"Without any doubt, the past is relevant to the present and to problems that contemporary societies must confront. The past shows the realm of the possible: what strategies families and individuals of differing faiths developed to ensure their mutual survival."
By studying the small details of the past, we can gain a better understanding of the historical big picture and maybe even find relevance to current times. This is the approach Dr. Edwin Bezzina is taking as he researches Protestant-Catholic relations in Loudun, France, from 1560-1640.
Dr. Bezzina’s project explores the potential for religious compromise between Protestants and Catholics during the French Wars of Religion, which began in the early 1560s and ended with a fragile peace in 1598. It was a period of intense conflict and mounting persecution of the Protestant religious minority, but also a time of postwar reconstruction. People did what they needed to do to survive, and sometimes that meant learning to coexist with one’s enemy.
Dr. Bezzina chose to study the French provincial town of Loudun after reading The Devils of Loudun, a non-fiction novel by Aldous Huxley. It is the story of a famous 17th-century witch trial involving a priest falsely accused and convicted of using witchcraft to facilitate the demonic possession of a convent of nuns. The trial took place during the European witch-hunts.
“I discovered that there was a Protestant-Catholic dynamic underlying the trial, as many of the priest’s defenders were Protestant, which was quite interesting for the period,” said Dr. Bezzina.
He is methodically recording the details of historical documents and has developed an extensive database of information that can be cross-referenced to create a picture of the relationships that were formed in Loudun. He works primarily with notarial documents and parish records. Marriage contracts, estate settlements, commercial contracts and records of baptisms, marriages and burials all provide critical details about Loudun’s families: their faiths, socio-economic positions and relations with members of their religious community and those of the opposite faith.
He has found examples of religious accommodation between Protestants and Catholics in Loudun even at a time when religious civil war was raging in other parts of the kingdom.
“Economic necessity could compel Protestants and Catholics to work out arrangements for conducting business with each other,” he said. “Many of the families in Loudun can be mixed as well in terms of the religious identity of their members. I suppose that not everyone was a militant.”
The project will contribute to the study of religious minorities, the history of Early Modern France, and the history of the family. It will also fill a gap in the study of Protestant-Catholic coexistence and concession in French history, a field still in its infancy.
A study of historical religious coexistence could also inform research projects that deal with the same topic and problem in current times. Sociologists and political scientists working in peace and conflict studies draw upon historical case studies to understand the origins and evolution of modern religious conflict with the eventual goal of finding practical solutions for conflict resolution.
“Without any doubt, the past is relevant to the present and to problems that contemporary societies must confront,” said Bezzina. “The past shows the realm of the possible: what strategies families and individuals of differing faiths developed to ensure their mutual survival.”