This resulted in several arrests and a prohibition against further services, but 500 people still gathered openly for a sermon in April 1561. Royal officials continued to interrupt public worship when they could, and yet the congregation continued to grow. 600 people publicly celebrated the Lord’s Supper in July. By September, the membership was large enough and included enough local officials that Reformed church leaders demanded - and received - the keys to the Catholic church of Our Lady of La Plate, where they then established services. Thus, Protestants in Castres had taken over a central urban space. Jean Faurin’s journal gives a good idea of what happened next:

On October 28, 29, and 30 [1561], on orders from the magistrates in Castres, all of the idols and all of the side altars were torn down in the temple1 of La Plate, without opposition.

On December 14, in Saint Benedict Cathedral, a Franciscan sent by the Bishop of Castres, Claude d’Oraison, came to preach Advent sermons and said nothing but bad things about the Reformed faith. In short, everything was building toward an uprising. Then it happened that a Protestant school boy who was listening to [the Franciscan] preach, hearing him say bad things about the faith, publicly upbraided him and said that he lied. If the boy had not escaped at a run, several papists2 would have killed him with the knives they carried, as they were certainly trying to do. That night, Protestants assembled in arms to seize this seditious preacher, who was lodged in Saint Benedict’s cloister, in the sacristan’s house. He was very hard to take but at last was made prisoner and brought by the Protestants to the town’s criminal justice hall without opposition or resistance from papists. ... They [also] took prisoner Pierre Boissier, called ‘Penchenery,’ a local merchant; he was put in a house with several other papists who had provoked the uprising. Sometime later, the friar left the city alive and well with a rope around his neck.3

On December 16, members of the city’s consistory4 arrested everyone who was out in the streets, and the captain of the city’s forces made them go to Protestant services, even if they were priests and others of that ilk. They even went to seek them out in churches while they were saying Mass.

On the afternoon of December 31, by order of the magistrates, all of the images and side altars were torn out of the following churches: first at Saint Benedict Cathedral, then at Saint James, Saint Clare, Saint Francis, Holy Trinity, Saint Vincent, and Saint John of Bourdelles, outside the city. The images and idols were also torn down in a number of other cities in France. The next day, January 1, the idols of Our Lady of Fagues, Saint John of Naves, and Saint Martin of Lodies, outside the city, were torn down. ...

On January 4, the king’s attorney for Castres, the viguier,5 and the captain of the guard went to the convent of Saint Clare and removed all of the Franciscan nuns, about twenty in number, and sent them to hear Reformed services at Saint Benedict Cathedral, where Monsieur Fleury was preaching. They then took five to the notary Campardy’s house, five to the house of Francis Buisson, and the others to the home of Antoine Marty, lord of Roquecourbe in Villegoudou. Their parents and relatives later came for them. ...

On Monday, February 2, the feast of Our Lady that the papists call Chandeleur, a Trinitarian friar named Brother Anthony was found secretly saying Mass in the refectory or sacristy of the Trinitarian church. Several local residents ... were in attendance. They took him and mounted him backwards on a donkey, making him hold onto its tail. The friar was still in his vestments from saying Mass, and they put a basket of figs garnished with feathers on his head and paraded him through the entire city on the donkey. They then brought him into the town square where they seated him on a stool,

Castres erupts into religious violence 85 shaved his head, and, showing him the host6 he had prepared for Mass, asked him if he was willing to die for the Mass. Then, in front of all who watched, he said no and that the Mass was worthless. Immediately afterwards, they took his cape and hood and all of his accouterments, his missal, and his host and burned them. The friar then said, in the presence of the entire crowd, that he would never say Mass again.”7

Two weeks later, Castres’ Protestants gave up their temple of La Plate in response to a royal edict promising freedom of worship if Protestants returned churches they had seized and only held services outside city walls. Many Catholics nevertheless vocally opposed the edict and war broke out at the beginning of March. Like other French Protestants, Jean Faurin blamed Catholics for starting the war and insisted it need never have happened, if only the edict promising freedom of conscience and a right to worship outside city walls had been observed. Perhaps so; French Protestants never made up more than 10 or 15 percent of the country’s population and were well aware of their minority position. The behavior of Protestants in towns like Castres, where they enjoyed dominance over contested spaces, nevertheless raises interesting questions about just what it was the Protestants truly wanted and how far they were willing to go in pursuit of their own vision of religious truth.


  • 1 French Protestants called the buildings where they worshiped ‘temples’ and reserved the word ‘church’ to refer to the congregation of believers.
  • 2 A derogatory term for Catholics used commonly in Protestant writings.
  • 3 Convicted felons were forced to beg pardon wearing a noose around their neck before their execution. Pious monks sometimes put on the hangman’s noose as a mark of penitence, but in this case it is more likely that the Protestants forced the friar to wear it as a mark of shame.
  • 4 Composed of lay elders and ministers, the consistory was responsible for administering the Reformed Church’s affairs and disciplining its members.
  • 5 A royally appointed judge and administrator.
  • 6 The eucharistic wafer that, once consecrated, would, according to Catholic teaching, be transformed into the blood and body of Christ.
  • 7 Jean Faurin, Journal de Faurin sur les guerres de Castres, ed. Charles Pradel, Marseilles: Laffitte Reprints, 1981, pp. 9-12. Translated by Barbara B. Diefendorf.
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