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The French religious universe of John Calvin’s youth was complex and powerful. Calvin retained and strengthened many of its central beliefs and practices. Others he modified and realigned to reflect his understanding of an authentic scripturally based Christianity. Finally, Calvin emphatically rejected and sought to suppress a third group of religious views and behaviors that he regarded as unfounded, superstitious, and, in some instances, dangerously idolatrous. Whatever Calvin’s assessment, late medieval religious practices and the beliefs that undergirded them were elaborate and pervasive. They held great appeal for a substantial number of people from all social strata, extending from the broad oral culture of the unlettered majority to the elite ranks of the learned and privileged.
Fasting has an ancient and revered place in the many religious traditions that human communities have fostered throughout history and across the globe. In India, to take a modern example, Hindu women commonly carry out ritual fasts or vrats. Fasting, particularly in its collective forms, is also frequent and widespread among western groups that scholars have sometimes described as Abrahamic religions. Muslims annually observe Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, and celebration. Jews customarily fast, taking no food or drink from sunup to sundown, several days each year and, most notably, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For medieval Christians, preparation for the holy feasts of Christmas and Easter meant substantial periods of religious preparation, the well-known Advent and Lenten periods complete with fasting and abstinence from certain foods. In contemporary Christian circles, fasting may be less widely practiced, yet it retains an important place among Roman Catholics and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, to cite but two better-known cases. In short, the utilization of food for purposes of religious devotion and piety, whether through fasting or feasting, has been a long-standing custom within and without western religious culture.
Despite substantial, sustained effort and encouraging initial success, the Protestant movement in France never advanced beyond the status of a permanent if vigorous religious and political minority. The Reformation clearly attracted a sizable following among the elite, drawing in particular from the nobility and urban bourgeoisie. Protestantism also appealed to many artisans and even persons from the rural agricultural world. Yet the protracted strife over the second half of the sixteenth century took its toll. Overall numerical strength among the Huguenots probably peaked in 1572 on the eve of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, or perhaps already a decade earlier at the beginning of the Wars of Religion. Scholars have suggested a total of some two million Protestants in 1560, roughly ten percent of the French population. More importantly, among the politically influential nobles, Huguenot strength may have been close to fifty percent. Fortunes declined steadily thereafter, and by the end of the sixteenth century, Protestants were no more than six to seven percent of the French population. The best estimates appear to be in the range of 1.2 million persons, perhaps slightly more.
At the same time, the Huguenots were heavily concentrated in the western and southern portions of the kingdom. They lived on the Atlantic coast at La Rochelle and were spread across the provinces of Normandy and Poitou. To the south, Reformed communities at towns such as Castres and Montauban, Montpellier, and Nîmes have become legendary in the history of French Protestantism.