Modern history


The wellsprings of Jansenism lay, as we have suggested, in the theological dilemmas of post-Tridentine Catholicism, and in anxiety about doctrines associated with the Jesuits which were held to imply that formal observance of rituals and practices was sufficient to achieve God’s grace. Jansenists’ puritanical stress on Augustinian austerity had brought it into conflict with Rome which it freely attacked as a ‘New Babylon’, and Jansenists called for ecclesiastical affairs to be regulated by a general council of the church. Conciliarist anti-papalism was combined with a call for a more democratic power-structure within the church. Many Jansenists followed the precepts of the seventeenth-century theologian Edmond Richer, embraced by Quesnel, which viewed each priest (rather than the bishops alone) as the formal descendant of the original apostles. This view was occasionally extended to a call for a quasi-presbyterian running of parishes and a reading of scripture in the vernacular reminiscent of Calvinism.

Fleury’s reputation as a pro-Jesuit ultramontane – ‘a 24-carat Molinist’ was Noailles’s acidulous comment18 – owed much to his ringing support for the Unigenitus bull in 1713. Yet in fact the cardinal supported the bull not out of pro-papalism but because, as a good Counter-Reformation prelate, he regarded opposition to it as a threat to the principle of authority in church and state alike. He loathed what he saw as Jansenism’s in-built drift towards disrespect for secular as well as spiritual authority. The cardinal did not go as far as Louis XIV in seeing Jansenists as republicans, but he was firmly opposed to their infractions of obedience. In particular, he felt that the Paris Parlement since 1715 had hidden its political claims behind a Jansenist smokescreen. In addition, he was particularly suspicious of the prophetic and miraculous tendencies within the movement from the 1720s onwards, which Jansenists brandished aloft as signs that God was on their side. Despite the fact that running through all the manifold guises of Jansenism was an obstinate refusal even to consider leaving the Catholic church, Fleury saw the movement through the prism of French Protestantism. Following an alleged Jansenist miracle in a former Protestant stronghold near to his birthplace in Languedoc, he commented to the bishop of Lodève, that ‘there is only too much connection in this respect between Jansenists and Protestants, and we must avoid anything which could help to unify them further’. With a nod back to the Camisard War of 1702–4, he opined that Jansenist miracles ‘derived from the fanatics of the Cévennes’ and constituted ‘a fanaticism which is only too contagious’.19 He feared that Jansenism might develop into a schismatic movement strong enough to provoke a new bout of religious wars, in which Jansenists would ally with the Protestants.

The fear of driving Protestants and Jansenists together also determined Fleury’s rejection of violent confrontation against either. He preferred a subtler, more oblique approach (to which he was temperamentally suited anyway). His attitude towards ‘New Converts’ was rather relaxed. Although thirteen Protestants were sent to the galleys in 1727, only a further thirty committals were made between 1727 and 1744 (under Louis XIV the annual figure had often exceeded 100). As regards the Jansenists, Fleury’s control of the Council of Conscience and then the feuille des bénéfices allowed him to use ecclesiastical patronage against avowed Jansenists, and he developed a taste for appointees who were solidly anti-Jansenist, but not too close to the Jesuits. He also pressurized bishops to insist that all applicants for posts should sign the Formulary of 1722 rejecting Jansen’s ideas.20 In order to ‘destroy all the schools where error is taught’,21 he had Jansenists ejected from universities, seminaries and cathedral chapters, a task which was made easier by his own appointment in 1729 as provisor of the Sorbonne. Firm but discreet action to turn off the Jansenist taps was combined with some tough measures, notably rigorous press censorship and, with the help of Hérault, the Parisian Lieutenant-General of Police, action to root out recalcitrants. Hérault – the ‘French Great Inquisitor’,22 as the Jansenists called him – imprisoned nearly a hundred activists in Paris alone between 1726 and 1731.

Fleury’s instinct was to focus his attacks on Jansenism at the top as well as at the bottom of the movement. He therefore placed enormous time and personal energy into securing the adhesion to Unigenitus of Cardinal de Noailles, who as archbishop of Paris was spiritual father to the clergy in the French city most thoroughly in thrall to Jansenism. Noailles was more of a Gallican than a Jansenist, and in October 1728 he succumbed to Fleury’s pressure, signing a ‘pure and simple’ acceptance of the Unigenitus bull and allowing Jesuits to preach in the diocese for the first time since 1719. Noailles’s death in 1729 allowed Fleury to appoint in his place Gaspard-Charles de Vintimille du Luc, a career bishop who had served twenty years in Aix and who, besides being of Fleury’s vintage, combined a Fleuryesque mixture of congeniality, discretion and firmness. The new archbishop continued the cardinal’s strategy, directing ecclesiastical preferment to anti-Jansenists and neutrals, closing down Jansenist teaching centres, and working with Hérault on select repressive measures.

The cardinal used a different tactic – exemplary punishment – towards Soanen, bishop of Senez, who in early 1727 followed up his co-authorship of the Jansenist appel of 1717 by issuing a second appel in the form of a pastoral letter vigorously attacking the supporters of Unigenitus. The 1725 Assembly of Clergy had urged the meeting of provincial councils chaired by the metropolitan archbishop, and in 1727, Archbishop Tencin of Embrun was primed by Fleury to establish such a meeting, to call Soanen to account. In what Jansenists were soon calling ‘the brigandage of Embrun’, Soanen was replaced by a pro-Unigenitus vicar-general and sent into life-long exile at the remote Auvergnat fastness, La Chaise-Dieu.

Fleury’s episcopalist strategy as exemplified in the cases of Noailles, Vintimille and Soanen did seem to demoralize the Jansenists, whose numbers were perceptibly thinning within the clergy: thirty of France’s bishops and 7,000 ecclesiastics (nearly a quarter of the episcopate and around 5 per cent of the clergy as a whole) had signed the appel launched by Soanen, Colbert and their appelant peers in 1717–18. The new appel of 1727 was a relative failure in comparison: only a score (some 15 per cent) of bishops and around 3 per cent of the clergy signed. Appearances were deceptive, however – and Fleury was indeed deceived into thinking that the movement was in fatal decline. Judging the moment was ripe for a terminal blow, on 24 March 1730, he had a royal declaration issued stating that the Unigenitus bull was now a law of state; and that all ecclesiastics should accept it ‘purely and simply’ on pain of being removed from their benefices. When the March declaration was enacted by lit de justice on 3 April 1730, magistrates in the Parlement mouthed familiar arguments about Unigenitus subordinating the French king to the whim of papal infallibility. But the Parlement seemed something of a paper tiger: it had kept itself aloof from the political crisis of 1725 caused by thecinquantième tax and the 1727 uproar caused by ‘the brigandage of Embrun’. What brought it in now was essentially the affront to its jurisdictional eminence which it adjudged implicit in the 1730 declaration, and which it defended tooth-and-nail over the next two years in what rapidly became the most serious political crisis in Fleury’s long ministry.

To understand the intensity of the political struggles of 1730–32, we need to appreciate the ways in which Jansenism was being reformulated – even reinvented – in the early decades of the century. Much of the credit for this lay with a small grouping associated with the Oratorian seminary of Saint-Magloire in Paris. The classes on the Old Testament which Jacques-Joseph Duguet conducted there in the first decade of the century allowed a group of around sixty activists to emerge – including Vivien de La Borde and the abbé d’Etamare – who with Duguet would develop a ‘Figurist’ exegesis of the Bible which purported to give meaning and purpose to Jansenist struggles. At around this time, as we have seen,23 critics of Louis-Quatorzian absolutism had sought inspiration in the medieval past, but it was in biblical history that the Figurists located the necessary key for unlocking the secrets of the present. They saw the biblical past as a prefiguration of the present and the future, so that contemporary events were ‘figures’ of episodes in sacred history. They attached great importance, for example, to Louis XIV’s destruction of the monastery of Port-Royal in 1709, which they claimed had revealed and replicated the biblical time of troubles. The Jansenist/Jesuit struggle was thus only the latest example of a perennial struggle within the church which pitted the holders of sacred truths against their opponents. This interpretative schema gave the group an adamantine certainty in their own mission as heirs of the defenders of the true faith within the church. Their conviction that they constituted ‘the sacred depository of the truth’, heirs of the beleagured early church, was matched by an acceptance that – in accordance with the cyclical nature of ‘figures’ – the remainder of the church was bound to oppose them and persecute them. This helps to explain the uncompromisable belief among them that Unigenitus was error incarnate.

In seeking to preach their distinctive theology of resistance – and also to justify it – the Figurists placed growing store on appealing to the people. At the same time that the bastard princes were invoking public legitimation, the Figurists started issuing pamphlets which made a similar appeal to the notion of the public as an arbiter of the validity of their claims. The appel of 1717 was clandestinely organized by this group who did their utmost to attract public support for its four episcopal ‘authors’.24 The relative failure of the 1727 appel to attract as much support within the church may have been one inspiration behind a new initiative, namely, the establishment of a low-cost newspaper, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. This too invoked ‘the Public’ as ‘a judge that [the Jesuits and supporters of Unigenitus] have not been able to corrupt’.25 Offering a populist brew of editorial pieces, news, book reviews and eloquent Jansenist obituaries, and vilifying the Jesuits in a way which resonated positively with a latent anti-Jesuit feeling in the capital, it was destined to become the morale-boosting organ of the Jansenist movement as a whole. Published weekly without cessation down to 1803, with a print-run rising to 5,000 or more (and with a readership far, far more extensive), the Nouvelles ecclésiastiquesavoided police censorship by means of an ingenious clandestine production and distribution system which was soon extended into the provinces: the Paris basin, Troyes and the east of France, as well as the diocesan capitals of the most recalcitrant bishops (such as Montpellier and Senez) proved especially receptive. The Jansenists’ first marked success in incorporating a greater lay element was in 1727, when the harsh treatment meted out to bishop Soanen of Senez triggered support from the Parisian order of barristers. In October 1727, some fifty barristers attached to the Paris Parlement issued a pamphlet denouncing the Embrun verdict on Soanen as illegal. Widely distributed in the provinces as well as in the city, and swiftly copied by Jansenist upper and lower clergy, the pamphlet injected a stronger legal basis and lay element into the movement.

Growing public support for the Jansenist cause had been accentuated in a quite different way, moreover, by the appearance of a popular cult around the tomb of a recently deceased young deacon, François de Pâris. Scion of a well-off parlementary family, Paris had renounced his family wealth for a life in the Faubourg Saint-Marceau distinguished by voluntary poverty, manual labour and Jansenist humility. He died of his privations in 1727 with the local reputation of a saint. Soon, reports circulated that sick individuals who had come to pray on Pâris’s tomb in the cemetery of the Saint-Médard church had been miraculously cured. The tomb swiftly became a place of pilgrimage for the halting and the lame. Those who witnessed healing miracles diffused the news, and the example of Pâris spread with his relics, as Fleury noted, like a ‘contagion’, reaching Jansenist communities throughout the land. Jansenists claimed that Vintimille had blocked investigations into the miraculous character of the incidents instigated by a repentant Noailles, which only confirmed them in their own self-portrayal as persecuted holders of divine truths.

Fleury had thus chosen a most unpropitious moment at which to try to make the Unigenitus bull the law of the land. Focusing as was his wont on the upper clergy, within whose ranks he was achieving marked success in stamping out Jansenism, his eye had missed the growing popular support for the cause and the incipient reinvigoration of the Parlement of Paris as defender of the Jansenist cause. Destined as the coup de grâce to a moribund Jansenism, the declaration of 24 March 1730 acted as a coup de fouetwhipping into frenetic action the new elements within the movement.

The nub of the quarrel with the Parlement came to be the legal instrument known as the appel comme d’abus. This appellate procedure allowed judgements made under religious authority – for example the disciplining of putatively Jansenist priests – to be referred to the jurisdiction of the parlements. The magistrates viewed the appel comme d’abus as an essential guarantee of their own status as the ultimate legal resort within the realm. Yet to an episcopacy which had been accorded wide-ranging disciplinary powers over its clergy, particularly after 1695,26 the appel comme d’abus constituted unwarranted secular interference in the internal life of the church, and an affront to their own status and prerogatives.

It was in the defence of one such appel comme d’abus case, involving several cures from Orléans that, in October 1730, forty Parisian barristers issued what was immediately adjudged to be an inflammatory pamphlet in the form of a legal consultation (ormémoire judiciaire) on the case. The authors stated that

According to the Constitution of the Kingdom, the Parlements are the Senate of the Nation, [and] render in the name of the King, who is its leader, the Justice that he owes to his subjects on behalf of God. The Parlements … are the depository of public authority … Laws are veritable conventions between those who govern and those who are governed.27

This was fighting talk. It resuscitated a contractualist language which Louis-Quatorzian absolutism had set out to destroy, and purported to make the Parlement the safeguard of the public rather than the expression of royal authority. It also highlighted the shift of Figurist argument into political discourse: just as the Jansenists claimed to be ‘the sacred despository of [divine] truth’, so the barristers were setting up the Parlement as ‘the sacred depository of public laws’. The rhetorical leakage was to prove of enduring significance. Furthermore, the publicity which the case attracted also showed the Jansenist issue spreading well beyond the church and the legal profession. As a gage of the independence of the law, mémoires judiciaires were the only printed texts not subject to routine government censorship, which gave them a potential for widening political issues to the reading public – and mobilizing their support for the Jansenist cause.

The convergence of the Jansenist cause with the Parlement’s legal and constitutional position was facilitated by the presence within the institution of a small but highly zealous religiously motivated grouping which had links to the Figurist groupuscules in Paris. Approximately a score of barristers, prominent amongst whom were Charles-Jacques Aubry and Charles-Joseph Prévost, and just over a dozen members of the Parlement, were convinced Jansenists. Many in fact were probably theologians manqués who had entered the law faculty because a religious career was barred to them by their beliefs. Numerically weak – they amounted only to around 10 per cent of the active membership of each body – the Jansenist group was not even well-situated within the Parlement’s internal hierarchy: most of them sat in the junior enquêtes chambers rather than in the senior Grande Chambre, where the most important business was transacted. It says a great deal about the ability and dedication of these men, and the shrewdness of their choice of theappel comme d’abus as the issue on which to rest their opposition, that they had the impact they did. To sway the Parlement as a whole, as well as the wider public to whom they also addressed themselves, they penned legal briefs and pamphlets, ghostwrote speeches for parlementary interventions, and composed copy for the editors of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. Furthermore, the more influential they became, the more the Figurist rhetoric of ‘the depository of the truth’ influenced the magistrates’ view of themselves as guarantors of constitutional rectitude, ‘sovereign depositories of the fundamental laws of the state’, as one of them put it.28 As the term ‘depository’ became more systematically used in parlementary remonstrances from this period, the implication that the Parlement had a representative function vis-à-vis the nation as a whole became more acceptable to the magistracy as a whole.

In March 1731, Fleury attempted to impose a law of silence on the issue, and he sought to pour oil on troubled waters when disputes arose by using the procedure of évocation which transferred Jansenist cases involving an appel comme d’abus away from the Parlement to the Royal Council (where, in Fleuryite style, the cases usually vegetated). Resentful at having their authority endlessly circumvented without their arguments being heard, the magistrates took heart from the barristers, who had gone on judicial strike over the treatment of their mémoire judiciaire. On 7 September 1731, the Parlement issued a decree restating the four Organic Articles of 1682 on relations between church and state and adding new clauses, including one stipulating that ecclesiastical authority was inherently inferior to the Parlement’s. Confusion ensued. The king formally required the expunging of this decree from the Parlement’s registers, and skilfully dodged the Parlement’s manoeuvres to express their remonstrances to him. In January 1732, Louis – through Fleury – convoked a delegation from the Parlement to Versailles and had the Chancellor read them the riot act: it was to be as if nothing they had done since 24 March 1730 had taken place; and the royal decree was to be enforced forthwith. ‘This is my will’, the king informed them with as much Louis-Quatorzian disdainful relish as someone who had just celebrated his twentieth birthday could manage. ‘Do not force me to make you feel that I am your master.’29

The humiliation of the Parlement in January 1732 was not sufficient to end the crisis, however, which was unexpectedly reanimated by the Jansenist cult developing around Paris’s tomb in the cemetery of Saint-Médard. From July 1731, events at the cemetery had taken a hysterical turn: miracle-seekers on Pâris’s tomb began to experience bodily convulsions. Fits and contortions were accompanied by wild prophesying and cries for help (secours). Bystanders stepped in to untangle the twisted bodies by pulling and tugging and even blows. A whole dramaturgy began to evolve in which convulsionaries acted out, in ways which owed much to Figurist biblical exegesis, episodes of the Passion, biblical history, or the events of the Jansenist movement. Convulsions thus became embodied representations of the persecution of true believers – and the secours took on more dramatic form as blows with objects, jabs with swords and so on represented the persecutory ‘tortures’ inflicted on the faithful. The more violence there was, the greater the divine grace, the sweeter the individual’s spiritual relief. These theatricalized happenings took on ever more dramatic forms, with convulsionaries mimicking the lives and sufferings of Christ, the drunkenness and fornication of sinners, the conversion of the Jews, and so on. One performance involved an individual eating the Bible. Crowds grew in size and enthusiasm as performances became ever more colourful, and sensationalist accounts of the events were soon circulating widely in pamphlet form. Some thirty pedlars selling iconic portraits of Paris were arrested in the second half of 1731 alone. There was a problem of public decency and public order here (police reports noted women baring their breasts and rolling around on the floor with their skirts up) and government was worried too about the movement drawing support from the middle and upper classes. Though anti-convulsionary propaganda represented the whole episode as dominated by hysterical plebeian women (and certainly women were in a majority among the individuals experiencing miraculous cures) in fact nearly half of those attending convulsions to provide secours were from literate and well-off families, and a majority were men.

Fleury redoubled repression and mobilized the medical faculty to ‘prove’ the unmiraculous nature of Jansenist healing against those doctors of the church and the faculty who had sworn on its veracity. Yet the parish of Saint-Médard was becoming unruly and ungovernable. The curé sent in to replace the Jansenist incumbent removed by Vintimille in 1730 was powerless to stop the cemetery turning into a fairground-like shrine, and the Rue Mouffetard leading to it became blocked with the carriages of pilgrims and spectators. Parish governance turned into farce: even an endless stream of government lettres de cachet failed to expunge Jansenist influence. Finally, Fleury acted decisively, on 27 January 1732 ordering the closure of the Saint-Médard cemetery. Two days later soldiers moved in, bricking up all approaches (it would only be reopened under Napoleon). The action was accompanied by a wave of arrests and police harassment aimed at notorious convulsionary sympathizers.

The Paris Parlement, however, was not for closing. Indeed, the magistrates and barristers were simmering with growing resentment at the way Fleury consistently blocked their moves to try to resolve the Jansenist question through the courts. They were also critical of his use of police powers to bypass the magistrates’ role in the maintenance of public order. Following an incident in which archbishop Vintimille took action against twenty-one Parisian curés who refused to read out in their churches an episcopal prohibition on reading the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, the Parlement took a leaf out of their barristers’ book and went on strike in May 1732. Forced back to work by government pressure, and with the Jansenist ringleaders in their midst being continually picked off by lettre de cachet the Parlement took the extraordinary step on 20 June 1732 of collectively resigning their posts – a move saluted by supportive Parisian crowds as the act of ‘true Romans’.30

By bringing the administration of justice and the registration of laws to a halt, the collective resignation was seemingly aimed to bring about a ministerial crisis which would cause the dismissal of Cardinal Fleury, the rock on which parlementary manoeuvres and Jansenist tactics had been breaking. The next six months saw a kind of political arm-wrestling taking place between Fleury and the Parlement. The parlementaires dribbled back to work in July, but Fleury overplayed his hand on 18 August 1732 by trying to reserve delicate political and religious matters to the purview of the Grande Chambre and restricting the Parlement’s right to persist in remonstrances against royal decrees. This triggered a further strike, loudly supported by the Parlement’s barristers and its attorneys (procureurs). Fleury attempted to override it, exiling over a hundred obstreperous magistrates, but failed to end the affair. Negotiations between the two sides finally resulted in a sustainable compromise on 3–4 December 1732: the 18 August declaration was revoked, and the chastened parlementaires returned to normal work.

There were magistrates who saw the final outcome as clearly in the Parlement’s favour. Yet though it had climbed down from its more extreme positions, Fleury’s government had survived a real challenge to its existence in the summer of 1732, and done so in a way which brought the Parlement back into line and restored tranquillity. This triumph for political management – always Fleury’s forte – had been given added acuity by the cardinal’s realization that European war was not far away. From spring 1733 the Polish Succession issue, and from October full-scale war, brought the Parlement into a more docilely patriotic frame of mind. The magistrates made only gentle remonstrances against the imposition of a dixième to fund the war.

The aggiornamento with the Parlement from 1733 was facilitated too by growing divisions within the Jansenist movement. A conflict between Parlement and barristers in 1735 over precedence matters split and weakened the Jansenist grouping, which had been breaking apart anyway over credence in the Saint-Médard ‘miracles’. In February 1733, Fleury passed a decree prohibiting convulsionary sessions in either public or private – and the Parlement supported him, and failed to block a decree in May which took jurisdiction of Jansenist cases out of their hands. The magistrates were now content to leave the convulsionaries to the far from tender mercies of the Paris police: cells in the Bastille were soon filling up with Jansenist extremists. In January 1735, thirty Paris physicians, all known Jansenists, formally attacked convulsionary cures as impostures. The baroque extravagance of the convulsions was increasingly revolting many Jansenists, whose preference was for austere rather than floridly ostentatious forms of piety. The single parlementaire who tried to keep open a link to the convulsionaries was Louis Carré de Montgeron, who held convulsionary sessions in his home. He had a choice morsel of alleged miraculous cures printed and bound, along with fascinating illustrations, and in July 1737 journeyed to Versailles to place a copy into the hands of the monarch. The consequences were predictably dire: Carré ended up in the Bastille, the book was banned, the hunt for convulsionaries redoubled, and the Parlement reiterated its protestations of loyalty to the government. The convulsionaries themselves were becoming split too: most opted for prudence rather than provocation, meeting secretly in increasingly fissiparous conventicles, thus losing the imitation effect (or ‘contagion’) which had been the strength of the movement in the Saint-Médard days. The convulsionaries consequently fell into discredit, and the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques came out against them in 1742.

Divisions within the Jansenist movement thus deprived the Parlement of its favoured stick for belabouring Fleury’s government. Even though the magistrates had more freedom to manoeuvre when the War of Polish Succession ended in late 1735, the late 1730s witnessed only petty skirmishes against the government – the kind that Fleury was particularly adept at handling. The crown consistently evoked potential appel comme d’abus cases to the royal council (notably attempts to refuse Jansenists the last rites if they did not make a deathbed renunciation of their beliefs), and pitilessly censored Jansenist and extreme anti-Jansenist writings alike. Moreover, the subtle undercover erosion of the position of Jansenists within the church through a policy of non-preferment was shifting the ecclesiastical balance of power. Openly Jansenist bishops were the now ageing exception – Colbert of Montpellier died in 1738, isolated even within his own diocese, Soanen in 1740. It would be left to Fleury’s successors, however, to come to realize that Jansenism as an issue had not gone away and that management of the Parlement plus an episcopalist strategy within the church would not suffice to kill it off as a force of political and religious opposition. But for the meanwhile at least – from the mid-1730s – all seemed quiet on the Jansenist front.

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