The fifteenth century opens with civil unrest as the Armagnacs and Burgundians, two powerful political factions, war for control of France during the frequent periods of insanity suffered by King Charles VI (r. 1380–1422). The dukes of Burgundy ally themselves with England, France’s enemy in the Hundred Years’ War, but their aid is unsolicited in the crushing defeat of French forces dealt by the English in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt. By the 1420s, England possesses most of France north of the Loire River, and the English king Henry V is named heir to the throne. King Charles VII of France (r. 1422–61) routs the English forces by 1453.
At the turn of the sixteenth century, France is engaged in the Habsburg-Valois Wars for the takeover of several Italian city-states. The wars continue until 1559, and are a crucial factor in introducing the French to Italian Renaissance ideas, which are brought back to France and epitomized in the celebrated court of François I (r. 1515–47). Around 1528, François establishes Paris as his principal residence, strengthening its role as the cultural and economic hub of France, and making it the country’s political center as well. By mid-century, followers of John Calvin (1509–1564) instigate the Reformation in France. French Protestants, called Huguenots, are brutally suppressed; the latter decades of the century are occupied by civil war between Protestant and Catholic groups, until the 1598 Edict of Nantes grants Protestants freedom of worship under Henry IV (r. 1589–1610).
The dukes of Burgundy are an influential presence in French politics, involved in various struggles for control of the throne. By mid-century, their possessions include much of the Netherlands and the duchy of Luxembourg, but pass to the Habsburg family with Mary of Burgundy’s marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1493–1519) in 1477.
Christine de Pisan (1365–ca. 1434) publishes La Cité des dames, a celebratory history of female virtue. Her treatise is modeled on Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women of 1401.
The Limbourg brothers, a family of Netherlandish painters first trained as goldsmiths in Paris, enter the service of Jean, duc de Berry, for whom they produce two illuminated manuscripts: the Belles Heures (in the Cloisters Collection) and the Très Riches Heures.
The Hundred Years’ War ends with the expulsion of English forces from France. The French victory owes much to the intervention of Joan of Arc (ca. 1412–1431), a peasant girl urged by voices to aid the dauphin who, with her assistance, is crowned King Charles VII (r. 1422–61) in Reims in 1429. Taken prisoner by the English in 1431, she is burned at the stake in Rouen. Charles’s reconciliation with Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, facilitates his gradual reconquest of towns and territories in northern France.
Netherlandish painter Jean Hey (Master of Moulins) (active 1480–1500), called pictor egregius (outstanding painter) by contemporary author Jean Lemaire, is in the service of Bourbon dukes in France. Hey’s portraits include that of Margaret of Austria (1480–1530; 1975.1.130), painted about 1490 during her betrothal to Charles VIII.
Charles VIII (r. 1483–98) invades Italy in an attempt to conquer the kingdom of Naples, to which he has a distant claim. He seizes Naples with relative ease, but an alliance among Pope Alexander VI, Venice, Milan, Spain, and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I forces his retreat months later. The tensions caused by foreign powers, notably France and Spain, intent on the takeover of Italian city-states leads to the Habsburg-Valois Wars (or Italian Wars; 1494–1559). Although Charles’s capture of Naples is ultimately reversed, he returns to France with Italian craftsmen to assist in the construction of his château at Amboise, heralding the assimilation of Italian Renaissance ideals into French art and architecture of the sixteenth century.
François I (r. 1515–47) undertakes the expansion of his hunting lodge at Fontainebleau, with the aim of creating a court equal in luxury and modernity to any other in Europe. To this end, he invites Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Rosso Fiorentino, and Francesco Primaticcio to contribute paintings, sculpture, and decorative objects to the château.
Jean and François Clouet, father and son painters of Netherlandish birth, are in the service of the Valois kings; they are aptly credited with popularizing portraiture in France. About 1536, Jean executes a portrait of Guillaume Budé (1467–1540), a scholar, humanist, and royal librarian to François I. Budé is instrumental in reviving the classics in France. His Commentaries on Greek Language of 1529 promotes the study of classical languages, and in 1530 he is a catalytic force in the foundation of the Collège de France in Paris.
John Calvin (born Jean Cauvin, 1509–1564), a French theologian working in Basel, completes The Institutes of the Christian Religion, an influential work defining the principles of Protestant belief and justifying them on the basis of Scripture. Calvinist theology includes the belief in predestination, by which only certain people—the elect—are chosen by God for salvation. Later in this year, Calvin settles in Geneva, where his ideas gain widespread acceptance by the 1540s.
Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585) and Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560) lead La Pléiade, a group of French poets whose aim is to promote the composition of modern French poetry based on classical models. Du Bellay’s Defense and Illustration of the French Language of 1549 argues that through the enrichment of the French language, contemporary poets can produce a corpus of work to rival that of the Italians.
The Wars of Religion are fought both as an ongoing struggle for Huguenots (French Protestants) to attain freedom of worship, and as a culmination of tensions among the nobility, particularly between the Guise, a powerful Catholic family, and Protestant Bourbon princes.
Widow of King Henry II and Regent from 1560 to 1574, Catherine de’ Medicis (1519–1589) orders the assassination of Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny in an attempt to maintain Catholic hegemony in France. This escalates into the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on August 23/24, in which thousands of Protestants are slain in Paris.
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) publishes his three-volume Essays, in which he examines such topics as friendship, religion, and death, all through the lens of his own experience. Montaigne’s concern for introspection as a means of discovery makes him an important representative of humanist thought in France.
King Henry IV (r. 1589–1610), himself originally a Huguenot, promulgates the Edict of Nantes, which grants religious freedom and civil rights to French Protestants.
“France, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=euwf (October 2002)