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Abstract

At the turn of the seventeenth century King Henri IV of France sought to reconcile his Catholic and Protestant subjects by blaming the violent excesses of the French Wars of Religion on religious radicalism. In particular, Catholic preachers and pamphleteers were accused retrospectively of having poured oil on the fire of religious violence through vitriolic sermons and pamphlets. Historians have tended to reproduce this charge while at the same time emphasizing the ‘modernity’ of Protestantism, particularly in view of religious education. A review of books printed in the sixteenth century enables historians to test empirically the extent to which violence was fuelled by religious polemic. From the beginning of the Reformation the Catholic Church had been torn between educating the laity in correct doctrine on one hand and denouncing heresy on the other. A closer look at the book trade reveals that these concerns were reflected in the kinds of books that were published in the vernacular in the second half of the sixteenth century. While the clergy increasingly saw the merits of educating the laity, it had to compete with the public's taste for polemic that printers were keen to cater for.