In what is the tenth addition to the “Bitesize Biographies” series published by Evangelical Press, Christian biographer and author, Simonetta Carr casts yet another historical figure to life with a masterful portrait of Renée of France. Renée of France, The Duchess of Ferrara, a lesser-known but no less dynamic woman of the Italian Reformation has the distinct honor of being the first woman to grace the series. Ranking alongside the likes of Augustus Toplady, John Knox, Francis Shaffer, and Martyn Lloyd Jones, the duchess finds herself in good company. The “Bitesize” series aims to tell the stories of both well known and lesser-known people from history ranging from the early church fathers right through to the late twentieth century. Despite the inherent suggestion of the title, these works are anything but “bite size” and Carr’s latest contribution is no exception. Consistent with other titles in the series, Carr readily admits her work is not an academic study. Yet students, teachers, and historians will easily discover an overflowing treasure trove of church history.
Relying largely on correspondence between Renée and John Calvin, and also secondary sources, Carr presents, what I believe to be, an especially timely portrait of a profoundly passionate yet deeply conflicted woman of faith. From a historical perspective readers get a front row view into the weighty issues confronting the fledgling Reformed church – issues like the acceptance or refusal of the Catholic Mass, the fear of making a public profession of faith in Protestant doctrines, and the relationship between church and state.
From a personal perspective, Carr lifts the window and offers a glimpse into the life of a Christian woman pressed upon at all sides by self-serving political motives and agendas. Amidst the dramatic political and ecclesiastical events of her time, Renée’s personal frailties and shortcomings are not hard to sympathize with. What mother does not have compassion on a woman who faces the painful prospect of losing her children for not recanting her faith? Or, what true believer has not grappled with the seeming tension between refuting false teachers and “loving our enemies”? Or, who among us, has never struggled with the temptation to remain quiet over our faith in order to keep the peace? Renée’s story humbles us. It causes us to recall the warning of the apostle Paul, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” It then compels us to cry with the Old Testament prophet, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.”
The correspondence between Calvin and Renée also reveals a not-so-well-known side to the Reformation stalwart. His letters betray the gentleness of a faithful shepherd not just preoccupied with gospel purity but overwhelmingly concerned over the soul condition of the little flock. No one knows the urgency of the hour better than Calvin. No one perceives all that is at stake more than him. Yet his letters to Renée reveal a shepherd “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed” in the child of God entrusted to his care. Furthermore, we see the French Reformer’s willingness to be vulnerable in sharing details of his own physical ailments and weaknesses. For those in the Reformed tradition who rightly esteem this central figure of the Protestant tradition, this side of Calvin will make you love him even more.
The Reformation was a time of crisis for those who longed for a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ”. Moments of crisis have a way of forcing us to define what is central and essential. It’s where the rubber meets the road. In this way, even though Renée hailed from nobility (and most of us don’t), her story underscores the same faith issues that all Christians – though unlikely in such a dramatic form as Renée, can expect to confront.
It is with great pleasure that I recommend Renée of France. In her own right, Simonetta Carr is a woman called for “such a time as this”. She continues to equip the body of Christ with the tools necessary to pass our Reformation heritage to our sons and daughters.
Evangelical Press has graciously contributed 2 books for a special giveaway contest. Please fill out the form below if you would like to be entered in the drawing. The winners will be chosen on March 5.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christina Langella lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, Steven, and their 3-legged Pit-Bull, Jake. She leads the Young Women’s Fellowship for teens and pre-teens, and also teaches women’s Bible studies at her local church.
For more information, here is an interview with Simonetta Carr about her latest book.
 English Standard Version, 1 Corinthians 10:12
 New International Version (c 1984), Micah 7:18
 English Standard Version, Galatians 4:19
 English Standard Version, 2 Corinthians 11:3
 English Standard Version, Esther 4:14