The French Reformation and its aftermath was a battle over breath: literally so, as a matter of life and death, but also because it represented a battle over the Holy Spirit, Saint Esprit, from the Latin spiritus, breath. Over decades of conflict both Catholics and Protestants claimed divine inspiration, arguing that they and only they were breathed on in the way Christ breathes on the apostles when he asks them to receive the spirit (John 20: 22).
On the Protestant (Huguenot) side of these early modern disputes, the term esprit is often displaced by a more vernacular and more bodily breath, souffle, so that God blows on his chosen people a little in the way his chosen people might blow on their soup. Souffle renders spirit as something humanly familiar, if still exemplary. In his account of the life and death of Jean Calvin (1564), the Protestant historian and polemicist Théodore de Bèze writes of breath as the last remaining sign of Calvin’s presence: the day before his death Calvin is so weak “qu’il ne luy restoit plus que le souffle,” [“only breath remained”] but he tells his followers nonetheless that he is still “uni d’esprit” [“joined in spirit”] with them. Like Christ’s, Calvin’s souffle and spirit inspired many, and the Protestant minority, under increasing and violent pressure from the Catholic state, met his example with a last gasp of their own. The term “souffle” is everywhere in the martyrologies of the many Calvinists executed by Catholics over the following century and more, which insist repetitively on the victim’s praise of God “to the last breath.”
French Protestants also imagined breath as a political metaphor, frequently presenting the minority’s right to live on French soil as a right to breathe, some sort of jus spiri: the late seventeenth-century Protestant historian Élie Benoist writes that Catholic violence turned “le Plaisir naturel de respirer l’air du païs natal en une espece de joug servile” [“the natural pleasure of breathing the air of one’s own country into a kind of servile yoke”]. This frequent rhetoric of bad air gets re-ventilated in Benoist’s account of the Refuge, the period after 1685 when Protestantism became illegal in France, at which point Huguenots fled in hope of what Benoist hopefully calls the “abundance” of air found on welcoming shores elsewhere. The more upbeat refugee writing somewhat breathlessly celebrated the “change of air” that transnational solidarity brought about. Bref: breath is central to the Huguenot imaginary.
A more painful formulation comes in one of the pamphlets that circulated from the 1660s on, throughout Protestant Europe, asking for new air to breathe. Many of these calls for international aid insisted on the sheer miracle of continued Protestant bodily existence, sketching a sort of Protestant vita nuda. A 1667 text published in parallel French and German recounts the misery of the Protestants banned from professional positions and living only “la vie, c’est à dire, un triste soufle qu’ils tirent de leurs tristes coeurs affligez” [“life, that is to say, a sad breath/sigh that they pull from their sad and afflicted hearts”]. But where Agamben’s notion of bare life marks the extreme form of a particular model of Western sovereignty, imagining bare life as helpless and voiceless against sovereign power, the Protestant lifebreath is highly strategic, performing its bareness so as to imagine a new political role. The Protestant life retains and performs a “soufle” for its international audience, taking a breath before it speaks, eventually allowing for a new articulation of a Protestant voice that speaks multiple languages and can make itself heard internationally. In response to that voice, in the organizing of English and Dutch and German responses to Huguenot suffering, came a new organization of transnational political community. During the years of the Refuge, at a moment when European neighbors were prepared to take in refugees, the “poor breath” of the Protestant eventually makes room for a new kind of breath-ren. May their history breathe on us again today.