Who was Reneé of France? That was what I asked myself. Though a lover of Reformation history, I knew very little about her. Simonetta Carr's contribution to the Bite-sized Biographies series was a wonderful introduction.
I looked forward to reading something by Simonetta Carr; I've heard nothing but rave reviews of all of her books. I expected this book to be as good as everyone said and was not disappointed. Carr knows her stuff well, and when you read the bibliographic information at the end of the book, you will see that she is a thorough researcher. She admits right at the outset of the book that it is not an academic work, but there are enough suggestions to satisfy someone who would like something more so.
Reneé (1510-1575) was born in France, but spent a good deal of her life in Italy, after her marriage to Ercole, Duke of Este. Despite his initial reaction to her that she was not particularly attractive, Ercole married her. It was a rather tempestuous marriage, largely because of Reneé's conversion to Reformed thinking. Just imagine: a woman, in Italy in the 16th century, Reformed and married to an Italian Catholic. This was in the days when relationships between papal authorities and men like Ercole were very tenuous and serious. Naturally, Ercole was not impressed with his wife's entertaining of Reformed sympathizers. He even sent her to her own court to get that kind of thing out of his own backyard, but ultimately, he was pressured to reign her in, so to speak.
Carr provides a survey of sorts of how Reneé coped and rose about her difficult position. Despite being reputed to occasionally vacillate between loyalties, sometimes attending Mass and sometimes not, she maintained her convictions to the Reformed faith until she died. She was reputed to be generous with her own court, and willing to be a refuge for other Protestants who were in need. What is very notable about her situation is the close friendship she had with John Calvin. The letters he sent to her, guiding her with her struggles in hostile territory, are an example of his pastoral concern for her. The last chapter of the book, in particular, is a window into the kinds of issues Calvin thought were most in need of addressing, the observance of Mass, the relationship between church and state, and the seriousness of making professions of Protestantism.
Carr's descriptions of how Reneé struggled in her marriage with Ercole highlighted to me the difficulty it is for one to maintain her faith in isolation. At one point in the marriage, Ercole takes just about everything Reneé has that would support her faith; her friends, counselors, and sympathetic servants. The importance of the Body of Christ for fellowship and discipleship was clearly an issue even for Reneé. She was a woman in a very difficult situation: her family did not all sympathize with her faith, yet she loved them, and wanted to keep the peace with them. Her struggle is not unlike many women today who live in a home where they may be the only believer in the house. This is what I love about history: it shows how people's struggles really don't change from generation to generation.
This work is brief, 128 pages, but it will definitely spur the history lover into further inquiry. So much of the history of the Reformation centres around the English participants, but the Reformation did exist beyond those borders, and the struggle of the people in France was very significant. The reader of this book will learn more than just who Reneé was; he will see inside the pastoral heart of Calvin, and get a good introduction to the French Reformation.
Cross-Focused Reviews was kind enough to provide me with a copy of this book in return for an honest review.
Update: Here is an interview with Simonetta about her book, done by Shaun Tabatt: