History I Never Knew: The World’s First Tweetstorm was 485 Years Ago

If you think things are impossibly difficult and polarized in the world of politics nowadays, you ain’t seen nothin’.  Washington, DC and America in 2019 are like Romper Room compared to Paris and France for 64 years spanning the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Proclamation of October 17, 1534, text of the world’s first tweetstorm that launched the Wars of Religion.

Today, we have Twitter to set passions aboil. Back then, they had the printing press. But the effects of these technologies were pretty much the same.  They could make the world mighty ugly, mighty fast. And that’s what happened, almost 500 years ago, when hundreds of nasty, polemical printed posters were nailed up in several French cities by a group of conspirators.

It was history’s first Tweetstorm; the conspirators sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

On the evening of October 17, 1534, the “Affair of the Placards” launched the Wars of Religion in France.  Followers of John Calvin, known as Huguenots and led by a reform pastor named Antoine Marcourt, went around under the cover of darkness and nailed up copies of a screed titled “Trustworthy Articles on the Horrible, Great, & Unbearable Abuses of the Papal Mass.”  They even posted one on the door of the royal bedchamber of King Francois I.

Francois I

The poster’s message was severely critical of Catholicism, the religion of the realm. To condemn the Catholic Mass and Catholic doctrine was a crime in itself. But Francois was rattled to the core at the almost unthinkable breach of security and the threat to his personal safety.

His reaction was swift and severe. He offered generous rewards – four years’ worth of wages of ordinary folk – and many of the conspirators were caught and burned at the stake. Undeterred, they printed another “tweet,” titled “A Very Useful and Salutary Short Treatise in the Holy Eucharist of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Huguenots made up no more than 15% of the French population, but they were well moneyed and educated, for the most part. They were decidedly influential in their push for reform and religious freedom.

Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France

More repression and retribution followed. Francois and his bishops responded by holding a sacred procession throughout the streets of Paris. Along the way they venerated the consecrated host, and they finished up with a Mass at Notre Dame. After the Mass they took six conspirators out and burned them at the stake.

On and on it went. Kings, queens, and royal regents came and went.  Violence and atrocities by both sides flared up regularly. Treaties and truces were made and broken. After a failed assassination attempt of a Huguenot leader named Gaspard de Coligny in 1572, the Catholic establishment

under Catherine de Medici planned and executed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Between 4,000 and 6,000 Huguenots were killed between August and October of that month.

Henry IV: “Paris is worth a Mass.”

There followed the “War of the Three Henrys,” who all vied for the throne.  The eventual winner was Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who became King Henry IV. But he wanted to calm things down, so he converted to Catholicism – for the fifth time – and justified it by his famous observation, “Paris is worth a Mass.”

With Henry IV’s 1598 conversion came the Edict of Nantes. It granted Huguenots many rights and freedoms, but Catholicism was still the dominant faith by far.  Almost a century later, in 1685, King Louis XVI revoked the Edict. He set the stage for his own overthrow and trip to the guillotine. But that’s another story for another time.

So ended the Wars of Religion and the repercussions of the first tweetstorm from 64 years before. So tell me now – is it really that bad nowadays? I’ll take Twitter over printed posters any day.

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