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Refugees and entrepreneurs

28 November 2014

by William Whyte


The Huguenots
Geoffrey Treasure
Yale £14.99 (pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT292 )

TO JUDGE by the packed rooms of county record offices, filled with couples poring over census records and monopolising the microfilm readers, family history grows ever more popular. Yet, in the wrong hands, genealogy is little more than fiction - indeed, it is often no better than pure fantasy.

Take my own family, for example. Unsatisfied with the truth that, only a few generations back, we were illiterate peasants, my great aunt stoutly maintained that her researches demonstrated conclusively that we were direct descendants of the high kings of Ireland. Nonsense, retaliated an equally delusional cousin: it is well-known that we are in fact the offspring of Huguenots.

The high kings of Ireland was pushing it; but I have to admit that the Huguenot myth is an attractive one. To claim Huguenot ancestry is to associate yourself with a roll-call of high-profile thinkers, artists, and entrepreneurs. According to one list, your cousins might even include Johnny Depp and Keith Richards. Now that the Spitalfields weavers' cottages the Huguenots built go for £4 million apiece, their property is as desirable as their DNA.

And the story of the Huguenots is an undeniably gripping one. As the Protestant minority in strictly Catholic France, they were subject to condemnation, discrimination, and then to butchery. In response, they developed the first sophisticated articulation of a people's right to rebel against their monarch, whilst pursuing this right in the bloody and long-lasting French wars of religion.

Their triumph in these wars - with the victory of the Protestant Henry IV - would prove to be pyrrhic, as he became a Catholic to secure his throne. In 1685, his grandson, Louis XIV, would effectively expel the Huguenots from France. Hence the weavers of Spitalfields. Hence, in a roundabout way, Johnny Depp.

Although much has been written about them, and especially about their lives and travels after 1685, we lack a good single-volume history of the Huguenots in France. As the author of a series of books on early-modern French politics, Geoffrey Treasure is in a good position to provide just that. Drawing on a huge range of reading, and designed to set the story of the Huguenots within the widest possible context, his book will contain much that is new even to experts. And if it leaves the reader still unsure what it was that made the Huguenots quite so remarkable, perhaps that, too, is a good thing.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John's College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.




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