Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris

Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris

by B. Robert Kreiser


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In the midst of the fierce controversies raging in France over the papal bull Unigenitus, worshipers at the tomb of a revered Jansenist deacon in Paris's Saint-Médard cemetery witnessed a variety of miraculous occurrences. These well-publicized events led to the emergence of a cult that came to affect and be affected by the most furious religious debate of the eighteenth-century. Professor Kreiser provides a full and objective account of the conflicts surrounding this unsanctioned cult, which remained a major cause célèbre in ecclesiastical politics for nearly a decade.

The author details the intricate relationships between Church and State and broadens our awareness of the political implications of popular religion during the ancien régime. His wide-ranging book is the first account of the Saint-Médard episode to deal with this affair in its multiple contexts. At stake was more than acceptance of the papal bull, whose political history the author discusses. Also involved, as he shows, were fundamental questions about the nature of miracles, conflicts between episcopal and priestly authority, the unwelcome intrusions of the papacy in the affairs of the Gallican Church, and struggles among the crown, the Parlement of Paris, and the French episcopate for control over ecclesiastical affairs.

Originally published in 1978.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691605890
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1505
Pages: 504
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris

By B. Robert Kreiser


Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05262-5


Jansenism and the Froblems of Ecclesiastical Politicsin the Gallican Church, 1713-1729


Of all the many religious struggles which preoccupied the authorities under the ancien régime, the Jansenist controversy was perhaps the most serious and vexing, for it was one which not only created a profound spiritual division within French Catholicism, but gradually came to engage all the traditional forces of early-modern ecclesiastical politics. Jansenism originated as but one manifestation of the intense, sometimes feverish religious revival which took place in France in the first half of the seventeenth century. Save for Port-Royal, which served principally as a place of retreat, housing no more than a few dozen individuals at any one time, the Jansenist movement had no institutional or corporate existence and lacked any formal juridical or legal standing. Those who could be considered its adherents were united in free, voluntary association, essentially independent of any authority, royal, papal, or episcopal. Although self-styled "amis de la Verite," defenders of the "fundamental and essential truths of the faith," they never really formed a cohesive or tightly organized sect or religious order and never subscribed to a uniform, undifferentiated, or coherent set of beliefs. In no sense constituting a single, monolithic party, at most they can be said to have shared an attitude of mind. In this sense Jansenism, whatever its various formulations, was a rigidly austere and gloomily predestinarian doctrine, with an attendant concern for spiritual reform, a devotion to universal Christian charity, and a puritanical ideal of uncompromising virtue and saintliness for the perfection of the religious life. No matter how many changes in emphasis or direction the movement experienced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, "Jansenism" remained throughout the ancien régime a severe and psychologically demanding form of Christianity and maintained its strict penitential discipline, its thoroughgoing gravity, its moral rigorism, and its pessimistic emphasis on the sinfulness and corruption of man and society. At the same time, Jansenism had very early on become a problem for both Church and State.

Certain of the leading Jansenists — men of a highly combative spirit, ardent, indefatigable controversialists, and fierce debaters — became embroiled in religious disputes almost from the first, managing in the process to arouse a great deal of hostility in influential circles. To a large degree, of course, the Jansenist movement represented a reaction to the aims, the outlook, and the theology of the Society of Jesus, their inveterate enemies. They regarded as scandalous the Society's Molinist position on the nature of grace and free will, its formal and mechanical practices of devotion and frequent communion, and its alleged laxity and casuistry in the confessional; they repeatedly accused the Jesuits of subverting all sound moral and religious principles. Indeed, to the extent that the Jansenists ever did constitute a "party," they did so principally on the basis of their bitter enmity toward the Jesuits, a feeling that was mutually shared. Born in opposition and nurtured in controversy, the Jansenists, as self-proclaimed champions of evangelical piety and of a pure, uncorrupted form of Christianity, engaged in a long and frequently intemperate battle against the supposed innovations and deviations of the Jesuits — a battle which lasted until the Society's suppression in 1764.

Though perhaps their most implacable opponents, the Jesuits were certainly not the only ones among whom the Jansenists managed to arouse bitter hostility. In France and Rome the ecclesiastical authorities, who automatically feared any separatist movement within the Church, any suggestion of novelties, either dogmatic or spiritual, as a potential threat to the religious stability of France and to the unity of the Catholic faith, looked with great disfavor upon this Jansenist display of sect-like combativeness. Nor was it surprising that certain Jansenist principles — a respect for the sanctity of the autonomous conscience, an emphasis on the importance of the individual's interior disposition, a belief in the principles of efficacious grace and gratuitous predestination, and a resultant tendency to reduce the significance of the Church as the earthly mediator between God and man — should have aroused the enmity of influential members of the clerical establishment. But it was the Fronde which especially provoked the suspicion and hostility of the royal government toward Jansenism.

Perpetually haunted by memories of that abortive midcentury revolt, Louis XIV learned from Cardinal Mazarin to distrust Port-Royal and its various "friends" as a potentially subversive element, a center of general disaffection and unrest, a source of conspiracy and intrigue. Despite their oft-repeated professions of loyalty to the crown, Louis came to suspect that the Jansenists were unfriendly to absolute monarchy and represented a stronghold of ideological opposition to the bureaucratic state which he and his ministers were working to create.

Theologically benighted as well as politically prejudiced, the king never understood the thorny doctrinal problems of salvation and grace at issue with the Jansenists — nor did he care to. Rather, Louis' passionate and intrusive surveillance of religious affairs derived from a conception of his royal stewardship over Church and State and his concern for order and orthodoxy. Rebellion against official doctrine he interpreted as rebellion against his divinely constituted temporal authority. Thus he also resented the Jansenists for arousing a divisive controversy in the Church, a controversy that he believed threatened the unity of his kingdom. By adopting a distinctive style of life and attitude toward the world and by advocating a religious position which most orthodox Catholics deemed suspect, the Jansenists were guilty of nonconformity, an intolerable incongruity in an absolute state and the very crime which the Sun King most hated. Their emphasis on the inviolable rights of individual conscience; their public rejection of the royal command to sign unequivocally the Formulary against the famous Five Propositions of Jansenius;6 and their defiant actions in appealing to Pope Innocent XI in the régale affair — such attitudes and behavior made Louis even more resentful of Jansenist willfulness and "republican" independence.

Numerous efforts were thus made during the Sun King's reign to deal with this hated Jansenist "sect." Indeed, except for the ambiguous and tenuous Peace of the Church, that provisional settlement of 1669 which established a temporary and precarious truce in the controversy, these Jansenist dissenters were subjected throughout this period to fierce, if sporadic, persecution from both Church and State. But repeated condemnations issued in Rome, supported by the repressive measures of civil and ecclesiastical authorities in France, failed to stifle the Jansenists or extirpate their movement. In the meantime, the nature of Jansenism had begun to change markedly, and its concerns as well as its appeal began to broaden. Increasingly, Port-Royal became little more than the symbolic center of Jansenism, an institutional exemplar of the Jansenists' ideal of heroic unworldliness, while the developments occurring beyond its walls — both religious and political — assumed greater importance than ever.

For many of the Jansenists outside Port-Royal, for bishops and priests as well as for theologians and cloistered regulars, the period from the 1660s onward was one of intense and constructive activity, with a growing emphasis on devotional, pedagogical, and pastoral continued by and large to conform to the fundamental moral and theological rigorism traditionally associated with Port-Royal. They also continued to turn out their share of apologetic and polemical tracts in defense of the "true faith." But these "new Jansenists" were no longer so exclusively preoccupied with weighty doctrinal matters or with plaintive jeremiads about the tragedy of the human condition and the corruption of the social order as the abbé de Saint-Cyran and certain of his immediate associates and successors had been and still were. Less abstract and academic in their orientation, less detached and resigned in their outlook on the temporal order, many of them turned away from subtle theologizing and from an attitude of passive, ascetic withdrawal to become involved in much more practical tasks within the Church and the world at large.

The principal objective of much of the Jansenists' prolific activity in this period was to enable the laity to understand and appreciate more fully, more personally, the meaning of the faith. Like Bérulle, Francois de Sales, Vincent de Paul, and other leading seventeenth-century French religious figures, these Jansenists were concerned to overcome what some regarded as the excessively dry, mechanical, and formal character of post-Tridentine devotions. In their effort to combat the supposedly superficial, uncomprehending piety of the faithful, they embarked in particular on a host of important projects designed to provide the uninstructed with vernacular translations of and pious commentaries on scriptural and liturgical texts. One of the first — and by far the most celebrated — of such devotional handbooks, a translation accompanied by annotations and commentary, was written by the Oratorian Father Pasquier Quesnel, whose book, entitled Les Paroles de la Parole incarnée, Jésus-Christ, Notre Seigneur, tirées du Nouveau Testament (1668), was eventually to attract an unanticipated renown and provoke a storm of controversy. The work, very different from the subtle and imposing theological tomes of Jansenius or Saint-Cyran, in that it was written in French and intended for laymen, was an immediate public success. Encouraged by the reception, Quesnel gradually expanded the book in a series of editions and by 1692 had also changed the title to Le Nouveau Testament en français, avec des réflexions morales sur chaque verset, pour en rendre la lecture plus utile et la méditation plus aisée. It was under a shortened version of the title, the Réflexions morales, that Quesnel's work gained its greatest notoriety.

It is noteworthy that the initial opposition within the Church to Quesnel's translations and commentaries was not based on theological grounds, for the Oratorian father had studiously avoided awakening the doctrinal controversies associated with the earlier Jansenists. In part, the religious authorities were disturbed by Quesnel's violation of their prohibition, only recently reiterated, against unauthorized translations, compilations, or commentaries. Some Church officials had also argued that it was God's will that the reading of Scripture be reserved exclusively to priests and theologians. But the Réflexions morales represented an even more disquieting development in the area of ecclesiastical governance, a development very closely associated with certain other new tendencies of this "second Jansenism."

While attempting to present the spirit and message of Jansenism in terms more easily accessible to the laity and while advocating increased lay participation with the clergy in public worship, Quesnel and some of his colleagues had also begun to advance the claims of the "second order" of the clergy for a greater role in the Church polity. The adoption of antihierarchical ideas widely attributed to the celebrated theologian Edmond Richer — himself inspired by the Gallican Gerson — would have been all but unthinkable to the "first Jansenists," several of whom had explicitly condemned "Richerism" earlier in the century. But this was in many ways a new generation of Jansenists, one which depended increasingly for its numerical strength as well as its spiritual force upon the adherence of members of the lower clergy. Indeed, the required signature of the Formulary had had the unintended effect of further diffusing the Jansenist controversy into every corner of the realm and of allowing, in fact, forcing, even the most obscure parish priest to voice his opinion on a matter about which he was not ordinarily consulted or especially concerned. Though not yet the prominent voice that they were to become in the eighteenth-century struggles over "Jansenism," the lower clergy had already begun making a significant contribution to the movement. Beginning with the so-called religious Fronde of the 1650s and the publication of Pascal's highly successful Lettres provinciates, a growing number of parish clergy was attracted — out of a mixture of spiritual, ecclesiastical, theological, and political motives — to the Jansenist camp. Many of them refused to sign the Formulary, insisting that a higher duty to individual conscience took precedence over the requirements of silent submission and humble obedience. From the 1660s onward, their uncompromising protests, broadened into a general defense of ecclesiastical "liberties," came to have a significant influence in shaping and transforming the Jansenist movement's dominant ideology.

Reflecting this changing character of Jansenist support and ideology, Quesnel, in the course of revising his Réflexions morales, devoted increasing attention to questions concerning Church governance and the nature of the priesthood. In succeeding editions of the work he championed the cause of the lower clergy, emphasizing the idea that ecclesiastical authority resided in the entire body of the Church and invoking the legendary traditions of the primitive Church to uphold his position in defense of an independent parochial ministry with claims to consultation in diocesan affairs. The lower clergy no doubt derived considerable aid and comfort from the Quesnelist exaltation of their dignity and status in the Church hierarchy and their central role in both ecclesiastical governance and the cure of souls. But these ideas, widely denounced as "presbyterian," were fraught with dangerous implications for the discipline and even the organization of the Gallican Church. Though the precise manner of their diffusion and their degree of influence remain unclear, it is certain that the writings of Quesnel, like those of several of his followers, were becoming ever more disturbing to the ecclesiastical authorities by the end of the seventeenth century.

Toward the Bull "Unigenitus"

As the work of Quesnel and the bold writings and activities of other like-minded colleagues helped place Jansenism further beyond the pale, the attitude of both Church and State turned from mistrust to open hostility. Between 1695 and 1703 a series of political and theological controversies, exacerbated by very bitter antagonisms and rivalries — personal as well as corporate — strained and complicated matters immeasurably. In the spirit of faction and polemic which had come to characterize much of French religious life, various groups and individuals with vested interests to protect and axes to grind became involved in the renewed struggles over Jansenism.

But Louis XIV, for all his antipathy toward the Jansenists, remained somewhat reluctant to engage in the religious confrontations which over the years had seen his government's authority compromised. It took the unexpected discovery of Quesnel's private papers to induce the crown to act. Though Quesnel had been in self-imposed exile since his refusal to sign the Formulary in 1684, he had not lost his considerable reputation and influence among the Jansenists in France, as well as those in the Low Countries and in Rome, with whom he had for a number of years been maintaining an extensive correspondence. The religious authorities had for some time regarded the Oratorian father as the head of the supposed "Jansenist party," Quesnel's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. The seizure of his private correspondence when he was arrested in Brussels in 1703 suggested that official suspicions had been correct. Quesnel's papers revealed an intricate and far-reaching secret network of "Jansenists," extending even to high places in the papal court. They also offered apparent substantiation of Jesuit charges that the Jansenists constituted an active, organized movement of subversives who posed an imminent threat to both Church and State. Alarmed at this turn of affairs and already obsessed with a fear of theological cabals, the king and his government decided that the hour had come to resolve the doctrinal questions that had been shuttled back and forth across the Alps since the days of Richelieu and to crush the Jansenist dissenters once and for all. Having previously patched up most of his differences with the papacy, Louis was persuaded by his ultramontane advisers to appeal to Rome for help in restoring orthodoxy, confessional unity, and order to the Gallican Church.


Excerpted from Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris by B. Robert Kreiser. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xv
  • Abbreviations, pg. xvii
  • CHAPTER I. Jansenism and the Problems of Ecclesiastical Politics in the Gallican Church, 1713-1729, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER II. Jansenist Miracles: From the Holy Thorn to the Origins of the Cult to François de Pâris, pg. 70
  • CHAPTER III. Ecclesiastical Politics in the Diocese of Paris and the Miracles of François de Pâris, 1730–1731, pg. 99
  • CHAPTER IV. From Miracles to Convulsions, pg. 140
  • CHAPTER V. The Closing of the Cemetery at Saint-Médard and the Political Aftermath, pg. 181
  • CHAPTER VI. Beyond Saint-Médard: The Emergence of the Convulsionary Movement, pg. 243
  • CHAPTER VII. Mounting Persecution, Growing Divisions, pg. 276
  • CHAPTER VIII. Parlementary and Jansenist Repudiations, pg. 320
  • CHAPTER IX. Miracles and Religious Politics: A Last Reprise, pg. 352
  • Conclusion, pg. 395
  • Bibliography, pg. 403
  • Index, pg. 469

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