When Martin Luther published his 95 theses, everything in Europe changed. Traditionally, the Reformation is discussed in terms of key male figures such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Often, the role women played in the Reformation is overlooked even though their lives were deeply affected by the events around them. Some royal women supported the Reformation from positions of power, but many more women supported the Reformation at a foundational level and suffered greatly during the upheaval that marked this time in history. One of them was Marie Durand.
Durand was a French Huguenot who, at the age of fifteen, was arrested because her brother, Pierre Durand, was a Protestant minister. She was imprisoned in the notorious Tower of Constance in 1730, where she stayed for thirty-eight years.
Marie Durand refused to renounce her faith. Many times the French dragonnade (the military unit whose sole purpose was to seek out Huguenots) offered her release in exchange for information about her brother, but she never gave in to this temptation. Even after her brother was found and executed, she refused offers of freedom which required her to recant her beliefs and accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. According to legend, she was responsible for carving the sloganRésister, which is French for “Resist,” on the walls of the prison. While in prison, Durand served as a spiritual leader to her fellow inmates by nursing the sick, reading Psalms, and singing Huguenot hymns. Because she was literate, she wrote letters and petitions for the prisoners in the Tower of Constance, which led to the release of many of them.
Durand stands out in history for her letters of appeal to improve the prison conditions. The Tower of Constance was known for its atrocious conditions and unspeakable torture of prisoners who were believed to be heretics. Durand wrote letters to government officials and church leaders begging for reform. Her correspondence was relayed to the philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. Because of her efforts, imprisoned women were allowed outside of their cells for air and were given copies of the Psalms. Finally, on December 26, 1767, the prison was shut down and all of the prisoners were released because Prince de Beauveau, the governor of the region, was disgusted by the conditions within the prison. Durand returned to her family home, and was supported for the rest of her life by a church in Amsterdam. Her letters still exist today as a testament to her courage and persistence.