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Where did the Huguenots get their name?

Lucy Schofield, who completed a volunteer internship at the Huguenot Museum, looks into the mystery…

The question of the origin of the term ‘Huguenot’  is one of the most commonly asked by our visitors, and unfortunately the simple (and boring) answer to the question is ‘we don’t really know’. The term ‘Huguenot’ has been argued over for centuries, and while no single theory has been validated, these arguments and theories about the word’s origins offer us a glimpse into contemporary attitudes to the Huguenots and the way they projected their own

The question of the origin of the term ‘Huguenot’  is one of the most commonly asked by our visitors, and unfortunately the simple (and boring) answer to the question is ‘we don’t really know’. The term ‘Huguenot’ has been argued over for centuries, and while no single theory has been validated, these arguments and theories about the word’s origins offer us a glimpse into contemporary attitudes to the Huguenots and the way they projected their own collective identity.

It seems that the Huguenots themselves, at least early on, did not use the name. They preferred to call themselves l’Eglise Reformee, or the Reformed Church. Many theories, therefore, tend to point to the word originating as a derogatory term on the tongues of their opponents and accusers. And there were certainly no shortage of attacks on the Huguenots. Among others, theories of their detractors included corruptions of ‘les guenons de Hus’, (The monkeys of Hus, a heretic in the 13th century) and claims that they are the spawn of Calvin and a demon called Huc Nox.

Among all the theories put forward, there are two which are widely regarded as the most credible. One of these points to the influence of Calvinism on Huguenot practice, and the etymology reflects the religiously conflicted Swiss Republicanism of Geneva, Calvin’s home. It combines the Flemish ‘Huisgenooten’, or House fellows, with the German ‘Eidgenosen’, meaning confederates bound together by oath, a word used to describe the ‘Confederate’ faction in Geneva who wanted independence from the Catholic Duke of Savoy and alliance with the Swiss Confederacy. It is sometimes added that the spelling ‘Hugue-not’ may also have been influenced by the name Hugues, after Besancon Hugues who, though Catholic, was the leader of the Geneva movement.

However, some argue that for the word to gain popularity in France, ‘Huguenot’ is far more likely to have French origins than German/Flemish/Swiss ones, and so the other most commonly cited explanation draws connection to King Hugo’s Gate in the French town of Tours. It was said that the gate was haunted by the ghost of Le Roy Huget, who caused harm to come to the living after dark, and we are told that Catholic monks maliciously projected the name onto the Protestant community in Tours who, forced to bear repression and scrutiny for their beliefs, were forced to meet at night to worship.

Others still argue that the terms didn’t originate from derogatory roots at all, with some of the Protestant faction claiming the opposite, that the Huguenots were named out of loyalty to the line of Hugues Capet, a medieval ancestor of the King who ruled six centuries before.

Ultimately, whatever the roots, the meaning of the term ‘Huguenot’ is different for whoever is using it. To a sixteenth century Catholic, the Huguenots were dangerous and a threat to their community, their salvation and their way of life; to many English, Huguenots were refugees and fellow Protestants who were to be pitied for their plight and welcomed into their lands; and to the French Calvinists themselves and their descendants, whether or not the term Huguenot began as a slur, it became the name of their community and a badge of honour symbolic of their courage and perseverance through centuries of persecution. In some ways, then, the origin of the word ‘Huguenot’ is less important than what it means for the people who come into contact with it.