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The Scepter and the Cilice: the Politics of Repentance in Sixteenth-Century France (1572-1610)

Gardner, Rose Esther

The reign of Henri III saw a multiplication of penitential acts: theological texts on repentance were published, new penitential orders founded, and processions organized that included acts of mortification—many of which were led by the king himself, who could be seen marching through the streets of Paris dressed in a penitential sackcloth. Why did the concept of repentance acquire such an unprecedented political import during the second half of the sixteenth century? Based on the examination of a wide range of textual sources including treatises, pamphlets, journals, public sermons, prayers, satirical poems, as well as major works by Jacques-Auguste de Thou, Pierre de L’Estoile, and Pierre Victor Palma Cayet, my dissertation seeks to bring answers to this understudied question, which must be understood in light of a variety of theological-political factors and complex historical circumstances. Not simply a theological concept governing personal gestures of contrition and regret towards God, repentance began to function as a political concept during the Wars of Religion. It served both as an instrument in the affirmation of monarchical power and as a means to delegitimize it. With Henri III’s penitential processions, repentance broke away from the confines of the private sphere to take to the streets. Soon it became ubiquitous, part of a common theological-political vocabulary: in the years 1588-1589, the ultra-Catholic League as well as other political forces opposing the king appropriated processions and penitential spaces, turning them into sites of resistance and contestation. As a result, even if penance had become an almost idiosyncratic feature of Henri III’s style of government, little of its currency was lost after his assassination. With Henri IV’s conversion to Catholicism in 1593, repentance acquired a new political face. Placed in the difficult position of having to restore order in France, Henri IV and his supporters adopted several political strategies to counter the efforts of contentious factions within the realm. The rhetoric of penance and forgiveness became one of the tools that allowed the king to reestablish and stabilize his political authority and legitimacy. During the Surrender of Paris in 1594, Henri IV took on the role of the merciful monarch dispensing forgiveness. This strengthened his sovereignty and he became, as the historical reception of his image attests, the king who saved France from the Wars of Religion. Reconciliation, however, came at a price. When Henri IV issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, an act that instituted a bi-confessional state in France, repentance no longer stood at the core of political reconciliation and stability, but rather at its limits. Instead of acknowledging the past atrocities in the form of an “institutionalized” or public form of repentance, the king wielded the rhetoric of forgiveness in order to efface penance. References to the past violence or to religious topics susceptible of fueling civil discord were censored. Because the dramatic and ostensible processions of penance made popular by Henri III had been more likely to incite people to violence rather than to pacify them, Henri IV and Royalists discredited their political import in the public sphere. Repentance was being censured, and perhaps for this reason more present than ever. By supporting the suppression of public representations of penance, with the goal of restoring “civil accord,” Henri IV decidedly reshaped collective identity and memory for both Catholics and Protestants.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Force, Pierre
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 26, 2019
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