Modern history


In 1720, Catholic France acquired a new hero: Henri-François-Xavier de Belsunce de Castelmoron, archbishop of Marseille, who was suddenly projected into public awareness by his conduct during the epidemic of bubonic plague which appeared in his home city in that year. French men and women recoiled with horror at lurid tales, served up in a flambée of sensationalist publications, of buboes cascading polychromatically from the body of the afflicted, of the breakdown in public order and the cessation of trade, of corpses lying in piles in the gutter, rotting and gnawed at by stray dogs or else being carted away pell-mell, rich alongside poor, to mass plague pits. In the midst of this Boschian horror strode the saintly figure of Belsunce, his cassock sleeves rolled high, a sponge of aromatic herbs under his nose to keep the stench of putrescent flesh at bay, offering alms, comfort and confession to the sick and dying. This ambulatory and seemingly invulnerable oasis of redemptive sanctity – eleven out of his twelve attendants were stricken and died at his side – assumed the role of community leader, pulling the city out of the crisis, at the height of which he dedicated his fellow townspeople to the cult of the Sacred Heart. As the disease drew to a close, it would be Belsunce who led the penitential processions, touring the bounds of the city, bare-headed and barefoot, with a torch in his hand.

Belsunce had self-consciously modelled his conduct – as was generally realized – on one of the great saints of the Counter-Reformation, Saint Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, who in 1576 had broken with the more customary episcopal option of speedy flight from a plague-infected area, and remained to tend the spiritual needs of his diocesans. In his long episcopacy in Marseille between 1709 and 1755, Belsunce was to follow many other features in the life of Borromeo, who had been among the most enthusiastic implementers of the precepts of the great Council of Trent (1545–63) which had rallied the Catholic church following the Protestant Reformation and defined the principal doctrines of what became the Counter-Reformation. The church still lived under the Council’s shadow, and its bishops revered Borromeo. Just along the Mediterranean coast at Fréjus, Fleury himself had had the same source of inspiration during his episcopate from 1696 to 1715. Indeed to a very considerable extent, the French church as a whole in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was still acting a part in a Tridentine script, a script moreover which accorded a key role to bishops in the Borromeo mode.

Though supra-national religious orders such as the Jesuits initially took a highly prominent role in the work of Counter-Reformation, Trent had placed great emphasis on the role of bishops in implementing its precepts. This element became more evident over the course of the seventeenth century. Bishops worked to eliminate heresy and spiritual ignorance and to generalize a new style of Christian living among the lower clergy and, through them, to ‘Christianize’ the population at large. The aim was not only to combat Protestantism but also – as the eminent bishop, Grignion de Montfort of La Rochelle, put it – ‘to renew the spirit of Christianity among Christians’.12 A crucial element in this project – the establishment of diocesan seminaries for the training of the priesthood – had only been fully implemented in France between roughly 1650 and 1720: Paris, the most important diocese in the French church, for example, had only got one in 1696. Staffed by an array of post-Tridentine religious orders, notably the Jesuits (who had trained Belsunce), the Lazarists (who ran the Marseille institution) and the Saint-Sulpicians (who were probably the best of the lot), the seminaries of France’s 128 dioceses13 were by 1715 pouring forth cohorts of young priests with much higher levels of theological, spiritual and pastoral training than hitherto.

Post-Tridentine pastoral thinking foregrounded the need to imbue in the priesthood a sense of vocation and standards of personal integrity which set them over and above the laity. If they were to Christianize the laity, curés had to set a moral and religious example, leading decent, sexually continent lives, eschewing gambling, excessive drinking and other worldly pursuits. The emblem of this recharged vocational state was clerical uniform. The cassock had been relatively rare in the reign of Louis XIII, but under his two successors it became standard issue for the lower clergy: ‘to be embarrassed by it and take it off’, the bishop of Nevers was to warn in 1768, ‘is tantamount to being a deserter and fugitive and declaring oneself unworthy of wearing it’14 – a remark whose language coincidentally highlighted the quasi-military disciplinary sense which the episcopate was developing in its lower clergy. The bishops expected obedience from their diocesan clergy – and, moreover, had state-endorsed means of exacting it. Most bishops had extensive rights of patronage within their hands, including power of appointment to ecclesiastical benefices and diocesan posts, and this was supplemented by powers of correction and punishment which the crown endorsed in 1695. Indeed, after 1698, errant clerics, whether regulars or seculars, who strayed from required standards of conduct risked their bishops imprisoning them by lettre de cachet.

A further mechanism of episcopal control over the diocesan clergy was the parish visitation – another technique propagated by the Council of Trent, pioneered by Carlo Borromeo and studiously copied by Belsunce and his ilk. Bishops became more assiduous in this respect: parishes received a visitation from their bishop or his vicar-general on average every twelve years in the seventeenth century, and every eight years in the eighteenth. Visitors performed a kind of spiritual audit, punctiliously checking the life, morals and dutifulness of clergy and parishioners. The Council of Trent had stressed the role of the parish clergy in providing a ceremonial encasement to the everyday life of their parishioners from cradle to grave, most notably through the sacraments of baptism, marriage and burial and also through the festivals and rituals of the liturgical year. Visitations ensured that new-born babies were baptized swiftly – within twenty-four hours after 1698. The marriage ceremony was given primordial significance over folkloric pre-marriage engagement rituals and wild charivaris. And the last rites were viewed as the ubiquitous accompaniment to death, itself – as Louis XIV’s demise had shown15 – the subject of a whole panoply of rituals and practices. More generally, there was also an insistence on the laity’s eating fish on Fridays, observing abstinence in Lent and Advent and taking regular communion, most crucially in the form of the Easter duties of confession and communion.

Post-Tridentine worship was in essence a baroque piety16 which expressed itself in florid ostentation and which used all the media of communication and the material culture of worship to make a powerful sensorial assault on the life of the spirit. A still lively tradition of hell-fire preaching aimed to elicit holy terror in congregations: the famous Jesuit Bridaine, for example, utilized commedia dell’arte and ventriloquistic techniques to achieve almost Grand-Guignol effects in his sermons. Other forms of church art were similarly conscripted to produce a powerful emotional response: music was grander, with organs and choirs becoming more numerous and proficient, while painting and sculpture were profusely utilized in funeral monuments, altar screens, and the like. Baroque piety found rampant didactic expression too in the festivals and ceremonies in which the post-Tridentine church revelled. Baroque piety was an everyday, quasi-universal phenomenon – even abject paupers wanted candles carried at their funerals, with monks and nuns following the bier. The funeral ceremonials of grand personages were massive and theatrically ordered spectaculars with casts of thousands, while special events such as religious missions or the ceremonies which Belsunce organized to mark the passing of the plague in 1721–2 wrung every emotion, causing hysterical outbursts of mass weeping.

The episcopate also endeavoured to root a new spirit of godliness in their dioceses through the institutionalization of forms of voluntary and associational devotion, which proved a receptive medium for baroque piety. Confraternities of penitents, of the Holy Sacrament and the Sacred Heart (the latter boosted in fact by the 1720 plague dedication) elicited an enthusiastic popular response. The cult of saints – seen in Marian devotions, for example, in collective pilgrimages and in ex-votos invoking saintly intercession for sickness – still also enjoyed widespread esteem. This was supplemented by a growing market for rosaries, prayer-books, lives and images of saints, prie-dieux, crucifixes and the like, which brought the material culture of Catholic piety into the homes and everyday lives of the humble.

The pedagogic mission of post-Tridentine Catholicism placed a strong emphasis too on the practice of catechism. Catechisms began to assume a question-and-answer format as an accessible way of teaching doctrine. Bishops, true to their Tridentine role as guides to faith, often wrote one themselves – Bossuet produced one for Meaux in 1687, for example, and bishop Colbert of Montpellier a much-utilized one in 1705. Steady sellers on what was a buoyant market for religious publication of every sort, they formed a staple ingredient too in schools, to which the church was increasingly committed, and over which local curés had surveillance (and bishops, authority). Royal declarations of 1698 and 1724 urged the creation of primary schooling in all parishes, with compulsory catechism classes.

Few other groupings within eighteenth-century society had as powerful an impact on the conduct of their fellows as the episcopacy. As a group, however, they were far less saintly a bunch than their seventeenth-century forebears. It did not require personal sanctity to achieve the effective and disciplined running of dioceses. Educated, classically, at the Saint-Sulpice seminary and the Sorbonne in Paris and then trained in a post of episcopal vicar-general, many bishops had made worldly compacts. Fleury or Dubois were only the most important of those numerous prelates who played major administrative roles in public life. This was particularly evident in the pays d’état, such as Languedoc, where the dominant role of bishops in regional administration was legendary. A royal edict of 1695 which had released bishops from the duty of residence in their dioceses (which had been enjoined on them at Trent) encouraged some to seek a higher political profile elsewhere. An age of Counter-Reformation saints was being replaced by an era of bureaucrat-bishops and bishop-statesmen, who impressed more by their authority and efficiency than by their sanctity. Indeed, the higher clergy mistrusted unvarnished sanctity: self-immolating, poverty-loving and flea-infested figures such as saints Jeanne Delanoue and Benoît Labre raised more than a few episcopal eyebrows. There was a growing scepticism among the upper clergy too about the presence of the miraculous and the supernatural in everyday life: individuals attacked by peasants for being witches were viewed as misguided cranks or charlatans; and bishops supported more scrupulous monitoring of alleged miracles.

The episcopate cut a decidedly aristocratic figure, as indeed befitted the most highly prestigious and the most privileged of corporative groupings within the French state. They enjoyed fabulous levels of wealth, for the church owned between 6 and 10 per cent of the nation’s cultivable land and collected a tithe on all property, which averaged between 8 and 12 per cent of agrarian income. Since the Concordat of Bologna with the pope in 1516, kings of France had held effective powers of appointment to bishoprics and the major ecclesiastical benefices, and they – or rather their ministers, such as Fleury – had used this as a form of patronage to shower the church’s wealth over the most important families of the realm. From the mid-seventeenth century down to the Revolution of 1789, around thirty families of the aristocratic elite – prominent among whom were the Rohan dynasty (who held the Strasbourg bishopric for a century), the Noailles (of course), the Luynes, the Choiseuls, the La Rochefoucaulds and the Fitz-James – held the lion’s share of the most prestigious and wealthy posts. Although a talented provincial outsider (though very rarely a commoner, for bishops were invariably nobles) sometimes broke into the charmed circle, it was birth, wealth and connection at Versailles which counted most: on the eve of the Revolution, more than three-quarters of the episcopate traced their ancestry back to the sixteenth century or earlier. These were princes of the church who consequently found it very easy to live like princes: though some of the tiny dioceses of the Midi produced little in the way of revenue, the big appointments such as Cambrai, Paris or Narbonne generated a fabulous income. The superb court held by successive Rohans at Strasbourg was legendary. Baroque piety seemed to mix easily with baroque indulgence, even for prelates renowned for preaching austerity. Jansenist martyr Soanen, bishop of Senez, possessed episcopal jewellery bearing a galaxy of precious stones and lived in some little luxury. Fellow Jansenist bishop Colbert of Montpellier slept every night in a room richly appointed in crimson damask, trimmed with gold, ate off expensive silver plate, and was forever on the look-out for costly objets d’art. At Cambrai, the richest diocese of France, the austere apostle of simple virtue, Fénelon, maintained a table groaning with a calorific overload of meats and wines. Episcopal diet was too rich and grand to include humble vegetables – the bishop of Lodève even contracted scurvy!

This highly, even anarchically individualistic group of men, all-powerful within their dioceses, also possessed collective weight within the state through their domination of the General Assembly of the Clergy. Meeting every five years (and on an ad hoc basis when the state required), the Assembly was the only corporative body – except, arguably, the royal court – of truly nationwide dimensions. This gave added resonance to its deliberations on matters managerial and fiscal as well as doctrinal. The Assembly negotiated direct with the crown over the don gratuit – the ill-named ‘free gift’ which the church made in lieu of paying normal royal taxes, which averaged between a measly 1 and 3 per cent of its total income. The Assembly subdivided the sum among the dioceses, which then held diocesan assemblies, presided over by the bishops, to allocate the load around the parishes and benefices. Though it usually worked harmoniously with the crown, the Assembly did on occasion flex its muscles – and get results. In 1725, for example, it killed in their cradle the duc de Bourbon’s plans to extend his new cinquantième direct tax to clergy and nobility alike, invoking the authority of the pope in the defence of ecclesiastical immunity. One of Fleury’s first acts, on his appointment as Bourbon’s successor in 1726, was the withdrawal of the cinquantième, which he accompanied with a ringing endorsement for the tax immunity of the clerical order. The cardinal knew how to manage the church as he did every other institution of state.

Notwithstanding numerous personal peccadilloes, the episcopate were instrumental in driving through the Council of Trent’s Christianization project. All the indices of religiously motivated practice that lend themselves to measurement – performance of Easter duties, for example, observance of the, church’s teaching on baptism and the respect for the last rites – were in triumphant ascent from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century. There was much evidence too to suggest that the changes signified real attitudinal and behavioural transformation. Extremely low levels of illegitimacy and pre-bridal pregnancies and a slump in conceptions during the abstaining months of Advent and Lent demonstrate an almost universal acceptance of the church’s teaching on the sacrament of marriage, which was new. It was assisted no doubt by the moral policing of private life performed by the zealous, vocationally committed and seminary-trained parish clergy. Yet in return, there was greater pressure from the laity for better and more seemly conduct from its priesthood – less drunkenness and, in particular, less sexual hanky-panky – which showed a rising line of expectation on their side too.

English visitors frequently mocked the baroque piety characteristic of post-Tridentine French Catholicism which the administratively proficient episcopate did so much to promote. They viewed it as so much popish mummery, revealing ignorance and superstition rather than spiritual awareness. Many Catholic clerics were equally condemnatory about levels of piety among their charges. Christophe Sauvageon, for example, parish priest at Sennely-en-Sologne in the Orléanais from 1675 to 1710, lugubriously qualified his parishioners as ‘baptized idolaters’, who were ‘more superstitious than devout’. Though ‘highly zealous for the externals of religion’, they mixed genuine belief with a heavy dose of superstition and paganism such as belief in witches and spirits. Even apparently Christian practices were turned to profane ends: religious confraternities became ribald drinking associations, for example, while devotion to saints descended into a kind of crude bargaining for health and fortune, with acts of penitence being viewed as means of buying off the ire of God and the saints.17

It is possible to read Sauvageon’s critique of his parishioners – and other similar attacks – as showing how basically unChristian much of rural France remained. There would be no shortage of outlandish stories of peasant superstitions and basic religious ignorance well into the nineteenth century. Yet though it is tempting to see in play here solely a conflict between Catholicism and religious ignorance, it is as likely that the jaundiced testimony of clerics like Sauvageon witnessed more to their own high standards than their parishioners’ lack of them. One of the major targets of Sauvageon’s ire – the externalism of peasant religious beliefs – in fact reflected the practices of the baroque piety prized by and diffused by the post-Tridentine church. Sauvageon’s was not a lone voice in reminding the church that baroque piety needed to be viewed as a means of the internal acceptance of the Christian message rather than as a surrogate for it. The heyday of baroque piety in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was indeed also characterized by unparalleled efforts to clarify and to explain Christianity – through schooling, catechisms, religious publication and the like. The eighteenth century was, as we shall see, to witness many famous conflicts between Christians and unbelievers – yet the church too was riven with dissension and debate. Many of the bitterest criticisms of externalized piety were in fact to come from within the church. The Jansenist critique of the moral and spiritual laxity of Jesuit Molinism was the most celebrated of a far more general concern that the church should be winning hearts as well as changing practices. And the middle decades of the eighteenth century were to be the period in which Jansenism passed from being the proclivity of a handful of elite souls to the status of popular belief system.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!