Monday, July 9, 2012

July 09, 2012

The Huguenot Méreau: Coin of Acceptance

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and possibly beyond, the French Protestant churches had an interesting way of proving membership. Each parishioner was entitled to a gold coin known as a méreau (plural méreaux) only if he or she had taken care of the actions central to the faith: attending church previously, studying the appropriate classes, and refraining from disruptive or damaging behavior. When such a coin was bestowed, it was carefully guarded, for only those with méreaux could attend Communion. 

During Communion --- which, although the Huguenots celebrated it only symbolically and attached no actual “transformation” to the act, was a very important part of Huguenot religious life --- a parishioner would receive their coin from an elder and then go forth to partake. Those who had lost their coins or had not been given one due to bad behavior or failed obligations would bear not only the loss of Communion but also the scorn of the community.

One could look at this practice in two ways: First, it seems exclusive, for only those with méreaux were allowed to attend services and take Communion. Yet, second, it shows that the French Protestants had so much reverence for their churches and their Savior that they took it upon themselves to make sure only those who were serious about their faith could attend and partake of the glorious Presence of God.  These coins were a symbol of one’s Protestantism. Those who exchanged them understood they were part of a network of believers. This was also a handy way to determine if one’s conversational partner was a Huguenot or a Catholic.

Throughout the 1500s straight through to the 1700s, it was very dangerous to be a Protestant in France. It was necessary to distinguished between “us and them,” as they so believed, and the carrying of méreaux which one would surreptitiously offer while paying a fellow Protestant for some item was one way of garnering information and sharing solidarity. 

So what did the méreaux look like? The coins were two-sided, the front carrying an image of Christ the Shepherd and the back depicting a Bible which read “Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Such encouraging words were cherished and must have brought peace even in times of hardship. It reminded Huguenots that no matter how difficult their lives might be, they were beloved of God and would continue to endure. They were “crushed but not abandoned, persecuted but not destroyed.” 

It is believed that the méreaux measured about one inch. What they were called depended on the region in which they were given; in Poitou, for example, they were called “marques,” quite different from the word “méreau.” The majority of méreaux were constructed of pewter but there could even be some made of materials such as leather depending on what was available or popular at the time. I do not know if any méreaux are still in existence. Like the Huguenot cross, the méreau was a way for Huguenots to feel solidarity and show a measure of pride in belonging. This particular item is known only to French Protestants and as such is a very important part of Huguenot history.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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