Wednesday, 16 March 2016


Part 2:  'The Renaissance and the Reformation were, for a moment, one'
In the early years of the Reformation Martin Luther and other revolutionary teachers needed all the powerful friends they could find. Some of them were women. If that created problems for the reformers because women conventionally exercised subservient roles in society (a situation apparently supported by the Bible), such scruples had to be set aside in the quest for influential patrons. None was more influential than Margaret of Navarre (1492-1549), of whom it has been said 'in her the Renaissance and the Reformation were, for a moment, one'.

Margaret was one of the more remarkable individuals of a remarkable age - intelligent, cultured and courageous, she managed to combine independence of thought with tactfulness and diplomacy. She was the elder sister of Francis I, the flamboyant and warlike king who inherited the crown of France in 1515. Margaret was his closest confidante. As such she was able to protect writers and preachers who came under suspicion from church leaders and to express opinions which, in others, would have been branded as heresy.
Margaret's salon was renowned throughout Europe and was illuminated by several of the more avant garde writers and thinkers of the day. The most famous was Francois Rabelais, popularly thought of as an apostle of hedonism. In fact, he brought gifts of wit and imagination to a traditional Catholic world in confusion. He satirised the establishment - particularly the religious establishment - and ruthlessly exposed hypocrisy. Margaret herself took a leaf from his book with her collection of bawdy tales called the Heptameron (published posthumously) in which she poked fun at errant clergy. Such racy satires were very much in vogue but if they mocked bishops and monks it was to make readers realise just how serious the malaise in European religion really was.

She took as her spiritual director Guillaume Briconnet, Bishop of Meaux, who headed the leading humanist cell in France, the Meaux Circle. Two of its more prominent members were Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, who produced the first French translation of the Bible, and the poet, Clement Marot. Both men ran into difficulties with the ecclesiastical establishment for encouraging the study of Scripture in the original languages. When Marot lampooned the Paris schoolmen as ignoramuses, he was imprisoned and only the king's intervention saved him from a worse fate. Lefevre was obliged to flee to Strasbourg.

1525 was a turning point in Margaret's life. Her brother, at war with the Emperor Charles V, was captured at the Battle of Pavia. The negotiations for Francis' release fell largely on Margaret to carry out. This involved, not just tricky diplomatic bargaining but actual physical hardship. At one time she raced on horseback for several days during the dead of winter to make a vital rendezvous. One of the king's fellow prisoners was Henry II, ruler of the small Pyrennian kingdom of Navarre. He managed to escape his captors and, within months, Margaret married this dashing young man, nine years her junior. Thereafter, she resided mostly at her husband's court at Nerac. As soon as she had left the French court her orthodox enemies swooped. The Meaux group was broken up and Briconnet faced heresy charges.

Under the enlightened rule of Henry (who also inclined to reformed religion) and Margaret, Navarre became a haven for fugitives fleeing from persecution as the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants became more bitter. In the relative peace of Nerac Margaret welcomed Protestant fugitives, who found in the worship of her chapel biblical teaching and a congenial style of devotion. She became a kind of spiritual mother to the churches throughout her domain, visiting, encouraging and providing written manuals on worship and doctrine. She kept up an extensive correspondence with members of a wide humanist and reformed network. Through her writings and her letters we discern a Christian woman who thought for herself. As a result, she had to endure criticism from critics on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Her faith could not be labelled 'Lutheran' or 'Calvinist' but she certainly embraced the central Protestant doctrine of justification by only faith. Her own poetry reflected this:

                    To you I testify
                    That God does justify
                    Through Christ the man who sins.
                    But if he does not believe
                    And by faith receive
                    He shall have no peace,
                            From worry no surcease.
                    God will then relieve,
                    If faith will but believe
                    Through Christ the gentle Lord.
[C.f., R. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England, Minneapolis, 2007, p.21]

Her most personal testimony came in a little book published after her death. The Mirror of the Sinful Soul became a classic of the early Reformation, being widely read and translated (the future Elizabeth I of England made a copy for presentation to her stepmother, Queen Catherine Parr). It breathes the spirit of one who, in the words of St. Paul, worked out her own salvation with fear and trembling:

          The multitude of my sins are so hidden and overcome by thy great 
          victory that thou wilt never remember them, for thou seest in me  
          but the grace, gifts and virtues which it pleaseth thy goodness to 
          give me. O, charity! I see well thy goodness doth consume my 
          lewdness and maketh me a beautiful and godly creature.

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