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"Assemblée au Désert", by Jeanne Lombard, 1934


While the British adoration of Provence centres on its wines, its food, its warmth and lavender-filled landscapes, guidebooks barely mention the region’s history as a crucible of do-or-die Protestantism.

Yet every September, once the tourists and second-home owners have driven off, cars stream into a remote hamlet for the Assemblée du Désert. The century-old gathering attracts around 10,000 mainly French Protestants who gather on a secluded wooded hillside in festive mood, with camping chairs and baguettes, for a day’s preaching and teaching. This year’s assemblée celebrated Martin Luther on the 500th anniversary of his posting of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, although he is not considered French Protestants’ spiritual father: that honour is accorded to the Picardy-born reformer Jean Calvin.

The preacher, Revd Jean-François Breyne, exhorted his hearers to adopt Luther’s method of Bible-reading — sola scriptura — and build a society open to “the excluded, foreigners and refugees”. While Breyne and around 20 or so other clergy turned out in black cassocks, red stoles and white collars, the crowd wore mainly jeans, and many of them a Huguenot pendant combining the Maltese cross, the fleur-de-lys and a dove. Hymns were sombre affairs, the most upbeat being A toi la gloire (Thine be the glory). A linguistic gem was a song in Languedocian that commemorated 18th-century Protestants imprisoned for their convictions.

The désert is how French Protestants refer to the century before the French Revolution, when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed their toleration, and sought to restore an all-Catholic France. Rogue troops tried to convert the Huguenots or forced them to flee to safe havens such as Britain, Holland, Prussia, South Africa and the New World. Of those who refused, preachers were sentenced to death, women imprisoned and men sent to galley-ships. The term “desert” was adopted to evoke the Israelites’ years in the wilderness: with their meetings outlawed, the remaining Protestants took to gathering in secret in the French countryside, using portable pulpits that could quickly be collapsed to resemble large barrels.

The hillside remains a silent witness to the determination of the Camisards, as southern Huguenots were known, and those attending these days include non-Protestants. Denis Carbonnier, curator of the Museum of the Desert, a well-preserved Camisard house at the top of the hillside, said: “They explain to us that they appreciate what French Protestantism has brought to society: freedom of conscience, democracy, revolution, modernity, secularism, honesty and so on.”

Those are large claims from a community that has long represented at most 3 per cent of the population, but while the Catholic Church was left shattered by the revolution, Protestants see themselves as a dynamic minority emancipated by it.

The museum’s narrative expresses regret that the Camisards at times engaged in violence. In the late 17th century, their efforts to attack Catholic France were encouraged by William of Orange, King of England and Stadtholder of Holland. It is a reminder that the persecution of religious and linguistic minorities, and their co-option into political agendas, is not limited to the present-day Middle East or Myanmar.
 
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