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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

An edict of toleration?

The Edict of Nantes is sometimes referred to as an "edict of toleration". And yet, nothing in it, or in any of its predecessors, makes any reference to the concept of tolerance as we understand it today. Neither the term nor the definition that we assign to it appears. The attitude that consists of admitting that others have ways of thinking or acting that are different from our own, an "indifference to difference" as it were, was unknown in the 16th century. There was no question of accepting otherness, but rather "suffering" it – enduring the presence of Huguenots without being able to do otherwise. The recurring reminders of the king's desire to bring together all his subjects under one and the same Church are symptomatic of this. In the mind of the lawmaker, there was no doubt that these measures were only temporary, and that one day circumstances would allow all to enter into union within the Catholic Church.

And yet, by "tolerating", even temporarily, Protestant worship, the king was recognising and institutionalising otherness. By accepting complete freedom of religious choice and by granting both religious and civil rights to a minority of his Protestant subjects (something like one person in twenty at the end of the 16th century), the Edict of Nantes was a "shining landmark" (Janine Garrisson) on the path to individual freedom, liberty and the Rights of Man.

In many ways, the Edict was also a fundamental stage in the secularisation of the State. It contains no discernable reference to dogma. The religious aspect of difference of opinion was deliberately downplayed, and for the first time, politics was dissociated from religion. The aim was to politicise and "deconfessionalise" the issue and how it was to be settled. Henri was not ruling on the content, but rather seeking to organise the form, i.e. peaceful coexistence. For subjects of both faiths, this was a minor revolution. It led to the advent of a dual loyalty, political and religious, as these edicts tended to differentiate between "the citizen, a political subject obedient to the law, and the believer, who is free to make his private religious choices." It would be anachronistic, however, to speak of secularism, because the king was closely connected to the Catholic Church and did not recognise atheism.

The Edict of Nantes remains a text of astonishing modernity, taking a stand in Europe at a time when institutionalised coexistence of the two faiths was an exception.

Related multimedia

Title: Letters with signature for executing the Edict of Nantes

Letters with signature for executing the Edict of Nantes
© Archives départementales du Lot-et-Garonne
Letters with signature for executing the Edict of Nantes in Agenais (1598). Inv. E SUPAGEN AA 18

Title: The Parlement of Normandy registring the Edict of Nantes

The Parlement of Normandy registring the Edict of Nantes
© Archives départementales de Seine-Maritime
Lettre from Henri IV requesting the Parlement of Normandy to register the Edict of Nantes (Paris, 15 May 1609). Cote: 1 B 126 Registre secret du parlement de Normandie (Folio 283)

Title: Edict of Toleration, 1787

Edict of Toleration, 1787
© Archives nationales
Louis XVI's Edict of Toleration was another milestone in the struggle for the Rights of Man. The Edict, "concerning those who do not profess the Catholic religion" granted to non-Catholic subjects "what natural right does not permit us to refuse them, to register their births, their marriages and their deaths, in order to enjoy, like all our other subjects, the civil effects that result from this."
Edict of Toleration, 1787 (first page)
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