The Wikipedia article on the French Wars of Religion says that the Calvinist form of Protestantism, in particular, spread into the nobility. Now, I'd like to know why is that, and not Lutheranism for example?

I speculate that Calvin is closer to Zwingli in the issue of the limits of authority of the king, but it could also be for more trivial reasons (e.g. language barrier of Lutheranism).

  • Calvin was french, also, therefore it may have been a more patriotic option to follow a protestant who rose up in France than Luther (German). I can think of no others quite as significant.
    – Duncan
    Apr 22, 2015 at 0:03
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    @Duncan People are too keen to project 19th/20th century nationalistic mentality on a period when religious faith was a far more defining identity.
    – Semaphore
    Apr 22, 2015 at 5:30
  • @Semaphore True, but I'm thinking of how France during the Renaissance began forming a stronger national identity. Yes, religion comes first, but when it comes to choosing a religious path, other factors may come into play. Great changes were coming about in France, and to me it seems appropriate for a Frenchman to have put forward these values. Such notions can be significant in a revolution. This isn't a sole explanation, just another point to think on.
    – Duncan
    Apr 23, 2015 at 6:53
  • As the question suggests, language barrier at the very least may well have been part of it. Remember; patriotism or not, different culture s think differently, especially within their language group. Calvin knew and understood the French people. Does that not look a far warmer doctrine to embrace than one established in a foreign land with foreign issues and foreign character?
    – Duncan
    Apr 23, 2015 at 7:00
  • I agree with @Himarm 's comment below.
    – Duncan
    Apr 23, 2015 at 7:03

3 Answers 3


Opposition to the monarchy was indeed a major factor.

Many French nobles, a majority of whom adopted Calvinist doctrine, sought to regain and extend privileges lost to the monarchy.

- Nexon, Daniel H. The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Calvinism represented opposition to the absolutism. It therefore naturally appealed to the political sensibilities of the French nobility vis-à-vis the monarchy. This led to many of them eagerly adopting Calvinist doctrines.

Everywhere, whether in England or Scotland, Holland or France, Calvinism fights for political liberty, or at least ranks with the forces that war against absolutism. The popularity of Calvinism among the French nobles is partly to be accounted for by this characteristic. They renewed under cover of religion that struggle against the monarchy in which they had been defeated when they fought on purely secular grounds.

- Grant, Arthur James. The French Monarchy (1483-1789). Vol. 3. The Cambridge University Press, 1914.

In contrast, Lutheranism was politically mild and thus found no resonance with the French nobility or urban elites who embraced Calvinism.

Additionally, the patronage system of France's provincial nobility helped Calvinism spread rapidly. John Calvin, well aware of how the system works, targeted important aristocrats. He constructed a successful strategy based on the hopes that converting one influential man would lead to the mass conversion of his clients and relatives.

Calvin appreciated the impact of clientage on religious conversions. He attached great importance to winning over the nobility to his cause, knowing that the conversion of a single nobleman could lead to multiple conversions among his relative and dependents.

- Knecht, Robert Jean. The French Wars of Religion 1559-1598. Routledge, 2014.

Lastly, there has also been an argument based on economics:

The relatively sudden conversion of so many nobles to the Calvinist faith has been explained on economic grounds. The nobles, it has been suggested, were particularly hard hit by the steady rise in prices ... Finding themselves impoverished, the nobles attache themselves to the cause that seemed most likely to bring them easy profits. Calvinism offered scope for material gain at the expense of the Church.

- Knecht, Robert Jean. The French Wars of Religion 1559-1598. Routledge, 2014.

For example,

Families holding bishoprics struggled to maintain their income and to defend their ecclesiastical properties from Huguenot seizures during the sixteenth-century religious wars. Calvinists frequently occupied and redistributed Catholic church lands and properties in Languedoc and Guyenne.

- Sandberg, Brian. Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France. Vol. 128. JHU Press, 2010.

However, Professor Knecht rejected this explanation by arguing that the French nobility did not experience a general economic collapse. I include it only for reference.

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    Yes as you stated , the biggest factor in my mind is that Lutheranism was almost entirely a reform just about the christian faith, with no outside pressures on society. the other reformation movements attached themselves to political and social aspects as well, remember Luther's intent was to fix the catholic church, not start a new religion.
    – Himarm
    Apr 16, 2015 at 21:10
  • Why is it that "Calvinism offered scope for material gain at the expense of the Church."?
    – user69715
    Apr 17, 2015 at 17:04
  • @user69715 they gave away Church properties.
    – Semaphore
    Apr 19, 2015 at 0:19

Religious sects (heresies) tend to be very heavily correlated to societies and their desires for who they want to associate with, and distance themselves from. For instance, German tribes in the late Roman period tended to take up Arianism, which quite conveniently provided them independence from Roman popes and a common sect amongst themselves. A similar phenomenon happened with Shi'ism vs. the Sunni amongst the Indo-European Iranians.

John Calvin was a Frenchman, and thus Calvinism was essentially France's home-grown protestant theology. This was a time where France had a century prior been the most powerful state in Europe. However, Spain's newfound wealth and power had recently reduced France to an arguable #2. This contributed to France having recently lost control of the Papacy.

So in a way you could view the whole episode as a proxy war over whether France should continue to try influence the papacy, or go its own way. Joining a reform movement that they weren't the senior member of would not have furthered the latter goal, and they couldn't guarantee political control of an externally-based sect. Thus Calvinism was really the only other feasible religious option.

  • 2
    There's an inherent thesis in here that, while theology may randomly appeal differently to different people, when people in large groups chose the same theology to the exclusion of other options rather than randomly picking different ones in an even distribution, there's invariably a societal or political reason for it.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 16, 2015 at 19:37
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    Are there evidence that not being 'senior member' of Lutheranism was considered a major factor by the French nobility?
    – Semaphore
    Apr 16, 2015 at 19:44
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    This is an interesting conjecture but you seem to conflate the interests of "France" with those of the nobility. However, insofar as any purpose or interest can be ascribed to "France" in the period, they would be those of the monarch or his principal backers - and their interests might be as often as not diametrally opposed to those of the nobility who tried to retain their virtual autonomy from the crown. Apr 16, 2015 at 21:47

This question can be subdivided into two more:

1) Why Protestantism (Calvinism and Lutheranism) vs. Catholicism and 2) Why Calvinism vs. Lutheranism.

1) For Protestantism over Catholicism. Protestant theology held that Christians were connected to God through the scriptures, rather than through the Church. This came at a time when the (Catholic) church came under heavy suspicion for corrupt practices such as the sale of indulgences. The basic theory was that the "people" had the right to circumvent, and otherwise circumscribe the hierarchy of the Catholic church, (and by implication, secular rulers such as king and queens). This process would cut out the expensive "middlemen," and was highly appealing to subscribers to the so-called "Protestant Ethic."

2) Why Calvinism over Lutheranism:

Upper class people were often drawn to Calvinism over Lutheranism, because while both doctrines preached the "election" of Christians by God, Lutheranism put a greater emphasis on faith, while Calvinism preached salvation by "predestination", or God's choice. Under Calvinism, earthly riches and prosperity were a "mark" of God's "choice," a doctrine very appealing to some upper class Protestants such as French nobles (and prosperous Dutch merchants).

Calvinism found its rawest form in South Africa, where "Dutch" (including German and French) settlers made it the basis of "apartheid," because of the "obvious" superiority of those settlers over "native" Africans. The Calvinist ethic can be best described by a take-off on the line from "Animal Farm": "All Protestants are equal, but some Protestants are more equal than others."

One issue was that Calvin was French, and that may have explained part of the popularity of his doctrines in France, while Luther was German, which may help explain why German nobles tended to follow him.

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    Sounds reasonable but then you'd still have to explain why some aristocracies opted for Lutheranism and not Calvinism... Apr 19, 2015 at 2:28
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    @FelixGoldberg: Not everyone opts for their own self interest; some prefer to choose ideologies. A "cui bono" model of this sort can only identify what people would TEND to do, not what they would actually do. I also added an allusion to the facts that Calvin was French and Luther was German, because "nationalism" also explains some people's choices.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 19, 2015 at 14:31
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    Is there any evidence that nationalism did influence their choices?
    – user5001
    Apr 21, 2015 at 13:50
  • @user5001: Most of the more famous French nobles preferred Calvinism to Lutheranism. In Germany, it was the opposite.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 21, 2015 at 14:27
  • The question is why. You haven't answered the why at all.
    – user5001
    Apr 21, 2015 at 15:39

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