The New York Times
Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great Warby Michael Burleigh
In this masterful, stylish, and authoritative book, Michael Burleigh gives us an epic history of the battles over religion in modern Europe, examining the complex and often lethal ways in which politics and religion have interacted and influenced each other over the last two centuries. From the French Revolution to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth
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In this masterful, stylish, and authoritative book, Michael Burleigh gives us an epic history of the battles over religion in modern Europe, examining the complex and often lethal ways in which politics and religion have interacted and influenced each other over the last two centuries. From the French Revolution to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, Earthly Powers is a uniquely powerful portrait of one of the great tensions of modern history—one that continues to be played out on the world stage today.
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Earthly PowersThe Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War
By Michael Burleigh
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Michael Burleigh
All right reserved.
Age of Reason, Age of Faith
I eldest daughter of the church
We begin with the illusory stability of a Church with venerable roots but whose spiritual dynamism arguably lay in the past too. Since the time of St Louis (1226-70) French kings have been 'the most Christian', a term extended to France itself. Since the reign of Philip the Fair (1285-1314), France was known as 'the eldest daughter of the Church' and the French as God's chosen people. The Church and the French monarchy were linked in a hierarchy that reached down from God in His heavenly kingdom. Throne and altar were inseparable, with senior clerics omnipresent at solemn public occasions well into the French Revolution.1
Higher clergy dominated the coronation ceremonies at Rheims. On the afternoon of 10 June 1774, Louis XVI attended vespers to prepare him for the following day's long proceedings. The cathedral had already filled at four in the morning for ceremonies that commenced at six a.m. Louis took several oaths, silently praying as he carefully emphasised each word in Latin. He promised to protect the Church and to extirpate heretics, dipping his voice for this part since it did not accord with the sentiments of the late eighteenth century. The regalia were blessed and Louis was girded with the sword of Charlemagne, with which he was obliged to protect the Church, widows and orphans. He prostrated himself on a square of violet velvet, while the litanies of the saints were said over him. Kneeling before the aged archbishop la Roche-Aymon, Louis was anointed with six unctions, his gloves and ring were blessed, and he was handed Charlemagne's sceptre. He could touch people for scrofula, which he did a few days later.
The coronation proper was attended by the massed peerage. As the crown was held just above Louis XVI's head, the archbishop proclaimed: 'May God crown you with the crown of glory and of justice . . . and you will come to the everlasting crown.' Sitting on his throne in his new blue robe with the fleur-de-lis, Louis was now the 'rex christianissimus', the most Christian King of the Church's 'eldest daughter' of France. The doors were opened to enable the people to see the new king. Birds were released and trumpets blew as the archbishop declaimed: 'Vivat rex in aeternum.' The ceremonies finished with a mass and the Te Deum.2
Clergy were very visible in eighteenth-century France, especially in the towns. To take one not untypical example, there were twelve hundred in Toulouse, a city of about fifty-three thousand people. In Angers, one in sixty of its thirty-four thousand inhabitants were clerics, not counting seminarians and the like. Clerics participated in all major public occasions, singing Te Deums to celebrate a royal birth or military victory; they interceded with God to avert man-made and natural disasters. Chaplains accompanied the fleets on dangerous voyages and administered the last rites to soldiers dying on the battlefields. Dedicated religious orders negotiated with pirates and Islamic rulers who had enslaved Christian captives. Unfortunates condemned to death received sacramental consolation even if they did not want it. Since we have been effectively deafened by ambient noise it is easy to forget that this was a sensitive auditory culture. The peal of church bells marked sacred days, invasions, fires and storms.3 The feasts of the Church gave the year articulation and meaning. The French clergy were not like Lutheran pastors in Frederick the Great's Prussia, who had become little more than state officials, but they had various quasi-governmental functions.4 In the countryside, priests relayed government pronouncements after the Sunday sermon, often literally interpreting the high French of officialdom into the low patois (or foreign languages such as German or Spanish) spoken by their parishioners. Priests recorded the most rudimentary information on the lives of the king's subjects. Religious orders virtually controlled education, with many future revolutionaries indebted to Jesuit or Oratorian schoolmasters for their easy Latinity and knowledge of the politics of Roman antiquity.
The clergy were responsible for setting the moral tone in society in general, with these functional merits of religion being blindingly obvious even to sceptics such as Voltaire. There was virtual unanimity on the need for Hell to stop the servants stealing the spoons: anyone who cast doubt on the reality of eternal torment was certain to experience it.5 The clergy tried to enforce Sunday as a day of rest and prayer and the Lenten fast, fighting back the pernicious influence of village tavern-keepers who offered men rival consolations. They denounced games of chance, loose women and rotten literature. They had to walk a fine line between curbing practices that made the Church look ridiculous to smart opinion in an age so concerned with reconciling reason and revelation, and alienating their flocks by outlawing customs which made abstract belief meaningful and tangible to them.
Historians have made various attempts to test the depth of religious conviction, an exercise as precise as encountering warm and chilly areas while swimming in an ocean. There seems to have been an increase in bastards born to servants, judging by the numbers of foundlings left outside the church doors. This was probably more indicative of rising grain prices than what these servants believed. Likewise, more and more couples resorted to contraception, but this may have reflected an upward valuation of children. The diminution in testamentary demand for masses for the repose of one's soul may speak to changes in how people regarded their own deaths, with the Church failing to convince them of the imminence of hellfire. It has been equally well argued that, urban sophisticates apart, most people may have had a more intelligent and personal comprehension of their faith than at any time since the Middle Age.6
The clerical Estate was self-administering and self-taxing. Its 130,000 members were exempt from taxation, instead voting 'free gifts', amounting to up to 12 per cent of their revenues, at its five-yearly General Assemblies to . . .
Excerpted from Earthly Powers by Michael Burleigh Copyright © 2006 by Michael Burleigh. Excerpted by permission.
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Michael Burleigh is the author of Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes, and The Third Reich: A New History, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. He is married and lives in London.
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