The Placards against the Mass. 24 October 1534.

[ Extract from J A Wylie, History of Protestantism,vol 2 p 206-7]


Undoubtedly frustration was building among the French Protestants who saw their dream taking place elsewhere in Germany and Switzerland, and a consensus was reached that positive action should be taken. They sought the advice of Farel and the Swiss reformers who counselled a bold stroke at the heart of Romanism - the Mass. The method arrived at was to distribute a placard or tract throughout France denouncing the practice. It is generally thought that Farel was the author, some think Antoine de Marcourt. Whoever it was breathed fire and damnation. It blasphemed and the people were to some extent blinded and led astray by the hyperbole ( but no more than they were by the priests in like vein).  After citing the testimony of Scripture, the belief of the Fathers, and the evidence of the senses against the dogma, the author goes on to assail with merciless and, judged by modern taste, coarse sarcasm the ceremonies which accompany its celebration.


The document was headed,


"True Articles on the horrible, great, and intolerable Abuses of the Popish Mass; invented in direct opposition to the Holy Supper of our Lord and only Mediator and Saviour."


"What mean all these games ?" he [ the author]  asks ; "you play around your god of dough, toying with him like a cat with a mouse. You break him into three pieces . . . . and then you put on a piteous look, as if you were very sorrowful; you beat your breasts . . . . you call him the Lamb of God, and pray to him for peace. St. John showed Jesus Christ ever present, ever living, living all in one--an adorable truth ! but you show your wafer divided into pieces, and then you eat it, calling for something to drink." The writer asks "these cope-wearers" where they find "this big word Transubstantiation ? " Certainly, he says, not in the Bible. The inspired writers "called the bread and wine, bread and wine." " St. Paul does not say, 'Eat the body of Jesus Christ;' but, 'Eat this bread."' "Yes, kindle your faggots," but, let it be for the true profaners of the body of Christ, for those who place it in a bit of dough, "the food it may be of spiders or of mice." And what, the writer asks, has the fruit of the mass been? "By it." he answers, the preaching of the Gospel is prevented. The time is occupied with bellringing, howling, chanting, empty ceremonies, candles, incense, disguises, and all manner of conjuration. And the poor world, looked upon as a lamb or as a sheep, is miserably deceived, cajoled, led astray—what do I say ?--bitten, gnawed, and devoured as if by ravening wolves."

The author winds up with a torrent of invective directed against Popes, cardinals, bishops, and monks, thus :—" Truth is wanting to them, truth terrifies them, and by truth will their reign be destroyed for ever."

Written in Switzerland, where every sight and sound—the snowy peak, the gushing torrent, the majestic lake—speak of liberty and inspire courageous thoughts, and with the crash of the falling altars of an idolatrous faith in the ears of the writer, these words did not seem too bold, nor the denunciations too fierce. But the author who wrote, and the other pastors who approved, did not sufficiently consider that this terrible manifesto was not to be published in Switzerland, but in France, where a powerful court and a haughty priesthood were united to combat the Reformation. It might have been foreseen that a publication breathing a defiance so fierce, and a hatred so mortal  could have but one of two results: it would carry the convictions of men by storm, and make the nation abhor and renounce the abominations it painted in colours so frightful, and stigmatised  in words so burning, or it failed in this. - and the likelihood  was that it would fail - it must needs evoke such a tempest of wrath as would go near to sweep the Protestant Church  from the soil of France altogether. "

The terror, and ceremonial executions of 21 January 1535. 

The consequences far outstripped the expectations of the Protestants who found themselves in a reign of terror and executions at the stake. The King`s `lieutenant-criminal` ( police chief) John Morin, seized a known Protestant and by threats and torture made the man identify other Protestants in the city. This was achieved by staging an elaborate procession of Corpus Christi  where the cavalcade was stopped by the informant outside the Protestant houses, the inmates of which were then seized and bundled into prison for trial and execution. The first trials were made on 10 November, and the executions began three days later. The place of execution was varied daily so that all parts of Paris were able to see ( and dread) the burnings which took place more or less daily for several weeks. The indiscriminate vengeance for simply posting a placard had another effect in that blanks appeared among the citizens of Paris. Persons of all ranks suddenly disappeared with some 500 craftsmen and traders, particularly printers and bookbinders, goldsmiths, engravers, lawyers, even some priests and monks, fleeing the city.

Not content with this rush of blood, the papists pressed the king to purge the city, demonstrate his authority and atone for the insult to the Church. On 21 January 1535 a magnificent procession was stage managed which assembled at the Louvre at six in the morning. It was led by the banners and crosses from each of the parishes, followed by citizens in pairs carrying lighted torches. They were followed by the four mendicant orders - Dominican, Franciscan, Capuchins and Augustinians. Behind them came the priests  and canons of the city. There then followed one of the largest assembly of Holy relics that the populace had ever seen. These allegedly were - the head of St Louis, patron saint of France, a piece of the true cross, the actual crown of thorns, one of the nails from the cross, the swaddling clothes of baby Jesus, a purple robe worn by Christ,  the towel which Christ wore at the Last Supper, and the spear head that pierced his side. Besides these there was an assembly of body parts from departed saints, fingers, hands, arms etc etc. These were followed by the shrine of Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Ironically the shrine was carried by the corporation of butchers of Paris.

Following the dead members of the Church in their gold, silver and jewelled caskets, came the living dignitaries in their robes of ecclesiastical rank - Cardinals, archbishop , bishops, replete in cope and mitre. The centre piece was the Host, carried by the Bishop of Paris under a magnificent canopy, the corners of which were carried by the four Princes of the Blood - the three sons of the king and the Duke of Vendome. Behind the Host walked the king, plainly dressed as a penitent, eyes cast down and a lighted taper in his hand. The Queen and courtiers then followed along with foreign ambassadors, nobles, judges, Parliamentary officials and the trade guilds bearing tapers. Huge crowds surged round seeking to touch or kiss the relics and they made obeisance as the Host passed them.

 It must have been a magnificent sight as the procession made its way to Notre Dame and the Mass that was to be said there. It was, however, a huge sham; the penitence was not for the dreadful acts of recent date but for the `insult ` to the Church and the Mass. After the Mass the king made a tearful speech bewailing the insults to the Church, France and God; then the Bishop of Paris and the provost of the merchants melodramatically knelt before him and pleaded that he extirpate heresy.

There now took place the gross, vile and depraved ceremonial burning of Protestants as the great procession made its way back to the Louvre. At selected sites along the route stakes were set up with their victims trussed up ready to die as  an example to the people and entertainment for the King. The faggots were ignited as the procession appeared so that the full fury of the flames were ready to do their work as the party came to a halt and watched. The historians of the day [Sleidan, book ix, p 175] record that the victims were first tortured and then burnt to death in stages -

"The men set apart to death were first to undergo prolonged and excruciating tortures, and for this end a most ingenious but cruel apparatus had been devised ,which let us describe. First rose an upright beam , firmly planted in the ground; to that another beam was attached crosswise and worked by  a pulley and string. The martyr was fastened to one end of the moveable beam  by his hands, which were tied behind his back, and then he was raised into the air. He was then next let down into the slow fire underneath . After a minute ot two`s broiling  he was raised again  and  a second time let drop into the fire; and thus was he raised and lowered till the ropes that fastened  him to the pole were consumed  and he fell amid the burning  coals where he lay till he gave up the ghost. "

The priests declared subsequently that the triumph of the Church in France was now forever secured ; the populace had tasted blood and repeat performances were the norm in years to come. As for the king, he had the gall to seek the help of the German Protestants in his ongoing fight with the Emperor. His excuse when asked to explain the recent events was the usual - "They were traitors, claiming that they were `Anabaptists`". He was rebuffed by the Germans and it caused Calvin to dash into print his first edition of Institutes  which he dedicated to Francis I and rebutted the gross libel made against honest Christians. The prefatory letter is dated 23 August 1535 which some might take as the date that Calvinism was born. [ A modern English translation of the letter is to be found in "Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion," Ed. J T McNeill,  Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press ( 1960) vol 1, p 9-31.]

The burning of 35 `Lutherans` in total because of the Placards, and the grossness of the official celebration on January 21st 1535 was a day of infamy and a stain on the honour of France. Curiously the day was repeated in later years for other infamous events - on 21 January 1793 King Louis XVI was centre stage, struggling with his captors as he was held down and executed. On the same day in 1871 the city of Paris was under siege from the German army and capitulated.

John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments, vol IV p 396-449, lists several hundred French martyrs between 1525-1560.


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