In the four decades after Martin Luther began espousing the reformation of the Catholic Church in 1517, the religious situation in France was unlike the rest of Europe. It was only later that an organized Protestant movement took shape. Early on the movement was more humanist and evangelical and not necessarily Protestant. Evangelicals believed the Scriptures were the only source of religious truth and that the Church could be reformed and the gospel spoken in French without having a complete break from the Catholic Church.
Luther’s books began appearing in France in 1519. For those who read the books, it created dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church and opened up the possibility of reform. King Francis was ambivalent at first regarding the reformers. He was inclined to be sympathetic to the Protestants as long as the movement didn’t degenerate into heresy which he considered a vice of the lowborn making them more likely to commit treason against the king. He also thought by encouraging the Protestants, he could create trouble for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V whose empire surrounded France causing Francis great anxiety politically.
Francis, his sister Marguerite of Navarre and many of their close friends were attracted to the teachings of the evangelicals and the humanists. He was willing to listen to moderate calls for reform of the church. This state of affairs may have continued in this vein but when the preaching and lectures at the universities called for greater reform and the forbearance of executing heretics, the situation became much more serious. This was the religious atmosphere in France when the Day of the Placards or the Placard Affair erupted.
On October 18, 1534, as Parisians attended church, many found placards or broadsheets which had been placed in several public places overnight. Each placard was a single sheet of paper roughly 14” by 10” pasted onto a board and printed in Gothic type. The title of the placards read: “True articles on the horrible, great and insufferable abuses of the papal Mass”. There was a preamble and four paragraphs of text which employed offensive and insulting language.
The mass was attacked on four counts. First, there was only one sacrifice, which was that of Christ on the cross and this act was impossible to recreate. Second, the mass implied the real presence of Christ but scripture said Christ was with God. Third, the writer said transubstantiation (the conversion of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ) was a human invention and not supported by scripture. And finally, communion was a memorial service, not a miracle. This point of view was largely professed by the Swiss Protestants and was called “Sacramentarianism”.
The author of the placards was a Frenchman named Antoine Marcourt who had gone into exile in Switzerland. He fully confessed to having written the articles. But he couldn’t have distributed the placards alone. They appear to have been smuggled into France by a servant of the king’s apothecary and a group of radical Parisian dissenters put the placards on display.
Public opinion in Paris was in an uproar over the placards and hysteria permeated and gripped the city. There were rumors the reformers were going to sack the Louvre and burn down churches and massacre the faithful worshipers who were attending the Mass. Foreigners in particular came under attack. Reports began to circulate the placards had appeared in Orléans, Amboise, Blois, Tours and Rouen. It was said that they appeared in the château of Amboise where King Francis was residing.
There is some evidence a placard was placed somewhere near the king where he could see it that day, whether it was on his bedchamber door, in a cup he drank from or in the nef when he was served at his table. However, he did not actually act on the appearance of the placards until December 9. It is not clear if he unleashed the persecution of his own accord or if he was approving of the actions of others working in his name. The actions of the Parlement seem to be the first result of the placards’ appearance.
Within twenty-four hours, Parlement had ordered a search for culprits and a general procession through the streets of Paris. The prisons filled up with those who were arrested. The first sentences were passed on November 10 and the first execution took place on November 13 when a shoemaker’s son was burnt at the stake. The next day a rich draper was executed. At the end of the month, four more were killed.
On December 21, Francis set up a commission of twelve parlementaires with the mission to try suspects. On January 13, not long after the king had returned to Paris, more placards appeared in the streets of Paris. This time Marcourt had written a more elaborate explanation of his original arguments against the Mass. Now the king was compelled to ban all printing until further notice. He also ordered a procession for January 21.
This was to be the most impressive procession ever seen in Paris. The entire royal court took part along with all the main corporate bodies including the sovereign courts, university, religious orders, municipal government and the trade guilds. A great number of relics and shrines were brought forth from the churches and displayed in the procession. The most spectacular was the Crown of Thorns from Sainte-Chapelle which made a huge impression on the crowd. The Blessed Sacrament held a special place in the center of the procession. It was borne by the bishop of Paris under a canopy carried by the king’s three sons and the duc de Vendôme. Right behind the Sacrament, the King himself walked dressed in black, bare-headed and holding a lighted torch.
As the procession made its way from Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois to Notre-Dame, there were church bells ringing, hymn-singing and instrumental music. At certain intervals, the procession would stop, the sacrament would be placed on an altar and an anthem was sung. The king appeared to be deep in prayer and the crowd was moved to tears at the sight of him.
High mass was celebrated at Notre-Dame and then the king and queen attended lunch in the bishop’s palace. Then before an immense and distinguished crowd, Francis implored his subjects to denounce all heretics, even if they were close relatives or friends. The king left before there were six more burnings at the end of the day.
The arguments in the placard were especially abusive, even by the standards of the day. The Parlement and the Faculty of Theology had been trying to suppress the evangelicals only to be thwarted by the king. The placards displayed the depth of the threat to the church and Francis couldn’t ignore it. The placards forced Francis to harden his stance against the sacramentarians for political as well as religious reasons.
Protestant Europe was stunned by the deadly consequences of the Placard Affair and Francis’ commitment to being a religious peacemaker was seriously called into question. However, these ultra-dissenters were not a large part of the French population and were not organized. The mood of the king soon relented but by later in his reign the persecutions began again and would result in executions, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre and a series of religious wars that would last until the end of the century.
Further reading: “Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe” by John Julius Norwich, ”Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I” by R.J. Knecht, “France in the Sixteenth Century” by Frederic J. Baumgartner, “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman