Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review - Renée of France

Renee of France, by Simonetta Carr

In Renée of France, Simonetta Carr provides an informative yet engaging portrait of a lesser-known figure from the Reformation. Part of the "Bitesize Biography" series from EP Books, this brief work (~130 pages) sketches the broad contours of the life of Renée, French princess and Protestant sympathizer. The non-academic format of the series allows Renée's story to keep the casual reader's attention without getting bogged down with references and footnotes (though Carr provides an annotated bibliography for those wishing to study further). Even though Renée is not widely known to most readers, Carr argues that she is an interesting biographical subject for several reasons: first, despite her royal status, she faced many of the same issues common to all Christians, particularly the tensions arising in the turbulent years of the Reformation. Also, the fact that Renée was troubled by inconsistencies, struggles and even failings in her Christian faith makes her a character with whom most can readily identify. Finally, Renée's story is particularly significant to the history of the Reformation due to her ongoing correspondence with John Calvin: as Carr observes, this correspondence often reveals aspects of Calvin that aren't always noticed in his published works.       

Carr does a great job of capturing the reader from the very start, as the first chapter commences with Renée's expulsion from her villa and the confiscation of all written materials therein for inspection by the Inquisition -- all at the order of her husband Ercole, Duke of the Italian province of Ferrara. Not only does this opening episode create a dramatic hook, it also typifies the persistent conflict between Renée's Protestant sympathies and the ardent Catholicism of her husband and other relatives, including her son-in-law Francis, Duke of Guise, a commander of Catholic forces in the French Wars of Religion. As Carr demonstrates, Renée was a woman of greatly divided loyalties. She maintained a lengthy correspondence with Calvin, supported the Protestant movement materially, and even sheltered Huguenot refugees in her own castle. Yet to the chagrin of Reformed leaders, she also gave aid to various other preachers whose theology was far less orthodox, and often outright heretical. She remained loyal to her family, despite their staunch Catholicism, as was most evident in the case of her son-in-law: although the Duke of Guise was widely reviled by the Reformed for his anti-Protestantism, Renée grieved greatly upon his death, and continued to defend his name against detractors. Most significantly, when her husband attempted to stamp out her pro-Protestant activities, she acquiesced and resumed attending Mass and confession, at least for a time. Although she was eventually allowed greater freedoms to practice her Protestant faith, especially after her husband's death, her failure to publicly support the Reformation left her a questionable figure in the eyes of many at the time, and even to this day. Throughout the first nine chapters of the book, Carr's narrative demonstrates the many conflicting influences in Renée's life, and her often inconsistent responses to them.

The book's final chapter focuses in greater detail on her ongoing correspondence with John Calvin. As Carr observes, their nearly thirty years of written interaction provides numerous insights into Calvin's theology, as expressed in a very open and personal way. One recurring theme in Calvin's letters is the responsibility of Christian rulers to set an example for others. He absolutely abhorred the notion that any Christian could outwardly conform to Roman Catholic practices while secretly holding to Protestant doctrine; such double-mindedness was especially harmful in rulers and leaders, whose example held great sway over others. Calvin's words here are relevant not only to Christian leaders, but serve as a caution to any Christian tempted to drive a wedge between public and private appearances. Yet Calvin's correspondence with Renée also reveals a pastoral heart, as he encouraged her not to be overly dismayed about her failures and inconsistencies in faith, reminding her that sanctification is an ongoing and often slow process.  Such words find application far beyond Reformation-era France, and anyone struggling for consistency in their Christianity will be heartened by Calvin's advice.

Overall, Renée of France is an enjoyable and informative read. The book's brevity makes it a great introduction for those (like myself) who come to it knowing little or nothing about its subject, yet are interested in church history, especially of the Reformation. Additionally, the Christian reader will find Simonetta Carr's narrative of Renée's life to be not only a biography of a historical figure, but also an example - both positive and negative - for reflection in light of their own spiritual journey.

(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for writing a review, though without any stipulations on its content.)