What consequences did religious intolerance towards the Huguenots have in France?


The effect of migration is discussed at length in the media and on social networks. In many ways, the historical episodes of mass migration are no different and hold the attention of contemporaries who attempt to identify the consequences of this phenomenon. About 200 years ago, France experienced the greatest episode of emigration in its history after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

On October 22, 1685, the edict of Fontainebleau put an end to religious tolerance in France and led to the exile of hundreds of thousands of Huguenots whose socio-economic consequences have been discussed since its application. Very early on, several members of the royal administration feared that the departure of the Huguenots would hamper economic activity in their region. For example, the famous French military engineer Vauban wrote a memorial in 1688 to lament that the exile of the Huguenots weakened France because they took with them millions of tournament books (£) of capital and accelerated the ruin of French commerce and industries.

While recent studies have documented how Huguenots promoted productivity and economic development in host countries (e.g. Fourie and von Fintel, 2014; Hornung, 2014), the overall effect of dismissal in France is not still not clearly understood. After 1685, about 200,000 Huguenots, one percent of the total population, refused to convert to Roman Catholicism and fled to neighboring countries. There were, however, large local variations in the severity of demographic shocks. For example, the cities of Nîmes, Metz and Sedan have lost 12, 15 and 20% of their population respectively in a few years, while the population of Rouen and Lyon has remained more or less stable.

In many towns and ports Protestant merchants carried out much of the foreign trade and dominated the textile industry in the 17th century. In other areas, they made up a large part of the population, sometimes up to 30%, including among agricultural workers. Many contemporaries feared that the departure of the Huguenots would disrupt trade networks, endanger industrial and agricultural production and, in turn, reduce living standards.

To study this question, I collect new data from primary sources on the location of Protestant communities at the end of the 17th century, which I relate to information on the spread of the textile industry in 1708, the level of wheat prices and the occurrence of hunger riots (HiSCoD database) before and after revocation. I then use data on the departure of the Huguenots, taken from the Huguenot refugee database, to analyze the effect of the socio-economic results of the revocation. Finally, I am assembling a new dataset on male and female literacy rates, covering around 800 localities, to study how Protestantism and its subsequent ban influenced the development of human capital in modern France.

My preliminary results reveal that in 1708 there were many more localities with a textile industry in Protestant community areas, even after taking into account factors such as commercial connectivity, rate of urbanization, and various geographic features. . In addition, I find no significant effect of the departure of the Huguenots on the presence of the textile industry. While the Huguenot refugees made a significant contribution to the dissemination of technological knowledge and to the economic development of host countries after 1685, the vast majority remained in France and continued to exercise their economic activity during the 18th century.

In accordance with this observation, I show that there were no significant differences in the price of cereals before and after the Revocation between the zones with a Protestant community and the rest of France. This suggests that trade networks functioned well and that markets continued to integrate after 1685 despite the exodus of some Protestant merchants. In Marseille, despite the ban, around 20% of traders in the 18th century were Protestants, with a number reaching 50% in La Rochelle (Martinetti, 2005).

By comparing regions with a higher proportion of Protestants with the rest of France, I further document that they experienced relatively fewer food riots after 1685, when there was no difference before the Revocation. The hunger riots dataset includes events such as looting of public granaries, forced selling at lower prices or the interception of carts and barges loaded with grain, which can be used as an indicator of hardship. economic and food insecurity in the areas where they occurred. Interestingly, I show that the relative decline in the frequency of hunger riots is entirely due to regions where a significant portion of the Protestant population has fled abroad. I interpret this evidence as supporting the hypothesis that the areas most affected by the Huguenot exodus may be better off in the short term. While surprising and at odds with the views of many contemporaries, this result is consistent with other empirical findings showing that negative demographic shocks can have a positive effect on wages and output per capita (e.g., Chaney and Hornbeck, 2016).

Finally, I analyze the effect of the Revocation according to another dimension: the diffusion of human capital. That the Reformation, and Protestantism more broadly, required reading the Bible and was one of the main engines of educational development is a well accepted fact in historiography. Its influence in a country where Protestants have always been in the minority before being officially banned is less well understood. I show that while regions with a higher proportion of Protestant population before 1685 had significantly higher literacy rates at the end of the 17th and 18th centuries, the effect was smaller in areas where a significant portion of the Protestant population had fled abroad.

Overall, the results presented in this study help readers grasp the difficulty of analyzing the effects of migration, which can vary across many dimensions. On the one hand, I document that the French Revocation and the exodus of the Huguenots that followed did not hinder the spread of the textile industry or hinder market integration, and may have resulted in a improvement of living conditions in the short term in regions with a significant loss of population. On the other hand, it may also have slowed the diffusion of human capital, an important factor for long-term growth, in these areas, leaving the overall effect uncertain.



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  • Featured Image: Emigration of the Huguenots, painting by Jan Antoon Neuhuys (1832–1891), photo, domaine public, via Wikimedia Commons
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Cedric Chambru is a post-doctoral researcher in economic history at the University of Zurich. He holds a doctorate. from the University of Geneva. His research focuses on the modern economic history of France, colonial history, and more generally living standards and social mobility.


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